It’s been a busy week. Yesterday I went to a SLAIS Colloquium featuring Irwin Oostindie, Executive Director, W2 Community Media Arts Society. The topic was “Breaking the Digital Divide in the Inner City” and he discussed a variety of projects going on in the Downtown Eastside here in Vancouver, including mobile art walks by Fearless City, geotagging projects, and the distribution of mobile devices to folks who need them to connect. He pointed out that the model of having static computer terminals where disenfranchised persons can come in and check their email — that’s an old model. It’s great for libraries to support that need, but we need to find ways for people to contribute — upload their photos to flickr, or download podcasts and walk away with something.
Oostindie also talked about the upcoming Olympics. He said Vancouver 2010 Games will go down in history as the “social media games.” Intriguing, eh? W2 will be hosting the True North Media House, a sort of hub for non-accredited journalists coming to cover the games. Oostindie made the excellent point that, if a blogger comes from MN to write about the Swedish ski team…but he has 50,000 followers to his blog, why shouldn’t he be treated as a journalist? W2 is also involved in trying to get a wireless mesh network set up in Vancouver for the games. Their goal is to provide public space for people to celebrate the games, people who totally oppose the games, all kinds of people to get together and communicate.
Throughout Oostindie’s talk, I kept hearing evidence of the importance of physical space. Although a lot of the projects he works on involve global partners, or forms of media that can connect folks around the world, they’re also very firmly based within the physical space of the DTES (and, okay, Chinatown and Strathcona). This kind of locality is very appealing to me, but has been kinda out of my reach the past few years. I think I’ve lived in 7 cities in the past 7 years, including quite a few ping pong moves back and forth, particularly between Portland and Vancouver. Quite a few of my friends have led similarly transient lives: the economy, range of higher education available to us, and all kinds of other factors lead many young people to uproot and hop around.
I mention this, because I’ve been reading Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities which is delightfully written, particularly for people who are fans of cities but not planning wonks. In the first section of the book, Jacobs describes in great detail the way that certain communities of strangers develop in big cities. The tacit trust and sense of responsibility requires people who stick around. (Her trusted citizens are not unlike what Putnam calls machers and schmoozers: people who know people and can get things done.) She alludes to her organizing experience in her neighborhood in Greenwich Village: it’s kids on the sidewalks who learn about passing out petitions, and perpetuate social change. Unsurprisingly, Oostindie mentioned at the start of his talk some of the ways that his parents modeled civic engagement. When people don’t know their neighbors, at least in some capacity, of course they won’t have any network of trust, and of course it will be harder to get things done together. So how can transitory folks like me fit into communities? Do we by definition disrupt community?
It’s a lot to think about. But I’m very curious to see how W2 settles into the Woodwards space, and to see what further projects they get involved with.