From Place to Space: Existing on the New Transmedia Canvas

Beth Coleman has been on the road lately. She occasionally settles in one spot, but she prefers an unstructured space, unbounded by the monastic scholarly tradition in which she was trained. That is, a virtual space.

She is living in the new transmedia utopia, where the virtual and the real co-exist seamlessly. Having spent several years as an assistant professor of Comparative Media at MIT, Coleman has taken on a brand new position as the director of the City as Platform lab, at the Games Institute, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. She has been charged with exploring everything from the library to automobile efficiencies to health care as possible venues for innovation collaboration and design.

“We’re working on designs in which art and culture lead instead of having technologists say, ‘Here’s your app, and here’s your phone,’” Coleman explains. “There’s a huge opportunity at this moment to fill in this space with the kind of world we want to live in.”

What she envisions is not a cityscape where everyone is armed with a smart phone leading “frictionless lives.” That world may be clean and efficient, but as Coleman points out, “There are also great creative frictions that will just get left in the dirt. We want to be in a city where chance encounters occur that can be serendipitous. We want to create opportunities for that.”

Creating those opportunities means experimenting, as Coleman does, with design labs where artists, scientists, designers, and other innovators can bump shoulders. They have unlikely conversations, producing a “cultural alchemy” that pushes content onto different media that wrap themselves around the globe in every time zone. It is an expanding, amorphous space to which we are only beginning to adjust. Coleman calls this new way of being in the world “x-reality,” which she explores in her book Hello Avatar.

“We have so strongly integrated networked media into our lives that it’s quite clear we’re not leading alternate lives, but we’re living our lives spread out across different platforms,” she explains. “People can see bits and pieces of your activity. It’s an augmented space, and unless something calamitous happens, it will only increase.”

Her own career reflects this reality. With a doctorate in comparative literature from NYU, she is also a sound and film artist, an author, cultural theorist, and lab director. She has spread herself out across numerous platforms that produce the coherent richness of her life. To Coleman, virtuality and ubiquitous computing are extraordinary techniques through which she enlarges her own existence as an individual, an artist, and a scholar.

Herein lies the irony of her present endeavors: she finds herself on the road—literally—to explore the positive potential of x-reality. But that is the point, she says. By collaborating across divergent media, we meet people we might not otherwise have known. More often than not, those virtual connections become face-to-face encounters. Coleman emphasizes that “co-presence,” or presence at a distance, is both a supplement and a precursor to vital real world connection.

We are at crossroads, she says, in terms of what we will design and what we will accept as normative ways of being present to one another. Our human nature roots us in the idea of place as a specific location that contains objects, memories, people—things that orient us and tell us who we are. When our place changes, our subjectivity shifts. Now we have to think in terms of space—an undefined area of human activity that may have no physical locus in the world, but where we might nonetheless exist.

The spaces created by transmedia call for new ways of perceiving how we relate to the world. We may have to redefine ourselves, and that is what Coleman finds so promising about x-reality. Just by opening up our mobile devices, we can invite others into our lives—through talking, texting or visual engagement. We make ourselves present elsewhere via the many portals that lead from where we sit to where we would like to be.

“It’s too tantalizing and exciting to think of the things that can be done,” Coleman says. “We have transmedia, so let’s use it well.”

cms.mit.edu/people/bcoleman/