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The Internet of People

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I meet a lot of interesting people. It’s my favourite thing to do, and it’s how I work best. But in general, I don’t even like people! At least not more than animals, say, or as an alternative to living out the rest of my days alone on a barren radiation-blasted planet with only a beachball with a face drawn on for company.

But people are responsible for so much, and if you’re trying get to the bottom of an idea – trace it right to its roots – you’ll very often find yourself at someone, not something. So you might as well start with a human, because the chances are, that’s where you’ll end up anyway. Happenstance is all about that, and as we look towards the end of our final week, it feels like this is the beginning of something. When you start with people you’ll find you can go further and further and further, because people are special tangles that spin out in every direction forever. (more…)

Design Jam Bristol

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Design Jams are one day design sessions during which people team up to solve engaging UX challenges. While conferences and talks are very popular in the UX community, there aren’t many opportunities for actual collaboration, like the “hackdays” enjoyed by the development community. Design Jams get people together to learn from each other while working on actual problems.

Saturday 16th we had a deisgn jam at Spike Island. The sessions champion open-source thinking and are facilitated by volunteer mentors. We were lucky to have some excellent mentors, Dan Williams (creative technologist at Pervasive Media Studio), Simon Levitt (creative technologist at Imagination) and Sjors Timmer (information architect at Sapient Nitro). Their task was to facilitate the groups in developing their ideas.

The design challenge is kept secret until the day of the event, although most people could at least guess the theme from the venue and mentors. The brief was:

How can we make a visit to an art gallery more compelling and rewarding?

Things to think about:

How can we engage audiences and start conversations? How can we help people connect with the art?

If you’re especially interested in a particular exhibit or piece, what more information would you want to know about it? How could that information be presented? How would the information be collected in the first place? With many museums and galleries (like Spike Island), what is on exhibit is just a very small piece of what actually goes on. What if you could see through the walls? How would this be possible?

At a recent talk at the Royal Society about ‘Why Science Matters’, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said something along the lines of “the arts/culture makes life worth living and technology enables this”. How? Consider a person who doesn’t regularly go to galleries or museums. How would they find out about what what’s going on and if there is something they would enjoy going to? How could we help this person during their visit? What would make them connect with the art, other people? What happens after this person leaves? What have they gained? What do they take with them and what do they do with this new experience/learning.

Normally Design Jams have an hour for dividing people into groups followed by team building. We did things a little differently, kicking off with a tour around Spike Island.
I spent about 2 minutes dividing people into random groups, and we had 4 groups with 4-5 people in. Everyone was given loads of post-it-s, flip-charts, marker pens of various colours, and all the tea, coffee, fruit and pastries they could possibly want.

After a playing an icebreaker game, they were told the challenge and everyone started brainstorming, researching and exploring. It didn’t take long before the first group set up to do some research around Spike Island, talking to the visitors, exploring the gallery etc.

We had interim presentations where the groups presented their ideas so far, followed by questions and feedback.

After lunch was the ‘Design phase’ were groups were encouraged to refine their idea, and do some wire-framing, UI exploration, storyboards, prototypes, guerrilla testing etc.

The final presentations were filmed and will be available soon.

Fun was had by all.

Week 7, 8 & 9 – summary

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Oh dear, what happened to week 7, 8 blog posts (I hear you ask)?

Good question. Here’s a little re-cap of what you missed (thanks offbott for the reminders!)

Week 7

This week was mainly taken up with:

  • creating a test version of the site gallery website, so that we could have a good tinker with the layout
  • investigating the building’s network wiring and working out how we could get the office in to a better shape
  • an official rehearsal for our TedX Sheffield talk

Week 8 – the broken back week

I really kernackered my back on Wednesday morning, which meant that I ended up working a bit on .. ahem.. Cathy & Heathcliff’s back ends from home. Thursday was a bit better and we came up with the idea of building a ‘who’s in the house’ lighting board. Leila has been doing lots of soldering. Our IP camera arrived on Friday and we had it looking around the office with it’s spooky eye.

Week 9 – the TedX and Sheffield Doc/Fest Week

Tuesday was Sheffield TedX and we were invited to do a 10 minute talk as part of the whole shebang. We managed to get Heathcliff working by borrowing a MacMini from Site, getting it to pick up the Wi-fi in the Crucible (yes, THAT crucible in Sheffield) and share it’s ethernet connection. Attendees could then send SMS to Heathcliff and up in the refreshment area, he’s print out their messages.

We weren’t in the main part of the Crucible, but the Crucible studio which has room for about 270 people. I will confess and say that I felt the pressure for this one. Speaking in front of 270 people is one thing, being filmed ready for the TedX channel on YouTube is something else again!

I think we did ok and people had nice things to say about us. Hurrah! The other speakers were, in the main, fantastic! Inspiring stuff.

Then, Wednesday was the XO Summit as part of Doc/Fest, which I managed to… errr, attend. Bumped in to and had a chat with the Right Honourable Honor Harger and caught up with some people I’d met the day before.

Thursday was more Cathy & Heathcliff re-writing. Getting rid of the awful PHP which we’d used initially and the gmail to ifttt to twitter thing and replacing it with a bit of Ruby and Sinatra which I got running on Heroku (was it any co-incidence that Heroku had a major outage overnight afterwards? I hope so!)

Then today.. blogging ahoy!


This is a Working Shop

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Next week at Lighthouse, I’m going to attempt to create the atmosphere of a workshop, for code. I mean a working shop, a place where work is being done.

For a while now, I’ve been growing more conscious of the gap between traditional ideas of work and craft, and modern technologies. It’s not a new observation, but with the increasing fetishisation of the one-off, the authentic, the artisanal and the hand-made—not least by technologists—it seems worth worrying at.

If you go into a carpentry workshop, you’ll see sawdust on the floor. Work is being done here. You may not understand the work, that’s OK, you’re not a carpenter and you don’t have to be, but you get the sense that something is being done, a skill is being exercised, a craft is being performed. And at the end of the process which is occurring, in part because of the visibility of the craft, you appreciate the value of a chair or table, not because you can make one yourself, not because you have any specialised knowledge, but you understand that work, time and skill went into this thing.

This is a problem when we come to contemporary, technological skills. It is a problem for the workers, because their work, their skill, their craft (and we will need to parse these words carefully), are not valued and appreciated in the way traditional work is, leading to both exploitation and argument on the one hand (‘why should I pay that?’, ‘why isn’t it finished yet?’), and a technological quasi-priesthood on the other, which does nobody any good. And it’s a problem for everyone else too: a barrier to communication and realisation of shared projects, and in the extreme case, a kind of technological determinism, with all the decisions made by the priesthood.

Richard Sennet notes this dilemma in his book The Craftsman, in a discussion about Hannah Arendt’s division between Animal laborans (the simple worker) and Homo faber (the critical maker) : “For Arendt, the mind engages once labor is done. Another, more balanced view is that thinking and feeling are contained within the process of making. The sharp edge of this perhaps self-evident observation lies in its address to Pandoras box. Leaving the public to “sort out the problem” after the work is done means confronting people with usually irreversible facts on the ground. Engagement must start earlier, requires a fuller, better understanding of the process by which people go about producing things, a more materialistic engagement than that found among thinkers of Arendt’s stripe.”

At another point in the book, Sennet writes of the usefulness of focussing on craft in understanding all aspects of human culture and society because of the visibility of its products: “Because cloth, pots, tools, and machines are solid objects, we can return to them again and again in time; we can linger as we cannot in the flow of a discussion.”

But this is precisely what we cannot do with notional objects, software, code: we cannot linger before them. But can we imagine a way to do so?

Nat also pointed me towards these excellent words from Scott Porad, on making software: “First, name one other thing in the world, he said, that is used by so many people and which is created entirely by hand? Stuff that is made by hand is hard to make, and even more hard to make well, and tends to be less sturdy than things made by machines. […] Plus, in the history of the world, he said, is there one thing you can think of that has been hand-made, and on such a large scale as software, that was as complex?”

I don’t agree with his later point about opinions (everyone has those…), but the notion of code as something that is also made by hand is crucial here.

Next week, from the 11th to the 15th of June, I’m going to take over the reception area in Lighthouse and code in public. I’m going to code things to make code more visible, I’m going to print it out, project it, talk about it and interrogate it. And I’m going to do the same with ideas about craft and working with your hands. I’m not sure exactly where it’s going to go, but I’ll report back. And if you’re in Brighton, feel free to drop by (this is not a public exhibition as such, but I’m open to visitors), and if you’re not, do leave a comment with your thoughts.

Lighthouse talk: Opinions are non-contemporary

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On May 23rd, I gave a quick lunchtime talk at Lighthouse, as part of a Happenstance open day.

It was essentially a quotedump of what’s in my head at the moment, but several people asked for the links mentioned, which I also posted at, so here goes.

The collective false memory syndrome that the UK is being implanted with, in regard of the Jubilee in particular, but everything from the Festival of Britain to “austerity”, is really weird and a little bit frightening; but imagine if we could invert it. Instead of falsifying the past to transform and rationalise the present, we could engineer the future in order to finally reach it. This is a pretty standard design fiction conjecture except I don’t care about design and people might actually get the idea if you explained in in terms of the Jubilee: the dark nostalgia mirror of empire that is eating the real. Eject! Eject!

For the past decade or so, the only critics of science fiction I pay any attention to, all three of them, have been slyly declaring that the Future is over. I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming that this is akin to the declaration that history was over, and just as silly. But really I think they’re talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion. People my age are products of the culture of the capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that. If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don’t know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one’s own culture.

William Gibson, BookExpo America, May 2010

We grew up with the Internet and on the Internet. This is what makes us different; this is what makes the crucial, although surprising from your point of view, difference: we do not ‘surf’ and the internet to us is not a ‘place’ or ‘virtual space’. The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment. We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it. If we were to tell our bildnungsroman to you, the analog, we could say there was a natural Internet aspect to every single experience that has shaped us. We made friends and enemies online, we prepared cribs for tests online, we planned parties and studying sessions online, we fell in love and broke up online. The Web to us is not a technology which we had to learn and which we managed to get a grip of. The Web is a process, happening continuously and continuously transforming before our eyes; with us and through us. Technologies appear and then dissolve in the peripheries, websites are built, they bloom and then pass away, but the Web continues, because we are the Web; we, communicating with one another in a way that comes naturally to us, more intense and more efficient than ever before in the history of mankind.

Piotr Czerski, We, the Web Kids (translated by Marta Szreder)

The internet is the outsourcing of our mental faculties, but books, written and recorded music, literature and song have been technologies for remotely storing mental faculties—culture—in physical media and in delay loops, for quite some time.

I asked “Why is outsourcing our memory different to outsourcing our food or electricity supplies?”

And Will replied “Maybe we’ll look back on the era of “subsistence memory” with the same horror as we regard subsistence farming.”

Er, me. The Elixir of Reminding.

Today we live in a world filled with awesome possibilities, both good and bad. The rush of technology is so rapid, to stay abreast of it has become more and more difficult. Our understanding of the physical universe continues to grow and astonish us with its marvelous complexity.

To be an artist in these times of explosive change is, for me, a privilege and a challenge. My goal is to document in my drawings and paintings a small part of this changing world and to anticipate in my work, the future that lies ahead.

Robert McCall, artist’s statement, 1981

Art occasionally rises to the challenge of actually cracking open a window onto the actual present, but mostly restricts itself to creating dissonance in the mainstream’s view of the imagined present, a relative rather than absolute dialectic. […]

The future is a stream of bug reports in the normalcy-maintenance software that keeps getting patched, maintaining a hackstable present Field. […]

If your understanding of the present were a coherent understanding and appreciation of your reality, you would be able to communicate it. I am going to borrow terms from John Friedman and distinguish between two sorts of conceptual metaphors we use to comprehend present reality: appreciative and instrumental. […]

Instrumental conceptual metaphors allow us to function. Appreciative ones allow us to make sense of our lives and communicate such understanding.

So our failure to communicate the idea of Instagram to somebody in 3000 BC is due to an atemporal and asymmetric incomprehension: we possess good instrumental metaphors but poor appreciative ones.

Venkatesh Rao, Welcome to the Future Nauseous

For at least five years, we’ve been working with the same operating logic in the consumer technology game. This is what it looks like:

There will be ratings and photos and a network of friends imported, borrowed, or stolen from one of the big social networks. There will be an emphasis on connections between people, things, and places. That is to say, the software you run on your phone will try to get you to help it understand what and who you care about out there in the world. Because all that stuff can be transmuted into valuable information for advertisers.

That paradigm has run its course. It’s not quite over yet, but I think we’re into the mobile social fin de siècle.

Alexis Madrigal, The Jig Is Up: Time to Get Past Facebook and Invent a New Future

To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.

Julian Assange, State and Terrorist Conspiracies

Technology is our Modernity

Kazys Vanelis

And at the end I said something about my current dilemma, summarised in the title quote above (which was said to me by a curator quitting her job), that opinions are no longer a useful or appropriate organising principle, that reckoning is no longer a scarcity, that the network now so obviously and explicitly extends beyond the bounds of any individual being able to say anything useful or conclusive on or about it in isolation, that telling someone your opinion is like telling them about your dreams.

Open House – Site Gallery

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I know people always say things like this, but the weeks really feel like they’ve flown by. We’re over half way through and it’s starting to hit us that this is going to end quite soon. But it’s the tunnel at the end of the light, or something, because we’re having such a good time. We feel constantly fortunate to be doing this, and now we’ve picked up some pace we’re keen to keep powering through to the end.

As you may have seen from the posts below this one, all three teams are having halfway-celebrating public events at the moment, and for James and I the Open House took place on Friday afternoon.


Week 4: The printers go public

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We chucked Cathy and Heathcliff in at the deep end on Saturday. Having set them up to print SMS, we wrote their numbers on them, and had them right on the door in reception, like a visitors’ book! Saturday was the take-down party of the Bill Drummond exhibition “Ragworts” and Bill was here along with a lot of other people. The printers were working hard all day – particularly when a group of sixth formers took themselves off on a Drummond adventure. Following some of the instructions laid out in one of his works, they took buses out of town and sent observations about the amusing minutiae of their adventures to Cathy and Heathcliff. Everything went brilliantly, their messages were fantastic, and the apart from a small wobble at the start (James went along to fix them, by which time they’d already fixed themselves) they were an unqualified success!

Then I came in this morning and found all Cathy’s innards on my desk, covered in the sort of html a machine would display should it be woken up suddenly in the middle of an operation. It turned out that back in London, their Creator James Adam had been upgrading, disturbing Cathy and risking all our lives. They’re fine now, don’t worry. We’ve spent quite a lot of today trying to buy the right combination of things to get them road-worthy: more to follow on this. This week we’ve also had a day in a branding workshop (interesting trying to nail down the word ‘innovation’), half a day in the office (long story), and half a day at home wrestling with Processing.

I couldn’t be at C&H’s inauguration in person on Saturday, because I was co-hosting an Imperica/Sci-fi London event at the BFI. It was a fantastic weekend celebrating 30 years since the birth of the ZX Spectrum, and the organiser Paul took on board some of my suggestions for speakers, meaning I was able to hang out with some of the brains whose work I admire most (as well as some amazing new people). After the event I met up with a couple of friends, one of whom has done some excellent Kinect hacking. The whole thing was incredibly inspiring for Happenstance and gave me loads of ideas. It made me think a lot about the way people learn, and how creative thinking is all about working around the edges. So much suddenly feels possible in a way it didn’t before. But look, rather than bore you here, I’ll follow up in more detail over on my own blog,

Week 3: Bringing print to life

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It’s been a good, busy week for us in Sheffield. We’ve had fewer meetings, and have picked up pace with building. I’ve been writing C to run servos off my laptop usb in Starbucks and soldering a microcontroller in my living room. A robotic drawing machine kit has arrived. But best of all, as James has explained below, we went dark for two of our three days to get the printers tweeting text messages (long story) – working towards something for the Bill Drummond take-down party this weekend. Somehow we got it finished, and the printers are now on display in reception, quietly challenging people to send them a text.

And just because I noticed it was possible, I’ve activated voicemail for them too, so you can give them an actual call on your phone. (Heathcliff: +44 114 303 1476 and Cathy: +44 114 303 1477) I set up a php page on my domain, filled it with a load of random extracts from Wuthering Heights, and asked Twilio’s robot lady to read them out to anyone who calls, hoping to speak to our tragic heroes. Be careful though, it’s addictive. Well, it is for me, anyway. Ahem.

OK, none of this is exactly problem-solving, but quite apart from the fact it’s obviously uplifting and motivating for us to be making things, it might turn out to have an impact on local attitudes to technology because it is a demonstration of what we think is fun about computing. The printers specificially will be visible beyond the gallery to the art-going community, and to the sixth form students trialling it on Saturday. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the inspirational impact of seeing people getting excited about making something fun. Let’s face it: we didn’t just get into tech for its brilliant usefulness – we got into it because we saw how it can bring ideas to life. Its excitingness was shown to us, and we became excited as a result. We want to pass a bit of that joy on to the Site gallery when we leave. We hope they’ll be inspired by our enthusiasm, and that the things we make and the pleasure of making will stay in the system. We want to leave them with a frozen Megatron to be reverse engineered into new ideas, not a replicant, with planned obsolescence.

The true creator of C&H, James Adam (as seen in Wired recently) kindly talked about us in his weeknotes today, mentioning that we’d given his printers identities. It’s more than that; to get all this working we’ve had to give them Twitter accounts, gmail accounts, dates of birth and phone numbers.  Amazing to think we only got them last week. They grow up so fast.

Oblique Innovation

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“James, do you know how to work the internet?” For many arts organisations (and many researchers blogging about arts organisations, let’s be honest) technology is a necessary evil, something to be endured – if it doesn’t work, it probably wasn’t supposed to, we’ll muddle through. If one laptop clogs up, use another. If the email clients don’t speak to each other, open another window. Arts organisations tend to be project-focused, not process-oriented. Technology is part of the cluttered terrain standing between us and our goals.

Technologists are more likely to look for a better method – smarter, quicker, more efficient. Some of Happenstance’s innovations have been about the organisations adopting new ways of working with technology, new software, new tools, but also a changing attitude to technology as something which enables, doesn’t just get in the way. Embedding technology into an arts organisation means reconnecting ends and means, method and product.

The quick fix – sorting out the wireless, rebooting a monitor, fixing the website – doesn’t sound like a transformative process. But a lot of the organisational change we are witnessing through Happenstance is oblique – it happens across and sideways from the point of interaction. At the start of this process, there was talk of workshops on agile methodology, drop-in sessions – in reality the learning has been implicit rather than explicit – just watching over the shoulder of the technologists, picking up some of their kit and playing with it, allows arts organisation to adopt or adapt some of their techniques, as well as a different attitude to technique and technology. The residents may not (yet) be able to fix the internet for you, but they might encourage arts organisations (and researchers) to think more attentively about the processes which go behind and before the product.

Being Useful

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Innovation is a combination of the new (novelty, new ideas, new thinking) and the useful (value, application, adaptation, fit for purpose) – applied creativity. In our culture we tend to value novelty over usefulness – we are impressed by the flash of genius rather than the slow burn of incremental change. ‘Being useful’ is an oblique route into innovation.

For a creative technologist in residence, there’s a risk of being sucked into routine tasks, at the expense of defined projects. On the other hands, the everyday interactions of ‘usefulness’ can accumulate into insight and become a catalyst for change. Such an approach requires a certain humility – in the words of one technologist, “this isn’t about my ego, my career, I just want to be useful – to the organisation, to the project, to the community”.

It’s also risky – how do you explain after five weeks that all you’ve done is fix some stuff? Where’s the output? Where are your credentials as a creative technologist? Well, at this stage it’s a matter of trust – Happenstance assumes that if you put brilliant people into an organisation, brilliant things will happen. These arts organisations seem happy to let the process follow its own pace – don’t panic, let it happen. And being useful might in the end be the best route to being innovative.