Participatory culture and reinvention of everyday life

This text was presented in the International webinar “Post-Pandemic, Participation Matters” organized by School of Communication in Catholic University of Indonesia, Atma Jaya, on 26 June 2020, in Jakarta.

Selamat siang, good afternoon everybody,

First of all I want to congratulate School of communication in Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia for its 11th anniversary, and want to thank my esteemed Indonesian friends Professor Dorien Kartikawangi, head of School of Communication, Dr. Eko Widodo, dean of Faculty of Business Administration and Communication Sciences and their colleagues, for the organization of this international web Conference, in which I have the honor  to participate. My regards go also to the speakers, Professor Peng Hwa Ang, dearest Nia Sarinastiti, dearest Santi Indra Astuti and Láisa Rebelo Cavalcante.

It is a great pleasure for me to be with you, as if I am presently in Jakarta, this beautiful city close to my heart as the father of a batawi baby, and where I met admirable fellows and professors. Which you all good health and good luck in this webinar.

In the following minutes, we will question the concept of participation as a set of socio-cultural practices located in a physical space and a temporality, as well as in the digital environment. Furthermore, we will emphasize the need to invest in digital education – also known as transliteracy – and its accessibility, to include those whom the new post-pandemic world excludes.

The appearance of the novel coronavirus has deconstructed social space as we know it, and significantly disrupted our participation in its spheres. The physical and social distancing, in addition to the closing of state borders, are barely the tip of the iceberg. As a matter of fact, and in the name of safeguarding the public health, it is the very notion of participation – as an act located in space and time – that was significantly turned upside down, and must, therefore, be rethought, restructured and reconstructed in a world where humans and Covid-19 must now coexist.

However, participatory culture existed long before the internet. As for digital, it has and always will revolutionize the way we approach the different aspects of participation.

In his book The Practice of everyday life, French intellectual Michel de Certeau evokes daily invention and creativity through user operations. He proposes a distinction between two concepts: space and place.

“A place is (…) an instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability. A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus, space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it. Space occurs, as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities. On this view, in relation to place, space is like the word when it is spoken (…). In short, space is a practiced place. Thus, the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers.”

Interestingly today – we are witnessing yet new forms of space, in the light of the ongoing pandemic and its impact on our digital culture.

The exemplifications are: (1) the pre-pandemic space; (2) the confinement space; and (3) the deconfinement space. Their respective representations vary according to the geographical, cultural and political context of each country. The pandemic has significantly altered the face-to-face participation in each of the space models.

Let us take the example of natural parks in a Geneva – Switzerland and the Pays de Gex, across the borders in France.

Before the pandemic, the local authorities and different users invested in the digital technology (such as websites, mobile applications, photo galleries and others) in order to develop architectonics that enrich physical spaces. The institutional websites provided information such as a description of the premises, accessibility, regulations, events and maps. Many digital projects flourished, focusing on the intersection of spaces, their stories and socio-cultural practices. Visitors in both areas could, however, swing by and have a first-hand discovery of what the place has to offer.

Nonetheless, when the confinement measures were enforced, albeit to different extents for both sides, visitors in France were asked to carry a travel certificate before leaving home. A simple task, like visiting a park, now required online research. The partial or complete closure of parks in France prevented any participatory activities. Those parks that remained open in Switzerland closed their shops and catering services and imposed severe restrictions on visitors, like precluding the gathering of more than five people or group walks.

Lately, and thanks to the deconfinement, the old participatory practices have taken a blow: despite the reopening of all parks and limited catering services, some shops and areas remain closed to limit social interaction. Other practices emerged, like off the counter orders and self-service, all while respecting strict hygiene rules such as prohibiting handshakes and hugs, wearing a mask, and enforcing the registration of contact details for people going at restaurants for contact tracing.

But what about the participatory culture in all this?

As we all observed, the social networks, blogs and websites, peer-to-peer services and online communities continued to grow and develop. Instead of merely popping by the parks, netizens debated measures taken by the authorities and enquired on how to get there by relying on the individual or collective experiences. In this participatory process, users were looking for accurate information to avert uncertainty.

There is no doubt about it: Sars-Cov-2 disrupted our society and our lives. It now dictates a new way for almost everything, a “new normal”, and we are still struggling to understand how, and why. The “virtual urbanism” professed by Milad Doueihi in 2011 has become our refuge, our new space.

The distinction between real and virtual no longer holds. Digital design structures, developed in the image of the architecture of our homes, parks and cities, is everywhere we look. Its technologies offer possibilities for interaction, action and visibility. Its architectonics recall the architecture in the physical world. They also connect conception and design to social dynamics.

As we may well imagine, working from home and physical distancing measures encouraged and empowered the emergence of participative online communities. It is significant to note that this pandemic has awakened the problem of the digital divide and digital illiteracy, further excluding people and groups from digital environments and online communities.

Today, the architectonics that we have built in the digital world, and that resemble our urban architecture need to be rethought. New digital urbanism, inspired by the changes we made to our lived spaces, must follow suit, and become more user centric.

User experience – a significant factor in the design of websites, platforms and digital applications – must be at the heart of our participation in the physical space, otherwise known as the lived space. Since we now live in both worlds, we should redesign one to reflect the changes we had to bring to the other, thus enabling the new ecosystem to fully function.

We must reinvent our everyday life so that our web and urban architecture complement each other. As such, our participation models must also be reviewed for better and fairer inclusion.

The immense acceleration and growth in the use of digital technology throughout this pandemic require a serious investment in the digital education (transliteracy) and digital accessibility to include those who find themselves excluded from this new world.

Participants should be aware of what they are participating to. They must know to what extent the production and circulation of their media content would contribute to their collective well-being.

Exchange with Dr. Dorien Kartikawangi

This pandemic has taught us many lessons:

  1. It reminded us of our animality and fragile biology. We were social beings long before we became digital subjects. It stands out as an intruder that enforces the adjustment of our space, and of our way of life if we want to survive.
  2. It showed us the similarities between our two worlds, where an urban exodus of individuals who move to the countryside is replicated in the digital, and on how we consume and look for information and share it.
  3. And finally, it teaches us that information is the essence of our civilization and that its presence requires cooperation at the local and international levels to achieve a new participatory culture in what has become our new normal.

Thank you for your attention.