One of the things that drew me to iSchool at the University of Toronto was the McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology. For reasons that have taken me years to partially glean, the program has existed more in name than anything else in recent years.
Over the years, the program has hosted a series of Monday night seminars, as Marshall McLuhan was famous for. At last night's seminar, the program heads announced a stream in culture and technology starting next year as part of the iSchool master's degree and McLuhan's lacklustre building, the Coach House will get a substantial reno. These are all part of the plans to make the Coach House and UofT a centre (again) for thought and discussion on new media and society.
Despite this promising news, last night's discussion on "Making Sense of Place" was disappointing. An unfortunate habit of academics, particularly those tenured, is to abandon the seminar topic and talk about whatever they want. Only one of speakers, Shawn Micallef, addressed the topic. The questions by the audience were also generally off-topic, basic (e.g. "What is Twitter?), or curmudgeonly ("These young people today, there's no hope..." ) so I was only able to gather a few useful morsels from the seminar.
The first speaker Joshua Meyrowitz was a major influential figure in examining the role of media in relation (projecting or negating) to place. Although his talk was mostly about the campaigns of indigenous people to protect their land, he briefly touched upon how current digital media is being used by groups to both chart their own spaces and to use media to bring attention to their cause - to bring outsiders into their place. As one commenter noted, these types of media efforts enable "the co-occupation of imaginary space, leading to empathy, and then hopefully leading to community".
In response, Meyrowitz offered an analogy comparing our relationship to place as a marriage. Where in earlier times, our marriage to place was an arranged marriage in which one didn't have a lot of choice about what places they were attached to. Now we have more choice in our place engagements and more overt expressions of place love, similar to declarations of romantic love. But we also have more divorces, as people are now not as bonded to place and will move or make new engagements as they see fit.
Micallef has an impressive history of place-related media work, including launching one of the first locative media projects [murmur], launching a magazine on Canadian urban landscapes, and his current Twitter and TTC electronic sign project, Stroll City. Micallef discussed his use of digital media both as a creator and audience. He hates Foursquare ("it's geo-spam, as it just says where [people] are") but loves Twitter for the layers of information not otherwise possible. He describes his morning ritual of reading his Twitter feed (1200, including about 800 Torontonians) as gets to "hear the pulse of the city" and get a glimpse into a diverse range of people lives from various parts of the city.
He also found that Twitter has helped him appreciate the places he encounters either through checking out tweets refined by a geographic area or from feedback he gets from others on the places he mentions.
Micallef's work attempts to counter the notion that Toronto is ahistoric, boring, or placeless. His Stroll City efforts have attempted to address this by encouraging people to think and talk about place - to "merge the corporeal and the digital".
I'm looking forward to hearing more from Micallef and the new culture and technology iSchool program.