Mediacity conference @ Weimar: the design of urban situations

Last weekend I visited the Media City Conference organized by the Bauhaus University in Weimar. One of the main themes of the conference was the concept of ‘situations’, or ‘the settings in which people interact’, as formulated by Jens Geelhaar. This concept was probably best illustrated by a photo that Mediacity-fellow Katharine Willis showed of two ladies leaning over the hedge that separated their backyards. Here the situation for interaction is created by the hedge: it creates a mixture of distance and closeness that enables two neighbors to have a casual discussion. How now do mobile and locative media impact the way we experience, construct and design such situations?

Three layers of spatial experience

Dimitris Charitos refered to a theory of Bioca & Kim (1997) that conceptualizes the way situations can be understood in the Mediacity. According to this theory, presence experienced by a human may fluctuate between three different layers:

  • Presence in the physical world
  • Presence in an electronically mediaitedvirtual environment
  • Presence in an imaginary environment which is dominated by internally generated images

This means that it is hard to speak of homogeneous contexts for the experience of place.

Linkage, presence & separation

Katharine Willis also introduced some inter-related concepts to rethink the concept of situations:

  • Linkage: how is a space connected to other spaces, not only in a physical sense but also to virtual or mediated spaces.
  • Presence: in physical spaces, presence is experienced or framed by bodily experience. However, new technologies can create a form of shared background presence. Friends might not physically be available, but if a situation occurs, they are only one text-message away.
  • Separation: to what extent is something (information, a person, a certain phenomenon) available or non available and thus separated? This is not just a matter of physical access any more. Information or parts of the experience of a certain situation could be available through layered media spaces. But to whom and under what conditions is it accessible?

The return of the event?

In his opening keynote, Antoine Picon framed the concept of situations from the point of view of map making. Picon sees two important trends in present day map-making: the first is the emergence of real-time maps, for instance of circulatory systems (traffic, water, sewage) that are monitored by institutions or private persons. For instance online traffic maps represent the actual flow of traffic. The second are personalized maps, like the ones shown on satellite navigation devices: they show not the complete city, with its center in the center of the map. Rather they center the user and draw a map of his direct surroundings. Often instructions are added (turn left at the roundabout).

What both maps have in common is that they turn static representaions of the city into events. They actually show situations rather than objects. Note that recent developments in navigation devices make this a two way process. At the CES TomTom announced a new version of their device that will upload user information to a central database. The assembled information af all users information is then feed back into the representation of the city.

Picon linked this trend to earlier developments in architecture and urban culture. Groups like Archigram or the Situationists were also interested in countering the static vision of city planners with the idea of a city based on events. The city should become a site for situations and encounter.

However, it is not quite clear how architecture today is reacting to the experience of the city as events through our maps. Picon noted that public space- the site for events – in the city always had two dimensions: it was a place where one could – bodily or tactilely – experience the city (its monuments, mingling with the crowds, its sounds and smells etc.). And it used to be the locus for events and encounter. However, encounter and communication also takes place in places like Facebook, and the traditional public space seams mainly scenographic: places designed as experiences rather than as sites for situations and encounters. So although we experience the city as a series of events through our maps, it is not quite clear how this will evolve. Are they mere experiential events centered on the user? Or can they be turned into true ‘situations’?

Desinging Situations

Somewhat related was an interesting talk by Mark Shepard. Shepard also drew on the history of the situationists as well as on theories by Sartre Goffman, Gordon Park and Lucy Suchman. Designers – both those working on urban experiences as well as interfaces – could learn some valuable lessons from their work. From the situationists they could take that designing ‘situations’ does not just mean creating an ambiance or an atmosphere, it should be more than mere scenography. It should be an ‘integrated behavior in time, designed to be lived by its constructors.’

Suchman’s theories could also be instructive. Already in the 1980s she stated that human action very seldom is exactly performed according to preconceived plans. Rather it exists out of ad-hoc and moment-to-moment interactions between people and between people and their environment.

That insight brought Shepard to Gordon Pask and his concept of ‘underspecification’. If a designer sets all the specifications of a situation (for instance based on preconceived plans that users might use a starting point), than this will close a situation: the only actions possible in a situation are those that the designer has specified beforehand. The art of design should thus be to underspecificate: creating meaningful situations, with enough options left open so that users can appropriate situations according to their ad-hoc needs.

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  1. Great post Martijn! A small comment on your last passage: in Science and Technology Studies (STS), with regard to this phenomenon of technologies that by design are pre-inscribed with all sorts of meaning and values, it is said that technologies are ‘scripted’. A well-known example is how razors for women are pink and have only one button (on-off), stemming from the idea that most women don’t care about technology and/or find it complicated, while razors for men are black, with shiny elements, have multiple buttons that enable men to master and control the technology.
    The process of appropriation by users/consumers has been called ‘domestication’ (Silverstone & Haddon 1996). This refers to the sense of taming the initial ‘wildness’ and undirectedness of technologies into something you can use in your everyday life. It also refers to the – then current thought – that technologies are mostly brought in and used within a domestic context.
    All this can be, and is, perfectly applicable to the construction of spaces and situations.

Martijn de Waal
Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting. He is part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media.