November 17, 2005

Design Engaged and Symposium on Social Architecture

I got back home late Tuesday night from Design Engaged in Berlin and Symposium on Social Architecture in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Harvard. I had a deadline to meet by midnight Tuesday. Much of Wednesday was spent unbolding e-mail and getting essential replies out (more of this to do today) and unbolding my feed aggregator (1500+ things). I also spent time posting photos of the trip to Berlin (currently at 216 photos, possibly a few untagged).

Design Engaged

Design Engaged was somewhat different from last year's event in Amsterdam. It was still interacting with many of my favorite people, but it was a little larger, in a new space, in a new city (one I was not familiar with), and had a larger representation of women. All of these turned out good, but I felt a little more disconnected. The disconnection I think was attributable to an unfamiliar city, staying at a hotel away from where the sessions were, and not having most of the people staying at the same hotel. I tended to stick with those staying at my hotel, which was good for those relationships. But, part of this was tied to my unfamiliarity with the city.

This unfamiliarity changed for the better and I have learned something about myself, and that is all good. The unfamiliarity shifted to familiarity. I got to know some incredible people and spend time with people I knew, but now know much better. I got to know Berlin. I have not been to a completely new city that I had time alone in quite a while (Brussels last month was new to me, but I was with a large group I had become familiar with, I all were staying in the same hotel, and I had very little interaction with the city itself). My first impression of Berlin was good, nothing more and nothing less. This was formed on an outing to Potsdamerplaz and walking back through Mitte.

Part of the Design Engaged experience is interacting with the city. A group of us headed out to Friedrichshain, which was part of East Berlin and is not being torn up and made western to the degree that Mitte or Alexanderplaz have been and are going through. This was the perfect outing for me as I really wanted to understand East Berlin or get a flavor of what pre-unified Berlin was like. I was interested in the Soviet style architecture and the working neighborhoods. Why? They are something I do not understand and had not experienced. I was utterly thrilled with our exploration of the area, both on our own and with a local who life is in that neighborhood.

I also learned a fair amount about myself on the Berlin part of the trip. I use various supports to explore that which is new. I use friends to guide in new surroundings and meet new people. Familiar surroundings to best embrace new people and expand my knowledge of the surroundings. I learned that having much new causes me to fall into an observation mode and a little less interactive. There are people I really wanted to get to know better and spend more time with. I tended to spend time with the people I already know well, in part to catch-up and get to know better. I also spent a lot of transit time trying to take in as much of my surroundings as possible. Understanding the lay of the land, the flavor of the neighborhood, trying to glimpse what the neighborhood was, what that neighborhood is becoming, and the expression of the people who live in and move through that area. The architecture, design layers (planned and emergent layers -- painted and overlayed), traffic patterns, lines of sight, etc. are all important components to understanding the people, their interests, and indicators of importance. Digging through the international layers (Starbucks (particularly behind the Brandenburg Gates is problematic), Duncan Doughnuts, American brand advertising, and global mass produced products), which in my opinion are disruptive to the local culture.

After returning home I know I have a much better understanding of Berlin and it is a city I would love to return to so to spend more time and explore. Now that I have a foundation of understanding I am ready to drink in more. I also realized that observation limited my getting to know others better than I would have liked. Ever single person at Design Engaged this year was utterly fantastic. It is a very special group of people. There are no egos. There are no agendas. There are people who love sharing, learning, embracing, and exploring. This is something very special and something very different from most any other gathering. Part of it is the event is not about certainty, but exploration, asking questions, listening, and growing all in a shared experience. Unfortunately I am more ready to engage others and interact now that I am home, but hopefully there will be more time.

Symposium on Social Architecture

Counter to the Design Engaged the Symposium on Social Architecture was in a somewhat familiar place, but I only knew a few people prior. I knew many from digital interaction, but personal "in place" interactions were limited. There were more people who knew of me, than I knew of prior. I was continually having to put people in context of digital and idea spaces (some of this is now connecting). I had somewhat slept much of the journey from Berlin to Boston (transferring in Washington, DC) so I was not really dealing with jet lag. On the first night there was a reception at the Harvard Faculty Club and I met many fantastic people. I noticed there was a fair amount of clustering by gender, which was bothersome as there were a few women I wanted to chat with, but I found some very good discussions in the men's clusters and did not break free. There are many women whose work I find insanely helpful and wanted to say thanks and engage in some longer conversations.

The symposium was utterly fantastic. Every session had something I really enjoyed and there was a lot of reassurance of my own understandings and directions. I am not as fully engaged in the social software realm as I would like as it is an insanely important component of how we do things on the internet and it is growing ever more important. Much of my work discusses the Local InfoCloud as an intersection with the Personal Infocloud.

I have a lot of notes from the day (but more complete notes will be expressed in a later posting). I heard a lot of mention of local (closeness drawn through interconnection in social contexts), which was a reinforcement of my understanding as well as the language (or problems with the language) I have been dealing with at times. I heard a lot of discussion of all current social software is simple software, as it is easy to understand what the value is and the barrier to entry is a relatively painless in comparison to the reward received in the perceived value. Many also discussed building tools that got out of the way, they just let people interact. This was explicitly stated by Tina Sharkey of AOL, which made me very happy as it was a large social portal that expressed they understood what to do and have done it. It is not the tool that is important, so much as it is the social interactions that are the key. The tools should be a platform for connecting and communicating not for controlling.

I also met one of the people responsible for Steve, The Art Museum Community Cataloging Project, which could be the most important folksonomy and tagging endeavor that is ongoing. The importance is in part their work, but the research into tagging and folksonomy is insanely helpful and seems to be the best work out there at the moment. The work proves the strong positive significance that tagging and folksonomy plays in connecting people to objects and information. Having the world framed in a language or vocabulary is incredibly helpful and that is not often a result of formal taxonomies as they tend to optimize toward the norms and not embrace the edges. I will be writing about Steve more in the future, but I was so excited to meet somebody tied to the project so I could have more conversations and learn what they have found to be helpful and not so helpful.

The panel on politics and social software, particularly in relation to Katrina, was great. It highlighted the problems with politicians and their lack of understanding technology that could better connect them to their constituents, but also technology that could better enable solutions and resolution for their constituencies. I was completely moved by this panel.

The piece I had disappointment in was the closing. Er, the closing was Stowe Boyd interviewing me about what I found of interest from the day and what I would take home. Stowe asked the perfect questions, but I learned something about myself, I framed my responses literally and too personally. I let myself down in the responses as they were too general and did not capture the whole of what I got from the day nor the strong themes I noted. I was still taking in the politics panel and re-digesting the day based on that context. When I get a new perspective or new information I run the world I perceive through that lens and adjust accordingly and then emerge with a slightly reshaped or more inclusive framework. I think my closing remarks were poor, because I was integrating the last panel into my understandings. The rest of the day went largely as I expected, but the wonderful politics panel disrupted me in a positive manner. I apologize for the poor closing observations. For me it was the poorest part of a great event.



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