In my last blog I hinted that I have a deep interest in exploring the ways in which creative applications of information and computing technologies can help map environments and subsequently allow for alternative levels of engagement that are geared toward helping community stakeholders envision and create more livable, sustainable communities. I thought that I would use this blog as both a reflection and review of an assignment in which I asked my students not only to experiment with space but also to envision how a digital intervention might augment a user’s spatial experience.
This semester I taught WRA/FW 341: Nature, Environmental, and Travel Writing. The course is housed in the Professional Writing program but it is also cross-listed as an intensive reading/writing experience for Fisheries and Wildlife students. I was given free reign to completely revamp the syllabus. Since, my dissertation is very conscious of writing space and how we write in space, I wanted to re-design the course so that my students and I could trouble what environmental, nature and travel writing are as genres, but also interrogate the often unexamined cultural epistemologies and ontologies that these writers rely upon. Earlier constructions of the course focus on traditional nature writers like Aldo Leopold, Charles Darwin, and John Muir. I didn’t want to make a course where we simply stylistically analyzed these writers’ text. Instead, I wanted to design a course that would allow students to interrogate how writers like these are designing an experience for their audience that is reliant upon distinct cultural positions be they tacit or acknowledged. This worked doubly because it also forced them to consider the systems that they use while writing. Whether we read non-fiction, travel guides or environmental impact statements, I consistently repeat that professional writing is about designing space and there are affordances and consequences that come with our spatial practices as writers. Aside from the course being a survey of genres, my vision was to encourage students to realize that as professional writers they are designing experience.
For one major assignment, I asked students to construct psychogeographic maps that chart space along the senses. According to Guy Debord, psychogeography is “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” The ultimate purpose is to catalog the diverse activities that raise awareness of the natural and cultural environments around a person and to be attentive to senses and emotions as they relate to place and environment. While it can be fun, psychogeography was designed to be political and critical of the status quo.
Although it fell out of fashion for twenty years, psychogeography has had a recent resurgence with the advent of smartphones and other new media technologies. Highly-regulated urban planning methods have created predictable cityscapes that facilitate certain types of movement in ways that are sometimes problematic. Applications of psychogeography to new media technologies have been useful toward encouraging people to deviate from their normal routines and view their everyday environments in novel ways. For example, consider the Inception App, which uses augmented sound to induce dreams through the headset of your iPhone and iPod Touch. Or Serendipitor, which takes up the original Situationalist intent by employing the Google Map’s API to help users “find something by looking for something else.”
As I mentioned earlier, the students were not charged with developing low-fidelity digital prototypes. The goal was to get them to think about map-making as a rhetorical activity and how these technical artifacts raise questions of gender, class, race, and access for people with disabilities. The mapping should be considered Phase I of a larger digital project. Regardless of the subject matter, each project touches upon how the way we map nature within writing spaces affect acts of literacy and movement at-large.
For example, two students mapped native and nonnative plants contained in Baker Woodlot. The space is a migratory bird sanctuary, used by MSU classes to introduce students to various biological concepts. Their map allows users to identify plants as they walk around the woodlot. The map makes identification of different species easy because it includes not only information on how to identify plants but also the grouping of plants by habitat using color. This allows a user to know exactly where to look in the woodlot for a particular species. With the ease of finding plants, users are able to spend their time examining the plants and learning about their uses, as opposed to spending time trying to find plants. A future iteration of this map would appear in the form of a hiker’s kiosk, or perhaps in a mobile application. Hikers would use a dichotomous key function to identify a plant and learn about its medicinal and culinary uses. An application like this would surely alter the nature of one’s hiking experiences.
Another student used dB Volume Meter, a mobile application for iPhone, in order to create a soundscape of five nature areas located in East Lansing. The conscious exploration of sound within a space allows users to experience a known space in a new way and gain a completely different perspective. Users might be drawn by the opportunity to explore a previously ignored space due to the sound based benefits it provides. For example, where are the quietest spaces where one might go for reflection? While this map can be used to bring people to these spaces and encourage activity within, it also serves as a tool for protecting spaces from encroaching development. The proposed interactive design might allow users to log their sonic experiences in space and store these in a repository that can be accessed by other users and potentially alter their spatial experiences.
These projects and others are not simply about mapping weird things. They are about exploring the relationships between engagement, environment and writing through technology. Because mobile environments and augmented reality are growing areas of interest within digital humanities, there is much room to experiment with how the design of digital spaces map onto and alter experiences in lived reality. Seeing my students experiment with space through their projects makes me eager not only to teach another version of this course but also to see the directions digital humanities may take in the future.