A.10: Ethics in Action: Place-Based Ethics and Experience Architecture

Reviewed by Brett Oppegaard, University of Hawai'i (brett.oppegaard@hawaii.edu)

Chair: Russell Willerton, Boise State University
Speakers: Derek G. Ross, Auburn University, “Leopold’s Land Ethic: (Re)envisioning Place in Technical Communication”
Russell Willerton, Boise State University, "Martin Buber’s Narrow Ridge: A Central Place for Ethical Action"
Michael Salvo, Purdue University, “Dialogic Ethics and Experience Architecture: Tracing Artifacts”

GPS hardware on every smart device has enabled the rise of both location-tracking capabilities and locative media. The potential for place-based content tailored to personal context, therefore has emerged with these surveillance-state concerns, and related issues, in tow.

The three presenters—Derek G. Ross (Auburn University), Russell Willerton (Boise State University), and Michael Salvo (Purdue University)—proposed alternative theoretical paradigms for approaching the rapidly evolving ethical dynamic of place-based media. Most of us might want information connected to us, related to where we are, but we also want to know at what cost.

Not much scholarship has been done in this realm to date, at least from a technical communication perspective. So the trio offered provocative and diverse ideas about how to get started addressing these types of issues from a conceptual standpoint.

Ross, speaking first, focused on Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic,” in which the community of stakeholders in any place-based decision is enlarged from just humans to also include animals, plants, soils and waters, or collectively, the land. A key concern here, Ross argued, is if people think they have an indirect or direct duty to the ecosystem. With a direct duty to the land, humans have a moral obligation to consider the full ecosystem in terms of assigning equity to the stakeholders. In such situations, biotic and inanimate communities typically get ascribed low or no economic value (and no moral standing). Human actors, and their needs, therefore hold and sway the power. But with what Ross and Willerton describe as a hybrid place-based ethic, thoughtful people might be able to make richer, more ethically sound choices.

Willerton then described where such choices conceptually could be made. That brought into the conversation Martin Buber (1947/2002) and his ideas about the narrow ridge. Early in his long career as a philosophical author, Buber described life as an intimidating journey along a narrow ridge surrounded on both sides by an abyss. Later, Buber described the narrow ridge as a place between opposing camps. These camps are separated by existential mistrust between them. But, if they can figure out a way to come together on the precarious narrow ridge, and remain committed to staying there and working on the situation together, they can use it as a place for connection and community.

The two also applied their hybrid-ethic idea to a couple of cases: One involving documentation for mortgage loans and the other the restyling of the federal rules of evidence, to determine how the land ethic and the narrow ridge were represented. As part of that process, they developed several key principles as starting points for the continuing discussion. Those were to:

  1. actively acknowledge the value of the environment in any decision-making process;
  2. actively seek a space that participants can share;
  3. actively seek grounds for dialogue; and
  4. celebrate dialogue where it occurs.

Salvo collaborated on his portion of this presentation with Liza Potts of Michigan State, who was not in attendance. Salvo spoke last and wrapped the conversation into his poetic description of the experience-architecture aspects of three places: Fallingwater, the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright home integrated with a creek in Pennsylvania, the Church of the Saint Louis of the French in Rome; and a League of Legends location within the land of Valoran, a virtual place within a massive multiplayer online game. His overriding research questions were, “how do we experience spaces?” and “what experience has been architected for use of the space?”

In that discussion, Salvo referenced prominently Anders Fagerjord (2011) and Edward Casey (1996), including displaying the Casey quote: “Just as there are no places without the bodies that sustain and vivify them, so there are no lived bodies without the places they inhabit and traverse" (p. 24). In other words, Salvo noted, they are connatural terms, and they interanimate themselves.

Rome and Valoran, within League of Legends, are both completely constructed spaces, Salvo said, while Fallingwater integrated a natural place with architecture designed to preserve that initial sense of place, rather than scraping the land to its foundations and starting from scratch.

Fallingwater, though, is not as purely natural as it might seem on its surface, Salvo commented. He mentioned walking through a field of flowers to get to the house, and admiring that natural beauty, before being led through a gift shop and cafeteria on the way to a tour of the home. The home was designed to be lived in, by specific people, Salvo added, yet it now functions entirely as a museum of sorts. The story of Fallingwater is about Wright as well as the patrons and the location, he said, but it also is about Wright’s choice of materials, some of which were poor, and the constant maintenance needed to keep the structure from falling into disrepair and being reclaimed by the environment.

As part of the complexities of place-creation, many narratives coexist, yet only some are accessible at the surface of public discourse. The ethics of what gets told about a place, and what doesn’t also should be a part of the larger theoretical discussion.

For players of the game, the League of Legends, the landscape is as real as Fallingwater, Salvo said. People from around the world gather there and have experiences together. Some are producing the space and defining the places. Some are only consumers. And some are both producing and consuming.

This type of hybrid dynamic (of people in various physical places gathering in particular virtual spaces) can be related to a distributed physical-world company, with headquarters and offices in multiple locations. The information infrastructure and interface design creates the experiences, blending physical and digital stimuli to create a unified sensation. The ethics of such a situation determines how people will be treated and why they will be treated in those ways.

With technological developments creating a variety of new experiences, especially through the potential of contextual awareness and locative media, place-based ethical decisions are being made. But what are the theoretical foundations of those decisions? What are their guiding principles? Who is choosing these frameworks and why? These are just some of the intriguing questions that this topic of discussion could open in future research.


Buber, Martin. (2002). Between man and man (Ronald Gregor-Smith, Trans.). London, UK: Routledge. (Original work published 1947)

Casey, Edward S. (1996). How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time: Phenomenological Prolegomena. In Steven Feld & Keith H. Basso (Eds.), Senses of place (pp. 13–52). Sante Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Fagerjord, Anders. (2011). Between place and interface: Designing situated sound for the iPhone. Computers and Composition, 28(3), 255–263. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2011.07.001

Created by OliviaW. Last Modification: Tuesday January 3, 2017 22:40:10 GMT-0000 by ccccreviews.