Van Alen Institute Roundtable

posted on Jun 3, 05:55 AM in Social Software, Design

I was invited to participate in a Van Alen Institute roundtable discussion today about Mobile City, which is in preparation for an art exhibition titled “The Good Life Exhibition” to take place in the Spring/Summer of 2006. At the table were a number of great minds, including people from Parsons School of Design, the University of Minnesota Design Institute, Pentagram, and others:

  • Jan Abrams, Director, Design Institute, University of Minnesota, VAI Trustee
  • Michael Bierut, Partner, Pentagram
  • Dana Spiegel, Executive Director of NYCwireless and an MIT Media Lab alumnus
  • Steven Johnson, author, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (2005), Emergence (2002); Interface Culture (1999), and Mind Wind Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life (2003)
  • Katie Salen, Director of Graduate Studies,Design and Technology, Parsons School of Design and Author of Rules of Play: Game Design (2003)
  • Jane Harrison, Principal, ATOPIA
  • Kevin Slavin, Co-founder + managing director area/code
  • Benjamin Aranda, Partner, terraswarm

It was a terrific discussion, and I hope that my participation helped Van Alen in preparing for the exhibition.

We covered a number of topics, including transportation, wireless technologies, and gaming, and though I thought my participation would mostly be useful for discussions about wireless, it turns out that we talked more about socialization and interaction than anything else.

Of particular interest to me was a discussion about a project that Pentagram is in conjunction with NYC Taxis. We started out talking about how to reconnect riders and their drivers, in a way that is similar to how that relationship used to exist when Taxi drivers were mostly wise-cracking, interactive Brooklyn and Bronx residents. Now that the vast majority of Taxi drivers are immigrants, there seems to have been a shift (though I don’t think its due to their nationality) away from passenger/driver interaction towards a disconnected server/client relationship, where there’s virtually no interaction through the wall of Plexiglas.

As we were talking about some of the reasons why this shift has taken place, Steven suggested that it was partly due to the prevalence of mobile technologies. This immediately clicked with me, and I suggested that part of the reason why the uptake of cell phones by taxi drivers was so significant was specifically because they are immigrants. Let me explain:

  • As new immigrants, taxi drivers are trying settle in their new homes.
  • One of the things that makes this easier are the friends and family that they interact with, who are also immigrants, and may have helped the driver come to the US.
  • This process of settling is important since it eases the significant culture change that is experienced. Driving a taxi, most taxi drivers virtually no one who would be part of this social support network during the day (or night).
  • A connection back to their family and friends (some or most of whom are other taxi drivers) makes the job more livable, since taxi drivers spend most of their day in their cabs.

In the same way that Instant Messaging in the workplace makes work a little more livable and comfortable, since you can interact with your friends and family, cell phones serve the same purpose in taxi cabs.

During this discussion, specific ideas about how to create works for the Taxi Cab project were requested. One of the interesting hypotheses that I suggested is to create a visualization that shows taxi drivers and the people they talk with during the day via cell phone. Placing this on a map, I suggested that what you might find is that taxi drivers tend to drive the areas that they know, which is also the areas that their friends know. This would manifest itself visually on a map as “gangs” of taxi drivers, where the gangs are made from social connectivity. This would make a fascinating display, and would answer some of the questions about how taxi drivers learn and integrate into their new city.