The Revenge of Analog, Part II

Returning to our senses

Part I of this series considered the rising backlash against the always-on mobile lifestyle, and concluded that both possible solutions and new perils lie in the emerging “Internet of Things.”

Can connecting the physical to the digital in new ways help to free users from the tyranny of screens and techno-brain burnout? Read on…

What happens when we start hacking things to link them up to our mobile devices and the web?

Imbuing objects with connectivity further erodes the stories we tell ourselves about the duality of online and offline life, and the innate functions of specific platforms. We used to know what books were good for, how newspapers behaved, how to act when the telephone rang. Now the functions of all those cherished, purpose-built artifacts are jammed into what MIT Media Lab instructor David Rose calls “the slab.”

“Framed photos, sports trophies, lovely cameras with leather straps, creased maps, spinning globes and compasses, even binoculars and books — the signifiers of our past and triggers of our memory — have been consumed by the cold glass interface and blinking search field,” Rose writes.

He paints a, well, rosier picture of the future though in his recently released book, Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things. Not only can we connect “the billions of legacy objects that already make up our infrastructure,” but there are new manufacturing methods that increasingly allow small-batch creation of tangible objects that match “the way we already operate in the world: with natural gestures, expressions, movements and sounds.”

Rose goes on to catalog the wonders of these “ordinary things made extraordinary.” Myself, I’ve been cataloging the stories we tell ourselves about the shifting boundary between the physical and the digital — and a rash of new objects themselves designed to spin new narratives.

If it’s true that we can’t just drop off the grid(s), or back into the antediluvian communications tech that still tempts us with its tactile pleasures, maybe instead we can find new ways to mix and match old and new that help beat back the slab-induced migraine? For the past five years, I’ve been collecting articles and artifacts on this topic under the heading of a project I’ve loosely titled “The Revenge of Analog.”

Why revenge, you might ask? It’s because digital isn’t all it was cracked up to be. Our desire for the offline, the tangible, the face-to-face is foiling previous predictions of a fully-digitized future, and leading to a much more interesting and multilayered alternative.

Progress does not move in one direction. It’s possible to fight for the relationships and principles we value, and if not preserve them, at least reclaim them in a new form. The stories that we tell ourselves about what we’ve lost and what’s inevitable shape the actions we take next.

Storytelling on the cusp

I began tracking disruptions in the membrane between the physical and the digital with my work at American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact (CMSI). There I led an initiative called the Future of Public Media, and helped to organize one in a series of gatherings titled “Beyond Broadcast.”

Organized first by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, this conference roamed next to MIT, then American’s campus, and USC-Annenberg in LA. Each gathering brought together academics, technologists and media producers seeking to understand the promise of participatory and digital technologies for public knowledge and action.

I helped to plan the 2008 gathering, titled Mapping Public Media, and fell in love with the storytelling tech we uncovered: “locative” projects that took participants out into the world with earphones and GPS points to experience place-based audio, interactive maps that popped up pictures and video right where they lived, network maps which made the invisible connections between people, theories or taxonomies visible and newly relevant.

Grand Taxonomy of Rap Names

These sound quaint now in our Google-mapped, viz-heavy universe, but at the time they seemed like a revelation — neither fully digital nor fully physical, but a bridge between the two. Both the analysis and the fiction I’d favored up to that point addressed the dematerialization of the world around us into ones and zeros. These maps somehow suggested a way back.

Even at that point, though, I could feel the crush of impending overwhelm. “In many ways,” I wrote in a piece for In These Times, “these mapping tools are re-locating us as the center of our personal universes. We no longer go to maps to find out where we are. Instead, we tell maps where we are and they form around us on the fly, a sensation that can be comforting or stifling. After all, while finding the right map can orient you, having dozens can threaten to tip the signal-to-noise ratio toward cacophony.”

By the next year’s Beyond Broadcast conference, the promise of mobile as a reporting tool for citizens and the rise of the “hyperlocal” were on the docket, reflecting a rising confluence between on-the-spot reporting and the global media system. The pace of the news cycle was increasingly contracting at that point, as was the distance between news gatherers and consumers, and the boundary between lived and virtual experience. While that was the last official conference, I adopted the Twitter handle, @beyondbroadcast, as my own and used it to continue to report on what came next.

Adventures in transmedia invention

While still at CMSI, I worked with the center’s director Pat Aufderheide to investigate and incubate numerous “public media 2.o” projects combining social and broadcast media with analog outreach strategies: time-tested techniques such as community screenings, experimental interfaces such as kiosks and touch screens, massive multiplayer games that roped participants into not just imagining their way into online scenarios, but changing their offline behavior as a result.

We worked with the National Black Programming Consortium to incubate the Public Media Corps, an experimental initiative designed to connect low-income and minority communities to broadband and civic resources through face-to-face hubs such as libraries, after-school programs, community centers, and public TV stations. The project ultimately helped to give several young producers the training and tools they needed to express their views on the social issues most relevant to them.

It also underscored how little attention we often pay to context when we discuss online engagement — as though we leave our bodies and neighborhoods behind when we post content to the web. Creating literal spaces for digital engagement is part of the ongoing project of making our online public sphere available to all who want to contribute. Cell phones alone won’t help users bridge the digital divide.

At CMSI, I also worked with AIR — a network of independent audio and multimedia producers — to track their Makers Quest 2.o project. This competition challenged producers to transform “public radio” into “public media,” and featured such boundary-spanning experiments as The Corner, which prompted passersby to submit their recollections about a Seattle intersection via cellphone and web, and Mapping Main Street, which invited contributors to document their local main streets as part of a country-wide, multimedia-rich cartographic collaboration.

This last research project led me to my next gig, as the media strategist for AIR, where I helped to build, document and evaluate public media transformation initiative, Localore. You can read all about it in the 2014 report I compiled with AIR’s Executive Director Sue Schardt and the national production team, or just watch this:

Over the course of this three-year production, I kept tabs a on set of related trends in storytelling, a few of which I detail below. Many of the Localore producers themselves experimented with such techniques to develop what we ended up calling “full spectrum public media,” combining broadcast, online, and face-to-face engagement in unprecedented ways:

  • Telling stories in public — More makers are building compelling mobile structures to capture and share news right where it’s happening, such as Localore’s Sonic Trace and Hear Here projects, and the grandaddy of them all, StoryCorps.
  • Journalism objects — Crowdfunding campaigns have powered a boom in intriguing and bespoke info-artifacts. A couple I love: the Little Printer, which translates a digital newsfeed into a next-generation ticker tape using thermal receipt paper, and the BlabDroid, which adorably asks you prying questions that are then relayed into a global documentary about human-robot relationships.
  • Sci-fi surfaces — Designers of experimental interfaces are supplanting newsstands by serving up headlines on increasingly flexible and manipulable public screens. See the Emerging Issues Commons at North Carolina State University for just one immersive and loopy interactive news feed.
  • Street signals — Visual journalists are adapting the techniques of graffiti artists and signmakers to turn pedestrians into participants. Media design firm Local Projects is one leader in the movement to translate museum exhibition techniques to public spaces in order to prompt social media engagement.
  • Immersion inversion — Nonfiction producers are working with subjects to translate stories from analog, to digital, and then back again. For example, Localore producer Delaney Hall invited participants in the Austin Music Map project to submit audio, video and images from performance spaces, and then we organized a bike tour of those same spaces and played media created there for the group.

These trends are just the tip of the iceberg. The Localore teams experimented with sensors, QR codes, room-sized maps for capturing memories via cellphone, participatory prompts delivered via fortune cookies...the list goes on. Working with these producers gave me hope for a future that’s less crammed, consolidated and shallow than those predicted by the harshest critics of networked media, and more juicy, diverse, and sense-delighting than those futures being sold by the “slab” crowd.

While I’m not on staff with AIR anymore, I’m happy to note that the stars are lining up for another round of Localore productions in 2015. Plus you can dig into many other examples of boundary-busting journalism and documentary in the archives for the Public Media Scan —a weekly email that I curated from 2011 through mid-2014, and is now assembled by AIR’s delightful Betsy O’Donovan.

For my next act, I’ve decided to branch even further out beyond broadcast to explore how the revenge of analog is reshaping not just storytelling interfaces, but emerging forms of art, civic engagement, public science, fiction, and more. I’ll also keep an eye on the growing debate about how to grapple with techno-brain burnout. Stay tuned: @beyondbroadcast.