17 July 2006

information, the internet, the public, and nostalgia

A public space is public when it either maintains the public order or changes it, (Vito Acconci).

The public gathers in two kinds of spaces. The first is a space that is public, a place where the public gathers because it has a right to the place; the second is a place that is made public, a place where the public gathers precisely because it doesn’t have the right – a place made public by force, (Vito Acconci).

Although Acconci was talking about space -- parks, streets, buildings, etc. -- I feel that these ideas also apply to public vs. private information, to the concept of internet, to creative commons vs. copyright. Virtual space. Not to sound like a digital utopian/net-o-phile/whatever, but it's true that the internet has changed the way we think about some fundamental concepts, and I feel that when viewing the internet as a public space through the lens of Acconci, it's possible to see how it falls into the two categories.

I guess that maybe I'm not the person who knows best about this. All I know is the stuff that has gotten hashed out in two semesters of CMS classes (thanks, Henry :) ), but it's something I think about, and is something I care about, so maybe I can still have something to say in the matter even though it's not really my area of study.

The internet. In some ways, I can barely remember the time I didn't have it. But even though the memory is vague, I remember the first webpage I made -- in fact, it was the first thing that came up when you searched for my name for a long time. I remember when I used to get games via BBSs. I remember shareware and Duke Nukem and Crystal Caves and Commander Keen. I remember my first computer -- an Atari. And, in some ways, I realize my generation's role as the first people to have pretty much grown up with computers. I used to be fascinated by the screeching sounds of the modem communicating to another computer. So horrible, yet so wonderful at the same time. In some ways, it's still the sound of the future for me. I remember some of the first CD drives for PCs. I remember building my first computer. I still use my AOL screen name from 6th/7th grade. I've been around computers so long, that I take them for granted, take the knowledge of how to use them as something everyone knows. Well.. at least all my friends know. So I'm always surprised when my step-mom or my mom or my dad don't know about things. I introduced my dad to flickr. He's decided to get a paid account now. I find this really amusing.

But back to information. Transfer of information. That's what the internet is good for. I can find people who have my same interests all over the world. I can buy toys from my childhood (thanks to ebay). All of this and more has led to the growth of the long tail economic model. Lots has been said about this, and I don't know that I can really say any more interesting things than have already been said. So back to Acconci. "The public gathers because it has a right to the place." Take away this right, and you take something unique about the internet away.

I get really frustrated reading about the whole net neutrality debate. Particularly from the standpoint that our politicians are so distanced from society/technology, that they really seem to have no clue. Or at least most of them seem this way. Jon Stewart has definitely made fun of this one a lot. But, seriously, I listen to them talk and it's obvious that they don't really know things. And I also think that this whole concept of internet, of connectivity across the world, is just at its beginnings. So much that we don't know, so many uses left to be found -- uses that can only be made by people who use the internet. The uses of the street. The uses of the public.

The internet allows people to redefine public. It allows fan communities to form. It allows niche groups to have a say. In some ways, it has the potential to be a wonderful tool for democracy. The internet is very much a place for the public.

The internet is also a place where the public can reclaim things made private. Piracy, mp3s/file sharing, open source software, etc. These are all reclaimations of privatized information. The internet is a place where information can be "made public by force"... the force of numbers. The force of anonymity. The force of the public.

The space that is made public began as its own opposite, This was a space that was never meant to be public at all: a royal space, or a presidential space, or a corporate space. This private and privileged space had inherent in it, from its beginning, the seeds of public space: the fact of its existence provoked desire, its privacy functioned as a taunt to the public that felt left out. Once that space has been taken over by force and made public, it has inherent in it, in turn, the seeds of private place, the seeds of re-defined and re-inhabited privacy: the public that takes it over is working its way up to the royalty or the presidency or the corporate office. Private space becomes public when the public wants it; the public space becomes private when the public that has it won’t give it up, (Vito Acconci).


In the space that is public, the public, whose space this is, has agreed to be a public, these are people “in the form of a city”, they are public when they act “in the name of the city”. They “own” the city only in quotes. The establishment of certain space in the city as “public” is are minder, a warning, that the rest of the city isn’t public. New York doesn’t belong to us, and neither does Paris, and neither does Des Moines, (Vito Acconci).

No one owns the internet. No one should own it. And I think there's a very interesting interplay of public vs. private on the internet. In some sense, it's a space that everyone has agreed is "public." But it's also a space where propriety of information -- privacy, of sorts -- comes into play. Hacking websites isn't "allowed." I mean... it can be done, but it's messing with someone's own "private" place. Even though everything about the webpage (the source and the styles and the images, etc) are all open for the public to see. Blogs. Blogs are some place I find the interplay of public and private most interesting. There are all these teenagers (I reserve the right to talk about them because I once was one of them) who post their most inner feelings for all to see. Often involving overly-done and melodramatic poetry. Possibly a black background on their journal. In some ways, by showing it to people who are numeros and anonymous, it's almost like privacy. At least, I never got worried about posting things in my journal until my friends found it. And then I would change journals, or make private entries, or something along those lines.

And, you know, to this day I still find this concept of anonymity to be important. Especially when it comes to showing my sketchbook. I would rather show my sketch book to a complete stranger than to my parents. Or my friends, usually. The distance is somehow soothing. Everything becomes more objective. And in some ways, it's just a different form of performing. I can only perform when I can't see the audience, when I don't have a connection to the audience.


Public space, in an electronic age, is space on the run. Public space is not space in the city but the city itself. Not nodes but circulation routes; not buildings and plazas, but roads and bridges. Publicspace is leaving home, and giving up all the comforts of the cluster-places that substitute for the home. Space on the run is life on the loose. There’s not time to talk; there’s no need to talk, since you have all the information you need on the radio you carry with you. There’s no need for a person-to-person relationship, since you already have multiple relationships with the voices on your radio, with images of persons in store windows and on billboards; there’s no time to stop and have a relationship, which would be a denial of all those other bodies you’re side-by-side with on the street, one different body after another, one body replacing another. There’s no time and no need and no way to have “deep sex”: in a plague year, in a time of AIDS, bodies mix while dressed in condoms and armored with vaginal shields – the body takes its own housing with it wherever it goes, it doesn’t come out of its shell. The electronic age and the age of AIDS come intermixed in an age of virus, whether that virus is information or disease. Each person becomes too infected, either with information or with disease, to be with another. You come to visit, not to stay, (Vito Acconci).

I felt this last night when I didn't feel safe to stop anywhere to sit and eat a dinner.
Why does the concept of ownership feel so foreign to me?
A 30 minute drive away might have well been another country.

12 July 2006

thoughts on creation (in both engineering and art)

where do ideas come from? how do we link things together? how do we start the creative process? these questions intrigue me, push me to explore my own creative process and the process of others.

a while back, i met with arthur ganson and talked for a while, asked him lots of questions, tried to gain an understanding on how he went about doing things. one of the questions i asked: what was his design process? his answer: most of the time, he thinks about how it will move/speak for/to an audience. sometimes an item is a catalyst for the design (z.B. artichoke leave walking). sometimes the idea is more nebulous and what drives the design is the overall aesthetic presence of the piece (z.B. the cloud sculptures).

maybe sometimes it takes asking someone else a question to get yourself to ask the same question to... um... yourself. at least, until ganson gave me his answer, i never really thought about my own design process -- it just came about. but that's not a good answer for people. it really isn't an answer; it's just me not actively thinking through the process.

so i started thinking about my own experience with design -- both in engineering and art and the combination of the two. and i think i have a very similar manner of doing things. let's take comics/drawing/art as my first example (seeing as i actually have pictures of the work)

method 1) i have a clear idea of what story i want to tell. this is probably the majority ... like the comic i recently did about my travel woes. or jeoffrey. or various other stories of my day. example 1

method 2) i start with a line or a shape and use it to catalyze a drawing around. often this is an eye or a mouth or an expression i want to capture. example 2 and example 3

method 3) i have a certain way i want to lay out a page or maybe a certain method i want to use to do this. in other words, i want to achieve a certain effect. i don't really know what the content will be before i start; the method shapes the content. this is a harder example to find, and the only one i can think of is a photograph where i wanted to try to sign my name using car tail lights on a long exposure (around 10 seconds). example 4

a similar process goes on when making a wire sculpture or doing a more traditional engineering design. examples:

method 1) i need to make something that does this particular task. in general, 2.007 contest forces this method. other examples are like... making a mechanism that can sign your name.

method 2) i found a really cool part that i want to use, like the paperclip that started me on the path of making the wire robot guy with a sword. or maybe i want to use a particular mechanism because i think it'll be fun.

method 3) i want to build something that has a particular presence... a feeling. the dancing giraffe was a bit like this. but not quite as successful as i'd have wanted it to be.

anyway. these methods switch around during different phases of the design process -- every design is some combination of these. but these are the three clear ways i've found to start. even working today on things with a fellow media lab student, alea, we touched on these different methods with her different projects. she wants to make a mechanism to sign her name. clear goal-oriented start. she has some bits of glass she found that she wants to use in a stained glass/wire thing. more of a method 2. i gave her a bit of wire and told her to make something with it, and she made a bird. again, method 2.

i feel like methods 2 and 3 are more likely to be found when creating an art piece, and method 1 is more traditional engineering. but there's no reason why the other methods couldn't be used in traditional engineering. maybe more on the design side -- i.e. i want the end users to have this experience. or if your materials are limited, maybe there's a play between method 1 and 2, with i need to do this, but i have this.

hm. i don't know. just some thoughts.
anyone else have any thoughts?

10 July 2006

SNAP - the people version

Cast (the older ones):
Amelia - Glorianna's niece. From NYC. At the workshop for three of the five days.
Dimitri - Just finished his first year at UNO. From New Orleans. There for all five days.
Garrick - From New Orleans. Carol Bebelle's... nephew? There on Wednesday and Friday.
Micah - From New Orleans. There for all five days.

In response to Glorianna's comment, here's my effort for posting on the changes of the older kids in the SNAP workshop.


First off, I was really impressed by the maturity of all the kids involved. I feel like I would've been a much worse kid to work with when I was their age. They did excellent work and had such great ideas on how the street could change.

I'll just go in alphabetical order.

Amelia did great work compositing photos of the street to get a feel of how it is now, and she also did an excellent job of laying out three blocks of OCHB in Google SketchUp. Even though she was only there for 3 of the 5 days, she managed to do a lot. I also feel like she worked quite well with the other students there. Even at the end of the 5 days, her three blocks are the most completely laid out blocks on the street in SketchUp.

Dimitri is quite a character. He focused so intently on the details of one of the buildings that he didn't manage to really map out even one complete block. I tried hinting at him that details weren't quite so important for these 5 days, but he kept on going. I didn't really feel that it was my place to strongly step in and tell him to do things differently, though. So I let him do what he did -- he was having fun and learning how to model a building (very detailed building) to scale in SketchUp. His presentation skills were a little hesitant. I tried to get him to run through his part of the presentation with me a couple of times. But after one run-through, he said that was enough. His question answering was really good. He seems a bit shy at times. But he also seems to think through things well. He's a good worker with good ideas. If this project continues, I think that working on it will be good for him. Maybe to develop some confidence speaknig in front of people.

Garrick was only there for 2 of the 5 days, but he jumped right in and had some great ideas. He was very excited about the possibilities of the businesses on the street. It was great to hear his ideas, and I think it would be fun to work out more thoroughly the business aspects of one of the blocks. I feel that if he were there for a few more days, he would've done even more great work. He didn't get to work in SketchUp much, due to his absence. But he drew out (on paper) a nice comparison of the old/current front of one block to his new ideas for the space.

Micah really impressed me when it came to the presentation. He was well spoken and clear. And his transitions between slides were excellent. He took preparing for the presentation more seriously than Dimitri seemed to, and I think this ended in good results. He laid out a few blocks, but didn't quite get the scale right, so they're all a relatively correct size... um... relative to one another. He seemed focused throughout the 5 days.

All in all, I think the older kids that were there for SNAP were wonderful. Again, I was quite impressed. And I really hope that they get to see some of their ideas come into being. They did some great work in 5 short days.

some thoughts on the cricket construction kit.

so i ran across an article on the cricket construction kit in the tech one day. or maybe it was tech talk. either way... in one of the MIT newspapers. and at first i was like, oh no... i want to do something similar... is what i want to do too similar? and then i thought about it. and i think there are some major differences in what i'm thinking of doing for a thesis vs. what the cricket construction kit does.

1) price. price price price. so expensive for that. $250!! i never would've gotten one of these as a kid. as it was growing up, LEGOs were too expensive to ever get large sets, much less a lego robotics set. with all the concerns over the digital divide between rich and poor, why aren't they trying to make something that everyone can use? or really, something that everyone can afford? call me idealistic, but i really do think that the idea of making a profit gets in the way of any good intentions.

anything i make, i want it to be affordable to anyone, something that can spread, something that can be added on to, something that will grow with the users.

i'm more of a fan of open source, open hardware, creative commons things. the product is secondary to the ideas. and when this is the case, the way you make a living is by providing support, which is much more interesting and engaging, anyway, than continuously working on hardware development. i mean, when it comes right down to it, i am limited by my own experiences and my own imagination, so any design that i come up with will also be limited. but if the design is distrubuted, and people can innovate freely, then everyone benefits from the experience of others. my dad always told me that you never can learn more than your teacher, if you only have one teacher, and i think this carries over into open source logic. with everyone bringing their own experiences and ideas to the table, more ideas get mixed together that might otherwise not have been broght together, and as a result, everyone benefits. and in some ways, a community (of sorts) develops around this. i think it's a strong concept, and more and more, i'm fascinated by the idea of the open source community and things like make magazine.

and this is one reason i like the GoGo Board. sure, it may be kinda blocky and a bit hard to put into things at times. but it's cheap. and it's meant to be innovated on. it may not have the sleek design of a cricket, but i think that's good. it hasn't been black-boxed away from the people using it. it isn't mysterious. you can build your own. you can program it. you can see the parts.

2) black-boxed. i started on point two in the previous paragraph... so carry that down. by putting the picocricket in this slick box with these fancy buttons and surface mount components, you're making it mysterious and unattainable, in some sense. sure, you can program it, but you can't add onto it, you can't see the parts, you can't figure out how it works and adapt it for your needs. for example, i think running the GoGo Board on solar power with fuel cells, like the kids at the South End Technology Center tried to do (i'm not sure if they succeeded... i think they might've), might not have happened if they had been using picocrickets instead of GoGo Boards.

3) it doesn't emphasize construction. it's not the programming that i'm interested in when i'm trying to do this construction kit idea. i want more of, as my advisor puts it, a grammar of mechanisms. building blocks for making a machine. a quick reference. something that gives the basics and maybe a few examples and then encourages exploration and building one's own ideas. i think it makes it more powerful to be able to add some interaction with your machines. but i think that the construction part should be able to stand on its own.

instead of giving instructions on how to build a specific thing, such as LEGO does, i want it to give a way of thinking about design, a way to go beyond one thing. this is something i never found in any of my (many) construction kits as a kid (LEGO, K'nex, erector set, etc), and what is what i really wanted. just some hints as to where to go. when you don't know what's out there, or what the possibilities are, it's hard to start. i mean... ideas don't come out of thin air. inventions and ideas are built out of experience... out of previously seen things... out of combining two random things in your head at the right time... out of innovating on something that's already there. same as in art. imitation does count.

(actually, as a side note, there was this nice section in this book i was reading recently on how all tools and inventions are based around stories. even if the story is "i need to do this, and i have this, so this is how i did what i wanted to do", it's still some form of story. i should remember to explore this idea a bit more.)

so, construction. construction is what i'm after. how do you learn to build things that move? how do you externalize motion from what your body knows? how do you create your own thing? and most importantly, how do you build up experience... intuition.

4) commercialized product. i'd rather it be something that people feel is their own, and i feel that the black-boxed-ness and the price detract from this, although the product is quite nice. there's something to be said for the diy aesthetic. i don't want to build dependence on a product, but instead build intuition and confidence for each individual. i want them to grow ideas. i want them to share ideas.


so where does this leave me? i want something cheap, versatile, appropriateable (ok... i made that word up. something that can be appropriated by the people using it). something that helps people develop their own intuition about building things, instead of relying on being told what to do. i want to encourage using the materials around you. i want to lower the barrier to starting to work on things. i want it to be fun. and i think that trying to build some sort of community around it is good, where kids share their ideas and experiences with each other, offer advice, etc.

maybe having some questions to ask yourself when you get stuck would be good. advice from people who've worked with similar things. a reference for the grammar of mechanisms, for which things can be soldered and which can't, for which glues can be used on which surfaces, for geometries. a reference. a guide. i don't know. encouragement for kids/people who want to build things out of cheap materials. maybe with some actual physical examples that come with it. a tool to make wire gears. pictures/drawings of real life examples of these things in action. and encouragement to explore your world.

i'm not sure of the best way to go about this. maybe i should ask kids what they discovered through working with wire... and what suggestions they might have for other people doing similar things? sigh. i think i know what i want but i'm not sure how to get there.


man. i tell you. i really should get better about posting in here. i do so much, and i never seem to talk about it. maybe first things first, i should talk about the new orleans trip with glorianna. photos can be found on my flickr account. and let me try this new lightbox thing, that will hopefully work.


SNAP -- student neighborhood area planning.

June 26-30, 2006. Ashe' Cultural Arts Center - New Orleans, LA
Students from the New Orleans area met together at the Ashe' CAC for a week long workshop focused (roughly) on the themes of urban planning, adaptive reuse, rebuilding, and reinvisioning a neighborhood. The area focused on was a 4-5 block stretch of Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. (formerly Dryades St.), which also included the Ashe' CAC. The number of kids varied from day to day, but there were two who were there for the entire time. Unfortunately, due to a cancelled flight, I missed the first day, but managed to get to New Orleans the next day (with quite a few delays).

Tuesday was a bit rough. There were a lot of younger kids who were very needing of attention. Glorianna was great with them, though. I think I was still in a bit of shock. Steven Bingler gave a nice talk/discussion about the feeling of the place, getting kids to come up with words for how the street feels now and how they want it to feel in the future. He then worked on getting them to come up with concrete ideas about how to achieve the feelings they wanted. Ex: NOW - run down, historic, lonely, familiar, forgotten. FUTURE - classy, lively, outrageous, scenic, revitalized, safe, a New Orleans vibe. HOW? - gumbo shops, soul food restaurants, stores, flowers, plants, banks, available housing.

I managed to catch up a bit on what was going on, and did my best to get the younger kids going on something. For this, I broke out the art supplies I had brought down from Boston. After walking around and taking pictures on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. and while focusing on the words that Steven had them come up with, the younger kids sketched up some ideas for what could go in some of the empty lots and buildings, as well as ideas for what could make the neighborhood better. Some of the students' work: 1, 2, 3. (more on flickr.) It was a bit messy, but fun. There was this wonderful kid, Syraje, who started designing artistic street lights and matching benches for the street. Unfortunately, he was only there for one day.Lisa Mosier taught the older kids how to do models in Google SketchUp, while I was working with the younger kids.

The next day, only three of the younger kids showed up (in addition to the older kids). Dorian Hastings showed up and gave a wonderful presentation on the history of the street. Glorianna, again, was great with the kids and helped the younger ones think about being entrepeneurs. The three designed their store fronts and what they wanted their stores to have in them. One of them wanted a jewelry store, one of them a clothing store, and one of them a dance/dance supply/dance clothing store. After designing the store fronts, they started designing the things to go in the store. The older kids worked on their 3D models this day. I worked with this kid Garrick a lot on this day. He had some great ideas about how this one block could be, with an internet cafe, some stores, a blockbuster, a drug store, a health center, and a cafe/restaurant with outdoor patio seating.

Thursday. Glorianna left. None of the younger kids showed up. It was pretty much just Micah and Dimitri, the two consistent kids. They worked on their models all day. Dimitri was very focused on doing detail work on the buildings, whereas Micah was more focused on trying to lay out a block. I laid out Garrick's street in SketchUp, since he wasn't there. Work work work on the presentation. Lisa picked out some of the words from Steven's discussion to go in the presentation. I tried to get the kids' input on how the presentation should be structured. While they were busy working on their models, I made the presentation. Well... started it. I didn't finish it until late that night.

Friday. Presentation. Micah and Dimitri were the only ones there in the morning. They ran through the presentation a few times, for practice. Garrick showed up after a bit, and Micah and Dimitri filled him in on the presentation. About when the presentation was starting, two of the younger kids showed up, along with their parents. The presentation went well. I was impressed by Micah's presentation skills. They're better than mine, I think. Dimitri was a bit distractable, and a little soft spoken, and not quite as prepared as Micah, but still did well. Garrick told about his ideas for the two blocks he worked on. And afterwards, the younger kids spoke about what they had worked on.

The parents and other people who showed up seemed interested in what was going on. They asked great questions about the project and about why are we doing this and what all was going on. The kids answered their questions well. And I also answered a few of them, along with Carol Bebelle (of the Ashe' CAC).

All in all, I think this workshop went well. The kids thought through some hard things and came out with a good presentation. I wish we had had more time to work on things, and I hope that this continues and that something comes out of it. I think it was a good experience for the kids, if anything, and I know it was a great experience for me.