Changes in cities can make them better or worse for the people who live in them. Like cities, media systems influence our lives and interactions. So, our media—the technologies of thought and communication available to us—can also be better or worse for us. Yet few researchers develop and design new media explicitly so as to work out better for people.
The Center for Livable Media will find these researchers and support their work. There will be international research groups around certain topics. There will be a physical space in Berlin for residencies and for in-person media experiments. There will be support for building communities of practice around the projects that emerge.
Our initial research groups will focus on two ideas. First, inventing media that give us greater agency in our lives. Second, inventing media that supports a more complete social fabric.
Agency. When we sense that we are making meaningful choices and acts, and deciding how our lives should go, that’s called agency. Some environments encourage meaningful choices, while others funnel us along in a way that limits our agency. Current media does too much funneling.
Social fabric. Each person needs certain relationships in order to live fully and well. We use the term social fabric to encompass the collection of all these relations and their constituent activities. Current media does not support a full range of relationships and activities.
One of our guiding principles.1 is that we will not let abstractions like these become goals. We are dedicated to justifying our work only by how it lands in real, human lives.
When using notification screens, newsfeeds, and voice prompts, we make small and large choices about our lives, about our relationships, and about our time. But often these interactions are structured to take agency away from us, to keep us isolated and “engaging” with the device. Accordingly, CLM supports work on interfaces for meaningful choice. Our researchers will seek out design principles and interface paradigms that help the user to discover and pursue their truest desires, with the greatest agency, rather than sloshing down a designed funnel or operating according to habit.
The time structure of audio, video, text, and infinitely scrolling feeds can put us in an unexpressive, unreflective, and dissociated state. This can create attitudes of passive consumption, both regarding our personal history, and our collective histories and destinies. Accordingly, CLM supports work on intimate and expressive interfaces for confronting histories, not just to “play” them or to scroll through them. Our researchers will develop algorithms, representations, and interfaces for working with recorded histories that provide agency to an individual over a mass of media.
Operating systems APIs and SDKs allow apps to tell us what’s important (via notifications and feeds and other interactions) rather than ensuring apps respect how we want our lives to go. Accordingly, CLM supports developing platform APIs for human dignity. Our researchers will design alternate operating system API layers that provides sanctuary from third party manipulation, respecting and supporting people’s lives and deepest values.
Public actors—whether they are companies, celebrities, artists, governments, or nonprofits—impact networks of people. Sometimes, they try to be responsible for that impact, by using twitter @-replies, analytics dashboards, metrics, or feedback forms. These platforms don't work. A different kind of information is required to be deeply responsible to someone, including knowledge of hopes, values, reasons, and situations. Accordingly, CLM supports work on information systems for responsible networks.
How can others be present in our lives in the most substantial ways? What are the biggest gifts we give one another? Current social networks support certain aspects of relationships but neglect others. Accordingly, CLM prototypes substantial and transformative social networks.
We need many kinds of social relations to live well: clubs, mentorships, partnerships, social routines, etc. The requisite social activity should follow from the expression of social needs. Existing platforms like Meetup and Facebook Groups hardly support the statement of needs or adequate structures where they could be met. Often we end up choosing social relations that fit into an app or the prevailing culture. Accordingly, CLM supports work on active specifications for social needs.
There will be many ways to participate! We will be gathering researchers for these teams and raising funds to support them.
We’ll be launching a training program for those who can apply our research. We’re looking for interested organization who can benefit from our research, and for groups that want to help us run the training.
Please get in touch if you want to help.
Rob Ochshorn and Joe Edelman
 Most idealists hope their work will improve human lives, but idealistic thinking can get dangerous as it moves away from the details of human life. There is a tendency to turn abstract ideas—ideas like “happiness,” “privacy,” “sharing,” “immersive,” “distributed,” “efficient,” “compelling,” or even “social”—into ends. Ideals become ideologies, and work done in their name becomes disconnected from human reality, and sometimes harmful.
For this reason, CLM will support a certain kind of research. We’ll avoid work which doesn’t land in people lives in a practical, everyday, way: for instance, we’ll avoid critical art, critical commentary, and awareness campaigns. We will also avoid anything with structural pressure to pretend to be beneficial: for example, we’ll avoid consumer products and spin-off NGOs.
Instead, CLM will support researchers who develop motivating proofs-of-concept and prototypes, loose methodologies, or simple communities of practice. CLM researchers will be vigilant and explicit about when abstract values become motivations, and will work to evaluate projects by the rich unexpected details of the diverse human lives where their prototypes find expression. ↩