Monday, February 15, 2010

Facebook Memorials Revisited

In a brilliant essay in this week's The New York Review of Books, "In the World of Facebook,"

Charles Peterson considers the class dimension of Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites. He charts the increasing "suburbanization" of Facebook, which began as an on line micro gated community in a Harvard dorm room and which has retained qualities akin to a standardized, highly regulated middle class suburban housing development, characterized by regularized layout, predictable presentations of self, a repressed sense of alienation from one's interlocutors, and multiple forms of soft surveillance. This he contrasts to MySpace's "more permissive atmosphere and working class aesthetic." Peterson characterizes Facebook's founder, Zuckerberg, as "the Robert Moses of the Internet, bring severe order to a chaotic millieu."

Although Petersen doesn't discuss memorial sites on Facebook, or Foucault for that matter, his insights could presumably be extended to the subtle disciplining of mourning and memorialization on line. My graduate student Alicia Watkins has written insightfully on how Facebook manages memorial pages for its dead members. They tend to be strictly regulated, limited to those who were already "friends" at the time of the person's death. Building on Petersen's landscape analogy, one might view these sites as akin to well manicured suburban cemetery plots, in which all signs of irregular memorial action (overly large bouquets or handmade signs) are quickly removed.

A puzzling exception (that might "prove the rule) would seem to be the Facebook profile page on ten year old Holocaust victim Henio Zytomirski, (born 1933l died in Majdanek) in which the dead child had been "friended" by thousands of well wishers. Since my January 23 post about this page, the AP ran an excellent news story (by MONIKA SCISLOWSKA and VANESSA GERA) on the site, in which several scholars, including me, are quoted:

The story seem to been picked up by scores of news sites around the world. Within hours of the story's posting on February 4, however, the Henio Facebook site disappeared. One presumes it was taken down by Facebook, since, strictly speaking the policy holds that dead persons cannot have active profiles. (They can however have "fan" pages or memorialized pages). Yet by February 6 Henio's Facebook page was once again active. As of this morning Henio has 4,985 "friends". The postings on the wall once again mix the kitschy, the banal, and the moving, many of them in accordance with Facebook's pre-selected options: He has been "hit with delicious chocolate pudding" and invited to throw the food back, and sent Valentine's Gifts. (Another "friend" cautions those who would sent Valentine's gifts to first read the wikipedia account of the Strasbourg pogrom on Feb 14, 1349, in which hundreds of Jews were killed.) [I should note the insightful point by anthropologist Joy Sather-Wagstaff, quoted in the AP story, that these gifts are comparable to offerings left by the bereaved at gravesites or memorials.] Another friend posts, "Little Henio, I hope there is an afterlife where you get to enjoy all the things the rest of us take for granted."

The earlier history of Henio's wall, prior to the February 6 reappearance, appears to have been deleted.

I am unsure of the 'back story' behind the temporary disappearance and reinstitution of the Henio profile page. Was there a popular groundswell by Henio's supporters, pressuring Facebook to restore the site? Or did the page's organizers themselves temporarily remove it following the AP story's publicity, and then restore it?

Such are the mysteries of memorialization on line. I'm not sure if this recent history is entirely consistent with Petersen's model of Facebook as consistent with top-down disciplinary urban/suburban planning. It would seem that memorial on line spaces to some extent open up breaches in the conventional order of things, perhaps allowing for a healthy re-invigoration of chaos, imagination, and cultural creativity.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Phillis Wheatley and Augmented Reality

In the course I'm teaching this term at Harvard, my students and I are still trying to conceptualize how we might organize various materials on slavery associated with history of the university in a visually stimulating way, in an exhibition in Pusey library cases as well as, perhaps, through some sort of Augmented Reality (AR) smart phone interface (along the lines discussed in my previous post). The students are especially eager to explore the experiences of enslaved women associated with the early years of the history of Harvard College.

We've been puzzling over ways in which to include literary materials. The other day as gathered in the Archives, we pondered Phillis Wheatly's famous poem, "To the University of Cambridge in New-England" (1773), reproduced at:

A scanned version of the first edition is at:

We couldn't help but notice that the poem was published in the same year, 1773, that Harvard students debated the ethics of African Slavery at Commencement. (The frontespiece of the book in which the poem appers, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, is reproduced above)

It is a complex poem, in which the poet simultaneously engages in self-abnegation while presuming to preach to the privileged Harvard students about the dangers of sin and the necessity of living up to the privilege they have been given to "scan the heights/Above, to traverse the ethereal space.'" The poem nicely encapsulates a problem that seems to run through the foundations of the early modern university, that it on the one hand is a tangible manifestation of the Celestial Kingdom (a point made manifest in the soaring spires of the campus) yet rests upon all to human foundations of exploited labor. By "sin, that baneful evil to the soul" Wheatley may not specifically have meant the slave trade and slavery, but a retrospective reading might be developed along those lines. She seems to constitute the unseen body of fellow enslaved Africans as moral witnesses to the hypocrisy of White Christendom; the enslaved simultaneously gaze through the gates of the university at those who gaze upon the mysteries of the universe, yet the enslaved themselves sternly look upon those who sit in privilege.

How might one capture these ambiguities and ironies in a mobile AR multimedia installation? Walking across the Harvard Yale might one, upon gazing at Massachusetts Hall or another early College building through the viewfinder of an iphone, see a floating icon of Wheatley, and then click on it to read and hear her poem, read by a student? Might there then be ways to access student critical commentaries on the poem, or perhaps for the visitor to contribute her or his own readings?

Update: Plans are coming together for the conference, "Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies" (Feb. 3-6, 2011) to be hosted by Emory University. We had a very productive planning meeting at Emory a couple of weeks ago, and the Call for Papers should be out soon. We had many exciting discussions during the day about ambiguous university responses to the problem of slavery in their past. I was fascinated to learn of the controversial portrait of Yale's initial donor, Elihu Yale, which depicts him being served by an enslaved youth. The University has removed the portrait from the room in which the Trustees meet:

Yet it doesn't appear that there has been a full public discussion of the meaning and power of the image. [By the way, I am struck by the constant insistence by those involved in the case that Elihu Yale was neither a slave owner nor directly involved in the slave trade; the matter is presumably worth investigating carefully.]

Augmented Reality and Cultural Heritage

I've just downloaded the Augumented Reality (AR) iphone app, "Wikitude" and am pondering the implications of this technology for the interpretation of cultural heritage. The app allows the user to view, either in Google Map form or through the camera viewfinder, icons linking to wikipedia entries for all points of interest in a specified radius of where the user is located. So from our place in West Concord, I can look towards the village center through the viewfinder and seeing a floating icon that I may click on, to access the wikipedia page about West Concord, listing its population and so forth. One may choose from a menu which 'worlds' one wants to see icons of (for instance, all Starbucks or Walmarts in the area, or all YouTube videos or Flikr photostreams associated with a given locale.) A comparable AR iphone app, "Nearest New York Subway" lets a person walking in NYC hold up their iphone and through the camera viewfinder see floating icons guiding them towards various subway stations. (so you would not need to consult a map, simply follow the icons to the station, assuming you didn't get run over crossing a street!) Other AR apps let one walk through a city street and through the camera viewfinder see icons leading you to restaurants, bars, night clubs, etc.

Note that this technology requires a smartphone etc that has an internal compass and GPS. This form of GPS only seems accurate within about twenty or thirty feet, so wouldn't be useful for navigation within a museum to specific exhibition cases, say, unless each case had embedded within it an identifying chip.

In any event, in Concord, one could imagine an Augmented Reality tour of particular historical points of interest. Approaching the Old North Bridge, one could look through the viewfinder to see floating icons linking to various websites of interest, giving historical information on the battle of April 19, 1775; images of historical engravings; the text of Emerson's "Concord Hymn"; the text (or a recorded audio version) of the relevant passage of Longfellow's Midnight Ride of Paul Revere "
It was two by the village clock/When he came to the bridge in Concord town" (with perhaps another icon providing the footnote that Revere never made it quite that far!) ; photographs or videos of costumed reenactors; audio of the kind of fife and drums that might have been played at the battle, and so forth.

This would seem to solve one of the problems with outdoor cell phone based walking tour, that require the placement of signage listing the phone number to call, as well as listing which prompt to press ("Press 45# to hear Emerson's Concord Hymn"). Signs can disappear, and every time a new segment or prompt is recorded one would need to put up a new sign. Even if one has a printed brochure with a map and the telephone number and point of interest prompt numbers, that requires more concentration and initiative than many visitors are willing to invest. And a new pamphlet has to be produced each time a new segment is recorded for the tour.

But using AR all the user has to do is stand by the Old North Bridge, looking through the iphone or Android viewfinder and click on an icon to access the poem in written or aural form. The cell phone tour option could still exist, of course: I suppose that for smart phones one could simply have a floating icon of the cell tour telephone number to click on, and the phone would dial the number for you.

One problem would be filtering out all the internet noise, so that only historically credible assets would pop up on the screen. How would the user not be bombarded by all the misinformation on wikipedia, Flikr, YouTube, etc? Would this work by some sort of dedicated subscription service? There would need to be some way to geo-tag data bundles - so that when one looked west from the bridge towards the ride, one coud see a floating icon linking to information/images on where the Minuteman were advancing from.

Depending on how good the Image Search Function is, perhaps one could aim the viewfinder at the Obelisk (pictured above) and the system would identify it, and let one access historical information about it. This might include a selection, say, from Edward Linenthal's "Sacred Ground: Americans and their Battlefields" on how the 1825 obelisk was later criticized for being on the wrong side (ie the British side) of the river, and that later on, in 1875, the Daniel Chester French statue of the Minuteman was therefore installed on the correct (ie. American) side of the river.

As always with mobile technologies, the challenge would be limiting the amount of text one needs to scroll through,and giving options for aural or video streaming that wasn't too long.

In any event, the possibilities do seem exciting for developing stimulating and informative outdoor historical and cultural tours through AR.