‘We live in a culture of real virtuality’

The famous sociologist Manuel Castells in an interview by Paul Mason (BBC): 

“With Facebook and with all these social networks what happened is that we live constantly networked. We live in a culture of not virtual reality, but real virtuality because our virtuality, meaning the internet networks, the images are a fundamental part of our reality. We cannot live outside this construction of ourselves in the networks of communication.”

Ever wondered why people try to redefine themselves by nationalism, regionalism, membership of small subcultures, even though the world is globalizing fast? I think Castells has some anwers on that too: 

“The more we are connected to everything and everybody and every activity, the more we need to know who we are. Unless I know who I am, I don’t know where I am in the world, because then I am a consumer, I am taken by the market, I am taken by the media.

“And therefore people decide that they are going to be different. But to do that, they have to identify themselves as individuals, as collectives, as nations, as genders, all these categories that sociologists have already constructed time ago.”

Castells explains how people in this crisis engage in co-operative or non-profit work. It’s a kind of ‘non-capitalism’. 

Putting now on my list: his new book Aftermath. 

via Diigo http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-19932562

Tools which help us to live in the information streams

We’re living in streams or flows of information: think status updates, tweets, texting, rss-feeds… It’s an era of niche markets, of networks rather than destinations and what we need are tools that allow people to more easily contextualize relevant content. That is what Danah Boyd eloquently explains on Educause Review. Danah is a social scientist at Microsoft Research and a research associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

I liked her Educause article Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media because of the ‘streams’ and ‘flow’ metaphors which in my opinion are very appropriate to describe today’s social media experience.

She deals with the issues of democratization, stimulation, homophily and power in a lucid way, not only talking about how awesome social media are but explaining the awkward and even threatening issues as well.

I’m especially interested in how we can create tools to provide context and meaning. Danah says:

We need technological innovations. For example, we need tools that allow people to more easily contextualize relevant content regardless of where they are and what they are doing, and we need tools that allow people to slice and dice content so as to not reach information overload. This is not simply about aggregating or curating content to create personalized destination sites. Frankly, I don’t think this will work. Instead, the tools that consumers need are those that allow them to get in flow, that allow them to live inside information structures wherever they are and whatever they’re doing. They need tools that allow them to easily grab what they want and to stay peripherally aware without feeling overwhelmed.

This is rather abstract, which is good, because one needs a bit of higher level reasoning to see the structural issues at stake. However, I wonder what kind of tools Danah would suggest here. Google’s Living Stories are somehow a way to provide flexible context to breaking news, but I guess we should innovate more in order to help contextualizing things wherever people are or whatever they are doing.

The other major topic is that of the business models new media will use. Danah offers some high-level ideas, but leaves it to us  to propose concrete solutions:

Figuring out how to monetize sociality is a problem, and it’s not one that’s new to the Internet. Think about how we monetize sociality in physical spaces. The most common model involves second-order consumption of calories. Venues provide a space for social interaction to occur, and we are expected to consume to pay rent. Restaurants, bars, cafes—they all survive on this model. But we have yet to find the digital equivalent of alcohol.

I think virtual environments and augmented reality are interesting cases in this context. Virtual worlds are somehow islands in the information streams, inciting people to pay attention for a longer time, to immerse themselves. But at the same time those worlds are internally characterized by streams: for instance by the flows of group text chats and individual chats.

Augmented reality can put layers of context on the physical reality – layers which can consist out of more or less static information such as Wikipedia entries or out of streams like nearby tweets. Of course, augmented reality, virtual worlds and the physical reality can be combined in all sorts of interesting ways.

Or can they? As Danah remarks, the social media tools often are clunky. It takes learning curves to master them, and a geeky attitude. It’s not that very enjoyable to stare though your smartphone camera in order to see often clumsy little texts or virtual objects. Often the tools are the creations of computer scientists and engineers who’ve forgotten how ignorant, clumsy and resistant to change most people are, and it seems they’re not interested in providing tools which are fast, fun and easy to use. The Living Stories are a nice example: it’s a fascinating Google project, which was stopped and is now as an open source project available for others to develop – but it’s not beautiful, it does not seduce the common social media consumer (same story applies for Google Wave – made by software engineers for software engineers). Compare this to Apple (and let the engineers and true geeks howl): it’s slick, it’s beautiful, and all of a sudden the ubiquitous internet goes mainstream.

I’m convinced augmented reality and virtual environments will be important in helping us live in the streams – but we’ll need tools and objects which make us feel happy and which seduce us: fast, fun, easy and beautiful tools.

Installation, performances, group about identities in SL about to be launched

Identity is a fascinating subject, in some complicated ways it also determines the attraction and/or rejection people feel for virtual environments. The idea of being mediated by an avatar, who shares many characteristics of your real life persona, but who also is different, confronts people with the fact that their identity is not some homogeneous, simple and unchanging substance which can be easily described.

On Saturday 2 October and continuing through October there will be performances about this subject in Second Life.

The Caerleon Museum of Identity is the latest in the series of collaborative installations by the Caerleon Artists Coalition, a project of the Virtual Art Initiative. The show opens Saturday, 2 October at 12:00 PM (noon) PDT/SLT on the Caerleon Isle sim, with entertainment beginning at 1:00.

The Caerleon group was established by Georg Janick (Dr. Gary Zabel of the University of Massachusetts, Boston) and consists of artists, writers, musicians, and scholars who are using the immersive and interactive digital media to develop new forms of artistic content.

The Creative Identity group in Second Life will continue the discussions beyond the show and invites others to join.

“Georg Janick’s six Theses on the Art of Virtual Worlds are the framework for the series of collaborations on the Caerleon sims. In addition to major builds on each of the six theses, there have been numerous theme collaborations on various topics, including consumerism, imprisonment, surrealism, and masks, as well as limited resource challenges like the one-prim and limited texture shows.

The Caerleon Museum of Identity is an interpretation by the collaborative team of Georg’s fourth thesis: the Ambiguity of Identity. It states in part, “…digital bodies, and the names that uniquely identify them, can be altered, multiplied, discarded, or exchanged at the will of the user. Since bodily presence is open to such radical discontinuity, the identity of the virtual person is protean and ambiguous, including indicators of age, gender, race, and even biological species.”

The project has been in development for over a year. Weekly discussions about the project inevitably centered around the subject of identity and how people in virtual worlds both express themselves and interact with others. This is a subject of tremendous interest to many in SL, and some of the team members have formed the open Creative Identity group to continue talking about issues, especially as they relate to creative work.

In this context have a look at this machinima by BotGirl Questi:

Or this machinima by Ian Pahute: