By Jason Lipshin
Every Monday night from 7-9 this semester, the good folks over at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy will be holding their signature digital studies symposium – a showcase of scholars, programmers, artists, and designers working on cutting edge experiments in the digital humanities. Although this term digital humanities would seem to suggest a narrow field of inquiry limited only to scholars interested in “texts” such as video games, Youtube videos, and electronic literature, the scope of the field also tend to encompass insights from and collaborations with other fields including computer science, anthropology, fine arts, and education. So even if you would never in a million years characterize yourself as someone interested in the digital humanities, chances are that if you attend one of these talks you’ll find something that is of interest and relevance to you!
Last night’s talk featured one such interdisciplinary researcher, Paul Dourish of UC Irvine, whose work blends insights from anthropology, phenomenology, and computer science in innovative ways. He began his talk with a quote from MIT Media Lab creator Nicholas Negroponte, who proclaimed, in his typically 90s manifesto Being Digital, that a “world of bits would supplant a world of atoms.” Attractive and persuasive as this statement might be in a world of bioinformatics and MMORPGs, Dourish argues that Negroponte’s claim about the ubiquity of information technologies should not lead us to ignore the fundamental materiality of things (including computers), nor the particular limitations and possibilities that such a physicality affords. So, Dourish asks, in a world in which atoms are not replaced by bits but fundamentally constitute them, how can we begin to make people understand that the seeming “virtuality” and “ephemerality” of information does not mean that information has no body nor that there are no limits to what it can do? And further, how can we begin to break down our old and facile distinctions between the virtual and the physical in ways which do not see cyberspace and “real space” as separate entities but rather as layered on top of each other?
Such questions have lead Dourish to experiments in ubiquitous computing and locative media, including the project “Can You See Me Now?” created in collaboration with the art collective Blast Theory. Here is the description for the project on the group’s website, which they describe almost like a game of digital tag:
Can You See Me Now? is a game that happens simultaneously online and on the streets. Players from anywhere in the world can play online in a virtual city against members of Blast Theory. Tracked by satellites, Blast Theory’s runners appear online next to your player on a map of the city. On the streets, handheld computers showing the positions of online players guide the runners in tracking you down.
Besides being an insanely fun idea, such interactions between virtual and physical spaces bring to the foreground the limitations of both virtual and physical methods of navigation. Dourish notes that when people in the real world tried to “catch” avatars running around on the virtual maps they did not account for the three dimensional nature of the physical terrain, allowing the avatar to run at a constant speed through a particular space as the players in the real world struggled to trudge across an uneven playing field of hilltops and valleys. On the other hand, the players in the physical world gained a distinct advantage when they found the “edge” of the virtual map, stepping off the playing field temporarily to disorient their online foes, then jumping back within the parameters of the virtual playing field to catch the avatars unawares. In effect, by exploiting the seams in each system’s design, the players in both worlds were able to explore quite viscerally how the virtual and the physical are always constrained by their affordances, while at the same time recognizing how each mutually informs the other.
Although Dourish discussed ubiquitous computing mostly in terms of art experiments, he also noted that such technologies obviously have far less playful implementations, particularly in their influence on the infrastructure of urban spaces. While the field is relatively recent with respect to the larger history of the computer (Dourish notes that the first “ubi-comp” conference paper was delivered in the late 80s), the effects of such technologies are widespread today, for instance, in a number of GPS implementations in the spheres of industry, governance, and the military.
Hope to see you all next week!