Urban Environments and Interactive Technologies

General Discussion - Afternoon Session
Summing Up and Looking Ahead

Friday, Sept. 25, 1998
4:45-5:30 am

Moderator: William Mitchell

[These are edited summaries, not complete transcripts.]

Bill Mitchell: I think what we need to do at this point is ask people what burning issues are really bubbling up or what people would like to hear some further discussion about. What struck you as a crucial central theme?

Question: Could Shigeru tell us a little bit more about his re-definition of aesthetics as playfulness? That is, how did you come to re-define aesthetics this way?

Shigeru Miyagawa: It was my own reaction to an earlier version of this project. When it was first created, it was very bare bones. I just wanted to do whatever I was supposed to do and get out. I did not want to hang around. Much of that had to do with the design and the way that it welcomed me or did not welcome me into the space. I think you see this in other projects as well. Playfulness is part of the design. As we upgraded the aesthetics, I began to feel that I wanted to stay in that space more and play with what was available beyond just doing what I had to do.

Theresa Duncan: I agree with what you are saying. Learning can be a very pleasurable experience. I don't know why everyone thinks it has to be unpleasant. We are sitting in a room full of academics, you've spent your entire lives learning. You know how pleasurable it can be. So I think that learning even something extremely difficult can be an aesthetic experience. Enjoying something sensual, a sound, a movement, is a pleasure.


Ellen Sebring: This past year we tested this in the school system and we threw it out to the audience, who are really the ones who matter, and it was gratifying to hear what the teachers told us and what we watched the students do. One teacher said, "This is really different, usually I play a video for them or they read a book, but this is something that they can do and not need me." Kids would come in early and ask for Star Festival and this was in Brighton at a school where the kids would otherwise be in lock-up. Other kids in another building would hear about it and come over to ask to see it. They would say to their friends, "I'm going to see the Queens, come on let's go!" So it is driven by them and they share it with each other.

The other thing that is interesting is that they cared about the professor and because they cared, they looked further and got more from the material. Also they learned from example, because he was exploring his heritage and he posed questions. These are very diverse classrooms full of kids who may not even know who their father is. We had one Puerto Rican kid who had a lot of problems; he'd throw desks around and not pay attention. But when he did a report on his heritage it gave him a sense of his own identity in the class. So the program had a very real impact, and not just a theoretical one. I just wanted you to know some of the positive results.

Bill Mitchell: In this discussion, one thing strikes me. This medium is not the first large scale exploratory medium. Take landscape architecture, for example, particularly if you go back to the 18th century and the very large scale English gardens. Essentially what was being done in those constructions was creating a territory for exploration. They can be explored in many different ways. You construct your own experience by exploring and you return many times to explore the garden in different ways. What is really interesting in hearing you all discuss this is that a lot of the principles seem very, very similar.

One of the standard moves of the 18th century landscape gardeners was the continual enticement -- reveal a little bit, entice you on to the next bit, reveal a little bit more, entice you on a little further, vary the pacing to keep you moving, and so on. There is a remarkable constancy there, even down to the really classic 18th century gardens with little figurative pieces and grottoes which construct a narrative line as you move through it, but of course the narrative changes depending on what path you take. It's extraordinary how that kind of aesthetic gets reinvented when a new exploratory medium appears.

Carol Strohecker: On the idea of aesthetics and learning, and picking up on what Bill has been saying, it strikes me that aesthetics are extremely personal. You can't just define it in one way, each of us has our own set of aesthetics. And as we go from one modality to another, things will shift a bit. What's interesting to me is that people learn in different ways so of course they are going to look for different kinds of enticements or different kinds of modalities in their learning experiences. I thought I was coming to a symposium on digital cities so I am excited by these notions of aesthetics and learning coming up in this context.

Bruce Joffe: I wanted to comment about the idea of the anti-city and the bucolic vision. Let's remember that one hundred years ago there was a huge exodus from the farmland to the city. People had lived on farms for hundreds of generations and it had no attraction to them. Living and working on a farm is being up to your knees in horse shit!

Thomas Campanella: You're right, people moved from the countryside to the city and then once they became more urban, tried to regain the mystique of rural life sans the realities of milking the cow.

Bruce Joffe: And so I want to put the anti-urban theme you are seeing into a larger context, which is -- it's always easier to describe hell than to describe heaven. And when you see in literature or the media the dark side, or how bad things have become like in the books you brought up -- Cyberpunk and so on -- that's really the easy way out. It is much more difficult to describe a convincing heaven and that is partly because as humans we are hard-wired to solve problems and if we are in a state where there are no problems then we will make up problems in order to continue to serve our purpose in life. Attempts at utopia projections in the past, although sometimes really exciting initially, have ended up tragic, if not shallow. What I saw with Theresa's treatment in particular, was a very optimistic look at the city.


Theresa Duncan: Optimistic? Well, there is a possible solution there but it's too dark for Sesame Street. And there are some creepy corners like the Wax Museum...

Bruce Joffe: Well, I don't mean in a sanitized, Disneyland way. But just as a general world view, are things getting better or are things getting worse? Do we have some control over making things better or are we going to be sucked into the morass? I personally think that we have a social responsibility to add something to the culture by trying to push back the message to our children that we can't make a difference, and really project the message that we do have the power to make things better.

Theresa Duncan: That's what I meant in the beginning when I said I wanted to show the city as a place of discovery and exploration.

Malcolm McCullough: If I had to toss out a unifying agenda to this symposium, I'd say that narrative structure keeps cropping up. And that is in contrast to what architects might come at the city with, which used to be some kind of totalizing, formal ordering transparency. And it's in contrast to this distopian noise, whether in Cyberpunk literature, or in adding 590 equations that are all continually solving themselves in SimCity (we only need about two dozen more.) It goes past all that to something that is very, very old which is the idea of the genius loci in classical culture, the embodiment of the idea that wherever you walk, you try to find some kind of story. So it is narrative structure that links the morning to the afternoon talks.

Shigeru Miyagawa: I'm really happy you mentioned that. It's something that we've struggled with a lot in doing this. Someone earlier asked what did I learn about my own city by doing this? And what I learned is that it's a big story made up of little stories. However, I think it is important to keep in mind that narrative comes in different forms. For someone who does city planning there's a form of narrative that you engage in that is a different language than what we are engaging in. Both organize information and knowledge. You can't just have pieces of information out there that's not tied together. That's the Web as we have it right now -- that's why it's so ugly and uninviting. Every inviting, interesting place has a story told by someone, someone who may plan a city or who wants to tell people stories about a city.

Theresa Duncan: One of the good things about the Web right now is that nobody planned it. It's utterly democratic.


Bill Mitchell: Let me pick up another set of topics then, something to wrap up with. I'm really struck by something that keeps coming up, again and again. There are those who want aesthetic control -- the short story writers that Glorianna mentioned, who want control over the closure. Graphic designers typically want that too. I think that generally the media that have depended on print where you finish a work of art and the act of publication provides closure. Even a CD -- it may be a large universe to explore, but it's still a closed one. The Web is not, it's constantly being transformed and it is out of control. Architects are used to this, of course.

You throw a building up into the world and the users immediately begin to transform it. In fact, you've failed if the users don't transform it. That means they don't care about it and they are not touching it. Urban designers also -- planned and controlled cities are the most boring cities in the world, while cities that live and transform are the really interesting ones. So there you have two very different artistic traditions. One the one hand, you have the artists who have been used to producing some kind of closed, controlled, finished product and on the other hand, the artists who create some sort of structure that gets taken over and appropriated and made into something new.

The gardeners that I mentioned before are like this too, in fact there's an amazing case of enlightenment faith: they knew they would never see the finished product. They would plant these little tiny trees and two hundred years later this garden would show up and they knew they would not be around to see it. But posterity was going to see it and that was tremendously important. So I am curious about the authors here, where do you see yourselves along this spectrum? Do you want that kind of closure and control, or do you want to create something that gets appropriated and transforms and grows, and maybe grows completely out of your control?

Theresa Duncan: Philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Deleuze would say that the book is not a closed art form.

Bill Mitchell: We are talking of a different sense of closure here.

Theresa Duncan: Well, I see multimedia as a natural outgrowth from post-structuralism, so it was easy for me to make multimedia because that was the theory when I was in high school and when I was in college. I did not find it to be a huge stretch to go from writing short stories (which I did before) to making multimedia products over which I have a different level of control.

Kurt Fendt: This of course goes back to the very old question, "What is a text?" If you go back to print products, manuscripts were always open texts. People wrote their comments on a central text and there followed, and has always been, a constant dialogue over centuries to those many comments. The Web just demonstrates how we have expanded the book into another realm of user and reader interaction. But the book has always been an open text.


Joseph Ferreira: I was going to push the contrast between the morning and the afternoon in a slightly different direction, although I think it relates a little bit to the topic of narrative. If you think about the multimedia explorations in the afternoon in connection with narrative, it is largely just juxtaposing carefully captured images and using some metaphor, maybe a city metaphor, that then allows exploration.

In the morning, SimCity had a lot of synthetic or simulation capacity built in underneath it, where the idea was that the interworkings of the images of the city (for which you use computation to handle) were an important part of helping you construct the story. So I just wondered whether the people in the afternoon had thought about the need or the usefulness of simulation or synthetic capabilities to trace the pathway that the user may have taken through the material in order to compute some observations about how they looked at the city and how else they might look at it.

I thought that might be a way that we could start using the tool to see what can't easily be seen, in addition to the fact that the city is such a rich place that you need multimedia tools in order to navigate it.

Theresa Duncan: Unfortunately the only time we've actually tracked users is on the Web and that was to track their buying habits and to see how long it took them to shop. That is where most of the measuring is on the Web. It's all demographics and it's all for commerce. That 's where the focus is, in the public at least.

Kurt Fendt: In the case of "Berliner sehen" we are actually doing that, but we are still working on interpreting the data we're getting. It's fairly easy to track all different kinds of combinations in terms of the documents the students are pulling into the center: How often and for how long? Are they actually watching a video clip? Do they then make other arrangements by selecting other people, other notions? Do they make meaningful transitions to other arrangements or are they just basically browsing?

Those are some of the questions we want to track. We haven't really fully looked at the material, but an important aspect of it is that we actually do know how students go through the material.

There is a new feature that we are building into the program that is an outcome of the early student testing. We have found that the more material we add, the more difficult it becomes for the students to get access to specific material because there is a limit of 24 spaces and right now we have about 680 clips. One character alone is about 170 clips, so it is very likely that the students will end up not getting a specific document. So the feature we are building in right now is a way to keep track of the student's path so that on the basis of that path, the system can offer a selection of documents that a student might not have seen before, but that make sense in the particular context. So the system will now make a kind of prediction, based on the students' previous actions.


David Thorburn: In other words, extending human agency by machine.

Kurt Fendt: To a certain extent, yes.

David Thorburn: The reason I put it that way is that it seemed to me that the unstated element in a lot of this has to do with our attitude toward agency. One thing that underlies SimCity, it seemed to me during Bruce's joyous explication of its increasing complexity, is a relatively optimistic assumption that a series of sensible decisions, if really made carefully and with the weighing of all the immense complexity that's out there, will lead to a conclusion that we much desire. But there's an awful lot of history, especially of architectural history, that would suggest that it's only by surrendering the sense of agency or control in that sense, that a living, vital building or urban space will actually emerge.

In other words, what I am asking SimCity and other people, is how systematically you will have actually theorized some of the base assumptions of the behaviors that you are encouraging? Is it really the case that SimCity understands consciously that it implies definitions of causality and assumptions about the value of human agency and its efficacy -- the efficacy of human rational decision making.

Bruce Joffe: SimCity's assumptions are based on the anecdotal experience of the designers.

David Thorburn: Well, it's the paradox of learning how to build in the unplanned consequences that is, leaving the structure open enough so that improvisation and unanticipated growth and development is possible. In a way that is also a design question for the games and the simulations that we've been talking about. This is a version of the control-openness issue, but its ramifications, I think, are profound.

Linda Stone: These are issues that we deal with every day. The architecture that we developed is not closed as in a simulation like SimCity, but it's based on the architecture of mods which allow people to contribute because there really is no god that looks over the community. It becomes a community because people contribute to the public good and also to their own private good. And then we look at the different instances where we want to deploy this.

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center wants control of a core area because they feel that they will be legally liable for whatever happens in that area. And then how do we allow for areas that may link on to that that they don't have any control over and they indicate that they don't have control over it, but there's some possibility of contribution from people who are participating? So I think that what will happen with our software -- and we've really had to do a lot of work to think this through -- is to set it up so that whoever is developing the core world has the ability to allow for as much or as little participation as they want. Then, when people participate, the maintenance and management tools become out of control because so many people add. It's out of control.


Bruce Joffe: The legal liability issue is a big one when you are providing information and are not just within the frame of, "this is a game." There are people who would like SimCity to be used as a predictive model. So any model, not just SimCity, needs to have a disclaimer on it, because any model is a simplification and therefore you've taken out some element of real life.

Michael Roper: I wanted to speak to the question of control and lack of control that you posed a little while ago. As designers we don't necessarily see these things as contradictory. They are part of a tension. When we are designing things we see it like a musical score or even a built environment, there are times when you use a story to set up a context and then, thereafter in the next movement, the user can explore the space you set up for them. So I think you need both. You can't have total incoherence. We are hard-wired to understand things in stories, but the stories are different now, they are interactive stories. Like spaces. So in a sense there is really a wonderful confluence of architectural space and what we have been trying to achieve in these kinds of projects.

Bill Mitchell: It is very much like architectural space. You don't move these walls and you don't move these chairs except up and down, but you do move these chairs and the combination of these two things are what makes the environment interactive.

Bruce Joffe: And these interactive stories are really a big improvement over computer stories from 10 years ago. Back then it really was a rat race and there was only one path through the maze and as the user, you really were under the control of the designer to end up going along one path. So this is a lot more freedom and player control.

Carol Strohecker: I have a question for Bill following on this notion of designing for change. In architectural practice there must be key references or precedents. Could you just tell us a few?

Bill Mitchell: The best thing is to look at buildings with a critical eye, rather than to look at the literature. Look at buildings and note: what are the fixed pieces? what are the changeable pieces? the basics of the circulation? You move the furniture around, you change the pictures on the walls, you change the lights. Some environments don't change and some change tremendously -- they are designed to be transformed. And I think if you just go around and look at a bunch of buildings with those eyes, one learns a lot about the strategies of architects.

Similarly with cities, the street grid doesn't change usually, but other things do, like in Boston the land form has changed. But within the blocks, the buildings change all the time. And within the buildings themselves, the furnishings change. There are multiple places of change and multiple levels of stability-- that is what makes a city fascinating.

One of the things that is different about the Web, and what's frustrating about the Web is that there is almost nothing permanent out there. You go out there every day and it is different every day. Tremont Street is not in the same place from day to day as it is in Boston.

Let me try to bring us to a close by coming back to the issues of narrative and agency. Let me pose this question for a couple of you who might like to pick it up: I know when I've come to the end of a book because I've come to the last page and it says, "The End." I know when I've finished a game of pinball because it says, "Game Over." But with these interactive exploratory environments, "How do you know when you're finished?"


Shigeru Miyagawa: The project ends when the money runs out. Just like in architecture.

But it's a very good question for both the producer and the user, because in a sense we are designing something that doesn't end. What we are hoping is that the user by means of his or her own input into the narrative will come up with his or her own ending which for us is the end, not of StarNet, but of the student's narrative life on the Net.

Theresa Duncan: In Zero, Zero, the solution is the end. We have bracketed it with a linear opening and a linear closing, but in-between is it impressionistic and there are multiple points of entry. This is for children so we had to provide some closure.

Kurt Fendt: In "Berliner sehen" it is difficult to define a beginning or an end. There are many beginnings and many endings. The students can make their own mini-stories with their own collections. But in general, these projects are meant to evolve over time and never end.

David Thorburn: Maybe it is worth making the intellectually conservative point that there are a great many lovers of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Joyce who would argue, of course, that the experience of those great works of art and those artists is an endless and inexhaustible one. King Lear comes to an end and you conclude your voyage through King Lear, but it is foolish to imagine that you should only make the voyage once. And every time you make the voyage it is an enhanced experience. I think there is a sense in which this notion of open-endedness is inherent even in older linear traditions.

Bruce Joffe: I was going to say that with SimCity, the game ends when dinner is ready. But you could just leave it and it just keeps on going with the simulation. What we found out is that with any player, the more you keep doing things the more mistakes you make and the city is bound to degenerate. I left it over night once and the next day I found that the city was doing a lot better than when I, as a planner, tried to intervene and that's about the strongest message that comes out of this game that I've seen.


Compiled by Mary Hopper

digital cities    agenda    speakers    summaries