Designing empowering identities for the beautiful futures

I just came across a very interesting paper published in the most recent issue of Co-Design (#4, 2010). The paper’s title – “Designing empowering and critical identities in social computing and gaming” – does not necessarily convey the true meaning of the subjects addressed in this work… but is catchy enough to grasp the attention (and by the way, you can access this and other texts from this journal for free till the end of February, a nice cadeau from the publishers).

It’s only when reading a bit further into the text I start understanding that the purpose of the work is to suggest, rather modestly, a radically different model for identity articulation – and essentially for identity construction, different compared to the one explicitly accepted today. The new framework is called AIR, Advanced Identity Representation. It is also the name of the project by the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory (ICE Lab) directed by Fox Harrell, the paper’s author from the MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL).

The author argues that the existing prevailing framework of, and approach to identity construction in a variety of digitally mediated domain (social networks, virtual worlds and games etc) is facing growing number of difficulties, and don’t seem to satisfy our needs of identity representations in these realms. Worth even, it already ‘fires back’, since certain theoretical assumptions are now embedded into a range of applications and technologies that in turn start shaping our very identity in a particular (and ‘particular abnormal’) way.

In the paper he visualizes both theoretical frameworks and the technologies/applications informed and developed on their corresponding bases. The first, currently prevailing one is called “Computational Identity Applications” (I ventured to slightly color up the otherwise undistinguishable charts):

I am skipping here the details of his analysis that shows why this model is limiting us (both ‘lay users’ and the ‘application developers’). But the verdict is pretty gloomy:

“In the design and software engineering of such systems, the reliance of computer scientists on intuitive understandings of identity, rather than nuanced theories that view identity as enacted, contextual, imaginative, and infrastructural, has resulted in software that at best ignores opportunities for empowerment, and at worst results in perpetuating longstanding social ills of discrimination and disenfranchisement”.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, though: “We can do better”.

As an alternative approach, of understanding and conceptualizing the above mentioned ‘nuances’ of contemporary identity, the author suggests to look more closely at a number of promising approaches, and specifically at the Cognitive Categorisation framework explored by Eleanor Rosch and further developed by George Lakoff, and lately further advanced by James P Gee. There is a similar scheme developed, too, to illustrate this alternative approach, called “Cognitively Grounded Computational Identity”:

Here is a rather long quote from the paper, illustrating the key differences between these two approaches:

“Traditional theories or objectivist views of categorisation hold that categories are defined by the common objective properties of their members. These traditional views are characterised by ideas such as that meaning is based on truth and reference (relationships between symbols and things in the world), differences between physical objects are defined by common essential properties, there is a single correct way of understanding what is and is not true, and all people think by using the same conceptual systems.”

“The AIR Project draws on, in contrast to traditional and ‘folk’ theories of categorisation, more recent empirically based theory which asserts that categorisation is a matter of both human experience and imagination. The cognitive scientist Lakoff asserts that meaning is based upon human experience, consisting of: embodied perception of the world, experience of motor activity, and shared cultural knowledge; and that meaning is constructed by imagination, including: mapping concepts to one another as in metaphor and metonymy, and dynamically constructing mental imagery. This view of categorisation draws on the growing corpus of research from psychology, computer science, neuroscience, anthropology, and more to reveal a convergence of evidence disputing the traditional theory.”

Based on this new understanding of identity, a significantly different type of applications could- and should – be designed and developed:

“As opposed to computational identity applications that are based on standard, static classification systems, the dynamically configurable, imaginatively grounded identities of the AIR Project are boundary objects that can customise user information and preferences for particular communities. The power of such models lies in the possibilities they enable for cross-community communication, which is of course necessary in order to challenge the discrimination that occurs at the margins, and lack of diversity inherent in the centre.”

The paper briefly describes a couple of examples of such applications, or rather pilot prototypes, developed with the use a very different, AIR-ed, understanding of identity as a guiding principle. One of them, a game called Chameleonia, emplyes a ‘shadow’ metaphor, whereby “an avatar and its shadow (performed and socially constructed selves) dynamically transform, along with the cinematic presentation of the scene, based on player selected gestures and the current location”.

An excellent and very timely paper indeed, and I fully subscribe to the Fox Harrell’s concluding words:

“[W]e must also avoid the temptation to discount technology design as social intervention and to place the onus all on the creativity of end-users. Rather, as a theorist-practitioner-user, I consider myself a stakeholder and my own mode of intervention can encompass design and implementation. Furthermore, I would like to develop enabling ideas and systems for others.

“Only waiting for major software application producers to improve their systems ultimately constitutes just another type of disempowerment. Not everyone is a software designer, but to achieve the dream that computational identity technologies can serve empowering ends we need support on all fronts including creative users of technology, technology designers and producers, and co-creators all along the spectrum in between.”

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