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Augmented Speakers' Corner: Union Square

Felipe Ribeiro

An interface for group discussion in public space, consisting of a cellphone accessible open mic, speakers, and an electronic display, which enable audience interaction including polling, (recorded) audio response, and live audio response.

What: A physical installation in Union Square, New York City, as well as an accompanying website. The physical installation consists of an electronic display, a microphone & speakers, and a laptop running a special software application. The event will have three methods of interaction.

1) Speaking: Speakers get three minutes to talk. They will also have a portion of the display showing their name, their chosen topic/subject/question/whatever, and their time remaining.

2) Voting: The crowd is prompted to vote (via cellphone) on whether the speaker should have more time, or if it is time for a new speaker. As long as a speaker keeps a (growing) majority of the votes, he keeps the mic. The software makes it so that speakers have to win an increasing majority each round, in order to tip the scales towards new voices. But, if a speaker is compelling/interesting, it’s possible he could retain the mic for 15 minutes or more.

3) Live Response: Between one speaker and the next, there will be an opportunity for audience members to respond to the speaker (or talk about whatever they want) live, for up to 30 seconds at a time, by calling a designated local number using their cellphones (or a phone provided onsite).

This event is open to any member of the public who wishes to speak. The allowed formats, topics, and any other rules of the event (including whether or not there should be rules) are going to be debated & determined on the website during the two weeks preceding the event. All are welcome to participate.

When: The event will occur on Tuesday, April 22, 2008, from 4-8pm. The debate about content & formats is ongoing. The intent is to hold recurring events approximately every two weeks all through the summer, leading up to the election in November. This, however, depends on NYC Parks’ Department permission.

Where: Union Square (map), New York City. Online at

How: The software application is a collection of scripts that interact with Asterisk, an open source PBX (Public Branch Exchange). Further documentation will be provided when I can get the F%@!#(@ thing working at a later date. The development of the norms & topics will occur in the days preceding the event as a result of discussions that take place online. You are encouraged to participate by visiting the website and creating an account.

The notion of the Speaker's Corner:
The notion of moderation systems on community websites (Slashdot, Kuro5hin, xkcd, plastic, etc)
The notion of polarization/partizanship on the web (segmentation of information, little crossing of ideological boundaries)
The notion of soundbyte politics - people need to learn to appreciate argumentation - of staking a position and defending it.

When & Where
A regular event, perhaps twice a week over the course of a month or two.
In Union Square, NYC (given the history of Union Square, this would be a fitting location)

Set up a mic & speakers, to amplify the voice of the speaker in Union Square. A large screen & projector to allow for crowd voting on whether the speaker should be allowed to have another "round" of 5 minutes, a backchannel for questions & parallel commentary, and/or visual aides for the speaker.
Software: allows people in Union Square (or online) to call a phone number and record a question to be played back to the speaker, to vote on whether this speaker should be allowed to continue or whether the next speaker should be given a chance.