This blog originally appeared on Creative Nottingham, after they asked me to be a guest contributor. I think the themes I explored are still relevant, even if a couple of years old, and as CN has now “retired”, I thought it even more important to archive the post here too. Originally written in 2012.
Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Marshall McLuhan. By coincidence I had been flicking through a little book called From Here To There, by Kris Harzinski, and pondering what to write for my first blog post.
I visited Manchester a few months back and bought a copy of the above book — “a curious collection from the Hand Drawn Map Association”. It is, as the blurb suggests, a celebration of hand drawn maps, most often spontaneous, sometimes epic works of art, but always fascinating. Certainly a refreshing celebration of lo-fi.
One map in particular caught my eye, or more specifically, the description really hit a chord:
[Image copyright Princeton Architectural Press]
Dan was sitting in a coffee shop called the Pleasant Perk (noted as “the Perk” on the map) when he was approached by a graduate student who asked him to draw a map of his neighborhood, Pleasant Ridge, from his perspective, for an urban planning project. Dan’s drawing includes the house that he almost bought, his walking route to play Trivia with friends, and his favorite farmers’ market — it even references the deer that keep visiting the neighbourhood.
My own personal favourite location is “comic book store I keep meaning to go to”. It’s right next door to the cafe he’s sitting in. I also like “a church I do not go to, but I like the farmers’ market”.
I’ve been thinking for sometime about the concept of “the global village” and what impact that has had on what we consider ‘local’. For anyone not familiar with the phrase, coined by McLuhan, or his work, he was a Canadian communication theorist, known most notably for the above expression and also “the medium is the message”. It’s claimed his theories predicted the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented. Tom Wolfe, in a documentary about McLuhan , claims him to be “the first seer of cyberspace”. In this documentary, made in 1984, Wolfe also refers to “the coming digital civilization, in which all humanity will be wired up and online so that geographic locations and national boundaries… will become irrelevant”. In his book, Understanding Media (1964), McLuhan describes a World that has been “contracted into a village by electric technology and the instantaneous movement of information from every quarter to every point at the same time”.
It doesn’t need to be said that the internet has changed how we view the World, the proof is in the ease with which we integrate it into our every day lives. My Mum uses it to make Skype calls to my Brother living in China, and my Dad watches the Hong Kong stock market from his armchair. It’s been fundamental in the ease with which businesses can grow throughout the World, bringing us coffee shops from Seattle and furniture from Sweden. I have a client in New York, and I’ve exhibited work in both Europe and America. All these are made possible by the incredible sense of connectedness the internet gives us.
I wonder though, do we make wider connections at a cost to what we traditionally consider local. Are we desensitising ourselves to our surroundings, “wired up and online” 24/7, working, chatting, playing, all made so much easier with the incredible rise of the iPhone and other smartphones, glued to many people’s hands. We ‘tweet’ about being in the pub with our friends, we film gigs on our HD video enabled mobiles. We queue to use the self-service checkouts at supermarkets, or better still stay in and order online. The more we remove ourselves from our surroundings, the more sterile they become.
Wonderfully though, I think that this desensitisation is causing many to strive for that sense of real world connectedness again, and oddly it might be the internet that allows us to do that. No doubt that economically it’s a tough time for businesses right now, but I believe it’s also an exciting time, a time where small businesses are again in control. As consumers begin to crave more connection, better service, and recognise the importance of local amenities, I think phone apps like Foursquare help bridge the gap between online and offline again. Seeing where your friends and connections recommend, reading tips and advice from strangers when visiting new cities, and crucially, getting money saving offers from local businesses, begin to level the playing field again. Using Instagram has less reignited my interest in photography, but more encouraged me to actually acknowledge my surroundings again, looking at the details I may have missed as I rushed from A to B, and it allows me to gain a valuable insight into what others value and experience locally.
I’m fascinated by the work of Civic Center, a [now disbanded] “civic design studio based in New Orleans that works to make cities more comfortable for people”. They ran projects like I Wish This Was, “a fun, low-barrier tool to collect demand in an area, and the responses reflect the hopes, dreams, and colorful imaginations of different neighborhoods across the city”, in which residents were encouraged to use fill-in-the-blank stickers that say “I wish this was _______” and attach to boarded up shops, buildings and much more [see ‘bike rack’ image above, copyright Civic Center].
This project has led to a great website called Neighborland, a “a fun and effective way to make our city a better place”, where users are invited to “take a look around, get to know your neighbors, and let us know what you want in your neighbourhood”. Like this site, for me Twitter is an invaluable tool enabling me to make connections online that represent the beginnings of offline relationships. A wonderful representation of the true personality behind Twitter is a site called Tweeter Street, a new site created by photographer Michael Hughes, which aims to photograph Twitter users “where they tweeted with what they tweeted”.
[Image copyright Michael Hughes]
Perhaps most bizarrely, Golan Levin and Asa Foster III have created QR_HOBO_CODES, a series of one hundred QR stencil designs which when marked in urban spaces, may be used to “warn people about danger or clue them into good situations”. These smartphone readable QR codes, inspired by the original hobo codes, are a charming mash up of old and new, and an oddly lo-fi alternative to services like Foursquare.
[Image copyright fffff.at]
Rather than continuing to damage the offline world, I hope our online presence now actually strengthens our sense of community, and empowers small businesses, promotes loyalty and great service, and encourages you to really look around.
As Civic Center say, “cities are full of people and stories… and engaged citizens are an invaluable resource”. As the old hobos used to say, “if in a community… always pitch in and help”.
Updates and notes:
i: Foursquare check-ins are now Swarm, and I think less relevant now Facebook and Instagram rely so heavily on location information. As Foursquare split into two, its recommendation features are now here, and still hugely useful. I guess whatever the medium — Facebook reviews, TripAdvisor, or Foursquare — that sense of connection is now stronger than ever. It’s nice to see this connectedness shifting from the big players to the little guys however — it looks like Neighborland has gone from strength to strength, and some of the ideas covered in my original post certainly helped shape projects we’ve done since.
ii: QR codes?! Yeah, still not a fan, and I think they are more effort than they could ever be worth for the user — but I still love the original idea of the modern hobo code.