My doctoral work has led me, in these beginning few months, in some directions I had not anticipated, but I suppose that is the point fo the whole exercise. Supposing, refining, repeat. On recommendation from my advisor, I am revisiting a journal that I hadn’t read since my time on the MSc at the University of Edinburgh. This journal, New Media Society, wasn’t the one that my advisor had actually recommended, but ways leads on to way and all that. Either way, I had downloaded the following article and a few passages in particular caught my eye. Me being me, I lifted/appropriated them in a manner that was not in keeping with their original intention and applied them in a setting more to my liking. This is actually a compliment to the inspirational quality of the original article. The article in question is
- Stromer-Galley, J. & Martey, R.M. (2009). Visual spaces, norm governed places: the influence of spatial context online. New Media Society, 2009 11: 1041. Retrieved from http://nms.sagepub.com/content/11/6/1041
I wanted to draw out a few passages as it relates to a great project I worked on with those MSc at the University of Edinburgh folks, Edinspace, and some of my doctoral work (using mobile technology in the Humanities). The passages are out of context and the article does deserve a good read in the spirit in which it was intended, but I am pulling these passages as they apply to another work I recently revisited that inspired me (both then and now) to no end. That work is the seminal book:
- Alexander, C. (1977). A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
It is inspring on all levels (even without a background in architecture or design) and influenced the participatory design process that I will be using in my thesis (and hopefully times thereafter). So, after reading this and then stumbling across the article on Visual spaces above, I somehow wanted/needed to connect the two (via the obvious conduit of architecture). But first the passages, the first of which deals with offline (material) world models of interaction that influence online interaction:
Architectural and geographic theories provide a framework to explore how spaces inform the ways in which individuals recognize, incorporate, and respond to various contexts. Particularly because they emphasize the importance of social and cultural meaning that emerges through interaction with and within spaces and structures, these theories are useful for understanding the normative contexts that arise in online spaces. Overall, architecture research suggests that spaces carry social information based on the physical properties of a space and the spatial knowledge that participants develop about them. This knowledge, developed from social meaning and spatial experiences, allows individuals to create mental models of spaces that inform subsequent behavior. (1046)
There are many theories that account for this social and cultural meaning is embedded in structure and how these ‘artifacts’ of culture determine how we make use of this structure for our own and our community ends (Vygotsky, Lave & Wenger, looking at you). I love the notion that ‘spaces carry social information’ based on the physical properties of space. Carry. Contain. Encapsulate. We as individuals navigating (and co-creating) this architecture interact with this social information through space, and are mediated by it. Each turn at each corner with each recognizable sign centers us further in this community and allows us to further model our behavior on subsequent visits. The space online might be fluid, but we still rely on our mental models of how this structure has come to be, what social information is carried in it, and how that governs our behavior (even if this happens instantaneously). Architecture is space, space imbued with meaning, with tools for constructing models and for creating further architecture. We are the Doozers of our own worlds, constructing meaning and models and architecture by doing (and without fully understanding why we choose to build so repeatedly, so incessantly, so religiously).
This is another of the reasons why I am enamored of mobile learning. It is incessant modeling and building (of knowledge, conceptual maps, of social and physical realities) happening simultaneously across physical (or offline), virtual, and cognitive spaces. It is the processing of structure and space and information (information is itself structural) to create meaning and significance both in the virtual and material. It is an intersection of activity and time where meaning is constructed both for present and future need. Two vantage points on time, two vantage points on cognition, two vantage points on space. To say nothing of the endless vantage points of consciousness, biological process, etc. Structure is everything to this act of supreme agility. It is the flow, the extension of the individual as system of activity.
The various understandings that arise from spatial experiences create mental models that people use to adapt to their physical environments. According to boyd (2001), these models allow people to ‘associate particular architectural forms with functions and behaviors, allowing people to more rapidly process the situation’ (2001: ch. 2, para. 16). People can quickly distinguish a home from a church; they can consequently understand the meaning of those spaces and corresponding appropriate behavior. These conceptions of recognizable, physical environments are powerful in part because they are much more stable than the complex nature of human interaction and are particularly influential because they are easily accessed (Hart, 1979). (1047)
In particular, I found great significance in how these models allow people to ‘associate particular architectural forms with functions and behaviors, allowing them to more rapidly process the situation’. I am concerned with how these associations create a more efficient response system (as 99.9% of all our decision activity in any given day is immediate and reflexive), but this isn’t why I include this passage. It is more the beauty of these associations, how we so easily offload significance onto structure. We rever it. We imbue it with meaning. We allow it to govern our behavior. To take it down the literal path, we speak in hushed tones in church or any house of religious worship, we succumb to the relentless motion of a crowded train station and our legs fidget, we are conscious of our eyes and their gaze in packed subway cars. We allow the structure to govern our behavior. These structures are relatively stable and infinitely accessible and so it is a social and cultural touchstone, a revered spot on the tourist trail.
This relates to Alexander’s notion of Pattern Language in that we can all express, given the right framework and vocabulary, how we want structure to govern our behavior. Any community (of practice) with their toolkits and “their repertoire of shared processes” (Wenger) can communicate this need and craft their own structure. That is the participatory design process as I see it, a process of giving voice and agency to communities to craft their own structure. To rearrange their space and populate it with meaning. The more I read about this, the more I am beginning to understand that differentiating between learning design, architectural design, website design, is losing sight of the forest for the trees. All of it is learning design. All of it is about structure and space and significance and how we, as community members, might navigate this and make meaning for ourselves.