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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

The Paradox of Place


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Friedrich Nietzche ushered in the existential era at the end of the 19th century with his proclamation that "God is dead." A century later, Nicholas Negropointe ushered in the electronic era with his proclamation that "place is dead." Negropointe wrote that we would prefer being digital and our primary address would be identified by "@" rather than our zip code. While both events provide important benchmarks on the progress of our thinking, neither proclamation captures the nuance of public sentiment and values.

In fact, place is not dead but instead its value is changing and evolving. We see this in the twists and turns the electronic world is taking vis-à-vis its brick and mortar analog. Amazon.com does not drive Barnes & Noble out of business, rather the former struggles with (physical) infrastructure investments, while the latter enjoys banner profits. In education, distance learning does not render traditional educational institutions obsolete, but instead creates a new competitive climate for educational content that often works in synergy with local educational settings and drives out inefficient operations. In the business world, offices are not closed wholesale, but rather are often replaced with more compact and flexible officing arrangements that complement far-flung electronic networks and operations.

What does this mean for the future? What it means is we are leaving the nascent era of cyberspace, where it existed as a separate, free-spirited, and at times renegade force and moving toward an era marked by integrated physical environments (what I have dubbed "digital places") where the electronic aspects will be as central to our day-to-day activities in the 21st century as electricity has been for most of the 20th century.

This environment is always on and carries with it unparalleled access to content and communication from diverse sources and locations. But it does not follow that our respective physical places will decline in their functionality. Indeed, physical places are likely to evolve to a form of portalthat is, while we are always free to go to any electronic site, we will by and large migrate to those sites as they complement our day-to-day physical activities and locations. Our use of the electronic world at work will generally be in service to our local job (despite some modest online trading). Our use of the electronic world at school will be in service to our locally certified education (despite some modest teen Internet surfing!). And so forth.

While we will have the opportunity to transcend our local circumstanceparticularly if it is unappealingwe will construct design solutions with an integrative view in mind. The design of our homes will include physical and electronic elements. The design of our schools will reflect the pedagogical goals as they are manifested in the classroom and electronic programs. The design of our offices will address the relative value added of a dispersed network versus local synchronous knowledge and skill needs. The peril will be for those services, operations, and organizations that cannot accurately access their investment and business strategy for electronic vis-à-vis bricks-and-mortar presence.

To achieve this new synergy and integration between physical and electronic places we need new thoughts, ideas, and technologies. Indeed, technologies appear to be the least of our problems, as broadband wireline and wireless networks are ushering in a bewildering array of information appliances and devices. Beyond the initial dot.com bubble, burst, consolidation, and reinvigoration lies an extraordinary range of services and products that will search for markets and opportunity.

While the drive for technical advancement and service delivery is well engrained in contemporary scientific and business cultures, the drive for creative ideas about harnessing the power of this technical advance for societal and community gain is not well articulated. Can we envision the methods for using the power of the electronic medium to enhance rather than replace our civic discourse? Can we create forms of production, entertainment, and culture that connect us not only to the riches of the world, but the assets of our local community?

What is needed is a broadened notion of civic architecture that creates a set of principles and applications that cuts across the physical and electronic dimensions to create new civic places. We need a vernacular architecture that not only speaks to our local physical, cultural, and aesthetic circumstance, but also creates a robust electronic interface to our schools, libraries, civic, and cultural spheres. While early free-nets and community networks provided valuable beta versions of this interface, new networks need to aim for ubiquity of high-bandwidth access, commitment of e-services by local business and government, quality content by local media, training on demand across educational and corporate lines, and forums for communicating about online and off-line cultural and civic happenings.

Does this mean that we will be forever wired? Of course not. Real life is still the best high-bandwidth experience. The notion is to create a new platform for expressing and enhancing it, and preferably in a manner that improves the participation of those who have been traditionally denied both physical and electronic access. Place is not dead; rather, its increased importance in the Internet age represents one of the true paradoxes of our times.

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Author

Thomas A. Horan (tom.horan@cgu.edu) is an associate professor in the School of Information Science at Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA. He is also the author of Digital Places: Building Our City of Bits (ULI, 2000)

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Figures

UF1Figure. Georgia Tech's Aware Home Research Initiative is creating a home environment that perceives and assists its occupants. The three-story Residential Laboratory houses a broad range of communications-related tools including a gesture pendant (lower left) with embedded camera to control household devices, and Digital Family Portraits (lower right) that connects family members with senior relatives on a real-time, ongoing basis.

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Copyright held by author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


 

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