hugo :: brainstorms in sociable media (mas.961 '03)
"only as an æsthetic phenomenon is
existence and the world justified"

- nietzsche


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::: the communicative techno-home :::
~When you feel alone, just look at the spaces between your fingers, remember that in those spaces you can see my fingers locked with yours forever. ~ Anonymous

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Connective technologies for the home

The traditional home of the long-forgotten past was a sanctuary for the family. A place of co-habitation and co-experience. The dinner table was the communicative centerpiece of the family. "Family time" didn't sound quite so cheesy then. Heirlooms and hand-me-downs were abundant in a home and connected a family to its ancestrial roots. Knick-knacks and trinkets such as stamp collections, holiday ornaments were pointers into social relationships and a great source of nostalgia. Relatives, especially grand-parents, often lived in the same house or within close proximity of the home.

These days, families, and also homes, are as dysfunctional as ever. The daily dinner table is nearly defunct, or a minimal ritual at best. Knick-knacks and trinkets are now often ridiculed as more and more homes become minimal and mod. Besides, they lose their sentimentality now that they are mass-produced and mass-marketed. We have enough complexity in our busy days that we do not need additional clutter. Extended families, divorced parents, and children are spread across the country. Homes are not the sacred sanctuaries they once were, and families are adjusting to the 21st century reality of being spread over long distances. Although the internet and mass communication technologies have made the world a little smaller and allowed us to be closer to strangers, the irony is that families are as far apart as ever. A cell phone or email between parent and child cannot fully replace face-to-face dinner table conversation. In "Studying Online Social Networks," Garton et al. questions the sustainability of social ties built up in a virtual space. How can technology help us cope with the fact that families are rarely assembled together in a "home" anymore, or that a "home" may be split over thousands of miles? I argue that hope lies in virtual presence technologies.

First and foremost, the predictable presence of our loved ones brings us comfort and safety. Traditionally, daily co-habitation in the home has filled this role. However, since kids are off in college, or a parent may be separated and living elsewhere, there is an opportunity for technology to bring about a virtual presence. Tollmar and Persson, in Understanding Remote Presence, have built remote presence sculptures which link two spaces. They built a lamp called 6th sense, placed at two locations, which lights up to indicate that a person is present at the remote location. They report that this brought about a great sense of comfort. Assigning remote presence to the light worked well because lighting was of high value to the culture of the study participants. The caveat is that the remote presence effect is only experienced if the object conveying the presence is of high sentimental value -- something which offers a plausible reminder of a loved one. Trinkets and memorabilia and other objects of personal memory would be good candidates. Donath, Karahalios, and Viegas's Visiphone is an example of high-bandwidth virtual presence, where two spaces are linked via audio. Other researchers have also tried to link two spaces with video. One interesting question is how verisimilitude affects the effectiveness of these technologies. Invasion of privacy also seems like another potential concern for high-bandwidth virtual presence.

Beyond just being there, people want to be able to communicate and coordinate with their fellow family members. In Casablanca: Designing social communication devices for the home, Hindus et al. explores always-present message boards as a way for families to jot down notes for each other. I am reminded of how my own family used to leave post-it notes for each other everywhere, before the cell phone. Digitizing the message board would extend the reach of this communication medium to separate homes, or even delivered to portable devices. What's nice about a message board is that it is a public space for a family, not a dyadic communication between any two family members. Wellmand Frank remarked in "Network Capital in a Multi-Level World," that there seemed to be trends away from group ties (e.g. family, church, etc) and toward individual ties. I think this also applies to the family, where ties are increasingly dyadic, and unsupportive of the group. I think the power of common message boards is that it is more than merely a communication medium, it also reinforces the identity of the family-unit.

Third, technology gives us an opportunity to strengthen a family beyond mere comfort or communication. In Technology probes: inspiring design for and with families, Hutchinson et al. demonstrates that family members will want to use virtual presence to play and interact leisurely. The growing popularity of picture-messaging on cell phones also supports the notion that people want to play and not simply communicate. Upon further consideration, play seems to be the most exciting of the three technological roles in virtual presence. People are clearly motivated for it, and it goes beyond merely connecting families, but also builds up families.



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