Empathy in Digital Public Space



How can (or does) technology change the way we interact with each other in public space? Our session on 3/8/16 “Empathy in Digitally-Mediated Public Space,” reflected on the social, cultural and psychological implications of tech in public spaces. The works presented respond to a common concern about the transformation of public space in a digital era: that our ability to empathize with one another is diminished by the lack of interaction we have in physical public spaces as a result of our consistent engagement with technology (iphones, wifi, laptops). Participants of this discussion asked; are there alternatives? Emily Royall, artist|curator and recent graduate at MIT DUSP, presented “Skumaskot: Surveillance as a Public Space Medium,” reflecting on alternative uses of surveillance in public space. Gizem Gumuskaya current masters student in Design Computation also at MIT, explored possibilities to engage deaf communities in publicly shared music production.

Public space is an open and accessible social space. Historically, public space emerged as a commons for ritual, convening or organizing. Later it became associated with the origins of democracy, as a physical space to encounter diversity and debate. Modern planners contest the hybridity of private/public space, where subtle legal underpinnings constrain the use of space for civic participation and protest (did you know it's illegal to hop in a mall? ).

Some would say digital life has superceded our use of the physical commons with a digital one---one which we ironically continue to participate in digitally as we enjoy the summer sun on a park bench absorbed by Tinder. As we integrate physical and digital public spaces, what kind of constraints and opportunities represent themselves for building empathy and derivatively, community?


Digitally-mediated public space already modifies our behavior, whether we're on our phones or not. Surveillance gives a new meaning to the pleasure of 'people watching' in public spaces. In "Skumaskot" (see #3) project Emily #legalhacked into unpassword protected cameras, exposing huge gaps in our awareness of the public nature of private surveillance. The disturbing mesh of unprotected personal and public surveillance devices is itself a medium. For example, this site maintains a live feed of un-protected security cameras all over the world. Because these cameras are not password protected, and like most surveillance cameras, run off the internet–- their live footage is retrievable via simple commands typed into your web browser. Not only that, but you can also target their geolocation.

Our first thought is, how sinister! How silly of the public to make themselves so vulnerable over the internet! But what if we looked at surveillance differently? Arguably, the network of surveillance cameras available on Insecam.com is an incredibly valuable community resource. Indeed, we could imagine (and perhaps there are) subnetworks of neighbors that link their cams together to collectively monitor their neighborhoods and communities. As an open resource, networked surveillance cameras seem like an alright idea. But when folded into uneven dynamics of private or governmental power, we take an attitude of self-protection. Full documentation of the project is available here.


Gizem's work, “Spatial Music Instrument for Deaf and Hard of Hearing,” examined the generative power of technology for building empathy in public space. Her focus was on deaf communities that all to often, along with other alternatively-abled communities, are marginalized from access to public space. Her work aspired to bring deaf and non-deaf individuals together to create music collectively, thereby empowering deaf participants within their biocultural identities.

Gizem's work begs the question, how can technology be used to empower people to wholly inhabit themselves in public space? How can people's personal identities be made accessible in physical spaces whose design all too often deters them? This is one of the great promises of the digital commons---it's near absolute accessibility to all people---can physical public space be retrofitted to accomplish the same? Would inclusive physical spaces draw blood from the sheer volume of digital public commons users? Some would argue that our digital public forums already do that. Shades of anonymity on the internet enable some of the worst kinds of behavior in digital commons that one would rarely experience in a physical public space. Is that an opportunity to promote and enhance empathy through physical visibility?

The future of public space is shaky with all these questions. Not to mention, Second Life is still a thing. Cultural Computation looks forward to continuing to explore these concepts in future sessions.


Cover Image: Hacked-surveillance still from the Skumaskot project. Original Content.

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