Monday, August 17, 2009

Thoughts on outdoor Cell Phone Audio Tours

We're currently exploring a Fall semester project partnering with the Museum of African American History's campus on the island of Nantucket. This will be based in my graduate seminar, "Making Culture: Theory and Practice" (CP 201), in which we continue to explore new uses of social media technologies in the building of community, at local and regional levels.

The museum already puts on a wonderful historic walking tour along its Black Heritage Trail, which includes its two remarkable properties, the African Meeting House and the Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham House. Our current plan is to help the Museum develop a digital audio walking tour, along the lines of the podcasted community history project we did several years ago in West Medford, Massachusetts, with the West Medford Afro-American Remembrance Committee. We'll also build on some of the approaches we explored in our on line oral history project in the Mississippi Delta, "Wade in the Water," several years ago, in which we tied oral history segments to a schematized map of several communities.

This time around we are hoping to make use of new telephone based technologies, perhaps working with a third party vendor, to make the tour accessible through cell phone to walkers. As with the West Medford project, we'd Like to avoid monologues or singular narration, but rather record multiple voices from the community, especially elders sharing their memories and stories that have passed down through the generations. We're also hoping to edit in local music and environmental sounds of the land and sea, and perhaps promote some forms of inter-generational dialogues through the audio tracks.

We'll spend a good deal of time listening to existing cell phone-accessible audio tours (for museum, zoos, and outdoor heritage sites) and discussing effective strategies. [A good resource is the comprehensive list of cell phone tours hosted by "Guide by Cell", one of leading providers in the field.]

In the class, we'll be reading Thoreau's classic essay on walking, as well as Rebecca Solnit's book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. One of the issues we'll be grappling with is how to promote the kinds of meditative "ruminating" called for by Thoreau in the context of cell phone-mediated audio tour. Most of the time, I realize, our ever-growing addiction to cell phones and mobile communication devices is probably eroding our contemplative and observant faculties; we engage in a great deal of largely extraneous chatter as a way of not really being any place at on time, but rather suspended between fluidly shifting virtual locations, so as to never face the weight of being truly alone with our thoughts. But might there be a way to re-capture, through these same technologies, the conversational or dialogic qualities of a great walk with a friend, or to inspire the walker, after hearing a good story or a well-edited melange of audio, to walk on a bit and think new thoughts to himself or herself? Can we encourage, even inspire, listeners not just to consume information passively but to observe their surroundings, to switch off external digital stimuli, and develop new connections themselves between what they've learned and what they are observing? [It seems to me that the most skillfully designed art museum cell phone tours do this, posing intriguing questions about a work of art in ways that encourage the visitor to linger and really look at the piece, or discover something new for himself or herself.]

A related challenge we'll grapple with in engineering the audio tour, beyond transmitting vital factual information about African-American history on the island, will be how to convey or evoke, more subtly perhaps, the rich texture of community historical experience across the decades and century. This would include experiences of slavery and emancipation, 19th century struggle of school desegregation, 19th whaling trips, and the nature of women's work on the island. Will we be able to integrate sounds of labor, protest, music-makingn and of the sea itself effectively into the presentations, in ways that enhance, rather than detract from, the stories and voices of community members? As always, we'll need to think about whether or not there is a recognizable recurrent narrator to the tour, or if there are many voices moving in and out of the tour without a specific identifiable 'guide.' Presumably, we'll have a 'core' set of factual segments, with options to listen to the more evocative or aesthetically rich segments to deepen or extend the audio experience.

We'll be conscious of the need to keep running our draft audio segments past our partners, at the Museum and in the wider community, and to modify the audio tour accordingly. We'll also need to think carefully about forms of evaluation and assessment, to get a sense of how well the tour is reaching our 'target audiences,' once it is on line and accessible by cell phone.

4 comments:

bryce said...

Another great post, Mark. I've been thinking a lot about mobile technology and soundscapes here in Gibraltar. In my research, I've found that cell phones and iPods are at odds with one another. While many theorists are suggesting the cellphone as a private endeavor, I'm finding that there is still a level of public performance involved that adds to the soundscape for all involved. The iPod, however, is like the nonplace of sonic landscapes.

So, might we just over-emphasize the world in the cell phone during audio tours? Perhaps even use it to create civic discourse amongst strangers? Ask the listener to complete tasks on the landscape? Go to a local person and ask them a question? Knock on a retired person's door and say hello? We'll make them simultaneously interact AND learn, and pull in the community that way. This is similar to things I might be doing with NMAfA in the near future.

I'm very excited to see what comes of this- good luck!

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