Blog Post

When New Media Comes in Old, Ornate Spaces: A Mixed Reality Allegory

Well, we could not be more excited about (or working harder on) theupcoming HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and LearningWinners' Showcase to be held in Chicago April 16-17, starting with anavant garde New Music electronic concert performed by PLOrk (PrincetonLaptop Orchestra) on Thursday night (April 16) at Newberry Library,followed by an exciting interactive day of demos, games, environmentaltreasure hunts, multimedia learning in every size, shape, sound, andeven smell (oh, those cute Black Cloud sensors!) . . . and all inChicago's most historic hotel, the gloriously renovated Palmer House. O. Right. The Palmer House. Not the Bean in Millennial Park. ThePalmer House. Stop. Take that in. The Mixed Reality Sets In.. .


The drawing rooms and conference rooms of the Palmer House are not what you think of first when you hear the phrase: "Multimedia Interactive Digital Learning Expo". . . .


Suffice to say, the elegant and stately old Palmer House, newly renovated and in all its glory, looks more Louis XIV than The Future Is Somewhere Here HASTAC-Style Digital Twenty-First Century.


Here is what Wikipedia has to say about this historic Chicago downtown hotel: "There have been three Palmer House Hotels at the corner of State andMonroe Streets in Chicago. The first (known as "The Palmer") was builtas a wedding present from Potter Palmer to his bride Bertha Honoré. It opened on September 26, 1871, but burned down just thirteen days later October 9, 1871 in the Great Chicago Fire. Palmer immediately set to work rebuilding, and with a $1.7 million signature loan(believed to be the largest individual loan ever secured at the time)constructed one of the fanciest hotels in post-fire Chicago. Designedby architect John M. Van Osdel,the new hotel was seven stories. Its amenities included oversizedrooms, luxurious decor, and sumptuous meals served in grand style. Thefloor of its barber shop was reputedly tiled with silver dollars.Constructed mainly of iron and brick, the hotel was widely advertisedas, "The World's Only Fire Proof Hotel." Famous visitors included presidential hopefuls James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Ulysses S. Grant, William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley; writers Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Oscar Wilde; and actress Sarah Bernhardt. It was completed in 1875.

Palmer House Hotel Ladies Entrance (1903-09-19)

By the 1920s, the business in downtown Chicago could support a muchlarger facility and the Palmer Estate decided to erect a new 25-storyhotel. They hired Holabird & Rocheto design the building. Between 1923 and 1925, the hotel was rebuilt onthe same site ? in stages so not a single day of business was lost. Atthe time it was touted as the largest hotel in the world.In December 1945, Conrad Hilton bought the Palmer House for $20 million. From 1945 to 2005 it was part of the Hilton hotel chain. In 2005 it was sold to Thor Equities, but retains the Hilton name."


As of July 2007, the hotel is open for business while being renovated,under the name "Palmer House Hilton" - rather than the usual Hiltonlogo, it uses a P surrounded by a wreath.As of December 31, 2005, there were a total of 1,639 guest rooms in thehotel, making it the 2nd largest hotel in the city after the Hyatt Regency Chicago."


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So, our Interactive Multimedia Digital Media and Learning Showcase will take place in hallowed halls. In some odd way, the transhistorical mishmash (mashup!) of the ornate old space with the visionary new forms of digital learning is exactly right. Regardless of the virtual space, events take place in real time, in real places, in real circumstances, in real environments.   It is interesting to pursue the architectural metaphor, in fact, because the Palmer House is also a Loop hotel, a downtown, urban mainstay in a part of Chicago that is now beautiful and thriving again (we'll see how that goes in this economy), but for many years suffered the same blight of surburbanization experienced by virtually all American cities.  I'm from Chicago, and grew up in that time--but the Palmer House stayed historic and impressive even when other Chicago institutions were not.   There's a certain loyalty to the Ol Gal who has held her head high even at a time when cities were out of fashion.   There are "mixed realities" in real environments, and changing circumstances over time.  


The whole point of Mixed Reality (and so many of the Digital Media and Learning Winners are explorers of Mixed Reality) is that the digital, the technological does not stay on your screen. We wouldn't want it too. If it does, who needs it? (That's not a rhetorical question.) Alan Kay says "technology is anything invented after you were born" which is a great reminder that "technology" is temporal, ever changing. What lasts are outcomes, interactions, participations, and inspirations that flow from and into technologies, flow from and into everyday lives. If there isn't that transference of digital and actual realities, why bother?


The whole point of participatory learning is that it gets under your skin, into your brain. It nestles in your heart, expanding exponentially out and beyond your imagination. And then, sometimes, when the virtual gets really, really good, it inspires you to walk upon the earth in a new way. You've done microentrepreneurship with those kids from the poorest part of Nairobi, doing more good with a mobile phone than Motorola imagined when they invented the beast (it originally weighed two and a half pounds) decades ago. But then, guess what, you are on a plane, and you are in Nairobi and the connections you forged by cell phone are now person-to-person.


It seems as if every project begins and ends and has its center in a virtual space and every great learning project begins and ends and has its center in the real world.


And sometimes that real world is the Palmer House, a lot of gold and crystal and chandeliers, and, at first glance, it might not look very much like a diverse, egalitarian, utopic digital future.


But, guess what. It is. It really is in some quirky, loopy way. Because what we have all learned so well from these amazing Digital Media and Learning winners is that the future is also the past, the future is so present, and the connections don't stop. Inside the Palmer House and out, the Black Cloud sensors chart what we have done to the earth (and the kids are helping us find ways to change that). Inside and out, there is self-advocacy for those who, too often, are deprived of both "self" and "advocacy" by prejudice, state agencies, formal schools, and the careless insensitivies of the so-called "able." Inside and out, there are games for change that aim to transform the world, not just in the game space but beyond it, and Second Life that breathes new life into kids and learning and relationships all over town.


If you are in Chicago April 16-17, you'll be able to meet them, to seewhat they've been up to this year. You can enjoy the lovely historicrestoration of the Palmer House.You can explore Virtual Peace, and Mobile Movements, and you will be able to Follow the Money, and Fractor, too. MILLEE will show you how young rural girls working in fields in South Asia are playing English-language games on their cell phones and the Fab Lab will show you how it has taken the garbage dumped on the South Bronx by Manhattan and turned it into recycled bounty, with kids and adults learning online digital fabrication methods to make this alchemy happen. Ohmwork? YouthActioNet, Social Media Classrooms. RezEd. Critical Commons. Networking Grassroots Knowledge Globally. Not a one of those projects stays ever and only on the screen. Not one could do what it does in the world without the digital affordances of our ever-new, always-on world.


The world of interactive learning is a tapestry, a bit of brocade. The more I think about it, the more I think the Palmer House, with its history and its renovation, is exactly the right place to mix the realities of the digital and the actual, the virtual and the real, the past and the future. This is the first Digital Media and Learning Competition. It too is historic, even if that history is now, is still being formed. Why not celebrate this future history in one of Chicago's oldest and most historic buildings?


That's the meditation. Now, back to lining up ethernet cables, laptops, speakers, flat screens, projectors, tables, easels . . . and kids, adults, teachers, learners. Winners all, and worldly.




Special thanks to Flickr community members Kables and Vigil 246 for posting these images. Please click on the images for full documentation.


1 comment

Okay, Louis XIV.