Experimental Ethnography with Urban Tapestries

A nice paper about the Urban Tapestries project: Urban Tapestries: Experimental Ethnography, Technological Identities and Place, an LSE Electronic Working Paper by Roger Silverstone and Zoetanya Sujon.

Urban Tapestries provides a mobile location-based platform to connect people with the places they inhabit through their stories, experiences and observations. Currently based on an 802.11b mesh network in the heart of London, ordinary people author their stories of the city and embed them in the places that inspire them. Others who are logged into the system can read these stories, author their own and engage the largely invisible, multidimensional layers accumulating in the city. Our research asks if people use UT in meaningful and interesting ways. Drawing from theories of everyday life and urban space, we have developed experimental ethnography as a method for investigating the relationships between communication technologies, users and the socio-geographic territories around them. Respondents are asked to play with an early Urban Tapestries prototype and this research explores what they do, their technological identities, their relationship to place and the meanings they generate. Urban Tapestries facilitates the negotiation of boundaries and we found that it does augment notions of connectivity – to place and to those within that place. However, our research revealed that some do not interpret this connectivity positively.

Why do I blog this? I find interesting to have a usage analysis of a specific locative media. The study if very relevant (I appreciated the fact that they took into account the level of technological comfort which is very important if you want to deploy this kind of tech at a large level). The content analysis of the 'pockets' is nice as well:

  • Recommendations (good or bad)
  • Personal experiences (I was here, I did this, this reminds me of)
  • Information (this place is)
  • Speculations (questions, fiction, maybes and whatifs)
  • History
  • Observations and Descriptions

Perhaps the most interesting part is the conclusion in which they extract the most significant results (I quote):

What we have found and suggested during the course of the study are a number of dimensions of this problematic of socio-technical change, dimensions which are particular to the affordances offered by UT.

  1. The first is the question of the contradictory and unstable relations that individuals have with their technologies. Everyday life is, albeit variably as our respondents have illustrated, dependent on a range of increasingly portable technologies that are both enabling and disabling of social interaction; that are both liberating and constraining.
  2. The second is the issue of identity. Marshall McLuhan famously described media technologies as extensions of ourselves. (...) Our research suggests how important such a notion is, and in what ways these extensions are, or can become, crucial parts of our identities, as projections of the self, as well as props and supports in our struggle to sustain ourselves as viable social beings. (...) But understanding technology as a constituent of identity is key if we are to further an understanding of how such technologies as UT could develop, or indeed how indeed one might develop UT in the future.
  3. Mobile telephony is both an extension of self and an intrusion. UT technology likewise. Its essential double-edge will need to be managed if it is to have a value in the enhancement of social life.
  4. a number of them [users -n] talked about UT as, possibly, an opportunity for play. And the idea of playing in and with the city appears, at least to some, attractive. (...) UT was seen as toy-like, and as such possibly marginal to the real issues of the everyday. [indeed, see anne galloway's work]
  5. This leads to the final issue. The issue of place. UT is a technology that engages directly with space and place. It offers a way of fixing location, a kind of marking of the city with meaning. (..) UT is a way of marking that significance both for the individual and, in principal, for the collectivity – both the ad hoc collectivity of passing tourists and the more grounded collectivity of neighbourhood and community. [here see timo arnall's work]

I also liek the conclusion "The research reported here, then, suggests that technologies are never less than social. They emerge from social action, and they continue to be dependent on social action if they are to have any meaning or usefulness.". That is definitely the point here with today's technology. Such technologies will work only if a critical mass of people use it, the real power will emerge from this.

On a different note, I am stilll waiting locative media studies much more focused on smaller scales group. Like for instance how small groups of people use them to do something jointly. And what would be the socio-cognitive consequences of using such information. Well of course, it's closer to my phd topic ;)