[iDC] how long is a piece of string?

Karen Martin karen.martin at ucl.ac.uk
Tue Nov 6 09:36:38 UTC 2007

[Apologies for repeat sending. I realise I sent this without the thread in the
subject earlier.]


I've just caught up with this thread and for me it raises many fascinating
questions. In her previous posts Katherine has mentioned the workshops I've
co-organised on in-between-ness and I'd like to add something here about our
take on in-between-ness and its relationship to the design of technologies.

Katherine wrote: We are becoming used to being overloaded with abstract
information about the space around us, and this means it is increasingly
challenging for us to find ways of slipping through the boundaries in order to
trace our own meanings and memories on the spatial world.

I wonder if this slipping through the net might actually happen more often than
we realize, it is simply that the spaces in which this occurs are so easily
overlooked. Perhaps the places or activities that feature more prominently in
research such as the home, work, even story-telling, are dominant simply
because they are easier to categorise.

Over the past year we have run a number of workshops exploring and untangling
how the spatial and the social combine to co-construct meaning in in-between
urban spaces. We think of in-between-ness as moments of transition which have
both a spatial and a social element, that is, you are be in-between on a
motorway, but you are also be in-between while you queue at the ATM. While
Auge?s non-places contain many similarities with in-between-ness we prefer to
think of these spaces not as a void between meaningful places and activities,
but as spaces and situations in their own right.

As has been discussed previously, the quality of ambiguity that makes these
spaces so interesting also makes them difficult to study. In the case of the
workshops, to make the topic more manageable we chose to focus on the spatial
setting and social action of a number of instances of in-between-ness, and then
to look across the findings as a whole to see what, if anything, we might draw
from this about how these spaces are similarly and differently constructed.

Of course, it?s easier to explore what already exists and far more difficult
to know how to translate these findings into designs for technologies.
Especially if our aim is to preserve, or even add to, the ambiguous nature of
the situation under consideration.

And here I agree with Mark that Pask offers a very interesting model of
interaction. Pask?s notion that the understanding of a topic is constructed
in the space between two actors, and that this understanding would be altered
if even one of the actors was changed, seems to me to be remarkably situated.
Pask's paper ?A Comment, A Case History and a Plan? written for the
Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition in 1968 outlines his approach to interaction.
In it he describes the interaction model for the Musicolour machine in which the
input is transformed through the actions of one of the participants (in Pask?s
view the participants could as easily be humans or machines). This modified
input becomes the output, which then acts as the input for another participant,
who will transform it in turn. With each transformation the actors are required
to adjust their understanding of the situation and of the other participant?s
actions and intentions.

What I find relevant in this and, I feel, is different to the interaction model
often used in the design of technologies, is that instead of being a linear, or
responsive process, Pask?s model suggests a cyclical, or perhaps even better,
a reciprocal one.

But this still leaves us with the task of making the jump from having a model of
how we might create a more ambiguous relationship between people and technology,
and actually designing technologies that take on this model.

Katherine asks ?how we might narrate the (last remaining?) spaces "in-between"
(as Ian Sinclair does in Orbital London, or J.G. Ballard does in Concrete Island
for that matter) would inevitably to lead to us down the line to yet another
mobile application designed to direct the tourist to that hidden cafe located
"off the beaten path." Perhaps "local knowledge" is best left local??

I feel that part of the problem of creating technological in-between-ness is
that social and spatial in-between-ness is constructed dynamically by the
people involved. A corner of a street is not always a waiting space, the
waiting space is created there in a moment by the situated actions of an
individual or group. So perhaps we should not design applications that create
in-between-ness directly, instead maybe we might construct frameworks in which
in-between-ness can emerge depending on people's actions?


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