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Summarizing the Urban Tapestries Social Research:
Experimenting with Urban Space and ICTs

This social research has been designed and conducted by Professor Roger Silverstone and Zoe Sujon from the Media and Communications Department of the London School of Economics. The final report of this research is now available as a Media@LSE Electronic Working Paper. The aims and objectives of the social research, the methodology and key findings are summarized below.

This online summary is an excerpt of a much larger work and may not be used for commercial purposes or gain in any way. It may be cited using standard academic conventions (e.g. Silverstone, Roger; Sujon, Zoe. 2004. Summarizing the Urban Tapestries Social Research: Experimenting with Urban Space and ICTs.
Published on-line by Proboscis, URL:

Key words / Abstract / Key Research Goals / Aims and Objectives / Methods: Experimental Ethnography / Sample / Findings / Conclusion: Mapping Urban Experience / References

Three Respondents' Threads

social research threads

Key words:
Everyday life, place, urban space, social knowledge, communication, information and communication technologies, mobile technologies, location based applications, experimental ethnography, Bloomsbury

Urban Tapestries provides a mobile location-based platform to connect people with the places they inhabit through their stories, experiences and observations. Currently based on an 802.11b mesh network in the heart of London, ordinary people author their stories of the city and embed them in the places that inspire them. Others who are logged into the system can read these stories, author their own and engage the largely invisible, multidimensional layers accumulating in the city. Our research asks if people use UT in meaningful and interesting ways. Drawing from theories of everyday life and urban space, we have developed experimental ethnography as a method for investigating the relationships between communication technologies, users and the socio-geographic territories around them. Respondents are asked to play with an early Urban Tapestries proto-type and this research explores what they do, their technological identities, relationship to place and the meanings they generate. Urban Tapestries facilitates the negotiation of boundaries and does augment notions of connectivity – to place and to those within that place. However, our research revealed that some do not interpret this connectivity positively.

Key Research Goals:
1) to study emergent technologies in every day contexts
2) to observe how people use UT, including understanding:

  • "the kinds of relationships people have with the communication technologies in their every day lives, or what we have termed their technological identities"
  • the relationship between mobile technology, users and place
  • the kinds of content respondents create for UT and how this content may (or may not) relate to social and embedded knowledges
  • the social opportunities and costs associated with UT

Aims and Objectives
Ultimately, this research is about the kinds of interaction and relationships existing between our respondents, communication technologies and place. The Urban Tapestries (henceforth UT) social research targets how users respond to the early technological manifestation of UT. In this way, this explores the conceptual usability of UT, rather than conducting a usability trial. In other words, UT may be able to theoretically deepen people’s connection to urban spaces and facilitate new kinds of collaborative relationships, but does it? Perhaps more precisely, do respondents want it to? For this investigation, one of our central questions asks: do people use UT in meaningful and interesting ways? Related to this question are a series of sub-questions including: What do respondents do with UT? Can UT reveal how people negotiate and make meaning of their urban spaces? Drawing from these answers, we conclude with an overview of the social costs and opportunities attached to UT.
In order to address these questions, we have proposed ‘experimental ethnography’ as a provisional methodology involving a methodological triangulation of ethnography, interviews, a survey and a quasi-experiment. This research and the UT proto-type is based in central London’s Bloomsbury area. The small sample of nine individuals is a small yet diverse group of people with very different relationships to Bloomsbury. It is important to note that including individuals with a range of socio-economic backgrounds and relationships to technology generally was a central consideration when enlisting respondents.

This research aims to accomplish two things: first, to propose a set of methodological tools useful for looking at emerging technologies, and second to understand how individuals experiment with UT. Findings suggest that UT successfully augments our respondents’ relationship with Bloomsbury, but fails to convince many of them that this is a valuable or worthy asset.

Methods: Experimental Ethnography
We have proposed the term experimental ethnography in order to encapsulate the methodology we have developed for the research reported here. This is a methodology for tracing connections and change, as it happens, instead of as it is predicted. As such, experimental ethnography is not representative or generalizable, nor does it aim to be. Rather, we hope to situate the specificities of not just each respondent’s experience with UT, but their biographies, their social, cultural and geographic locatedness with their (non)responsiveness to UT. In this sense, experimental ethnography is an emerging method for understanding emergent socio-technical systems. One that is doubly experimental, as it were. In this respect the methodology was required to be oriented to the future. But it also needed to confront the socio-technical as a grounded phenomenon, grounded, that is, in the density of everyday life and the subtleties of individual biography. What makes this ethnography experimental is the juxtaposition of its aim to capture the relationship between present and future uses of technology, and the passage of that relationship, as it were, through the sieve of culture, biography and experience. It aims to capture the fluidity of technological change and the fuzziness of objects, machines and media as they feature in the daily round.

Four of our informants were Bloomsbury residents, two were regular commuters, two were occasional visitors and one was a tourist. Our final sample was comprised of a journalist, a labourer, a tourist, an executive, a public relations consultant, a student, a nurse, a security guard and a freelance writer. Respondents ranged in ages from 19 – 61, and came from a diverse range of socio-economic backgrounds. Respondents were contacted using a variation of traditional snowball sampling, drawing upon referrals from some team member’s, from local groups and also from some respondents. All respondents were interviewed individually, with the exception of one couple, Mandy and Stanley, who were interviewed together. All names of respondents have been changed in order to protect their anonymity and confidentiality.

Findings: Technology, social knowledge and community
Reiterating that our central research question asks, do people use UT in interesting and meaningful ways, it is important to note that, yes, some respondents did engage UT in interesting and meaningful ways. Despite some criticism about UT, all respondents agreed that the experience was an enjoyable one. As such, the findings are organized around four themes, namely, technological identity, place and public authoring, social knowledge, and lastly the role of UT in communicating place.

‘Technological identity’ is meant to capture not only how and what people consume, but also what their communication technologies – including other ICTs like the radio and the television in addition to computer and mobile technologies – mean to them on personal, social and functional levels. ‘Technological identity’ is not just about respondents’ skills and abilities; it is also about their experiences and extended relationship with their ICTs. Thus, the first cluster of findings indicate that people have complex relationships (like all relationships) with the communication technologies in their lives. Our respondents technological identities’ ranged from the neo-luddite to the wanna-be cyborg. Yet, each of these identities is neither static or fixed, and frequently respondents described contradictory perceptions of and relationships with ICTs. Uunsurprisingly, these identities influence and are influenced by each respondent’s social, economic, geographical and cultural context. The key features defining the relationships our respondents had with ICTs are the importance of control (or lack of it), socio-cultural contexts, expectation management, external or internal locus of control, and personal aesthetics.

The second theme sought to identify, through interviews and observation, the dynamics of an existing social space. Figure 1 (see below) maps the paths and pockets seven individuals and one couple wove during this research, exposing our respondent’s trajectories and their points of interest along the way. Rather than a top-down, one-to-many platform with content conceived and designed by some invisible producer, public authoring calls upon users’ and city dwellers’ experiences and individual knowledges to create the content of the system. Theoretically then, UT is about transforming abstractions into practices. In this sense, UT facilitates memory, association and connotation – all of which are experiences that theoretically, would enrich one’s relationships to and with local places. Yet, the question remains, does public authoring actually do these things for those using UT?

It is clear that respondents used UT in order to negotiate boundaries and mark their territories, stake claims and identify their personal preferences. Informants responded to UT by marking boundaries and rather surprisingly, introduced personal aesthetics or the customization of place through UT. For respondents, UT was about carving out the spaces that held some kind of personal relevance or had some individualized meaning. In this sense, public authoring promotes a sense of control not only over users’ territories, but also over their boundaries and their own role in those territories. Each thread shown in figure 1 (below) illustrates a customization of place, which implicitly, or explicitly trace who and what belongs (or doesn’t belong) to each customization – because in a sense, as Michael Bull argues, this kind of personalization indicates a claiming of territory akin to marking ownership (2000: 172-5). Thus, the navigational tactics (e.g. structured or meandering) respondents engaged are reflected in the above map. Respondents engage public authoring as a way of personalizing the aesthetics of their surroundings, and marking some of their socio-geographic interests on the digital surface of the city. Some respondents claimed that UT did at least marginally enrich their experience and perceptions of Bloomsbury.

Figure 1: Map of All Respondents’ Threads
social research map

Thirdly, Urban Tapestries translates social, or what Donna Haraway would call ‘embedded knowledge,’ into everyday life, in the form of place-based stories. By weaving these stories into a publicly accessible platform, UT provides a catalyst for other people to reveal their embedded knowledges and their ‘views from somewhere’ (Haraway 1996). Situated or ‘social knowledge’ opens up public space and categories of knowledge, not only to achieve greater social and cultural inclusivity, but also to understand unrecognized vocabularies, marginal signs and the meaning of unfamiliar habits. Respondents also produced exploratory threads, showing what kinds of public places could be friendly or interesting. This highlights the surprising number of commercial recommendations (i.e. “this place is great,” or “DO NOT eat here”) that respondents created. Recommendation systems, (e.g. e-Bay, or Friendster) suggest that peer based referral systems are a powerful source of social currency. A currency that is exchanged through the articulation of social and collective knowledge. Going back to notions of gossip and personal recommendations, UT may be a potentially powerful vehicle for the exchange of this kind of social currency.

The fourth cluster of findings is organized around the communication of place by, first, assessing the social costs and opportunities attached to UT, and second, by situating UT both in relation to its broader conceptual history and within a collection of similar projects.

UT resonated with respondents in widely varying degrees. Mandy’s view, that UT lacks practicality and a real purpose, for instance, was echoed in some way, by more than half of the participants as they claimed to be unwilling to use UT on their own time and in their own spaces. Aside from the nascent state of the proto-type, some of the key barriers included cost, social context, interest and connectivity. Connectivity, for our respondents, meant the connections one had to one’s surroundings, the connections people had to others and lastly, the connection between the respondent and the technology. Two respondents interpreted connectivity as highly desirable, two viewed is it as invasive and threatening, while the others regarded connectivity as generally neutral. Respondents continually brought up connotations of memory, of multiple versions of connectivity, control – whether control over or controlled by – and finally of play. Critics justified their scepticism by citing barriers like cost, risk, loss of control and lack of interest personally and at the level of their social networks. Whereas those who were more enthusiastic cited the increase of control, of connectivity, and of exploration to support their excitement.

Conceptually, projects like UT have a long intellectual history. For example, the international situationist practices of ‘‘derive’’ (Debord 1958) and ‘unitary urbanism’ (1959) illustrate a fascination with “spatial practices,” as de Certeau describes (1984). The recent emergence of a number of location-based projects touches upon what Meyrowitz (1985) has referred to as ‘no sense of place.’ The proliferation of such projects suggests that place occupies an important role in our ideational and socio-cultural framework. In contrast to losing our ‘sense of place,’ it appears as if those responsible for creating such projects are trying to capture the ephemera of place, and digitally ‘fix’ it to a larger framework. The conceptual history related to UT suggests that the search for a ‘sense of place’ is not necessarily new, yet UT articulates this search by reconfiguring socio-spatial relationships.

Conclusion: Mapping Urban Experiences
A number of issues have emerged during the course of the research and in our account of it in this report. Broadly speaking they concern the relationship between an individual, technology and social and cultural space and the possibilities for the enhancement of the quality of everyday life which many if not most technologies claim, but which few offer in any singular or uncontradictory sense. UT is a technology which embodies a whole range of possibilities, those that its designers have discussed and are attempting to facilitate in the design of the machine, and those too that they may not have envisaged clearly, if at all. These possibilities and their expectations are open and open-ended. Indeed it is the nature of UT, as of many of the latest generation of digital technologies, to provide ways of enhancing interactivity. Here it might be said that the ordinary sense of interactivity, that between persons, is being supplemented by an interactivity between person and space. Location is of its very essence.

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© 2004 Roger Silverstone, Zoe Sujon & the London School of Economics & Political Science.

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