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Ahem… Is this thing working?

Posted by admin on April 8th, 2008 filed in Meta

This is the first post. Well, then. On with it.

Do you ever wonder why it is always the lunatics that are compelled to get up and shout their political opinions at everyone else in a public setting? Have you ever reflected how unfortunate and ironic it is that yes, although this constitutes free speech and democratic expression, (etc. etc.), this display of witlessness usually serves to steer people away from political debate, and not towards it? What if you had a way of telling that crackpot to get off the “stage”, and could have someone else, perhaps someone less foamy, and who knows, maybe approaching coherence, to have their say? What if you could respond to the conversation - assuming you wanted to - publicly, (that is, addressing the speaker as well as the audience) without having to stand up in front of everybody?

I want to give you a very brief description of my thesis, so you know more or less what is involved. I’ll save the theory and the “why it matters” part for later. The name of this project, as you may have guessed, is “Augmented Speakers’ Corner: Union Square”. I am creating a physical installation in Union Square consisting of a digital display (flat screen or projector), a software application running on a laptop, and a microphone and sound amplification. What is this installation for, you ask?

A speaker on the mic gets three minutes to speak. If he wants more time, the crowd gets to vote in real time, using their cellphones, on whether to award the current speaker more time or whether they prefer a new speaker. Furthermore, when the time has come to change speakers, any member of the crowd who wants to respond (but maybe not enough to talk into a microphone in front of everyone) can use their cellphone to call a local number and be patched in to the audio feed live, in real time. Then the next speaker is up, and on it goes. Voilá! Free public discussion, but with a degree of audience feedback and control.

But that’s not all! The entire event is recorded and streamed live to a website. The questions and answers raised are debated online, with further material generated until the next live event in Union Square. The idea is to use the merits of both environments (physical, online) as methods of augmenting each other. The real world does wonders for keeping the signal level of a group conversation relatively high, and the online world is pretty good at the scale issue. So what happens when you combine the two, using the best properties of each to guide one another? That’s the theory, anyway.

But without getting into specifics just yet, I need to state at the outset that the obstacles are considerable. For starters, I am not entirely positive exactly how to seed this whole conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely opinionated about politics. My friends have endured evidence of this fact many, many times. It wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to say that the reason I am setting up this project is personal therapy. I need a place to vent! But this channel can’t be about my preferences or the way I see the world.

The conversation is deep here because I know it will be difficult to look at this project from the perspective of an interaction designer as well as a user. So I will be opening up the design questions regarding form and content early on. On top of having more questions than answers about the discussion formats and whatnot, I am a little somewhat considerably behind in my technical implementation of the above software application that allows the call patch-in and voting functionalities. If I succeed in pulling this off in the next two weeks, it will be because you - friends, classmates, and lovers of democracy, decided to jump in and see if you couldn’t play a part.

So this site serves as a registry. I am hereby publicly stating my intention to make this happen in the next two weeks, to the best of my ability. I will be posting like a lunatic in this space, as often as possible, to document exactly where I am with each and every aspect of this project. If you see a way to jump in, please feel free.

Things will start to get exciting for onlookers when I get around to asking what kinds of formats you would think are useful in a public forum. (Audio? Video? Spoken Word? Favorite Questions? Favorite written passages or quotes? Original Manifestos? Declarations?) Or, for that matter, whether it is advisable to even try to control it and separate content into channels. Maybe a podium with a set of instructions to the crowd on how to operate the equipment & interface distributed are all that is necessary. But that’s material for another post.

It is now 4:34am. on Tuesday, April 8th, 2008. My name is Felipe Telles Ribeiro. I currently have a NYC Parks Department permit to legally make use of the south side of Union Square in order to hold an event on Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008. That’s exactly two weeks from today. I’m curious what form it will take. But it’s bedtime.

(Disclosure: I published this post last night, re-read it this morning, and made some changes. Publishing at 4am has its drawbacks.)


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