February 1997

Root Page of Article: Balancing the Global Through the Local, by Leslie Regan Shade

Our Will To Virtuality

Through several case studies, Doheny-Farina examines our current will to virtuality and the changing conceptions of public space. In his chapter on "Virtual Vermont" he examines how the Internet is allowing regional food enterprises to advertise their products globally. However, rather than increase regional use of these products, local food production is paradoxically hindered.

He also examines MediaMOO, a professional community for media researchers. designed by Mitchel Resnick and Amy Bruckman of MIT's Media Lab.

Doheny-Farina looks at the claims made by many that MUDs and MOOs can become another "third place." The idea that cyberspace is a "third place" reached popular accord because of Ray Oldenburg's work. In The Great Good Place. Oldenburg wrote that there are three essential places in people's lives: the place we live, the place we work, and the place we gather for conviviality (clubs, pubs, bars, sports events). The latter he dubs "third places." To Oldenburg, third places typically exist on neutral ground, serving as a hierarchical leveler, where participants are treated equally. Within these third places, conversation is the main activity and the major way for human individuality to be expressed. Third places tend to be taken for granted and most have a low profile; their character is determined by its regular clientele and is marked by a relaxed mood, contrasting with more serious work environments.

However, Doheny-Farina concluded that, despite the best intentions of many MOO designers, "third places are not about the abstract camaraderie of a MOO," and he likens a MOO to an airport bar: "it may have bartenders, it may serve drinks, it may even have a brass rail and a piano, but most connections among its clientele are fleeting and its purpose is primarily to offer momentary gratification to transient individuals." (p. 72)

Doheny-Farina raises some salient points. How can virtual environments be built to enhance, rather than alienate, community? How can accountability be built into virtual systems? For instance, do anonymous identities detract from creating relationships? How can the sense of community memory be retained?

One way is to put the design process into the hands of the users. In an article on MediaMoo, Bruckman and Resnick wrote that "If the power of this technology is to be unleashed, users need to be the creators and not merely consumers of virtual worlds. We believe that constructionist principles are of central importance to the design of virtual reality systems."

Likewise, participatory design (PD) is an approach towards computer systems design that integrates the users of the computer systems into the initial design and deployment of the technologies. PD efforts first took place in Europe, particularly in the Scandinavian countries, and were encouraged by labor unions.

Doheny-Farina also considers the impact of digital technologies on the workplace and in the school. Given the shift toward the redomestication of many forms of work, he asks whether or not telecommuting is really enhancing the quality of our everyday lives, or is creating more (and different) stresses. What happens to family dynamics when the workplace and the household intermingle? Is it only knowledge work that can allow for greater autonomy when it becomes nomadic? Likewise, what sorts of communities and students will distance education serve? Doheny-Farina writes that "the gaps between the educational have's and the have-nots will widen, not decrease, with increased net access. Ironically, when we talk nowadays about educational have-nots, we are talking about schools and students who have no access to the net. As the net becomes ubiquitous, the real problem will be limited access to face-to-face teaching and learning environments." (p.116)

Whither Traditional Communities? | Our Will to Virtuality | -Public Space | Community Networking

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