Who will use new media?

Filed under: — Patrick @ 9:41 pm on

 I spent a chunk of the summer in Switzerland, visiting family and friends. For a few weeks we were up in Comologno at the ancestral home of my wife’s family. As much as I was enjoying the disconnection from TV, telephones, email, etc., I ended up thinking about some of my current work in the context of life up there. When you go up to these little villages, it seems at first like you are stepping back in time. Not long ago the majority of people who lived way up in the Alpine valleys lived off of farming and some handcrafts, and you still see a lot of cows, goats and handwork. People are often cut off for days or even weeks when snows close the only road in and out of the valley, and life in general seems to move at a different pace. At the same time, when you sit down for coffee with folks who live there year round, the discussion comes around to contemporary themes - some friends of ours were complaining that DSL service only came up to Russo (a few villages down the valley), and so they were stuck with dial-up internet access. 

Today, tourism is the main source of income for the towns. In Comologno, they have restored one of the mansions built by a wealthy family, and have turned it into a hotel - the Palazzo Gamboni. Everyone likes the hotel, and in the evenings locals mix with the tourists down at the Palazign (the best (well, only) bar in town). But they need to draw more tourists to be successful, and although there are tourists agencies all over promoting them, it is hard to stand out from the crowd.

What makes the Onsernone valley special to me are all the stories. Aline Valangin wrote many based upon her stay during the war years, and Max Frisch also lived in the valley for a while. My great aunt by marriage is of the opinion (at least after a few glasses of wine) that the main character in Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän (Man in the Holocene) is loosely based on her late husband. Sit with the old-timers in Palazign and you will hear stories about life, the towns, the people and their remarkable resilience in the face of a world determined to move at a faster pace. These stories are what keep me going back, and if they could more easily tell their stories to potential tourists, it would certainly draw more people up here.

So what does all this have to do with semantic multimedia? Much of what we have been thinking about is ways to make it easier for people to be media creators, rather than just media consumers. We are looking for ways to more easily gather anecdotes and annotations (e.g. the stories behind old photos, or the villagers’ stories of life with Valangin and Frisch), and to support community curation of assets like these, so that we can synthesize multimedia narratives. There are lots of people working on this - Jane Hunter et al. with the Indigenous Knowledge Management Project, various EU projects, and some of my SIMS colleages. I also got to talking with my old friend Alex Cetkovic, now teaching in the New Media group at the Art University in Zürich, and he was telling me about some interesting projects in Italy dealing with architecture, design and storytelling.

Back in SF and hopping almost daily over to Berkeley, it feels like a long way from the evening discussions in Palazign with Rita and Hans-Ruedi over a glass of Nocino. But I keep thinking about them and the folks at the Palazzo. They are relatively technology savvy, and understand that effective media is a useful marketing tool. Nevertheless, gathering stories and media into some usable multimedia form is beyond them at this point. I think we can make a difference for them. If we can make some of our ideas work, it will make a difference not just to the gadget toting Gen-X and Gen-Y crowds, but as well to to people in (wonderfully) far away places. I find that appealing, and inspiring.

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