Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: paper spaces

An extra busy day

Turns out a second article of mine, on the role of paper spaces in collaborative and creative work, appeared in today’s issue of the Parsons Journal for Information Mapping. The long weekend pushed several publication dates back, so things are showing up all at once.

One more article and I get a set of steak knives.

[To the tune of Clorofila, “Cantamar ’72,” from the album The Tijuana Sessions Vol.1 (a 3-star song, imo).]

The World Game as a paper space

From the 1970 Mother Earth News article about Buckminster Fuller and the World Game:

I spent part of the morning talking to one of the people who'd worked with Fuller in 1970s at Southern Illinois University, and learned quite a bit about Fuller's use of paper spaces.

As he recalled, there were about fifty people working in Carbondale that summer, and they were all in a 30-foot geodesic dome on campus.

We had a big Dymaxion map of the world in the center. You had to take your shoes off before you walked on it.

We would have certain teams assigned to different parts of the dome, and we'd put our stuff there and it would be our. The map was common space, and you'd have people meeting on it. There were things representing oil, coffee, water, energy, and other resources on the map. You'd walk the planet with other people and say, "what if you did this?" and move the tokens around. That's where all the collaboration would happen. People would meet there, would move resources around the planet. There was a great kinesthetic element to it.

There were people who didn't know Fuller or his work in detail, but what grounded us was being in the dome, and the Dymaxion Map. It was a transformative environment, one that opened you up to thinking in new ways. You would look at a Mercator projection of the world, and the Dymaxion map, and it would be like "Wow! The fog is raised from my eyes." You were put in an exploratory frame of mind, because something you'd seen all your life was transformed: you could see the world in a different way.

Is there are better example ever of a space that better combines media, architecture, and symbolism? Meeting with other groups on a giant map of the earth. Effectively turning the planet into a collaborative space. Even having to take your shoes off– an act of respect in many cultures– before you walked on the earth.

My plan with this article is to talk about the World Map and a couple other things as examples of paper spaces, to complement the expert workshops case, and then to talk more broadly about the long history of paper spaces– essentially to bring an HCI and architectural history sensibility to the history of the book and scholarship. Watch this space.

Paper spaces

Because I’m a whore for attention, or perhaps want to put put all my friends to sleep (only I know for sure), I’ve posted my latest article, “Paper Spaces: Visualizing the Future,” on Future2.

[To the tune of Tabla Beat Science, “Nafeken,” from the album Live In San Francisco At Stern Grove (a 3-star song, imo).]

Paper Spaces: Visualizing the Future

Years ago, I read Richard Harper and Abigail Sellen's Myth of the Paperless Office. For me, it's like Annie Hall or Houses of the Holy or David Brownlee's modern architecture class: it's one of those works that blows you away when you first encounter it, and still resonates years later. Almost immediately after reading the book, I started thinking about how paper media and their affordances are used– usually quite unself-consciously– by futurists in expert workshops.

The result is an article titled "Paper Spaces: Visualizing the Future." Like many of my articles, it's taken an unseemly amount of time to get into press, but it's finally coming out this spring in World Futures Review. A PDF of the latest draft is available here.

Here's the big argument, from the introduction:

We tend to think of space as irrelevant in creative work, or at best only indirectly influential: for example, architects may use a mix of open office plans, natural lighting, and bold colors to create stimulating, useful workspaces. But for workshops, and for the kinds of visual processes that many futurists use, the relationship between space, ideas, and creativity is much more intimate. Ideas are embodied in materials; they become cognitive and physical spaces that literally surround groups; and the process of creating those spaces can promote a sense of group identity and common vision for the future.

I use the term "paper spaces" to describe these environments, and to highlight several things. First, we're used to thinking of things made of paper as physical objects whose qualities help shape the experience of reading, but it's useful to pay attention to their spatial and architectural qualities as well. Large visuals aren't just things: they're spaces that possess some of the qualities of desks or offices. Workshops exploit their scale and physicality to promote social activity between workshop participants. In this case, the spatiality of paper is fairly self-evident; but many of our interactions with paper, books, and writing have a spatial quality. Scholars could gain much by analyzing print media using conceptual tools from architecture, design, and human-computer interaction, as well as literary theory and book history.

Second, it warns us against taking too passive or formal a view of visual tools in business, of treating them like paintings on a wall. In the way users interact with them– they're annotated, extended, argued over, and played with– they're more like Legos than landscapes. The process of creating maps, and the maps themselves, both reflect a set of attitudes about how to understand and prepare for the future, one that emphasizes user involvement, and the need for actors to develop and possess shared visions of the future. (Ironically, there may be more studies of large interactive displays and other digital media, than of the old media they're meant to displace. )

Third, the term "paper spaces" highlights their hybrid, ephemeral quality. They work because they're simultaneously interactive media and workspace, but their lives are brief and easy to overlook: they are designed to support idea- and image-making, but leave little trace of themselves…. [Despite this, though,] paper spaces are ubiquitous: most of our interactions with texts and other media have a spatial dimension that affects the ways we read, think, and create.

© 2019 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

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