Architectural Remediation of Our Digital Life
From Nov. 19-22 I had the great fortune to attend the Media Architecture Biennale (MAB2014) in Aarhus, Denmark on behalf of CyclePhilly - a finalist for an award in participatory architecture and urban interaction. In the end, the award went to this very deserving project but I found myself fortunate to be rewarded in many other ways.
Though I had little exposure to media architecture prior to the conference, MAB2014 provided a quick and effective introduction to the field. Media architecture, at its core, constitutes a celebration of artists, designers, technologists, intellectuals, academics, architects and others striving to improve civic life by building things that facilitate social interaction. As someone who hopes to do the same as a Code for Philly volunteer, I felt quite comfortable in their company.
Given the proliferation of smartphones, social media, and various devices, it is becoming harder and harder for people to make real connections with their living environments and communities. Media architects are individuals who care very deeply and thoughtfully about how buildings, facades, concert halls, transportation hubs and even power plants, might be used not only for their traditional functions, but to remind us of our humanity. Media architecture, therefore, has great potential to detach us from our dependence on our digital devices by inspiring us to look up and around at our surroundings and neighbors instead of down at our digital devices.
Although media architecture can help us all overcome our ultra-connected disconnectedness, such a feat could only be accomplished if its builders act with purpose. As keynote speaker, Adam Greenfield underscored in his presentation, building digital things inherently destroys or compromises the non-digital natural environment - put simply you cannot build a media facade without emitting gas and other harmful substances into the atmosphere and generally consuming raw materials. Therefore, it is imperative that even our beautiful and inspiring digital monuments and even our digital products be built with not only with purpose and meaning but, in my mind, a focus on truly, physically and tangibly connecting us to one another in more profound ways than ever.
While there is no prescription or process for building products that are not only beautiful but meaningful, a good way to start is by building things that solve real problems. There were some good examples of projects that did this at MAB2014 like this one that mapped Nairobi's transportation infrastructure. Projects like this are effective not only because they were technologically impressive but also because they identified and addressed an unmet need.
In the past three years I have been exploring user experience design, I have relied on Nielsen and Norman's definition of it, stating that UX encompasses "all aspects of a user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products." Like so many other user-centered products, media architecture would benefit from a user experience design process and, conversely, as our connectedness expands to the city scale, user experience design might benefit from expanding its definition to "all aspects of a user's interaction with a City, company, their services, and their products." Thus, defining the problem, building with purpose and solving an unmet need must be the starting points for any project, media architecture projects included, if we are to redefine the way we live and interact with one another.