A recent project in Montréal hints that social networking could bring community spirit back to alienated urban dwellers.
This past fall, a project called Mégaphone brought the lively social interaction typical of Facebook or Twitter to the downtown district of Montréal known as Quartier des Spectacles. The result was a blend of the old-fashioned Speaker's Corner familiar to older Londoners with the community feel of online forums.
Using a specially designed microphone and projection system, users gave short speeches in a public square or agora, as their words were projected onto the face of the President Kennedy Building of Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). Subjects tackled by speakers varied from the political to the personal, with lots of humor thrown in. See some examples in the video below:
The system, developed collaboratively by the multimedia studio Moment Factory and independent artist and director Etienne Paquette, was produced by the National Film Board of Canada and the association that supports the Quartier des Spectacles. It deployed a range of technologies, including speech recognition and a multimedia database. More is explained in the video below:
While the project ran from September 4 through November 4, Claude Fortin, a doctoral student at Canada's Simon Fraser University, systematically researched the activity in Montréal as part of her ongoing study of digital public displays. She told me in an email how important the work was for her. "The Megaphone installation which I studied for 10 weeks in the wild shows an extraordinary potential to create greater social cohesion and a greater sense of community," she said.
Fortin says that digital displays aren't just for advertising anymore. They are becoming more common -- and more interactive -- in urban settings. It's a point well taken: From talking lamp posts to public art installations such as the Summer Streets Voice Tunnel in New York City, public spaces are using digital technologies to foster citizen interaction at various levels.
But the Mégaphone project is about more than playing around with text feedback and flashing lights. It shows how digital installations can bring us back to interacting, not just with technology, but with one another. It also encourages the use of public space for community engagement -- a concept vigorously stressed by architect Jan Gehl and other influential urbanists.
For Claude Fortin, the use of public digital displays is nothing less than a force for the betterment of urban culture. As she told me:
I believe that developing the interactive potential of digital displays in public space is helping to reinforce this loop between online and offline technology-mediated communication, thus offering people a wider range of opportunities to develop social, cultural and political capital, so better chances to improve their life conditions and to foster a sense of community.
According to Fortin, projects like Megaphone aren't just fun, they're essential to our urban future, and that's a call to action:
Right now, the interactive technologies that are being designed make self-representation and self-publishing possible. If we want them to do more for us as citizens, then we need to get in the ring with those who own the means to develop these tools and applications... this implies getting involved in debates about the public infrastructure.
Great thoughts. Online and offline networks and forums foster community, and for some, one venue is more compelling than another. But there can be little argument that the power of both combined can bring us together in new and interesting ways.
— Mary Jander , Managing Editor, UBM's Future Cities