Urban Environments and Interactive Technologies

Emerging Cultural Geographies of Cyberspace

Friday, Sept. 25, 1998
9:30-10:30 am

Speakers: Malcolm McCullough, Thomas Campanella and Anne Beamish

[These are edited summaries, not complete transcripts.]

Malcolm McCullough: I am going to talk about terms for things we already know, rather than about cool worlds that someone might build in the computer. I do this as a defense against cultural amnesia, which I am convinced you will experience if you sit at a monitor long enough.

My current work is focused on issues that surround creating place and community in cyberspace. Once upon a time, all communal traits tended to correspond to place. How things were done here was different from how they did things over there. Places still take time, so you can't make them up overnight. Place is a tacit matter, in which people come to identify with a setting, context and periphery. Places tend to have history and allow appropriations for unintended uses. You can't expect that anything arranged in spatial proximity, or clothed in traditional topology, will constitute a place in cyberspace.

A big buzz word today is "brand," which is a relationship between a seller and buyer that transcends the particular goods being exchanged. Right now, we are experiencing a strange shift in which people are moving away from identification with physical geography towards identifying with brands. This happens because people are desperate for belonging, and businesses are so desperate for target markets that they will try to make just about anything into a community. However, if you are looking for ways to build community, I would encourage you to think about what it takes to get people to participate because they identify with what's going on, rather than because they are merely promised something or have been manipulated into identifying with a particular brand by marketing.



Thomas J. Campanella: My objective is to situate emerging digital media technology within the larger historical context of antiurbanism in America--that fundamental ambivalence toward cities which has long been a fixture in American culture. It attempts to answer the question: How are we to account for persistent negative images of cities and urban life in the culture emerging around the new media of digital technology? Americans have long nurtured a fear and loathing of cities, even as we have built Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. The dual impulse of antiurbanism and preoccupation with the rural landscape may be traced at least as far back as Thomas Jefferson, whose condemnation of cities as "sores" on the body politic and insistence that the real hope of American democracy lay in the agrarian countryside, established a theme that would be taken up by some of the nation's most influential intellectuals. But ironically, in spite of the regressive spirit of pastoralism, Americans have long been enthusiastic adopters of technology. And often technology was put to the task of placing the countryside within easier reach of the city. The railroad, trolley and automobile each in turn became means by which Americans could achieve the dream of owning an idyllic patch of suburban ground.

Emerging a-geographic technologies such as the Internet and cellular telephony ("instruments of instant artificial adjacency," as Michael Sorkin has called them) are giving fresh life to this perennial quest to flee the city for an Arcadian "middle landscape." Digital telecommunications enables us to become remote participants in society, to access many of the resources and amenities of urban life from remote, rural locales far from the city. These technologies make possible--for really the first time in history--simultaneously detachment from urban society, and proximity to its vast store of knowledge and information. In short, they enable a state of "engaged retreat." In myth and in fact, digital technology makes possible a new kind of pastoralism, indulging afresh the age-old impulse "to withdraw from the great world," as Leo Marx put it, "and begin life in a fresh, green landscape."

An embedded animus toward cities--and a fascination with the escapist possibilities afforded by emerging digital technologies--have informed many of the representations of cities in new media culture. The paper considers a number of examples. Television advertisements from AT&T and Packard Bell are used to illustrate the ways these deeply embedded cultural traits have been exploited by Madison Avenue. Interactive gaming environments are assessed in terms of their heavy use of post-apocalyptic urban imagery. The dystopic urban futures portrayed in cyberpunk fiction are considered as perceptive extrapolations of current trends. And the writings of prominent futurists are analyzed in terms of antagonistic attitudes toward cities (McLuhan: "THE METROPOLIS IS OBSOLETE") and a concomitant celebration the "electronic cottage" (Toffler) and post-urban life.

Anne Beamish: Our ambivalence about cities is amply expressed in literature and new media, but along side this dark view of urban life also runs a parallel vein of optimism, confidence and belief in not only our need for urban life, public space, and community, but our ability to create it. Rather than using bricks and mortar to accomplish this as we have in the past, we've begun to use digital media to create public spaces and communities often in the form and the image of the city.

How successful have we been at creating digital cities? Well, the medium might have presented us with the opportunity to create the best possible imagined communities and places but so far we appear to only have succeeded in duplicating some of the worse aspects of the physical world -- dark, desolate, empty, bland cities and landscapes -- the very ones that we wish to escape from in the physical world in the first place. Many of these worlds can still be fun and interesting, of course, but in terms of spatial design, more often than not, they are deeply unsatisfying.

Part of the problem is in fact technical -- faced by very real and legitimate technical limitations, extreme simplification is necessary. We simply cannot duplicate the physical world in all its richness with present-day technology. But putting the technical limitations aside, I often have the impression that the design of the spatial environment is treated rather superficially.

The design of our environment, whether it be made of bits or atoms, is important and should be taken seriously. What we create on-line will always be connected to the physical world because we will always bring our old physical selves to it. Consequently, I think there are many lessons from urban design that can be usefully applied to these new digital worlds.



I'd like to offer some short, practical, and largely commonsense lessons from the world of urban design, and a series of slides to illustrate these lessons, that I think would help improve immeasurably the level of satisfaction in digital worlds and cities from a spatial point of view.

  • Use darkness sparingly. Humans like light; they are attracted to it. Light and shadow illuminate, literally and figuratively, the world around us. Occasionally darkness can be comforting, and of course a city at night can be beautiful and exciting, but it is the lights that make it so. Plain darkness or dim lighting may be economical because it is easier to render, but from the user's point of view, it is more likely to be simply eerie and ominous.

  • Provide variety. An enjoyable city has a variety of spaces -- intimate places, wide open plazas, quiet relaxing areas, and busy noisy spaces. Cities have a variety of places for the obvious reason that people vary and individuals have different needs at various times. Digital worlds should serve their clientele in the same way.

  • Add visual interest. Visual interest is a key feature of an attractive environment. That's obvious, but a lot of detail in a digital city requires massive storage or a lot of bandwidth. Designers are forced to choose between speed and detail -- and unfortunately detail usually loses.

  • Learn from the past and the present. We've always made mistakes in designing cities, but we've also had some great successes. Look around you and of the cities you're familiar with, think about what aspects work and don't work. Learn from what we've done badly and avoid those same mistakes. Learn from what we've done well, and add those.

  • Provide social artifacts and activities. Two of the main things that we like most about cities is that there are always lots of things to do, and lots of people to watch and talk to. Digital cities are no different.

  • Read Kevin Lynch. Kevin Lynch was a designer who studied what city form actually means to people. His work is readable and much is applicable to digital designers. If you read only one of his books, try The Image of the City (1960). In it, he tries to understand how people think about the city, and how they get around.

  • Offer directions. It's very important for people in any environment to be able to understand where they've come from, where they're headed, and where they might like to go. Without this sense of place and direction, we are lost.

  • Provide people. People are by far the most important ingredient in any urban area and most people come to digital worlds primarily for social contact. So, it is important to make sure that they are there and to treat them well. If the numbers are small, make the space smaller. Density is also important. Remember that it is real. There is a tendency to believe that being on-line is not quite "real" because it's not physical, but your users are real and will react to digital worlds as if they were, and consequently the design of the spatial environment matters.

It comes down to this... think about real people when you design digital worlds and digital cities. Look around at the places you enjoy in the physical world and incorporate some of these qualities in your design. If you do, I think digital worlds and cities will evolve into more satisfying, rewarding, and enriching places to be.

Compiled by Mary Hopper

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