Computational thinking v. creative technology

Had a great discussion about this, with Spike Island director & comms mgr, continued later at Pervasive Media Studio during our Open House there. This led to one of my conclusions about the residency: when it comes to embedding digital in arts organisations, ‘computational thinking’ is the wrong term; it’s less about technological things than about practices and processes.
Linda & Kevin & i-device

Linda & Kevin & i-device

Google’s brand of computational thinking involves breaking down a problem, looking for patterns in the data, generalising/abstracting, then developing algorithmic solutions. Now straight away you can see that this is a Google-centric approach, geared toward big datasets and a sort of engineering mindset. It assumes you have a well-defined problem, can rigorously collect lots of useful data, and either have the time to go through it, or can adequately instruct a computer to do so. Not even coming to the bit at the end about devising an algorithm.
Instead of trying to think like a computer, consider the opposite approach. Maybe your problem isn’t well-defined, or it’s a question or exploration or idea rather than a problem. Maybe instead of breaking it down into discrete steps, you build it up, serendipitously, pulling from disparate, sometimes unexpected, sources. Maybe it is derived from a pattern, or comes together in something we immediately recognise as a pattern. Maybe you don’t want to create instructions to be able to replicate it again and again; you want each outcome to be unique, contextualised. This is roughly the process of making art. Or curating an art exhibition.
We explored the distinction between rational and intuitive thinking in the workshops we ran; this comes from psychologist Daniel Kahnemann. We took up Spike Island’s challenge to break down walls and make things visible, approaching it using computational thinking. Breaking down the problem, we first wanted to find out about activity in different parts of the building, and we collected data about movement, information-seeking behaviour, collaboration and communication. Some patterns emerged – time-based cycles of activity for example, and spaces where people went to meet and collect information. (Perhaps not) coincidentally, Google Analytics makes it easy to collect such statistics about the Spike website; could we do the same for the physical space? It requires collecting data at key times and spaces (or at all times and spaces, if you have Google-sized resources). Then plotting and analysing, before generalising and programming.
Is there a middle ground between rational and intuitive, computational and creative? Maybe. Design patterns are a bit like computational thinking; they’re a similarly ordered set of steps to frame and share creative solutions. The problem comes first, framed in its typical context; then a solution, with cross-references to other patterns. It may or may not be informed by lots of data (many examples of the problem in the wild).
The common thing in all those approaches is patterns. This is the part that humans are much better at than machines. “We are hardwired to gain control of a situation by recognising patterns, even if they ignore current rationale” (says Shing-Tat Chung in a fascinating RCA project last year). It’s “about moving people into the thought space that an algorithm could operate with a very humane way of working.”
In other words, make computers intuitive, by breaking them apart, soldering them together, planting them into spaces and things, then programming those spaces and things. Arts organisation as computing platform, with open data for various applications.

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Week 10 – the end of the Happenstance

At our Open House yesterday we had an ‘In conversation’ kind of thing with our mentor James Boardwell and what we thought would be a chat for 30 minutes or so, ended up being nearer to 2 hours! I knew we could talk about the last 10 weeks of Happenstance, that we had ideas and theories about what happened and why, but I hadn’t anticipated there being so much to talk about… in front of an audience!

When I went freelance last summer and set up my company, ShedCode, I was planning on doing some client work and in between, hopefully working on some of my own ideas to see what would happen. In the end I did 99% client work and was planning, at some point, to pause and work on my stuff.

That’s when Happenstance came along and it is fair to say that I thought at the beginning that Happenstance may have been a pleasant and interesting detour for my career as a Software Engineer/Developer and Techie. Instead of returning back to the path I was treading before Happenstance, I’ve finished the project on what feels like a completely different path, going who knows where!

Helping an arts organisation learn new things, to be inspiring and to fix stuff is what I thought would happen. We did some of that, but also I learnt what a Technologist could be, that we could make things, real things with lives of their own which will live on after the project has finished. I’ve met new people, made friends and found out about interesting things. An interest in electronics has been rekindled, thanks to arduinos and I’ve started to pick up some Ruby and a bit of Rails. Speaking at Future Everything, TedX Sheffield and at the Open Houses has given me some confidence in public speaking.

People have been so encouraging! Thanks to all who have had kind words to say, shared their knowledge, wisdom, contacts, experience, advice, tea and biscuits. Thanks too to those at Site who have been incredibly open, helpful and friendly during the project, I’ve really appreciated it. Special thanks of course go to my co-resident, Leila, who has put up with some of my more, er, random ideas, given me confidence to do stuff, been a great sounding board, co-speaker and partner in crime. She’s been so generous to me and I think we’ve been a great team (even if I say so myself!). I hope we can work together on more stuff soon!

I wrote a couple of blog posts about what to do next, both for me in general and technically and really it’s a work in progress. We’ve got debrief next week, then I’m on holiday for a couple of weeks. I think I really need a break, but I don’t want to lose the momentum I’ve built up during Happenstance. So, those who’ve become my friends over the last 10 weeks and those who’ve known me for ages, don’t let me slip in to old habits and ways & please bear with me as I bounce ideas around like fleas on space hoppers. I hope that life post-Happenstance is going to get even more interesting!

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The Internet of People

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…)

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Design Jam Bristol

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.

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Week 7, 8 & 9 – summary

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!


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Going somewhat Agile

Generally speaking tech companies try to get good at investigating and reflecting on their own processes. Often this results in exciting ideas that challenge the traditional ways of running organisations. At GitHub there is pride in the lack of managers, or, as Ryan Tomayko puts it, the fact that “everyone at GitHub is a manager”; “each responsible for managing a single person: their self”. Valve has no formal corporate structure. Everyone can pick what project they work on, so the desks are furnished with wheels for setting up impromptu temporary teams. Decisions are made by getting enough supporters across the company who will want to work on the specific project. Their employee handbook describes exactly how it works and it’s a fascinating read.

But there is a philosophy that at first doesn’t seem quite as radical, though it seems like the entire software making world is practicing it: the Agile philosophy. I can quote the entire Agile manifesto in here, it’s this short:

We are uncovering better ways of developing
software by doing it and helping others do it.

Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Agile Manifesto

Happenstance was supposed to help consider was whether any of the Agile philosophy of making software could be useful to arts organisations. Obviously, there are many differences between the ways in which software and art are made. The biggest difference is probably in the way they are funded – arts funding is mired in bureaucracy, paperwork and reliance on relatively few bodies, who can grant money to projects that fit within their goals and agendas.

For a while I was wondering whether the Agile approach is even useful – Lighthouse is a small team working in the same room. Most of the work they do is about strategy, planning and managing, rather than making things. But as I kept it brewing on the back of my mind I realised that the agility comes from a specific culture within the organisation and has relatively little to do with making things or technology. The idea that face-to-face conversation is the best way to convey information surely applies outside of the software-making world. Agility comes from not fearing change or small mistakes and learning to respond to them quickly and efficiently. It’s about responding to change.

Recently I felt like I’ve gained enough trust among the team the Lighthouse to be able to propose anything and that they would at least try it out, knowing that I’ve got their best interests at heart. So I decided to give it a go, and completely banned email as a means of internal communication. Now, obviously I have no way of of checking up on everyone, but judging from the feedback and the amount of work related discussions that are happening in the office they decided to follow it.

I’ve also introduced daily stand-up meetings, when we very briefly describe what we were working on yesterday and what we’re going to be doing today. Somehow the format stuck and we describe what we did on days off, too – and it’s actually really nice to be always in the loop, and occasionally hear a funny weekend story. It made me realise how much and what kinds of work everyone does, all the boring bits: catching up on emails, reviewing things, etc etc. that even Offbott doesn’t always hear about.

So after these things were practiced for a while, what good did they do? I find it hard to quantify it after a short period of time, partly because I don’t actually work on any of their projects, so I can’t tell whether things are easier, better, worse or without change yet. I will gather more feedback and then I will report on it.

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This week: getting woolly

getting woolly

Spike Island director Helen Legg's first Arduino project

Full-on with training the staff this week in programming and electronix. Blinky lights, spinny motors, tinny speakers, woolly beards. Workshops for artists and designers also booked in for next couple of weeks. And haven’t forgotten about sensoring the building – only it’ll be done by the Spikers themselves, not me. Here director Helen Legg tests out a distance sensor controlling an LED, prototype for monitoring people in the gallery. Curator Marie-Anne McQuay helped make the worlds simplest theremin, in preparation for an upcoming exhibition which features a proper one (and the granddaughter of Leon Theremin playing it, to boot). Asst Curator Charlotte Heatherington made a twisty knob motor thingie, for no good reason in particular. Cafe manager Nemia MacLachlan made a momentary-button-triggered LED (AKA a light switch), aiming to create a whole LED grid related to coffee drinks.

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This is a Working Shop

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.

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Lighthouse talk: Opinions are non-contemporary

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.

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Week 6 – Polargraph working, mobile printers and Open House

Leila has done a top job of writing up about the Open House we held at Site Gallery on Friday. We had a great time talking about Happenstance so far to a full house (well cafe anyway).

Having the Polargraph finally up and running on the correct voltage was great and a fantastic drawing of Lord Jarvis of Cocker appeared as the event went on.

We also had Heathcliff Printer working (although he did conk out at one point for some unexplained reason) and Leila got her Kinnect set up doing some Minority Report style magic.

One of our conductive paint houses was there too, but it was too dark really to see it in action. Winter time for those I think.

We had a little Q&A after our talk and one of the questions really got me thinking about being a creative software engineer – what does that mean in practice and how can we encourage techies to embrace their creativity, smashing through the constraints of institutional methodologies. Sounds like that might be a future blog post!

A lot of cake was eaten and a good time was had by all. Thanks to all who helped and all who came along!


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