Friday, May 2, 2008

Techno-Travels and HASTAC Part I

I'll be presenting at the HASTAC conference on May 24th at UCLA. The conference has a theme of 'TechnoTravels/TeleMobility: HASTAC in Motion". I'll quote the description of the theme:

This year’s theme is “techno-travels” and explores the multiple ways in which place, movement, borders, and identities are being renegotiated and remapped by new locative technologies. Featured projects will delve into mobility as a modality of knowledge and stake out new spaces for humanistic inquiry. How are border-crossings being re-conceptualized, experienced, and narrated in a world permeated by technologies of mobility? How is the geo-spatial web remapping physical geographies, location, and borderlands? How are digital cities interfacing with physical space? How do we move between virtual worlds? And what has become of sites of dwelling and stasis in a world saturated by techno-travels? how do you take a bite out of that apple? In my case, the presentation is going to center on something called the 'Social Computing Room' (SCR), part of visualization center at UNC Chapel Hill. There are lots of different ways to approach the SCR. It's a visualization space for research, it's a canvas for art and new media projects, it's a classroom, a video conference center, a gaming and simulation environment, and it's a physical space that acts as a port between the physical world and the digital world. It's difficult when talking about interesting new ideas to avoid overstating the potential, but I'll try to use the SCR to talk about how physical and digital worlds converge, using the 'port' metaphor. Thinking about the SCR as a port can start by looking at a picture of the space. Now compare that picture with a capture of a virtual version, in this case within Second Life:

To me, the SCR is a port in the sense that it exists in both worlds, and the ongoing evolution of the space will explore the ways these two sides of the coin interact. Before I go there, perhaps a bit more about the HASTAC theme. In this installment, let's talk about borders in a larger sense, coming back to the SCR a bit down the road.

Techno-travels? Borders? Mobility? Borders are falling away in our networked world, this means the borders that exist between geographic places, and the borders between the physical and virtual world. The globe is a beehive of activity, and that activity can be comprehended in real time from any vantage point. A case in point are real time mashups between RSS feeds and Google Maps, such as flickrvision and twittervision. These mashups show uploads of photos to Flickr, and mapping of twitters around the globe. You can watch the action unfold from your desktop, no matter where you are. Borders between places start to disappear as you watch ordinary life unfold across the map, and from this perspective, the physical borders seem to mean less, like the theme song to that old kids show 'Big Blue Marble', if you want to date yourself. Sites like MySpace and Orkut have visitors from all over the world, as illustrated by this ComScore survey, and social networks don't seem to observe these borders either.

The term 'neogeography' was coined by Joab Jackson in National Geographic News, to describe the markup of the world by mashing up mapping with blogs. Sites such as Platial serve as an example of neogeography in action, essentially providing social bookmarking of places. Google Earth is being marked up as well...Using Google Earth and Google Street View, you can see and tag the whole world. Tools like Sketch-up allow you to add 3D models to Google Earth, such as this Manhattan view:

So we're marking up the globe, and moving beyond markup to include 3D modeling. Web2.0 and 'neogeography' add social networking too. At the outset, I also waived my hands a bit at the SCR by comparing real and virtual pictures of this 'port'. That's a bunch of different threads that can be tied together by including some of the observations in an excellent MIT Technology Review article called 'Second Earth'. In that article, Wade Roush looks at virtual worlds such as Second Life, and at Google Earth and asks, "As these two trends continue from opposite directions, it's natural to ask what will happen when Second Life and Google Earth, or services like them, actually meet." Instead of socially marking up the world, the crucial element is the ability to be present at the border between real and virtual, to recognize others who are inhabiting that place at that time, and to connect, communicate, and share experiences in those places. This gets to how I would define the SCR as a port.

The drawback to starting out with this 'Second Earth' model is that it limits the terrain to a recognizable spatial point. While a real place sometimes can serve as a point of reference in the virtual world, that also unnecessarily constrains the meaning. What is an art exhibit? What is a scientific visualization? What is any collection of information? As naturally as we mark up the world, we're also marking up the web, collaborating, and experiencing media in a continuous two-way conversation..that's a lot of what Web2.0 is supposed to be about. How can we create the same joint experience, where we're all present together as our real or virtual selves sharing a common experience? That to me is the central goal of 'techno-travels', and perhaps expands a bit on the idea of border crossing.

Anyhow, I'm trying to come up with my HASTAC presentation, and thinking aloud while I do it.

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