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Amsterdam - 14, 15, 16 November 2002

Mapping communication

Marco Susani

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This conversation is about places, the sense of place, and flows of communication.
Points to quote on screen:
“It is not down on any map. The true places never are.”
- Herman Melville
Actually, I decided to try out a kind of negative quote for the first time, so what you read there is contradicting everything I will say in the next twenty minutes. Which is a way of saying that what I am going to present is a part of an ongoing, experimental project that is in progress, and it is based on the assumption that we are not really sure if they are true or not.

What Melville says is, forget about finding true places on a map. The way I take it, as a provocation to what we are doing, is that forgetting about mapping something is meaningful representation of true places. The reason that this contradicts what we are doing is that we are trying to map places that are intangible and invisible; the flows of communication and the places where they happen. So this presentation is about people, flows of communication, and again in support of the contradictory quote by Melville, today this is the better map of what's happening to us, to the way we communicate. So it’s not exactly something meaningful in the same way as a map, it is something that is extremely rich, it is something that we call wireless, networked ubiquitous communication – it’s actually the computing that happens in the heads of the people, in the neurons of their brains and in the neurons in the network that connect them. So it is, in principle, exactly what we are discussing here, but it is not a map.

The project I am presenting is a result of a work group including my friends and colleagues, Frederico Casalegno and Roberto Tagliabue, and myself. It is a not-so-strange combination of competencies like architecture, interaction design, design, social sciences, and so on. And what we probably have in common is, that having been architects and designers and sociologists, we believe that when people start to walk around in a place, having a conversation about philosophy, or anything else, the sooner or later a cloister will be build around them.
So, there is an interesting question of which comes first: the flows of communication, the flows of walking, the flows of conversation in a physical space - do they come first, or does the architecture come first? It’s not so interesting to discuss this now, but the reason I mention it is that there is a connection between the two, a connection between behaviours and flows, and people walking and people talking in a circle, and the architecture of a cloister. This is where we disagree with Melville. This is where we struggle to find a map that helps us, with our nostalgic minds, to a form for better understanding the flows of communication today, starting from the confused picture that I was showing before (above), and trying to make, in an architectonic context, a form/shape/sense around them. And again, this is probably because we are old, nostalgic, and don’t take enough advantage of the cool new ways of communication.

We started investigating any type of representation, and any type of mental model, that connects infinite possibilities to certain forms. So we have been inspired by the idea that yoga (not that I’m an expert!), in visual terms, is freezing some forms of the body out of the infinite possibilities of the body. So the idea of not reducing the complexity, but just seeing some patterns and some forms and some shapes in this complexity is what we have been investigating. The idea that you give a name to the form, so you say "the lotus position. We also investigated the Kama Sutra, which is, to be honest, an even more interesting idea of freezing some shapes related to, let's say, an increase of the objective that you have. (audience laughs).

Then we looked at very old ways of seeing the intangible: that is, metaphysics and cosmologies. It isn’t such a new idea to try to visualise flows that we can’t touch, and that we can’t see in principle. There is a form of representation that is very invisible, and that is the representation of God.

What we tried to learn from this is the relationship between the representation of, let's say, the social structure, and the form that is given to it. And turning to something more trivial, which is our job, we tried to apply this perspective of seeing a shape and patterns in the complexity, to something that we do today. So, we deal with wireless mobile communication and so we deal with people in their environments, active environments; people in local groups, communities, that deal with people in local environments, and remote people, in a remote community, dealing with remote information.

This is the realm we are trying to map. And it is something we started to call "network reality" as opposed to "virtual reality", which has never been particularly sexy for me. Network reality takes much of the paradigm of computer augmented reality and ubiquitous computing, but with the idea that it is not so much the computing that is the issue here, but more the fact that there is a reality of social connection, that starts to be increased and enhanced by networks. The work that we are doing is to understand the forms of communication, or, literally, the shapes of communication

[the womb]

So meet Janet and Mark. They are flirting, of course; they love each other. They have in principle what we know as an old way of communicating, either in person in the same physical place, or remotely; they have a one-to-one communication.
Then they start to communicate with other media that are very near to one-to-one communication, but now with text, instead of speaking.

There are things that they say only by text, there are things that they write down even if they are in the same physical space. And they start sharing, they probably share bookmarks, websites, mp3 and so on, and they start to share more than just conversations. And then what is very interesting is that they probably have some more intimate communication. If they were living in Italy they would probably use something called the squilino, that could be translated as "the little ring", that is the only thing cheaper than sending an SMS, just a ring-tone with a caller-ID, so zero cost: you just see my number, and you know I am thinking about you. This is true; I am not making it up. So what is this? Is it an improvement on the hyper realism of the video-conferencing noise, or just something that is much more subterranean? What is the form of the space in which they live, built around the space they communicate in, more than the physical space they share. This is a space that belongs only to them. This is a space we called the Womb. We started, in the exercise that we are doing, to give a shape and a name to the social spaces where people live.

[Intimate Daisy]

We started to analyse other people, like Linda. She has many friends. She exchanges communication with all of them and, as she is also very shy, she is very interested in keeping everything that is around her. The social space around her happens to become something that is absolutely intimate.
So for her the idea of saving all the messages from her friends is more important than actually messaging with them. We call her space the Intimate Daisy. So she forms a bubble of information around her that is the space to which she belongs, and she wants very much to stay in control of it.

Next meet Melanie and Tom. Tom knows everything about music. So he goes and takes images and music for her, and he becomes the bridge between her and the rest of the world. We call their social space the Fish. It is heavily asymmetric, it is all about him bridging to her.

But you also can have a more symmetrical structure. Here people are exchanging images, MP3 files and so on.
Their space is a more symmetrical space that we call the Butterfly.

Then we started to work on bigger social spaces where people communicate in a circle: one speaks to another, and that one to another one, forming a social space called Carousel that is symmetric, but with no poles. Or you have what appears to be the same group of people, but there is one in the centre who is the chief gossip of the group, the one who starts all the conversations.




In technical terms this is still a network, but in social terms the social space is absolutely centrifugal. This is what we call the Petals.

In this combination, one expert, or head of the tribe, transfers all his music expertise to the others, so it is the same as we saw before, but this time with a pole; he's the head of the tribe, so the social space is asymmetric, and it is called the Crest.

Then we have many communities, each one with the mechanism we saw before: one starts to broadcast to the other one, and everybody broadcasts to everybody else, so we have an overlapping peer-to-peer broadcast and so on. And content is what holds everything together.

This is what we call the Infinite Star, a continuous space that connects infinite points.

Then we have something that you’ve been exposed to for sure, that is word of mouth, or reforwarding of the email of the email of the email. The infinite oral/written tradition of word of mouth, transferring the information from one person to the another to another.

Sorry, but we didn't find any better definition than the Sausage for this one, but actually there is a subtlety in this definition, because a sausage is made out of the remains of other things, and it is basically infinite.

[Infinite Star]



To compensate for the fact that the sausage wasn't looking very sexy, we reflected on what actually happens to the content. The content is this case grows, and it collects annotations of annotations of annotations, and we found that this is actually like a Pearl.

So the seed of information grows socially, and actually becomes knowledge, because you share it socially. In contrast to other schemes, which are more in the direction of the broadcast model, that is, one to many, this is a kind of viral diffusion. Sending the message of the message of the message is a kind of social space that is infinite: we call this the Flames. This is a kind of fractal space, which multiplies.

Now imagine the same structure with the same flames going around, but combined with the idea that then, at a certain point, they gather, they return back to a single space. Which is, for example, what happens with Rave parties – people say let’s meet, they say when and where, and then everyone meets in a physical place. And then here in this place we continue the conversations, locally; though they probably continue to be mediated through our devices.

And we form a strange social environment, that is temporary and which we call the Sunflower.



This is where we are now, this is the temporary list of forms that we use to describe communication patterns - everything between one-to-one and broadcasts models, everything that messes up what we know about media as "just a normal way of communicating," or "one-to-many".

I think there are infinite other patterns. Our desperation and nostalgia for forms and controlling forms, understanding from a map, led us to stop at twelve, so far; but for sure we can elaborate more. What came out when we started to lay them out is that you see that the first line, the first four, refer to something more or less intimate in the sphere of a few people. The central ones are more interesting, because they are a real paradigm that is very much supported by wireless media, and the biggest combination of physical presence and remote mediated communication. And the lower one is probably on the scale of the larger groups, and is defined by the fact that, again, it's not something that we know from the broadcast and the written society.

The general definition of this, which again is very tentative, is what we call Aural technology; nothing to do with earrings, even if it is nice to think that there is maybe a connection, but about thinking that the way to manage knowledge at this moment is in terms of a very fluid management of flows that we define as auras. The consequences are - but let's use question marks here:
Do auras define social structures? Do the different forms - like the form of the lotus does - define how society is built; it is not the family, the neighbourhood and so on, but the womb, the crests and so on?
Do auras correspond to different communication models? Or do we connect with people in a different way if we belong to a womb, or to an intimate daisy, or to flames?
Do information auras interact? Actually, I am pretty sure they do. So what happens when the complexity of the forms overlap? This is a picture we didn’t do, because it was simply impossible to manage; imagine how to overlap all the auras I've shown you!

We certainly don’t belong to one single aura. We belong to many of them. So in the end, we are not doing this work to simplify the complexity; we are trying desperately to find a meaning around it, because we are designers. In a sense, we believe that this exercise is just a way of seeing the invisible - the collective intelligence of flows that cannot be seen. Maybe these maps will help a little bit. In the end, I think that Melville was right after all.


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