For the past eight years, I have worked on the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets overlooking the historic Boston Common, the first public park in the United States. I walk across the park every morning. As I do, I often contemplate the role that the town square plays in shaping of political discourse and national identity formation. As the location of the public sphere, the town square is where we air grievances, display solidarity, express our difference, celebrate our similarities, remember and mourn. Public hangings took place on the Common until 1817, an example of the public reinforcement of the shared values of right and wrong. The Common still maintains a tradition of soapbox oratory and we even have a town crier, who exchanges weather forecast and sport scores for spare change.
This is why monuments and memorials are located in town squares. As Greg Ulmer points out in his book Electronic Monuments, it is an expression and acknowledgment of sacrifice on behalf of shared values. The public square is a geographical anchor for the public sphere. As Benedict Anderson argued in Imagined Communities, the nation state was made possible, in part, by the printing press, including the invention of associated forms and practices such as the novel, contributing to the creation of national languages. Newspapers and the rise of a mass reading public within industrialization are part of this history.
In the early 1990s we witnessed the migration of the public sphere from the physical realm, the town square and its print augmentation, to the virtual realm, the Internet. In effect, the location of public discourse and the site of national identity formation has been extended into the virtual world. As Bernard Stiegler, among others, has argued, this virtual dimension, with its industrialization of collective memory, is again transforming the “We,” away from the nation state to a new collectivity that he fears will be an ersatz global “America.”
This threat/promise is a context for experiments in augmented reality which allows us to overlay this virtual public sphere onto our experience of the physical, cultural world. It is important to keep in mind that the practices of the virtual public sphere have to be invented, just as the equipment is invented. What is the future of “We” in electracy? It is open to invention. I hope to explore the potential of augmented reality as public art, mobile location based monuments and virtual memorials.