On Saturday night I had a Zoom call with a friend of mine from high school. My friend prefaced our chat with a warning that she was going to keep the conversation short because video calls are exhausting. I heartily agreed. During this call, my daughter and her son would grace our screens and through them, excitedly shared what game-spaces in Roblox they go to play and hangout in, with their friends.
This difference between exhaustion and joy struck me. I didn’t think it was because of any particular characteristic of our respective generations, but I couldn’t entirely place why the reactions were so very different. But then on Sunday morning, during the time in which I dedicate to my longreads collected from a week’s worth of tweets and newsletters, I found an answer that made a lot sense to me.
That essay was Home Screens by Drew Austin from the web publication, Real Life. After I finished, I promptly took to twitter to share my recommendation for everyone to read it. Here’s a passage from it, dedicated to Zoom:
Pure economic exchanges can relocate to screen interactions with a minimal loss of fidelity, but encounters meant to be less instrumental are proving harder to sustain without the texture of physical space. Most of the apps we use for interaction simply unbundle an informational component from the scene of social contact. This was sufficient under ordinary circumstances, when messaging and video conferencing apps merely complemented in-person exchanges. But now those tools leave users wanting more, failing to substitute the richness and depth that interaction in physical space could otherwise provide.
Consider, for example, the video-conferencing platform Zoom. During the quarantine’s first few weeks, it emerged as a flexible (albeit insecure) tool for conducting interactions that could no longer happen face to face, rapidly expanding beyond its established domain of business meetings to accommodate gatherings ranging from happy hours to dinner parties to dates. But rather than providing support for adjacent activities, as an app like Slack does for office work, Zoom replaces those activities altogether. In other words, users experience Zoom more as a stultified form of virtual reality than an augmented one, because it feels as though there is very little off-screen reality available to augment right now.Drew Austin, Home Screens, Real Life, April 27th, 2020
I’m writing about this essay on this blog rather than my more technology focused outlet, because I want to start exploring this understanding that there is something fundamentally different between ‘virtual libraries’ and ‘augmented libraries’.
In Home Screens, Austin draws on one of my favourite written works from last year:
In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell makes an eloquent case for the importance of place as a site of non-transactional human relations. As an example, she describes how, for many, public transportation is “the last non-transactional space in which we are regularly thrown together with a diverse set of strangers, all of whom have different destinations for different reasons.” She goes on to summarize Louis Althusser’s contention that true societies can emerge only within spatial constraints, where individuals live in bounded proximity without the ability to easily disperse. In such settings, individuals have no choice but to encounter one another repeatedly and establish durable connections based upon a firmer foundation than the exchange value those relationships promise. This represents a quite different logic than that of an app that enables hiring random (and often unseen) strangers to perform tasks for us at a social distance.
Another non-transactional space in which residents are regularly thrown together with a diverse set of strangers, all of whom have different ‘destinations’ for different reasons, is the library.
I don’t mean to spoil the concluding passages of Joanne McNeil’s Lurking: How a Person Became a User, but I can’t ignore the connection that I see here:
Librarians are what the internet is aching for — people on task to care about the past, with respect to the past and also to what it shall bequeath to the future. There needs to be rituals in place online to treat people — users — with dignity, both for the living and the dead. For to speak of the humanity of internet users is to recognize the impermanence, the mortality of that humanity.
Everyone is welcome in a library just for being. A person in a library is a person: homeless or not, hurting or not. My dream for the internet, as a final form, is a civic and independent body, where all people are welcomed and respected, guided by principles of justice, rights, and human dignity. For this, users would express care in return, with a sense of purpose and responsibility to the digital spaces organized with these values. With the internet routing through a planet that is the origin of more than a hundred billion lives, such a project means information in abundance. Segmenting and clustering users and history into communities, rather than mass-purpose platforms, would be an integral component to this ideal internet in its cycles of maintenance and renewal.Joanne McNail, Lurking: How a Person Became a User, 2020.
I haven’t been a public librarian in over twenty years now, so I am going to limit the following thoughts on augmented vs virtual library space in an academic library context.
First, let us consider that more students come to the library to study rather than to actively engage with library-provided materials, print or otherwise. Does this suggest that the academic library has a responsibility to provide online study space for students?
I think the answer might be yes — but not yet. I don’t believe academic libraries can provide online spaces for students to share what they’re learning in the current state of teaching and assessment in the University. Let us remember that it wasn’t that long ago when Canadian Universities equated creating virtual study spaces on Facebook with cheating. Let us be aware that not enough has changed since 2009, and that some faculty are quite happy to hold students under constant surveillance rather than risk a drop in ‘academic vigor’.
The most notable experiment in creating the library as a virtual space were the Libraries of Second Life. In the current moment, the virtual spaces where people gather are within Minecraft, Fortnite, Roblox, and Animal Crossing.
But let’s not think of virtual spaces. Let’s not try to reimagine the library through an Oculus Rift. Let’s try to start with something a little manageable. Something a little more humane.
With our ability to roam the physical environment necessarily compromised, our platforms – Netflix, Instagram, Twitter, Spotify, etc. etc. – have taken on an even greater significance as the sites of our work and leisure. But how do we inhabit them in psychogeographic terms, as virtual spaces that shape our behaviours and emotions? Is it possible to find alternative paths to the passive consumption modalities that a data-driven culture industry expects of us? Can we amble through our platforms in ways unforeseen by their designers? And understand their infrastructures better through our experiments and investigations?
Ergo, a psychogeographical approach to platform studies as a means to engage with these infrastructures in novel ways (please note: I am not a licensed psychogeographer).Tactics for resisting platform passivity, Devon Mordell, 2020
It delights me to no end that Devon published the above as I was writing the draft of this post because I also want to speculate that perhaps we should investigate sound as a platform (please note: I am a licensed psychogeographer).
What if your librarian was also your DJ? What could a campus-scaled call-in show sound-like? Would you feel less alone if the DJ gave you a shout-out?