Put a Door on the Internet
Paper commissioned by RMIT Key Centre for Design 1995
Design parameters for linking information technology to environmental sustainability
What is the event that one day triggers the change of attitude, away from the private consumption of goods to the shared use of resources? Today, the Internet promises such a paradigm shift in consumerism. Can we keep the digital revolution to its promise?
The purpose of this chapter is to examine the role that design plays in forging the link between the Internet and environmental sustainability. The global computer network known as the Internet, incorporating World Wide Web, email and online conferences, promises to reduce our dependence on hard media, such as paper and planes. In design terms, this is a mixed blessing. While this abstraction serves the cause of sustainability, it also invalidates familiar design parameters, grounded as they are on the presence of a body in space.
The challenge is thus to design an information space where individuals feel comfortable enough to exchange feelings, ideas and resources with each other. In order to identify design parameters that are relevant to this electronic communal space, this chapter surveys Australian community networks that have evolved in the Internet. First, I need to clarify this proposed link between information technology and environmental sustainability.
La rete siete voi!
La rete siete voi or You are the network is the slogan for the Milan community network (Rete Civica di Milano) established in 1994. Such would be a fitting catchcry for the digital revolution, itself, with its emphasis on shared resources and fear of re-inventing the wheel.
Just as fragments of a hologram contain within themselves the image of the whole, so the individualistic paradigm of Western identity assumed that society is replicated within every single person. The emergence of distributed computing corresponds to a tidal change in identity where matters are increasingly dealt with in a collective mode.
According to many, this insect-like society is our future destiny. The editor of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly, prophesises the advent of a `hive mind, representing the kinds of collective intelligence made available through networked environments. This ability to capitalise on group experience is presented as the singular engine of technological evolution in our era. Such is the verdict of software designers Leebaert and Welty:
Of course, Newton attained the greatest single intellectual feat of man by working alone in candlelight with a quill pen. Leibniz could add to the wonders of knowledge by travelling in solitary coaches along the washboard roads of the Holy Roman Empire. What even they could not achieve was the effortless mobilization of lesser intellects. And that is the hope of an ever more nearly seamless work of knowledge.
The world before networks appears a strange place of atomised individuals, each zealously guarding their horde of knowledge. By contrast, the latest digital phase of the information revolution liberates knowledge for the masses, figuring that the sum is greater than its individual parts.
This popular movement carries with it utopian hopes of a convergence between human desire and the natural world. Voices of the 1960s, such as John Perry Barlow, are finding new sources of hope:
I find it hard to believe that the current explosion of digital technology, which seems to be about connecting everything to everything else, will do anything but pump energy into the space where the virtues live. Given new tissue of glass and electricity to bridge the danger zone between bodies, the old deserts of physical separateness may fill with a psychic rain forest of global interaction.
The conflation of New Age nature workshop and digital technologies may be too rich for most tastes, but visions such as Barlow's do serve to raise expectations. As La Rochefoucauld wrote, Hope, deceitful as it is, serves at least to lead us to the end of our lives by an agreeable route. It is up to a more cynical culture, such as Australias, to provide the grain of salt necessary to digest this pudding. The Info-Eco movement is an attempt to ground these fantasies in practical reality.
Milanese designer Ezio Manzini leads a movement that brings economy and environment into convergence. The micro-economic efficiencies of electronic forms of exchange set the stage for less environmentally damaging forms of production. Manzinis approach extends the re-engineering process beyond management reform to ecological change. What Manzini proposes is a deep re-engineering of the material logic of production. He claims at a Doors of Perception conference in 1996:
companies must consider themselves as manufacturers of 'results' rather than of products (and thus think of mobility, rather than of cars; of cleaning garments, rather than of washing machines)
The move from product to process is a conceptual transformation confluent with the technological shift from manufacturing to software. For instance, the new deal for the transport industry is the development of networking software, not freight movement.
Re-engineering passes on to ecological interests the empowering milk of collectivism. Manzini comes to the core issue of this chapter:
new technologies have made it possible to manage collective use, optimising the advantages and reducing the difficulties. In fact, it is possible to observe some interesting cases of new collective uses: from car pooling or sharing, to mention some now known and consolidated cases, to the proposal of washing centres or collective kitchens organised in the form of clubs.
The hypothesis is optimistic: with the evolution of new collective forms of identity comes a decreased attachment to private ownership.
The holographic self is culpable of the excesses of consumerism. The need to own a private car is one such indulgence, but there are others such as personal libraries, souvenirs and sequestered gardens. The ability to work and think collectively provides one of the most important means by which environmentally advantageous savings of material and energy might be possible.
However, the very logic of this argument can turn against itself. The vision of a tidal change instils a false confidence in the inevitability of environmental progress. At this point, we need more than a pinch of salt. Lets step back from the dewy-eyed vision and consider the dangers lurking in the shadows.
It is unlikely that, left to its own devices, history will kindly arrange for a better world. Indeed, the notion that technology by itself will solve problems is one of the primary problems. Such Stalinist thinking gives all power to technocrats and denies that active participation in decision-making is essential to the working of society.
Take, for instance, the emergence of electronic newspapers. Previously, the physical limits of paper distribution meant that local newspapers had a natural advantage over better resourced publications overseas. In an online environment, the best newspapers of the world can be accessed day of publication and cheaply, if not for free. This by itself is not an inevitable good. Consider three different spins on electronic newspapers.
Freedom of information (better)
Electronic newspapers increase the diversity of information available to a community. This bolsters the freedom of the press and reduces the possibility of a politically controlled media. As the world's cameras paved a way for democratic change during the 1989 velvet revolution, so electronic news media today offer a mouthpiece for the popular voice. Information wants to be free and a globalised news service offers more avenues for its expression than the finite set of local outlets, often controlled by powerful interests.
Information is the army of a democratic revolution.
Standardisation of information (worse)
Media globalisation reduces the power of local decision-making. Forces of American capitalism, such as McDonalds and Hollywood, make further inroads into the hearts and wallets of other populations. Australian children are now just as likely to barrack for the Chicago Bulls as the Sydney Swans. Local newspapers just cannot compete with the massed resources of global media distributors and the sources of information become increasingly distant from the tangible concerns of its consumers. Reading the New York Times in the morning, Australians will be more interested in the latest Spielberg movie than the pollution in a local creek, if they were ever to find out about it.
Information is an acid that wears down social structures.
The more things change (same)
Just as desktop publishing actually increased the office consumption of paper, electronic newspapers will make little impact on local media. They will take their share of the audience from television, rather than other print media. Once the initial thrill of global access has passed, practical concerns re-surface. Did last nights storm cause any damage? Will the car manufacturing plant be closed down? City dwellers still prefer to have their own news, linked to events that they can participate in, and on paper that they can wrap their fish and chips in.
Information is the champagne of capitalisma convivial relief from hard edge realities.
Better, worse or samethe digital revolution provides the tools, it does not direct their use. As a general principle, it could be argued that new technologies are best applied when they involve the people who might use them.
Principles of community network design
Design plays a critical role in staking territory on Internet for the formation of community networks. Though the principles of that design are still evolving, early attempts provide a useful means of identifying them. Within Australia, most attempts to foster a new community identity online come from local government. Well examine three of these and contrast them with an online initiative by a remote Aboriginal township in Arnhem Land.
Need for content
The Queensland town of Ipswich was one of the first councils to construct an online network for its residents. Its Global Info-links site was launched in February 1995 with a statement from the council CEO, which introduces its web pages. He identifies the network as one of the most powerful tools in the toolbox for realising a mission
to enhance the lifestyle of the community of the diverse modern City of Ipswich and the central business district's leadership role as the key strategic regional centre of the western growth corridor of South East Queensland.
As a community forum, the Global Info-links offers no formal space for exchange between individuals. A page for Community Groups and Community Spirit contains a bare list of linksmostly to welfare services. By contrast, the list of home pages demonstrates a lively use of the service for individual expression (over three hundred entries).
Global Info-links is more an outlet for local government than the catalyst for collectively inspired action. Yet, despite its lack of design logic, the placement of Global Info-links in a community with high unemployment demonstrates the strategic role of online networks in providing a sphere of expression outside normal work venues.
It is important to recognise that, in its bare state, the concept of community is very much a bureaucratic construction. To engage real people requires finer tuning: in relating to everyone, a community page relates to no one.
Design parameter #1: the space for individuals to enter.
Reason to visit
A more interactive relationship between council and residents is trialed in the Moira Shire of northern Victoria. The Moira Shire site includes a Virtual Council designed to facilitate citizen involvement in the process of local decision-making. By registering with username and password, citizens can read and contribute messages on issues of concern.
Though details and images of councillors feature prominently, it is difficult to imagine citizens feeling comfortable enough to discuss local issues here. The consultants strategy focuses on the advantages on remoteness:
I think the natural desire for face-to-face contact is often overstated. A lot of people feel more comfortable with writing a message, particularly when you can retain a bit of anonymity. For example, if you look at the Letters to the Editor in the paper every morning, there are often emotional letters from people writing about their strongly held views.
In its first five months of operation, the Virtual Council had attracted only sixteen members, who between them had generated one message.
Reasons for this bashfulness could be beyond design: such a paradigm shift in political behaviour may take time to become popular, or it may be foundering on endemic political apathy. Given these factors, the site falls into trap of assuming that there are floodgates of community participation just waiting to be opened. Participation needs encouragement, coaxing, even instruction. Why should anyone write a message to the virtual council when there is no identifiable audience for its deliberations? Even the title Virtual Council suggests a karaoke democracy.
If visitors did want to participate, what might their contributions be? At the beginning, the web designer may need to orchestrate suggested issues for discussion. The successful community network in Milan allows visitors to establish their own discussion areas, and these lead to parties where online entities can gather offline. Such trajectories need to be established before visitors will consider it worth their while engaging with the site.
Design parameter #2: the rationale for participation.
Medium is the message
A more elaborate attempt to involve the community in a large local network is proceeding in Melbourne with the group named Virtual Moreland. This project evolved out of a meeting of commercial (Oracle Networking) and local (State MP) interests, each sharing the aim of developing a new sense of community through computer networks. A database server that customised formats for different groups, particularly in non-English languages and scripts, is planned to provide this.
Efficiency is the primary logic. One of its business objectives, for instance, is to develop a "packaged solution" which can be rolled out to other communities across Victoria and throughout Australia. The second is to educate and empower the local community to fully leverage the potential of electronic commerce, interactive multimedia and the Internet for the benefit of the local community. The Oracle Systems vision of the networked society is served by even non-commercial uses of Internet services, as long as a broad public becomes accustomed to doing its business online.
Virtual Moreland offers a preview of what better-resourced council networks might look like the in the future. A variety of community groups will be housed on a common database, accessed through a standardised interface. Special provision will be made for any non-English languages and links will be forged with sister communities in the electronic diaspora. The local Pontian descendants can put together a picture of themselves in their Greek language that links to kin elsewhere. On the one hand, the home page will testify to diversity within the community, but on the other hand, it will be easier to avoid contact between local groups once they have easy access to fellow members elsewhere.
The salt level for Virtual Moreland is particularly high in the formal structure required to house this community database. While the official status associated with inclusion will appeal to these groups, their front door will be standardised. Though Virtual Moreland is the most sophisticated example of community networking currently in development, it is still limited by the official map of interest groups. Other uses of networksfor bartering, car pooling and street actionare not in the plan.
Design parameter 3#: the degree of participant control over site
At this stage of development, what these various community networks share is a remote relationship between server and client. Even the Virtual Moreland project dwells initially on brokering partnerships with organisations that represent others, such as community networks and councils. As sites like GeoCities demonstrate, it is possible to simulate a sense of community, but the potential effect of this on the disposition to share resources is minimal.
In case this becomes a sedimented reality, it is important to consider alternative ways of establishing community access to the Internet. More immediate forms of involvement are possible in remote areas, such as the Maningrida township in the top end of Australia.
Located on the coast of Arnhem Land, Maningrida is a melting pot of different communities. Eight separate languages are spoken in a population around a thousand people. Despite problems with alcohol and health, the township has shown an ability to work together to solve its own problems.
The name Maningrida comes from the local expression when the dreaming changed shape. It was established initially in 1949 as a trading post to lure the local Yolngu people away from the bright lights of Darwin so that they would remain on their own lands. And since 1972, a homeland movement has emerged to encourage residents of Maningrida to return to their outstations and traditional ways. Today Maningrida combines a strength in traditional craftstheir weavings tour the art galleries of Australiawith newest of technologies (they were the first Aboriginal community to go online).
Among the Aboriginal groups is a small but prominent group of non-indigenous Australians, known in Arnhem Land as Balanda. The word is borrowed from the Macassan Indonesians who traded with the Yolngu before Europeans arrived (they spoke of all white people as Hollanders). Exempt from the violent history characteristic of Aboriginal settlements, Maningrida has attracted a parade of curious Balanda, each with their own recording devices. Photographers Donald Thomson and Axel Poignant both produced substantial collections of imagesnow used today as a record of ancestors.
Some Balanda are Japanese. National Museum of Ethnology of Osaka exchanges technical knowledge for anthropological privileges. They first introduced computing with a PC database used for stocktaking automobile parts in the workshop. With further encouragement, the Arts Centre applied for a PC and later acquired a set of Macintosh computers. According to visiting anthropologist, Shigenobu Sugito, the nonlinear format of a GUI interface was more intuitively accessible to Aboriginal workers than the linear data entry demanded by DOS-based systems.
Multimedia itself was introduced through more traditional avenues. Arising from earlier contact with Macassan traders, Yolngu ceremonial life features a special event called Rom in which one group delivers a decorated object to another, accompanied by an elaborate dance ritual. In 1995, Yolngu travelled to Canberra and performed a Rom for AIATSIS. In return, they were given a CD-ROM version of the Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia with a Macintosh to play it. Capitalising on the linguistic coincidence, it was called a Rom for Rom deal.
Maningridas introduction to the Internet came thanks to a Melbourne linguist who was working on a project to digitise rock art onto a CD-ROM database. She had brought with her a modem for personal use and decided to open a virtual window on this remote community. Margaret Carew describes how she explained the Internet to Peter Danaja, Aboriginal Heritage Officer.
One day I drew a diagram of computer servers in geographical locations, over the top of a rough map of the world. It showed how all the computers were linked to all the other computers. A message sent from one computer to another could follow any of many pathways, eventually ending up at its destination. Peter said thats just like us He provided a Burarra phrase which means network: jarlakarr gun-murra. Literally, this means a cluster of many roads.
The sale of art works, such as didgeridoos and baskets, provides a source of income that supports traditional lifestyles. The main audience for this work had previously been visitors to Maningrida, inspired by their contact with the community. Not wishing to open Maningrida up to tourists, it was felt useful to convey the context of the works on an Internet site designed to market their wares. Though at the moment sales only cover costs, they have direct access to international collectors.
Peter Danaja now answers email from around the world, mostly about Aboriginal matters. Rather than concentrating communication in one central location, Peter sees email reinforcing the outstation movement: I wouldnt have to come in and use everything here [Maningrida], I could just use everything out in the bush.
The Maningrida site has touches of intimacy that contrast with the cold Balanda community networks. A photo of the council chairperson smiles at new arrivals to the nominal Maningrida: `Hello country-men and friends, signalling that this site is not for surfers. All too often, web design overlooks this basic element of online worlds: the need welcome visitors at the threshold, just as one would in ordinary life.
Clicking through the links, we find information about the outstations, local rock art and an opportunity to purchase local crafts. The details are perfunctory (administrative data such as airstrips and names of senior men) but this as much as anything conveys the stripped-back lifestyle in Maningrida.
Design parameter #4: Reception for participants
Theres still a grain of salt to be found. For all its rudimentary charm, the Maningrida web site does not directly service its immediate community. It is designed primarily for Balanda, who are encouraged to learn about Maningrida and to feel motivated to buy their wares. Stimulated by such a fresh approach, we are tempted to wonder what a web site for Aboriginal people might look like?
Remarkably, students at the Maningrida Education Centre are charged not only with learning to read, they are also involved in producing their own corpus of literature. Given the variety of unique languages in Maningrida, the school has to supply its own reading material. Until recently, the only printed book was the Bible, which had been translated into Bararra (the dominant language of Maningrida). Besides desktop publishing, the Literature Production Unit creates talking books using the Macintosh Hypercard program. These multimedia narratives result from plays that are staged by students during school outings. The immediacy of digital cameras and electronic publication facilitates their participation.
The Internet promises to enhance this involvement. It offers a relatively transparent form of publication that can be accessed through the schools in the area. In August 1996, a pilot web-site was developed for Ji-Bena, one of the outstations. Participation at the broadest level was critical to its success.
It is a general rule of Yolngu public life that all groups are made to feel included. For instance, organisers of a weekend-long Christian rally took great pains to have the chorus of every song performed in each of the eight languages. This attention to detail is part of a ceremonial culture, in which the elaborate preparations taken for the final event oftenovershadow the event itself.
With this in mind, material for the web-site was collected in one day from each of the dozen residents of Ji-Bena. What emerged was a layering of different maps: a traditional bark painting (derrka) demonstrated the dreaming of the area (in which a turtle disappears under dry land); an aerial photograph shows the outstation houses in a form familiar to residents who often fly over; and a standard map puts the outstation in the context of Arnhem Land as a whole. Particular needs of residents link these layers together. The mode of operation is to click on a house, find the resident, listen to their request and search for what is needed (e.g., goanna for eating, wood for spears, Art Centre for weavings). Layers of reality are thus revealed as they relate to the daily concerns of the population.
The ultimate success of this pilot is still to be judged. What is apparent from the process is the ease with which such a project it could be completed. There, at hand, is every member of the community, able to contribute something of their lives to this electronic hyper-map. Such, perhaps, is the luxury of stable networks, in contrast to the flux of organisational life that occurs in todays cities.
Nonetheless, as one of many different forms of community representation, this quotidian cartography creates a collective space in which individuals can locate themselves. As a wired version of quilting, it offers a loose but shared structure for the expression of difference. Unlike the more sophisticated database templates, however, it relies very much on the creative input of participants. Its not simply a matter of filling out a form, it requires taking stock of ones locale.
Of course, such interventions into Aboriginal community are easy targets for cultural critics. Technology appears on a white charger to rescue traditional knowledge from the entropic forces of modernity and thus save an Aboriginal community. But such enterprises take as much as they give. They take a realisation that information has symbolic as well as practical purposes, and that it need not be processed through data mills in order to have meaning to those who consume it.
Design parameter #5: need for the individual expertise of participants
The principal design challenge posed by community computer networks is not so much the absence of body cues, but the blank slate of social space. It is evident that for any bonding between new technology and community life, some link has to be made with nascent forms of collective participation. Across time, collective ritual has taken diverse forms, including dance, war, sport and parades. What these events share is the construction of a spectacle, whether live or enduring, for the benefit of some other, whether neighbouring tribe, leader or god.
Immediately, one of the problems with the online world becomes apparent. It lacks what Sartre calls the third-partya symbolic realm that transcends individual relationships. At its most obvious, the traditions of a wedding ceremony provide the context in which a marriage couple bonds. By contrast, online worlds such as MUDs harbour social cocoons that are remote from any other groups. The deterritorialisation of cyberspace means that neighbours are no longer joined in the common business of maintaining the fences that separate them. A Croatian nationalist group does not have to confront the fact that its HTML files sit in the same hard disk as a hardline Serbian club.
It is too soon to establish the implications of such unworldly habitations, though the reinstitution of neighbourliness through such devices as maps should be a priority for designers. New spaces will have to be made for collective presence.
Design parameter #7: the symbolic space in which participants gather
The outcome of such ventures will not directly affect the sustainability quest. They are pitched, rather, at strengthening the sense of community itself, which will lead to a greater willingness to share. They catch a wave of hope and rationalisation that, with enough good intentions and careful consideration, will lead to a better order of things.
Critical to its success is the avoidance of technological determinism. Despite what the more wide-eyed exponents might say, there are no floodgates of community involvement waiting to be opened. To strengthen confidence in public life, and the value of distributed wealth, something more focused is requireda door, rather than a gate. The challenge for designers is to develop the right kind of door through which visitors are willing to invest their time and thoughts.
The final achievement of the digital revolution was to bury roadsbitumen was replaced by underground fibre optic cables, through which people could now conduct their daily lives. Cars no longer exacted their toll on the air, time, and human life. A wonderful quiet descended on the suburbs. Where once were busy roads, now were grassy avenues, fragrant with eucalyptus gums. People emerged from their domestic bunkers, to smell the airto meet each other. They shared tales of how they and their ancestors had travelled to reach this place. They grieved over loved ones lost to the carnage of past eras. To celebrate this liberation, they gathered their stories into a massive hypertext database that was stitched together with links of kin, history and neighbourliness. They counted their losses and looked to the future.
Ipswich City Council (http://220.127.116.11/gil/)
Appendix: Web design
How should we design virtual communities? Digital technologies have arrived before strategies have developed for their use. While the technical business of programming is a known quantity, the design parameters of these new media are still being discovered.
Most emphasis during the digital phase of the information revolution has been on the accelerated delivery of contentmore of it and faster. Of relevance to the environmental movement is the ability to disseminate information about the earths ecology and advice on how to change it. There is nothing particularly special about this. For every EcoNet, there is a Virtual Shopping Mall advocating the increased consumption of the earths resources. More challenging is the way that virtual space itself may be designed to heighten opportunities for community.
Design must attend to the form that information takes. Consider the difference between physical space and the online environment. In what has become known as real life, the parameters of the human body provide a natural set of coordinates, such as the horizontal and vertical plane. While much of this carries over into the world on the small screen, the mode of interaction is more dynamic.
The Internet phenomena that offer the richest alternative to real world existence are the online worlds. An early version, Lucas Arts Habitat, enabled the visitor to don a cartoon-like appearance and live in a mock version of the world offline, including transactions, building and forming relationships. Alphaworld offers similar diversion, though this has been used for serious purposes such as a virtual university with lectures and students gathering on the screen. The Palace has achieved notoriety for the colourful animated appearances visitors can take as well as the re-construction of theatrical events in which visitors can take the stage. In these online worldsgraphic versions of the earlier text-based MUDsvisitors adopt new identities in the form of avatars. At the moment, this kind of programming promises more an escape from public life, rather than its enhancement.
The phrase surfingused to describe how one proceeds in World Wide Webgives some indication of the integral role movement plays when online. A new profession known as web designer is slowly responding to these challenges.
Besides the construction of eye-catching icons, the web designer must give a face to WWW site. This face ranges in sophistication from a simple hierarchical menu of different sections to a comprehensive site map of the contents beyond. Entrance development is especially important in an online environment.
Normally, when approaching a space, visitors encounter an envelope that cues the dimensions withinthe amount of space and time he or she is likely to find on entering the building/text/film/theatre. This information is contained in the physical exterior of such spaces, such as a buildings façade or the covers of a book. Such a division between inside and outside does not come naturally to an environment like World Wide Web. On entering a site, there is usually little indication of its dimensions. Here, designers must deliberately engineer a virtual façade such as a site map to provide visitors with such a sense of scale.
This entry point offers more than a preview of what lies within. Thresholds that mediate between outside and inside govern the kinds of community available inside. In most cases, the barrier must be strong enough to allow trust to develop within while at the same time being permeable enough to admit new members and information from without.
Spaces for communication within the Internet have varying porosity. An online gathering such as a newsgroup has an open door policy allowing anyone to contribute. Such contributions can vary greatly, being exposed to abusive flame wars and spamming. Moderated mailing lists provide a tighter form of communication, but these can sometimes fall within the control of one moderator. Private email correspondence, on the other hand, is a direct form of communication. As anyone who has operated a web-site guestbook will know, graffiti flourishes in the anonymous public spaces of the web. Comments that are more constructive require deliberate solicitation. The Internet is not just one global party line; it also contains intimate spaces made possible by carefully arranged walls, albeit lacking bricks and mortar.
Copyright held by author Kevin Murray