New spaces

Manuel Castells' Rise of the Network Society is a loose, baggy monster of a book, to hijack an expression. It is full of memorable phrases. One that has stuck in my mind is his catchy definition of space as 'material support for time-sharing social practices'. This is in the context of how networks create new spaces for social practices.

I mentioned Eduserv and Second Life the other day. I was sent a follow-up note pointing to the press release [pdf] about the projects it is funding on learning and 'virtual world' spaces. And Andy Powell has posted an interesting personal reflection about Second Life, its appeal, and its potential.

Whether this level of attention is justified is another matter of course. As with the early days of the Web, what we are seeing at the moment is a lot of experimentation - with no-one being quite sure what works well and what doesn't. We're seeing lots of people in the education sector getting excited, getting involved, getting in-world, and then trying to work out what the hell they are going to do when they get there. Those people are usually operating alone or in small units - there is still little high-level strategic commitment to Second Life or 3-D virtual worlds. [Sage - eFoundations]

At the same time, Herbert sent me a note recently about a very interesting looking conference at Ghent University, new Google partner and Herbert's former workplace.

The International Conference on Analogous Spaces interrogates the analogy between spaces in which knowledge is preserved, organized, transferred or activated. Although these spaces may differ in material, virtual, or operational ways, there are resemblances if one examines their ‘structure,’ ‘form’ and ‘architecture’. How do these spaces co-exist and interrelate? [___ Analogous Spaces ___]
The call for papers [pdf] cites Castells, and also notes Paul Otlet as an inspirational figure.

It is organized around three themes. Here is the second.

The second theme deals with the space of knowledge and memory. How can we compare the encyclopedia and the museum, the book and the library, the diagram and the database? How do they use architecture to structure knowledge and how is architecture used as a metaphor of memory? [___ Analogous Spaces ___]

It certainly looks as if material support for time-sharing social practices will be provided in a variety of ways ....

Update: I just saw Dave Tosh's post querying the value of Second Life in an educational context.

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Comments: 2

Jun 11, 2007
Jerome McDonough

I'm more or less in David T.'s camp on Second Life. Having studied the first round of virtual world mania in the mid 1990's, the current enthusiasm for Second Life is scarily familiar. I suspect the fading of that enthusiasm will be equally familiar.

There are potential educational uses for Second Life, but they are very narrow and constrained. The obvious case is simulation, where it is helpful to actually allow students to interact with a 3D environment/object (archaeological recreations, chemical models, etc.). Stephen Spielberg's Starbright project did some interesting experiments 10 years ago using 3D worlds to allow hospital-bound children to interact with each other and with teachers.

One of the fundamentals of user interface design is not to put obstacles between the user and what they want to accomplish. In all too many cases, negotiating a 3D world is simply placing an obstacle between the user and their task. The Internet Public Library found this out with their first MOO. I wish this lesson stuck a bit more.

Jun 13, 2007
Andy Powell

Somehow I missed the "virtual world mania in the mid 1990's" so I can't compare. You might be right about the 'fading'.

In general though, I don't buy the argument that we seen this all before, that it didn't work last time, and that therefore it won't work this time.

In my view the rate of technological change over the last 10 years (bandwidth, processor speed, memory, storage, whatever) coupled with the widespread readiness of people to interact through social (digital) networks makes the general environment within which these things are being deployed completely different and that therefore simplistic comparisons with what went before don't carry much weight.

Travel forward another 10 or 20 years ... what does the world look like? How much processing power will you have at your immediate disposal? How much bandwidth will you have? How much does that change what is possible and what is expected?

Note: I have no idea what the answers to these questions are... which is why I guess I don't have the word 'future' in my job title :-).