12503 EF: Remaking Payphones, from African American Culture to Minimalist Technology

06/13/2015 @ 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM
The Palace

Organizers: Benjamin Stokes, Ben Caldwell, Karl Baumann
Presenters: Andrew Schrock, François Bar, Janet E. Dandridge, Patrice Fisher, Rudy Rude, Wesley Groves

Intended Audience:

Those who believe in fighting for local culture through storytelling; no technology experience necessary, but it helps if you’re curious about how to “rebuild payphones” as storytelling hotspots (bonus if you have some experience with Raspberry Pis).

About the Workshop:

Can rebuilding payphones be a grassroots strategy to combat gentrification? We will lead a workshop for empowering communities across the digital divide, while reinforcing local culture. Join artists from LA’s historic African-American neighborhood of Leimert Park, and learn about “payphone redesign.” In the process, we hope to inspire groups to apply our technical and conceptual tools to issues in their local communities.

A key challenge for long-marginalized neighborhoods is how to retain local distinction and community strength. Leimert Park wants to retain its rich African American arts and culture in the face of new investment pouring in after a subway line was announced. Technology alone can actually make gentrification worse. Current models for community technology are often narrow, including short-term hackathons and youth-only training. What’s new? Our model shifts the empowerment debate to the neighborhood level. We build group cohesion tied to physical places, and connect artists with techies to tackle local problems. We particularly focus on bridging community and university groups.

This session has three parts: introducing the movement to reimagine payphones, sharing low-cost tools, and most importantly working in small groups to apply the approach to other cities and social issues.
(1) THE VISION — meet the growing movement to reimagine public objects that blend digital and physical. In the first 10-15 minutes, we will showcase amazing payphone redesigns from around the world, including our own project in South Los Angeles. In our case study, we will describe how we purchased 14 payphones on eBay — and rebuilt them, by rethinking social practices and the hardware. We will bring our installation art piece: a 8-foot rebuilt payphone called “Sankofa Red,” which includes a loudspeaker and microphone for use in public space, and show video of emergent cultural forms — including a “rap the phone” session. We aim to inspire.
(2) TOOLS PREVIEW — we will briefly demonstrate some of the practices and tools that can be used in ultra-low cost settings, helping to cross the digital divide. These include OpenVBX (a free tool for prototyping SMS and voice trees) and our custom Raspberry Pi kit (a low-cost and open-source computer).
(3) NEIGHBORHOOD PROTOTYPING — small groups will rapidly prototype a payphone design for their own neighborhood. Focusing on gentrification, our prototyping process will show how to keep culture and technology in conversation. We’ll begin with paper and embodied prototyping, incorporating game design techniques and aligning with social science research on neighborhood storytelling. (The potential for collective action often depends on a coherent group identity and efficacy beliefs that come from local stories.) Each small group will create a working prototype emphasizing voice-based design, which will be played on Sankofa Red.

Afterward each team be offered a “PiPhone,” our custom PC board that connects old payphones to a Raspberry Pi… and the Internet! Our goal is to foster an international network of grassroots groups who are rebuilding payphones as a way to deepen local culture while fostering more sustainable economic development.

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