Before I start this blog, I’d just like to clarify a couple of things:
•I love social media
•I am however writing this as a pessimist
•I am aware of the irony of complaining about social media and then promptly advertising this blog post on Twitter.
Social Technology has advanced far beyond our expectations, it has invaded the vast majority of our everyday activities becoming a regular tool for communication. Facebook can be regarded as the dominant social medium, since it started in 2004 it has gained 1.16 billion users, roughly 16% of the planets population. A study conducted in association with Bournemouth University called The World Unplugged found that students that gave up technology for a certain period experienced withdrawal symptoms similar to that of a drug or alcohol addict. We are encouraged to upload everything on to the interest, photos, occupation, education, what we had to eat last night, it is worrying how transparent our lives have become.
On the other hand social technology has given us the incredible opportunity to experience other peoples lives and cultures around the world from the comfort of our own homes, we have unprecedented access to celebrities personal lives through Twitter and Instagram. It enables us to keep in touch with people living far away and because of this the act of leaving home is starting to become less of a worry . By using various social mediums families are contained with a “virtual household” which is capable of keeping members instantly connected over vast distances. Therefore it can be argued that due to new social mediums, families are more likely to maintain close relationships throughout their lives.
So, social media is great by the sounds of it, who can argue with the simple fact that it brings people closer and helping us to understand new and exciting cultures. But I believe that there is a darker side to this glorious social revolution. Social mediums are simultaneously bringing the world together and driving it apart. It contains us in a social bubble, privatising all our interaction methods, forcing us to always communicate through a membrane, for example a mobile phone or a laptop. Ultimately this could cause the decline of face to face interaction.
Most social activities have been privatised with the arrival of various technologies. When the Walkman was invented in 1979 it allowed a music collection to become portable. More importantly, that the user was the only person that could listen to the music. The act of enjoying music went from something that was often shared between multiple people, in an open environment to a private indulgence, a method in which an individual could escape.
Fast forward to 2001 and the explosion of the iPod in to popular culture and you do not have to look to far to see people in the streets with headphones plugged in to their heads. I am not claiming to be a saint, free from all social sins, as I write this I have music plugged in to the drown out the general noise of the public. Two earphones in is becoming the universal sign for “please do not talk to me, I am not interested”
As an architect in training, I am very passionate about spaces, places and people. I have made a habit of studying the decline of the public realm. Urban design could be an integral response to the change in interaction methods between humans as it represents the physical side of communication, one that is no longer the priority when it comes to creating and maintaining social ties. If we can create spaces that integrate technology with the motive of encouraging people to venture out from behind their screens and interact with each other, then, like computer software, we should update public spaces across the globe.
Through my studies I have discovered some scholars that believe that priority of Western public spaces was to beautify the urban environment, with visual order being of greatest importance, so, although methods of interaction are changing, the public areas in which we used to communicate were never designed in the first place to accommodate the public as a priority. This could set the scene for an overhaul of social spaces in urban areas.
In the modern age the streets have become the hunting ground for the shopper, stalking the jungle that is the modern high streets. You could argue that shopping is the last form of social activity. I feel that there needs to be a rethink of public spaces, one that incorporates new methods of interaction. Our current spaces are outdated, unused and will fall in to ruin if something does not change. I have seen people freak out of the realisation that their phone is running out of battery. So why not create a public square with it’s own power source? In a perfect world, you could harness the kinetic energy of people walking across the square to power this refueling station. Add in a free wi-fi hotspot and some flexible street furniture and you’ve got a public space that people can use as a resting place, charge themselves and their phones and venture on. Of course this idea is expensive but if a space is well designed then higher quality interaction will occur in it. Therefore people will be more likely to reuse the space. If you were to encase this space with shops (predictable I know) and the result is a space that contributes to it’s energy consumption, encourages people to spend money and raises the cities social status.
The need to understand and include social mediums in public spaces is urgent, because they are going from strength to strength with no sign of slowing down. The simple truth is that we cannot escape from the revolution we are currently experiencing. The golden age of social technology will only continue to gain momentum. The main challenge that designers face when confronting the modern style of interaction through social networking is that there is a lack of theoretical knowledge to truly understand how this shift in interaction methods is affecting us. This means that the reorganising of public spaces is faltering. Until we can acknowledge that social platforms have changed the way we interact, our public spaces will lay dormant. If we accept the fact that social technologies are challenging the preset ways we interact with and try to work with the new mediums, in both professional work and design contexts, public spaces will emerge as areas in cities that fully harness the flow of human movement. Virtual and physical occupants will be able to converse with each other to create a rich engaging tapestry of human interaction. The social revolution has already begun, architects and planners cannot afford to wait much longer until they react.
Please feel free to give me your thoughts and feelings on this subject, I am planning to base my Masters thesis on social technology and the design of public space so the more feedback I get the better.