Third Place

This morning raised some new question marks for me about internet hang-outs as the virtual embodiment of that Third Place (in addition to home & work) of urban design lore. My own destinations online are *much* more consistent than my real-life travels, which include a range of coffee places, saloons, the occasional branch library, etc. At least as often as not, I’m sitting at one of those coffee places specifically because the wi-fi will get me to my familiar online stomping grounds.

But those environments don’t really maintain any stable, distinct identities for me, as much as I might prefer that they would. This morning, I sat in a coffee place I hadn’t tried before, and one I likely won’t visit again. The table near my chair was jumbled with copies of a couple slim self-published paperback books by a retired Seattle cop eager to share his experiences on the force. Turned out, those books weren’t there by chance, but they were placed specifically by the retired cop, who was a regular there, and who was in residence this morning, busily engaging people in conversation. Maybe the books are full of wit & wisdom, but that’s not why I entered the place — I just really wanted to be left alone with the book I’d brought, thanks all the same.

And in that book, I read this quote:

In the artificial landscape, digital artifacts constitute the environment and “nature” in which we live. They help or hinder us in almost all of our professional and everyday activities, and they influence our individual and social developments. This means that IT professionals and others involved in the design of this new environment take on a huge responsibility. To design digital artifacts is to design people’s lives.
Lowgren & Stolterman, 2004. Thoughtful Interaction Design. Boston: MIT Press: 1.

So hey, no pressure. But there I was, reading about digital environments in the midst of a physical one, both making demands of questionable relevance to me on my attention span and allegiance. How different would that compound environment be if I were browsing one of my usual websites instead of indulging in archaic sequential media? How much do I, as either a user or designer, get to choose about the environment in which these competing interactions take place? Hell, I don’t even get to choose what color someone’s monitor displays based on the “standard” hex codes I specify!

Context is complex, I guess I’m saying, and in ways that are unpredictable in their interactions and sometimes even in their basic characteristics. I wonder whether these authors will give me the tools for controlling all that I’ll need to fulfill their ambitions for me.