One of the big themes of the PhD program I’m part of is what we’ve been calling Digital Public Space. The original definition of this was laid out by head of archive at the BBC Tony Ageh in this paper. In it he explores the idea of a common cultural treasury, expressed in multiple forms, encompassing a huge variety of media and content, all delivered digitally. In this vision, the national collections held by the BBC, the British Library, British film Institute, National Gallery etc would be made digitally available for free. These collections are owned by us, the people, and the resulting Digital Public Space would be an exercise in democratic accessibility and accountability. The work of actually putting this idea into practice got tied up very quickly in the need for common metadata standards, interoperability, and legal rights issues. It turns out the BBC, for example, doesn’t own the rights to the archival content it holds and historically, broadcast rights were shared out between producers, directors and actors, many of whom were external suppliers. Making even 1 minute of the many hundreds of thousands of hours of BBC footage publically available online would involve complex legal negotiations with various representative parties, not to mention all the different data standards and storage media used by the various organisations. So, before any interesting creative experimentation can be done to make Digital Public Space real there is an insurmountable barrier of logistical, legal, and technical work to be done.
With this dawning realisation, many of us dropped the idea of DPS entirely as being unworkable and over-complex. My own take on it has been the idea of shared mental models of digital things and my current research focuses on ways of drawing out these models. To what extent do we share similar understandings of how digital things work and how experiences of digital systems affect us? This approach conceives of cognitive or mental images as both constituting and occupying a ‘space’. There is a thought-territory which consists of how digital experiences are held in consciousness. This territory is shared, other people hold similar conceptions of digital experiences. The idea of spatialising thought is not a new one. Kant understood space as emanating from the mind, Deleuze and Guattari’s Plane of Immanance is a diagrammatic (because geometrical) space occupied by a person’s previous experiences and thoughts. Neuroscience cares about brain topology and the recent multi million dollar brain mapping initiatives are all about locating the physical origins of thought in and on the brain’s surface. Digital Public Space then, in my reading, is the collected and collective understandings of digital things that we hold in consciousness. Of course, this could be said to not be public at all, merely an assortment of individual conceptions but we do have group representations of the objects of our perceptions – design wouldn’t exist without them and we’d never be able to agree what we meant by yellow.
I was called out on this recently (thanks Tess D-C) with the response that this interpretation of digital public space runs the risk of ignoring a long tradition of phenomenological thought. John Smythies draws a distinction here between the direct realist and scientific representative theories. Direct realists believe that we can be directly aware of external physical things and that phenomenal objects (and their associated qualities) are the same as physical objects. The scientific representative theory counters with the idea that everything we perceive through the senses is processed by the brain. Phenomenal objects are constructs of the central nervous system. As Smythies says: ‘We do not perceive the world as it actually is but as the brain computes it most probably to be. If phenomenal objects are the end results of probability based neuro-computations…phenomenal consciousness must be allotted its own real space – phenomenal space.’ There are all sorts of empirical experiments in psycho-physics that lead to this view – phantom limbs and the like – but I would like to extend the idea of phenomenal space further into the perceptions of digital processes, invisible digital structures, and virtual experiences.
A person’s point of view, perspective, or opinion can be said to be an expression of how they understand the world around them. The phenomena around us are increasingly accounted for by digital systems whose structures, as they are encountered by consciousness, are internalised in the mind in the form of mental models. Some of the characteristics of digital technology such as; speed, fragmentation, invisibility, and complexity lead to rapidly transforming forms which leave those internal models hopelessly out of date, a bit like storing data on floppy drives. Those of us with computers, fixed or mobile, that are connected to the internet use email. But how many of us know how email works? who owns it? where are its limits? where is it in space? Is it even necessary to know? My research focuses on drawing out (externalising) these models or representations of digital experiences by making expressive things and interacting with them. Digital public space is a contiguous territory of phenomenal space that I’m interested in mapping through creative exploration in the interests of personal freedom, social progress, and shared understanding.