In its broadest sense, this research investigates how one should design the physical environment for the contemporary subject of the Digital Era. The ease and immediacy with which one can access the preponderance of information available through digital and electronic media has complicated the development and understanding of self-identity in popular culture, and by correlation how one engages with society. The significance of the public institution as a center for information exchange and civic engagement has diminished in favor of new media , which has become a staple at home and is trending increasingly mobile.

While architectural investigations of the past two decades contemplate the formal possibilities of digital technology and the affects of new media on physical objects, few architectural proposals consider how the proliferation of these media and technologies directly affect the subject in society. This project rethinks the design of the contemporary upper school as a model for considering the affects of new media on individual and community interaction, the dissemination of information and the evolution (dissolution?) of public institutions.

This thesis challenges contemporary formulations of identity and societal engagement in an age increasingly dominated by the proliferation of digital and electronic information and interaction through the proposition of an architecture which fosters critical awareness of the (re)presentations of actuality in new media and directs critical engagement between the new subject of the digital era and the public sphere.

My complete thesis preparation document can be viewed here: Rethinking the Contemporary School

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Constructing Identity

Interaction through new media and extraordinary information flows through new technologies have complicated the development and understanding of self-identity in popular culture. Studies show “the growing salience of networked publics in young people’s everyday lives is an important change in what constitutes the social groups and publics that structure young people’s learning and identity.” Participation in the networked publics of new media allows individuals to learn about other cultures, explore interests, and challenge personal ideologies. The availability and accessibility “of multiple forms of media, in diverse contexts of everyday life, means that media content is increasingly central to everyday communication and identity construction. Mizuko Ito uses the term ‘hypersocial’ to define the process through which young people use specific media as tokens of identity, taste, and style to negotiate their sense of self in relation to their peers.”

New media, especially web based applications, offers unconstrained access to information and encourages discussion amongst citizens as the foundation for political opinion formation. However, the abundance of information and the ability of anyone to contribute it makes different scenarios of ‘truth’ plausible; “details can be reconfigured, reinstalled in settings to produce any number of virtual realities. Statistics can be offered to support most anything we like.” If we are looking for it we can find it. Applications are increasingly deployed to leverage user profiles and usage patterns in order to help individuals ‘navigate’ towards similar types of information. Consequently, existing ideologies and interests can be solidified without ever being questioned. Although such applications creates an ease and immediacy to acquiring information that most users enjoy, they perpetuates a reflexive process of information gathering which effectively narrows the construction of individual and collective identity.

The instant speed of information flows and the contemporary generations ‘always on’ attitude leaves little time for self-reflection and doubt. Interaction characterized by physical contact, before the advent of electric and digital technologies, was slow and inherently limited by local boundaries that were difficult to reach beyond; therefore, interaction was generally self-reinforcing. The development of new technology and media has eradicated those boundaries and creates the opportunity for individuals to follow new interests and learn about different cultures. The instantaneous nature of information acquisition through new media, however, makes it much easier to pursue personal gratification without examining the consequences, which can diminish the opportunity for chance encounters. The orientation of digital technology towards transparency and immediacy might produce a social space of perpetual customization and hyper-commodification rather than one of informative contact and contradiction. While digital technology might promise diverse information flows, the manner in which the uncritical user accesses that information might be leading him down a more specific, homogenous road.

The new generation growing up with the television and new media “becomes a new kind of citizen, a citizen of the global village in which social responsibility and involvement in everyone else’s life is both necessary and unavoidable because of the disseminating effects of global media systems.” Whereas children used to learn things through physical interaction in parks and other public spaces, they are now gaining “knowledge and experience” through encounters mediated by digital and electronic technology. “Information and ideas from the media do not merely reflect the social world… but contribute to its shape and are central to modern reflexivity.” The television news media in particular, establishes a distance, yet closeness between the viewer, the commentator and the events, because it only transmits information in one direction. The television commentator ‘educates’ the viewer but deprives him the opportunity to say something and disagree. In this sense, the viewing audience become ‘armchair imperialists;’ they sit back and watch (represented) history free from necessary response or responsibility, and often take pleasure in the ‘knowledge’ they obtain and in their sense of becoming ‘knowledgeable.’

New media provide platforms for individuals to construct unique, personal identities, and continue social relations with intimate friends and new acquaintances all hours of the day. Results from the MacArthur Foundation’s Living and Learning with New Media study suggests that “Youths’ on-line activity largely replicates their existing practices of hanging out and communicating with friends, but the characteristics of networked publics do create new kinds of opportunities for youth to connect, communicate, and develop their public identities… Through participation in social network sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo (among others) as well as instant and text messaging, young people are constructing new social norms and forms of media literacy in networked public culture that reflect the enhanced role of media in their lives… The ability to download videos and browse sites such as YouTube means that youth can view media at times and in locations that are convenient and social, providing they have access to high-speed Internet. These practices have become part and parcel of sociability in youth culture and, in turn, central to identity for-mation among youth.”

While these media applications promote self-exploration through social activity online, the virtual identities participants construct are always dictated by the structure and confines of the medium itself. While the identities individuals construct in the physical world are dictated by similar contextual structures, the digital interface allows for enhanced control by the media, and the applications’ tools for describing these identities are much more limiting. We construct narratives of the self, and the media helps us to formulate these narratives, in terms of both media content and structure. It is rare, however, that people question the structures whereby these media control identity construction. Contemporary individuals create multiple identities, virtual and physical, through platforms that allow them at any given moment to be how they would like to appear to others. New media blur the boundaries between real and virtual, fact and fiction, private and public. “In place of the unexpected and the unanticipated is the highly controlled vision imposed by a master director… This contrast highlights the tension which has shadowed the roll-out of digital technology from the beginning in all domains, as its capacity for decentralization is matched at every step by capacity for enhanced control.”

Consumers demand the latest digital products without considering the larger implications of how they dictate interaction in society. “In an era in which media have become mobile, ubiquitous and personalized, technology and person have merged, and this merging is fast becoming taken for granted.” Individuals in contemporary society are increasingly communicating through digital devices rather than physical interaction. We must examine the effects this has on the individual’s understanding of emotion and confrontation, and how he situates himself within the world and its events. As Nicholas Negroponte describes, the digital age has very powerful characteristics of decentralization, globalization, harmonization, and empowerment. These characteristics, however, are not grounds for replacing the physical environment with digital environments. The physical world is not going away anytime soon. We must be more critical of how both environments effect interaction in contemporary society, and designers must learn how to strategically and intelligently leverage new media in the physical world.

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