Martin Dittus, so far as I know, is the originator of the handy term ‘facilitators paradox’ – the idea that anyone organising a process of collective decision making is always exercising a type of power over participants, even if their goal is the exact opposite: to be egalitarian and democratic.

This is obviously a concern since participatory design is so often couched in terms of it’s ability to transfer power to participants [1]. I’ve come to this problem from an usual angle, since my focus is not participatory design, but designing participatory systems – in particular, mining Twitter for data that can help local governments respond to their citizen’s needs. Participatory design became relevant for me because its widely believe that participatory systems have to be designed with the community they serve to be effective and to be legitimate.

Political science, unsurprisingly, has lots to say about systems of participation, and this post is intended to layout three attempts to deal with the ‘facilitators paradox’ from within that discipline.  I will also be using political theorist Steven Lukes’ conception of power to set up the problem.

In any participatory process there’s always a background set of decisions which the facilitator will unavoidably have taken, trying not to do so leads to an infinite regress. Imagine designing a playground through a participatory process, we might have a vote to decide what colour to paint the fence. But who decides the choices of colour? What about other finishes? Who gets to vote, who decides the criteria for a legitimate community member? Who chooses what we vote on, or the system by which the votes are counted? Of course, you could discuss any one of these issues, but then who decides how to organise that discussion?  

The answer is clear – the only way for the facilitator to truly exercise no power over the community is to never leave their desk and never contact that community. Equally clearly, we should not abandon all ideas of participation, a course of action that is certain to disempower participants: the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Lukes addresses exactly these issues [2]. He contends that power has three dimensions, as highlighted in the following three cases:

  1. Cases where “key political decisions in which the preferences of the hypothetical ruling elite run counter to any other group” (Quoting Dahl) [3]
  2. Cases where “A devotes his energies to creating or reinforcing social and political values and institutional practises that limit the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues which are comparatively innocuous to A” (Quoting Bachrach and Baratz) [4]
  3. “A person may exercise power over B … by influencing, shaping or determining his very wants”  (Lukes himself)


Case 1: Opinions actively suppressed

This scenario could manifest itself in many subtle ways, but a caricature example might be that of a king who imposes very high taxes on his subjects, to which they strongly, publicly object but about which they can do nothing. We have clear empirical evidence that the king is acting against the interests of the people, and their opinions have never been considered. In some sense the very existence of a participatory design process mitigates against this kind of power, at least within the scope of the project. Any process that can at all be referred to as participatory is the opposite of actively ignoring collective will.


Case 2: Opinions covertly excluded from discussion

Lukes gives the real world example of two American towns, one of which votes for clean air laws to improve the environment. In another, similar town where there is a steel plant, the same laws are never passed. This is not because of Case 1 style power, the management of the steel plant do not ignore the clearly expressed views of the local people. Instead, they prevent the passage of clean air laws by preventing them for coming up for discussion or voting. Even though there is a system to pass such laws, the steel plant uses its power in the background to further its own interests. Again, here we can see empirical evidence of this type of power, for example in the comparison between the two towns.

In participatory design, we might see this kind of power as being exercised when the scope of the project is set to exclude some important issue. In the example of the designing a playground, we could imagine that it is replacing an older, much loved park that is going to be redeveloped. If the key sentiment the community wishes to express is that it wants to prevent the closure of the old park then there will be questions about the value of a participatory process that prevents this outcome.

Even within the scope of a participatory project we can imagine this kind of power at play. If the facilitator chooses what subjects are discussed they are necessarily steering the way decisions go.


Case 3: Voting against your own interests

This is the major philosophical threat to any collective decision making process, a kind of insidious, unobservable power. Lukes gives the example of an inheritance tax once considered in the United States, christened the “Death Tax” by opponents. Many people believed, incorrectly, that they would be subject to the tax and so the proposal became very unpopular. In fact it was only to be imposed on the extremely rich, and the money gathered through it would have been widely distributed throughout society. In this example it’s suggested we can see a ‘ruling elite’ influencing perceptions using emotive language so that many people expressed opinions which are against their own interests. In this case a minority interest wins despite a ‘free’ debate on the topic.

While we might all accept this type of power is widely exercised it’s on a dangerous empirical footing. How do we know that the proposed inheritance tax was really against the best interests of the majority? Perhaps many people felt taxing inheritance represents a moral issue that overrode their own desire for financial gain. Who are we to decide? If we decide that it’s acceptable to ignore people’s expressed opinions ‘in their best interest’ isn’t that a kind of dictatorship?

We could term this type of power ‘preference shaping’. The question is not so much whether preference shaping takes place, it clearly does. As Przeworski [5] says:

In a society in which interests are in conflict, the fact that various economic agents spend money to persuade others constitutes prima facie evidence that someone is irrational. Either those who spend money to communicate are throwing it away or these costly messages persuade others to hold beliefs that are not in their best interest.

The question is rather how to ‘unshape’ preferences, or access ‘true’ preferences.


Attempts to ensure equality across all three dimensions of power

Cases 1 and 2 concern the issue of how to collect together individuals preferences in a legitimate and effective way. There is a large literature on the difficulties involved in that process which I won’t go into here: much of it concerns voting systems and participatory design rarely hinges on voting. Cases 1 and 2 also seem to imply some kind of self-serving intent on the part of the facilitator, which we can at least hope is not so much of a problem in small scale participatory design. The third case, however, must often be present in PD. It’s frequently the essence of PD projects that experts in some particular field are working with non-experts – this seems almost by necessity to represent a power dynamic.


Attempt 1: Statistically adjusting for non-expertness 

In his book The Myth of the Rational Voter [6] Bryan Caplan attempts – and I realise that his approach will seem dubious to many people – to calculate how opinions would change if members of the public were trained as economists. To do this he uses data from a survey (the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy) that solicits opinions from economists and non-economists on a range of economic issues . Unsurprisingly, the two groups give systematically different answers. This in itself is notable: many economists are extremely reluctant to countenance the idea of the third dimension of power. Economics is often conceptualised as finding the optimal way to satisfy people’s preferences, if preferences are susceptible to shaping then they might seem like an unreliable foundation on which to build.

A common defence is that although many people may have random variations in their preferences, in large numbers these random variations will cancel out. Caplan demonstrates that preferences are not (just) subject to random noise, but are systemically different between experts and non-experts.

That might be because the economists are wiser, but it could also be because economists are disproportionately male, rich or white. Fortunately, respondents in the survey also provided a wide variety detailed demographic information, so he is able to use statistical regression to remove these effects, in attempt to discover what an average person would think about issues of economic policy, if they benefited from a PhD in economics.

In this way, he is able to simulate the view of what he calls the ‘enlightened public’. Using the following scoring system, they were asked how much various factors hindered the economy:

0 – no reason at all

1 – minor reason

2- major reason

For example, subjects responded to the question “Foreign aid spending is too high”. The public at large gave this proposition an average score of 1.4 (strong agreement) while economists gave it a score of 0.1 (strong disagreement). The simulated enlightened public gave it a score of 0.3 (strong disagreement). This, Caplan asserts, indicates that all most all of the widespread antipathy towards foreign aid is connected with a lack of information. Elsewhere in the book Caplan cites a statistic that indicates 41% of Americans believe foreign aid is one of the two most significant national budget expenditures, in fact it represents only 1.2% of the budget. It seems likely that the opinion of the non-expert public is mostly misinformed, that is, that their preferences are shaped by a lack of information.

Through this method, which he repeats for a number of other questions, Caplan attempts to discover what an informed public would think, that is, a public free from the exercise of the third dimension of power over them.

One serious problem with Caplan faces is that he cannot control for the variable “kind of person who wants to become an economist”, while another is that he is extremely lucky in finding such useful dataset in the SAEE survey.


Attempt 2: Taking account of cognitive biases 

In Sunstein’s Health-Health Tradeoffs [7] he considers difficult policy decisions around risk, and asks how those decisions could be made more sensitive to the way citizens actually perceive risk. He provides some examples of the type of tradeoffs he is considering:

Fuel economy standards, designed partly to reduce environmental risks, may make automobiles less safe, and in that way increase risks to life and health. Regulations designed to control the spread of AIDS and hepatitis among health care providers may increase the costs of health care, and thus make health care less widely available, and thus cost lives. If government bans the manufacture and use of asbestos, it may lead companies to use more dangerous substitutes.

Normally, when policy makers consider these types of risks they assume that one type of fatality is exactly the same as any other – being hit by a bus is the same as a heart attack. Sunstein compares this approach with data from Viscusi’s Book Fatal Tradeoffs [8]. Viscusi uses a well attested method of contingent valuation [9] to discover how people actually think about risk. Participants are asked to state how much they think it would be appropriate to spend to prevent certain kinds of fatalities. For example on average preventing a single ‘unforeseen instant death’ is given an average value of $2 million, while preventing a death from lung cancer is valued at $4 million.  Sunstein derives some patterns from these statistics, for example noting that risks arising from man-made sources are ranked as warranting higher levels of preventative expenditure compared with naturally occurring risks.

Sunstein suggests ‘Economic approaches promise to avoid some of the problems of expert valuations.’ This work has interesting symmetrical relationship to Nudge, a book he later co-authored with Richard Thaler [10]. In Nudge the authors advocate that policy makers should consider the ‘non-rational’ behaviour of those subject to a particular policy – a detail of implementation of policy. In Sunstien’s Health-Health trade-offs he instead argues for the inclusion of similar complex behaviours in the policy objectives themselves.


Attempt 3: Deliberative polling – structured access to experts

Deliberation is thought to offer an important way both of avoiding preference shaping and also of avoiding various issues with counting votes, with continental and analytic philosophers arriving a roughly similar conclusions:

… arguments advanced by Habermas and Rawls do seem to have a common core: political choice, to be legitimate, must be the outcome of of deliberation about ends among free, equal and rational agents. [11]

Fishkin has a rather neat definition of deliberative polling:

Ordinary polls seek to gauge the opinions people actually hold, Deliberative Polls to gauge the opinions they would hold if they knew and thought more.The design provides random samples with information and gives them the opportunity of discussing
the issues with one another and questioning policy experts about them.

Again, the idea is to access ‘unshaped’ preferences lurking behind superficial responses.  Among the benefits of deliberation are the possibilities of ‘revealing private information’ and ‘lessening or overcoming bounded rationality’ [12]. So can we see it in effect empirically?

Yes. For example, in Disaggregating Deliberation’s Effects:An Experiment within a Deliberative Polling [13], Fishkin is able to demonstrate exactly the effects we might expect from access to expert information. Over a weekend, a representative sample of residents in New Haven, Connecticut were split into groups and given opportunities to hear expert testament and debate. They discussed two issues, the highly controversial expansion of a local airport, and a much less contested issue surrounding what if any sharing there should be of property-tax revenues from new commercial development.

Over a weekend each group is presented with evidence about the likely effects of various policies by a panel of experts. In plenary sessions the group are able to put questions to the experts, and there is time for discussions within, but not between, the groups.

Surveys administered before and after indicate that the groups all shift their views over the course of the weekend, seeming to support the hypothesis that participants true preferences can only come to the fore through the provision of more information and space for discussion. Larger changes were observed for the less contested tax-sharing issue, compared with the controversial airport expansion. The authors attribute this to the fact that many participants already had some information about the airport through coverage in local newspapers.

In Fishkin’s book [14] on deliberative polling, he goes on to discuss a number of other similar projects, and highlights two possible effects. Firstly, he looks at polarisation and groupthink, where people discussing a topic will naturally tend to more and more extreme positions. This theory is attributed to Cass Sunstein (mentioned previously). Fishkin uses statistical evidence from his research to demonstrate that this is not a powerful or widespread effect.

More relevant to participatory design, Fishkin looks at what he terms ‘domination’, where the privileged are able to make their voices louder than others. When participants selected for a participative democracy project, they are selected so that they are representative of the underlying community. But, what if attendance is not enough:

Some people, even if formally included, may not have their voices, if they speak at all, taken seriously. They may give off cues that indicate they are not well informed or not worth listening to.

Domination, which I would suggest is an example of the second dimension of power, will show up empirically in participatory democracy. In before and after surveys, it ought to be possible to see views shifting to those of the ‘privileged’ – those with more money, higher social status etc if domination is occurring. This is not widely evident: in Fishkin’s project consulting a population about airport expansion, there was no evidence of views being systematically shifted in ways that might be indicative of domination.

Alice Siu’s [15] research looked at five deliberative polls, breaking down the number of words spoken by participants down into demographic categories. Demographics that might be expected to exhibit domination, such as educated white males, did not have higher word counts than others – which might tend to indicate that domination did not take place.



Firstly, Lukes’ dimensions of power may be a useful framework for participatory designers seeking to reduce the impact of the ‘facilitators paradox’ and think about the practice more generally. I’m not aware of it’s use in design, however it’s widely discussed across participatory and deliberative politics, as well as in projects in developing countries [16].

Secondly, the work across political science indicates several ways in which participants preferences might be ‘shaped’ by the third dimension of power – either through lack of expertise, cognitive bias, or lack of information.

Thirdly, perhaps the techniques for empirically observing the various dimensions of power discussed above could be applied to benchmark various approaches to participatory design. In design features such as domination and polarisation should be observable through the same methods.

Finally, the very close, and recursive similarity between the agendas of deliberative democracy and participatory design are something that might bear further examination.

[1] Kensing, Finn, and Jeanette Blomberg. “Participatory design: Issues and concerns.” Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 7.3-4 (1998): 167-185.

[2] Lukes, Steven. Power: A radical view. Vol. 1. Macmillan: London, 1974.

[3] Dahl, Robert A. “The concept of power.” Behavioral science 2.3 (1957): 201-215.

[4] Bachrach, Peter, and Morton S. Baratz. “Two faces of power.” American political science review 56.04 (1962): 947-952.

[5] Elster, Jon. Deliberative democracy. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Przeworski chapter.

[6] Caplan, Bryan. The myth of the rational voter: Why democracies choose bad policies. Princeton University Press, 2011.

[7] Sunstein, Cass R. “Health-health tradeoffs.” The University of Chicago Law Review (1996): 1533-1571.

[8] Viscusi, W. Kip. Fatal tradeoffs. Oxford University Press, 1992.

[9] “Report of the NOAA panel on contingent valuation.” (1993): 4601-4614.

[10] Leonard, Thomas C. “Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness.” Constitutional Political Economy 19.4 (2008): 356-360.

[11] Elster, Jon. Deliberative democracy. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Introduction.

[12] Elster, Jon. Deliberative democracy. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Fearon chapter.

[13] Farrar, Cynthia, et al. “Disaggregating deliberation’s effects: An experiment within a deliberative poll.” British Journal of Political Science 40.02 (2010): 333-347.

[14] Fishkin, James. When the people speak: Deliberative democracy and public consultation. Oxford University Press, 2009.

[15] Siu, Alice. Look who’s talking: Examining social influence, opinion change, and argument quality in deliberation. ProQuest, 2009.

[16] Gaventa, John. “Finding the spaces for change: a power analysis.” IDS bulletin37.6 (2006): 23.

Of all the beautiful things about Venice, one thing that makes the city feel so special is the way the you can see all the workings of a state packed onto a small island: the Doge’s palace, the churches, the courts, the military at the Arsenale. It’s easy to imagine how all these organs formed the body politic of historic venice – and to imagine yourself there.

As you fly in to Marco Polo airport you get the SimCity isometric projection of the city through the window, the same birds-eye institutional perspective I took from the Creative Time Summit. As someone studying in a design institution and from a coding background it was a refreshing new horizon. As someone thinking about notions of  ‘social economy’ as a way for institutions to understand how they fit into society, the politics of the Summit, and the Biennale as a whole were a revitalising experience.

Joshua Wong of Hong Kong's umbrella protest - inspiring personal bravery
Joshua Wong of Hong Kong’s umbrella protest – inspiring personal bravery

So, what button do you click on the SimCity toolbar to get more artists, or to convert your sims into activists? As your cursor hovers over the gallery building tool, should you worry about your sims staging a coup d’etat? Or do you click the museum button?

As Paul Ramirez Jonas (I hope – forgot to write who was speaking in my notes) reminded us, the first public museum was the Louvre, and it was the direct result of the liquidation of another institutional power, the monarchy. By repurposing the royal palace as an egalitarian educational space a message was being sent about the post-revolutionary power structure.

Tina Shirwell, director of the International Academy of Art in Palestine, told us that during the Israeli occupation the only subjects that were not permitted at university were art and agriculture.

Both stories capture something about how the rest of the institutional apparatus relates to the arts. So what does it mean when we are sitting in a the Arsenale, the fortress at the centre of ancient Venice’s military pre-eminence, and it’s been converted to conference centre for a summit about art activism?

The first time I realised that a society’s structure isn’t as unambiguous as Venice’s brick and mortar was reading Anthony Sampson’s Who Run’s This Place? A book he published in various guises six times between 1962 and 2004 (the year of his death) detailing the shifting power centres in the UK. He identifies over 30 ‘moving parts’ in the UK’s org chart. Discussing the change in the UK over that time he says:

No one now talks about the ruling class. The dukes and earls have been sent packing from the House of Lords…. The garden of Buckingham Palace is a venue for pop groups” (Fascinating review by David Lammy here).

Sampson paints a complex, interconnected, institutional picture of power, before I read it I honestly just thought of the Prime Minister at the top of some kind well-ordered tree structure.

Scene set: it’s about institutions and power, and the way they are morphing, melting and warping at an unprecedented rate. Decoupling from their architectural manifestations and becoming more opaque.

Don’t believe me? At the Biennale, which hosted the CT Summit, the artist Isaac Julien made sponsored installation for Rolls-Royce while also organising a reading of the whole of Marx’s Das Kapital. Many reviews of the Biennale mentions it, but like Kissinger winning the Nobel peace prize, it’s kind of beyond comment. Very maskirovka, an enacted oxymoron.

As Shannon Jackson described it, the Biennale itself is “a quasi cultural-diplomatic event”. You can’t help but feel queasy in the Russian pavilion; looking round the lifeless UAE exhibit you know instinctively that you’re looking at the crystallised residue of a repressive society. Some countries are excluded, others – inevitably the old colonial powers – get lavish well positioned pavilions. On the other hand, Im Heung-soon‘s videos about factory conditions in South East Asia are profoundly, painfully moving: the Biennial is not politically impotent.

Not an official part of the Summit, Public Studio & Adrian Blackwell organised a choir of migrant workers to sing the Italian national anthem. It was extremely uncomfortable, which I presume was the goal.
Not an official part of the Summit, Public Studio & Adrian Blackwell organised a choir of migrant workers to sing the Italian national anthem. It was extremely uncomfortable, which I presume was the goal.

The Creative Time program was loaded with reassuring morality. So many people working on incredible, brave, projects – cookery schools in Palestine, or helping the inhabitants of disappearing Alaskan islands. Chipping away at injustices in so many diverse contexts. So where does the art community, particularly the activist art community represented at the CT Summit, belong in the global org chart, if such a thing be imagined?

A common phrases I heard was ‘neoliberal’, as a way to designate the other, the oppositional institutional forces. Corporations and the governments in their pocket. At the same time, as Marco Baravalle said “art is the laboratory of governmentality” where artists are “well trained locals for hire” who can precipitate action and galvanise communities. Obviously attendant to that is an ethical conundrum, as Paolo Rosso said there is a danger of “using public sphere to be accepted by the art world”, generating a corrupt politics, in his memorable phrase “A fake participation of cultural violence”.

On this I think it’s impossible to disagree: the dominant creed of those in power is a uniform commitment to almost unrestricted capitalism. Which brings me to the subtitle of the summit: The Curriculum. If the value of art is it’s measurable benefit to society, as we were told Plato thought, then the art community gets driven to produce evidence of its benefit. Under neoliberalism that plays out as: how does it make money?

In the UK, the Arts Council has incentivised artist to be inclusive of minorities and accessible to the disadvantaged, admirable goals. But in instrumentalising artist’s practises lives a danger. Does this policy unwittingly co-opt art into social policy, perhaps even as substitute for more material redistributive measures?

Another benefit to society that arts institutions have identified is eduction, the topic of the conference. Government support for arts eduction has eroded in the wake of the financial crisis – in very great part because it can’t articulate how it makes money. It’s a bizarre situation: the crisis ought to have weaken the intellectual grip of neoliberalism, instead it intensified its implementation. As a result those not able to access formal arts institutions are taking a do it yourself approach. This adds another layer to the entwined roles of audience, practitioner and student which is especially present when a project is about inclusive or participatory activism.

Antonio Negri spurred a thought with his assertion that “The more labour is artistic, the more free we are”. In this he too turns to more economic language, something that – as you may have guessed by now – I’m extremely interested in. When I think about artistic institutions in terms of supply and demand I realise that they’re similar to craft beer – bear with me on this. While I’ve been living in East London multiple small scale brewers have opened. The classic analysis would be that there was a suddenly increased demand for niche, gourmet beer. But obviously this is not the case, what really happened was there was that the romantic idea of running a brewery attracted suppliers. They create an ecology which makes starting a brewery easier, and demonstrate that it’s possible. The suppliers then create a market for their beer – in part by implying the ethical superiority of small scale production in their adverts. Brewing is attractive because it offers freedom through creative endeavour. Who doesn’t like beer? The supply and demand relationship runs backwards.

If all our jobs are being taken by robots, perhaps in the future all we’ll have to do is pass the time doing creative pseudo labour. (Tangential Star Trek link that I think captures this thought.)

Whether you buy into that digression or not, what I’ve noticed the most is the linguistic schism between the ‘neoliberal’ institutions and the culture of the conference. It was neatly captured by a question to Negri “What comes first, ontologically, antagonism or co-operation?” – meaning, what comes first, market or cooperation?

But actually, the market can be seen as the continuation of cooperation by other means — though that might be the wrong turn of phrase. In my work I’ve been thinking about the idea of social economies, which has forced me to reason through cooperation and competition. I subsume both under the category of ‘collective action’ – competition and competition aren’t opposites, they’re actually quite arbitrarily assigned to various acts.

A football game is clearly a competition, in the sense that one side wins, but it’s also cooperative in the sense that both sides have to agree to turn up to the field at the same time and to play by the rules. A soviet-style command economy is cooperative, but it’s also illiberal, cruel and stupid. Scientists may simultaneously compete and cooperate to discover a vaccine. Corporations regularly agree to cooperate with one another.

There’s a useful body of work attempting to to unpick cooperation, competition and collective action – John Searle and Wilfred Sellars are perhaps the most famous thinkers to have a go.

Whatever your political take on neoliberalism, it’s useful to understand how it understands itself – as the defender of the exquisite structures of “market cooperation” that orchestrate the material abundance around us. It also sees itself as the only proven route to wealth for countries that are currently impoverished.

Economics has something else to say about power structures. Elinor Ostrom, who I think deserves a much higher profile, did convincing research demonstrating that diverse groups are considerable more effective at problem solving. At the structural scale, along with her husband, she developed the idea of polycentrism – that societies ought to vest power in multiple organisations with different perspectives. Her Nobel Prize was for her work on commons (Governing the Commons as PDF), another area where she ties into the art-activism of Creative Time.

Given that government and policy is a virtual monoculture of neoliberalism, what I took from the conference was the necessity of reinstating multiplicity of approaches to social issues — polycentrism — including art activism.

As Mariam Ghani, in her Skype discussion with Ashraf Ghani (the president of Afghanistan) mentioned – the key is language. Antonio Negri gives absolute primacy to language in his theoretical framework too.

Language is important to achieving polycentrism obviously because the different power centres need to be able to talk to each other. But especially there needs to be a discourse with neoliberalism, or perhaps the broader economic language in which it’s couched, since that’s the only way to integrate it into a plurality – which is why I’m so interested in Ostrom’s work.I also think the tech realm – where there is much excitement about developments around crypto currencies and smart cities – is also a linguistic isolate which needs a bridge building.

Language is important in the sense of sharing information across national borders. Earlier on I mentioned the craft beer explosion in London, but exactly parallel craft beer phenomena has happen across South Korea, Australia, the US simultaneously – probably many other places. Culture ignores borders more than ever before, which is perhaps another reason why the national pavilions of the Biennale seem so retrograde.

There is a huge opportunity to creep around the sluggish politics of individual nation states and shortcut to more vibrant political alternatives – at least to demonstrate the possibilities.

CT Summit was nothing if not optimistic, I heard two speakers equate art with optimism – even as we discussed some fairly intractable problems. As we bounced down Via Garibaldi with a brass band blasting Rage Against the Machine, the optimism was infectious and energising. Returning to UK to discover it genuinely politically energised by the possibility of left winger Jeremy Corbyn about to become leader of the opposition – well, you never know what’s round the corner…

Won't do what they us.
Won’t do what they told us.

In JG Ballard’s novel Cocaine Nights, residents of a utopian Spanish retirement resort commit terrible crimes against one another. They are driven to crime because they need more discomfort. Ballard’s message is that humans will become pathological in utopia. We need a problem, because if there are no problems, how will tomorrow be better than today?

David Graeber, in his book Fragments of Anarchist Anthropology, says “There would appear to be no society which does not see human life as fundamentally a problem”. He might not be quite right, as former missionary Daniel Everett discovered when he went to the Amazon and met a strange tribe. The Piraha people, who believe themselves to be the happiest in the world (that’s what the name Piraha means in the the Piraha language), have no past or future tense in their language. They are the happiest people in the world because they cannot ask, how will tomorrow be better than today?

The quest for a better tomorrow is a much studied phenomena. John Gray concludes that we are doomed to repeat the utopian fantasies of the past, constantly seeking for a better tomorrow without realising that we simply recapitulate the same old problems in new ways. As he points out, utopian regimes of the 20th century, Marxist, Leninist, etc, only succeeded in making tomorrow worse than today.

Gray contends that the reason Western governments ban drugs is because they offer the wrong way of making tomorrow better than today, a way that doesn’t involve ever increasing material consumption. Governments require money-based redemption to keep the economy growing: more GDP to make tomorrow better than today.

I bring up the war on drugs because it seemed like a immovable feature of the landscape when Gray wrote about it in 2003. Now the war on drugs seems to be abating,  many states in the US are moving to legalise cannabis and countries across Europe are moving in the same direction. Does that hint at a shift in the collective consciousness, a mutation in the imagined better-tomorrow?  Economic thought feels like it’s turning a corner away from money redemption. Millennials are primarily civically minded, apparently. Philosophy offers career advice for ‘doing good better‘. Even a conservative government is partial to the rhetoric of “measuring what matters“.

There is another kind of redemption, which the USA is pioneering; a global militarism where a spectral adversary has to be defeated, a la George Orwell. That’s why the US can’t countenance gun control. As Obama said in an accidental moment of candour, in small town America, where money-redemption seems impossible, they instead “cling to guns and religion”. A watered-down version of nation-state kill-or-be-killed can be seen in the Tories “global race” election rhetoric.  We can only hope that this kind of zero-sum better-tomorrow goes away.

Robin Archer of the LSE gave a nice quote at a recent talk: “what a dismal time it has been for those of us on the left… because the unusual plastic state of the public mind which followed the global financial crisis feels like it’s starting to congeal and harden into something quite unsympathetic”. But perhaps a Tory victory is ripple on the surface of a Kondratiev-wave scale reorientation of the global outlook. Political radicalism consequent to the financial crisis didn’t really touch Britain, where the average voter has remained relatively unaffected compared to the devastation in peripheral eurozone countries.

But there is a global, almost post national chattering class, bound together by the web, which could emerge as a new force in politics. Evgeny Morozov thinks they too will be beholden to neoliberal money-redemption, while Cory Doctorow is more of an optimist.

Meanwhile, the diminishing marginal utility of wealth means that increasing GDP might not satisfy us forever, and in any case perhaps economic growth has gone for the foreseeable. Economics professor Ed Glaeser says “the introduction of happiness into economics by Richard Layard and others stops the economists primal sin, which is acting as if money is the be all and end all, which is equivalently foolish as the view that any one thing is the be all and end all.”

Time for a new multidimensional answer to how tomorrow will be better than today? I hope so.





There were so many ways for Art Hackathon to go wrong, but more ways for it to go right than I realised too. Failure seemed so vivid in my mind’s eye, non-failure seemed so unlikely – at each step I couldn’t believe it all worked out.

Having vaguely committed to help Theo, Tom and Catherine put on a hackday about creativity and hardware (art?) I went on holiday for two weeks. I came back and discovered that tickets were going to be £20, and assumed this would be catastrophic or even fatal, but it wasn’t, and tickets sold. In fact they sold out. I was completely wrong to assume they had to be free, that was win number one.

Free because I knew we were going to have to promote it a lot, and as soon as people think you are making money they start mentally putting you in the spam category, which, I can say from experience, is incredibly disheartening. When I read this very touching blog about Hack Circus I instantly recalled the difficulties of promoting The Thing Is, a student magazine I helped run. We’d spend hours working to produce it, and then people would assign the most malign motives to us when we tried to get the word out. Forums (and hackspace mailing lists…) are incredibly hostile to people promoting things, even things that are highly relevant and not-for-profit.  Twitter, which didn’t exist when we did TTI, is fine with you promoting your projects. If you don’t like it, you can unfollow. Similarly, university internal mailing lists are very supportive.

For the record, we made no money and did not intend to. All of us, especially Theo and Tom, spent many many days on it.

Museum of Lies won the popular vote for best hack

Win number two was sponsorship. Theo got Ravensbourne Uni to sponsor us, effectively providing us with an amazing space for free. Unexpected lesson: open-plan office accoutrements are great for hacking. We were in the auditorium, but we were able to borrow big TV screens on wheels and also office dividers from around the Uni. Office dividers turned out to be great for making ad hoc structures for people’s hacks. Big TVs make hacking at scale possible.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 00.37.21

Bare Conductive gave us conductive paint and it was a hit with hackers. Tessel were incredibly generous with us, gave us amazing hardware, and ended up hand delivering it from the US, because they are lovely (they were coming over anyway…)

Having seen these two bits go right, I started to worry that the dynamic on the day would be wrong. I imagined us finishing the talks, explaining all the hardware then saying “GO!” to the audience and them all just staring at each other, not knowing what to do. I got so paranoid about it that I caused an entirely pointless argument with Theo about the exact location of the chairs and tables, which I thought violated some kind of hacking feng shui, an entirely spurious concern.

We asked people to propose projects in our forum before the event, but very few people did. This only heightened my concerns. I should have had more faith, when we asked people to come to the front and pitch ideas about half of the participants did. There were too many ideas, not too few – fortunately teams were able to consolidate out of similar pitches and we ended up with a manageable number.

People at the front pitching ideas
People at the front pitching ideas

I can’t say if we could rely on that happening again, but it does make me think of a weird paradox in the way that I allocate time to the hackdays that I’ve been to. When I get emails from hack organisers I think “Don’t have time for this!”, and I never go and do whatever they want me to on their forum / google doc / IRC etc. Which makes absolutely no sense because I’m about to devote a whole weekend to the hack. In my mental accounting the hackday has to be boxed into a weekend timeline, otherwise I somehow feel it’s making an unreasonable demand on me. Perhaps other people feel like this.

And then at the end of it all people produced amazing hacks, hopefully we’ll have a proper video up soon. I wanted to use this space to record lessons learned, and the biggest one is that stepping out of your IT comfort zone is massively time consuming.

The winners (Scott Wooden and Chris Brown), who made a (highly addictive) web game, had an almost production ready app with animated transitions and beautiful graphics. Both of the team were using a language they use professionally (javascript), presumably using the tooling they use everyday at work. For them the hack was a chance to push what they already knew in a new direction, which they did very successfully.

Get The Banana, jury prize winner
Get The Banana, jury prize winner

Contrast that with a hack that starts with borrowing a Raspberry Pi from our hardware library. Even if you know Raspberry Pis a bit, there’s hours of flashing SD cards (if you want your preferred OS), finding out IP addresses, turning on SSH, discovering passwords before you can start. Wait, this is a Raspberry Pi 2? Does this library work with it? And so on…

I could do another post on the hostility of the Raspberry Pi as a platform, some of which I think is wilful, but there are two things I’d do differently if there was another chance and more resource. Two things other than sort out Raspberry Pi.

Firstly, I’d start out with hardware in functioning setups. Want a servo running off a Pi? Here’s one that we know works. Hack it if you want, but you can see it working now, so if it stops working you can probably work out why. If you really screw up, we could just flash you a new SD and rescue you.

Secondly, you can’t help teams very much when you are organising. I’d love to have spent more time helping hack, but I was too busy wrestling with an industrial scale coffee percolator or running the hardware library. There’s no solution to this except to have more people helping.

The hack was a laboratory too, we had two ethnographers looking at it, I was graphing the Twitter network around the event and there will be a follow up survey. Hopefully that will allow us to prove the value of the event to future sponsors, and also help us improve the next one, if anyone ever has enough energy to do one again.

A final lesson learned was the the output was so good that it was very sad to take it all apart after the show and tell – we could easily run an exhbition of the work which allowed more people to see what had been achieved. Next time…










I don’t think myself party political, not really, so I’m surprised to discover that I’m feeling quite desolate about the election, frankly a bit shaken.

Many wouldn’t agree, but actually the Tories won’t destroy the NHS, they’ve made reasonable commitments which I think they’ll stick to. The aggression with which they will tackle the deficit is sub-optimal, but not that different to Labour’s plans. The human rights situation is admittedly disappointing, but you never get everything you wanted.

So why does it seem so grim to me? Because, I think, it’s so contradictory to my natural optimism about politics, and the way it makes me feel uncomfortable about my own country. I don’t how this compares with what others have said; I can’t bear to read the analysis yet.

First of all, I don’t think politicians are the sociopaths of the popular imagination. Watching Jim Murphy’s emotional concession speech ought to convince anyone that they do have a soul. We hear that Nick Clegg wept copiously when speaking to his team – and with good reason, his world, and that of his colleagues and friends had just been destroyed.

Politicians know it’s a cruel job when they stand, but it’s hard not to feel that the Lib Dems especially suffered an injustice, punished by a public who can’t or won’t understand how coalition works, determined to construe the Clegg as a cynical promise breaker, which of course the Labour supporters revelled in. I think it’s a terrible loss, in general they bring a philosophical bent to politics — not many join the Lib Dems out of power lust. Contrast Clegg’s resignation speech about the tradition of Liberalism across Europe with other leaders, who simply rallied their parties around the idea that they would do better next time.

So, sensitive soul that I am, just watching tired politicians give the speeches that must have run through many times in their nightmares makes me sad. And we only see the big names, when back benchers loose their seats they might not be offered their pick of cushy non-executive directorships. I imagine it’s a fairly brutal transition to anomie.

But they did volunteer for it. The real, grinding, gloom-laden realisation was about the nation, not a handful of individuals: things are not even going in the right direction. We’re going backwards. Not in the nitty-gritty of policy, that comes and goes, but in terms of the social settlement between the powerful and the vulnerable.

You might find it a shock that I didn’t realise this before, but I make a point of avoiding the lazy generalisation that everything’s going to the dogs. It wasn’t as good as it used to be. It’s cheap, and boring, to make yourself look wise through omni-pessimism. The world is getting richer, the gap between developed and developing countries is shrinking. Healthcare for the poorest improves constantly, several major disease are on the brink of oblivion.

I misconstrued this super-macro view of progress and just assumed that the UK was generally going with the flow, and with some reason. After all, the right didn’t win a decisive victory in 2010, when it seemed like it should have stormed into power. Brown was terrible and the economy was in tatters – they still failed.

Party politics seemed to be shifting to a more pluralistic modus operandi. I felt so optimistic when the News of the World shut, and I rejoiced when Miliband told Murdoch to shove it, and won praise for it too. The rampant anti-democratic force that is the Murdoch press seemed to be in a box, the tools that the powerful use to tilt the playing field in their favour seemed blunted.

We saw through the neo-liberal subterfuge after the crash. Fending off regulation by pretending you would move your bank’s head office to Hong Kong suddenly didn’t wash. We started to get angry with corporations doing the accountancy equivalent of a three cup shuffle, making their profits disappear while HMRC pretended to be a clueless punter. I started to imagine a country genuinely run in the interest of the many.

Then, suddenly, it’s full-strength Tory expropriation for the next 5 years, at least. I already have premonitions of a Johnson led Tory party riding the wave of full-fledged economic recovery into another term. Everyone voted exactly the way Murdoch told them to. Most of all, Cameron and Osborne are wielding a majority, and they are the very avatars of the old-school-Eton-Oxbridge-private-income-elite, protecting their own without a coalition to keep them in check.

I don’t think Murdoch and Cameron will meet Saudi oil Shakes and Monstanto execs in smoke filled rooms, transform in to lizards and hatch plots against the international proletariat.

I don’t think they coordinate at all, but the mood, the intellectual climate, starts to justify things that tend to make wealth flow up the food chain, apparently by coincidence. Regulate banker’s pay? Can’t do that, it’ll ruin international competitiveness. Reform Non Dom legislation? Ditto.

How long can we maintain the political will to regulate the insane financial products that caused the crash when the PM comes from a long line of bankers and the Tories are bankrolled by hedge funds?

News Corp want to buy Sky? Well, if they promise it will create jobs perhaps then democracy can go hang. We are in a GLOBAL RACE after all.

The “global race”, I now think, was Lynton Crosby’s master stroke. It’s the crux of both the conservative victory and a rationalisation of injustice.

Sure, some people voted Tory for selfish economic reasons, but so many people voted for them, and their policies really only benefited home-owning pensioners.

To account for the voters who seemed to vote against their own interests we have to think of voters as trying maximise the country’s collective prestige and power, not concerning themselves with their personal welfare. Doesn’t matter if you are on a minimum-wage zero-hour contract, if the country is overall getting richer then we (you) are winning the global race.

In Miliband’s interview with Paxman, Paxman claimed someone came up to him on the tube and told him that Miliband couldn’t govern because he wasn’t tough enough to deal with Putin. Paxman retells the anecdote because it captures something about Miliband, and the conservative strategy that triumphed over him. The questions the Conservatives wanted everyone to ask themselves was “who will make Britain feel virile again?”.

Voters look to rich, old-school, confident born-to-rule Cameron and see the very thing that they want the nation to be perceived as internationally: a natural winner in the fictive global race.

If the global race gets you to power, it also explains all the cruel policies your going to implement. We must compete!

And of course, a strong, powerful Britain will include Scotland. Loosing it would be sign of weakness, and voters were erroneously convinced that Conservatives will use their muscular pragmatism to weld the countries together. Never mind that Scotland and England are now completely at political odds and the breakup seems inevitable. Labour could hardly campaign by saying they should win so England didn’t upset the SNP too much – but that was the recipe to preserve the union.

I fervently hope the decimation of the left and the destruction of the Lib Dems will lead to some kind of breaking point which galvanises a genuinely progressive and effective political momentum.  Especially since there is no other escape valve: no government with a majority is going to consider electoral reform, which I think is the only thing that could make me even a tiny but optimistic.

A place where we can take national pride from something other than how many percentage points we eke GDP up by in some ludicrous, meaningless race. Perhaps there’s a place for organisations other than parties trying to drive a shift in thinking of this kind; it doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing that they’ve been very successful in doing.

I see Dougald Hine has many sensible reflections on how this can work, and perhaps the grass roots movements that have sprung up across Europe can teach us something. Here is the only positive note I can find: many Tory voters are ashamed of what they did, that’s why they can’t tell pollsters their intentions. That is not the basis of a durable political settlement. Meanwhile, I think there are large and growing number of people who want to use their skills not to earn more money but to do what they feel to be morally right, which could be incredibly powerful.

If I’m really honest though, the deepest wound is to my identity. I try to make the most positive contribution I can to society, and when I say society I’ve always thought of it as the nation. But then I discover that most people in my country, especially outside the cities, don’t share my values at all, or perhaps simply don’t have any firm political commitments. Lots of people live lives at odds with the prevailing political mood in their country, but it never occurred to me that I did.

Even though I don’t especially like the Labour party, if the country had voted for them in reasonable numbers I could understand where they were coming from. But when so many people willingly steer the country towards plutocracy against their own personal interests I wonder who they really are. I feel dislocated like some colonial explorer who spends decades abroad as an emblem of Britishness only to come home and discover he no longer recognises the country.

Only instead of the African interior, I’ve been in East London, or perhaps in the Twitter bubble. I know that in time I’ll get used to it, perhaps if I make an effort even reintegrate into my native country, but at the moment I think I prefer the leeches and hashtags and malaria and cold-brew coffee of equatorial Hackney.



No such thing as a digital affordance 

The Creative Exchange PhD program has been struggling with the meaning of the phrase ‘Digital Public Space’, which all of the researchers on the program are meant in some way to address. The phrase was originally coined at the BBC as it tried to work out it’s own digital strategy and the CX inherited it. It seems to somehow suck everyone into demotic vortex.  One reason for this is the word ‘space’, which alongside its physical meaning is used metaphorically so widely that instantly sows confusion (head space / cyberspace / phase space / problem space / design space… ). You could just loose the word space and then the phrase become much more like digital civics, which I find a little more transparent.

The Research Through Design conference we thought a lot about how researchers’ individual practices can be used to effect change in the world while also generating research knowledge. I found the opportunity to consider foundational issues very helpful, and it made me realise that regardless of whether your practice is about knitting, lego, drones or workshops, from a design perspective you can define a set of affordances that characterise how people will interact with your work.

This brings me to the word ‘digital’. The word digital is absolutely content-free in regard of specifying anything about how people interact with your work, and therefore, at extremely tenuous in terms of its design consequences.

So when the CX program endeavours to collect together research using ‘digital’ as a parameter it struggles to find any way to get purchase on anyone’s particular practice. Nearly any innovation is going to have some digital aspect to it, simply in virtue of the fact that it’s an innovation in a profoundly digitised society.

For example, Chris Csikszentmihalyi’s RootIO, which I though was a fantastic project, is all about FM radio. But it makes perfect sense that it has a web interface, and various other digital aspects, just because that’s a logical way to build it. In fact, in many ways it’s a stop gap solution until Uganda has Internet infrastructure. In many ways it recreates the hyperlocal media that’s been made possible by the web. Calling this project digital or analogue is an arbitrary label. Digital isn’t a helpful design category.

Not about the app store 

Nick Grant repurposed a number of apps to make his Young Digital Citizenship project. As he pointed out in his presentation, developing a native phone app is very expensive and uncertain process, which makes it a bad fit for research. More than that, nearly all the functionality that comes from a native app can be achieved in HTML5, which means the main reason for building an app is for the business model that the app store provides. In most research contexts this isn’t going to be relevant. Nick’s approach to using what already exists is a great way to get around the expense of development, which I think in general turns out to be an albatross.

Not about the artefact

There was a lot of discussion about whether Research Through Desing requires building an artefact – can you build a system instead? Or software? I think this was mostly triggered by the conference organisers asking speakers to show tangible objects, which are more compelling in the context of a conference. I don’t think this was a philosophical statement, just a practical one. Overall, I felt the project of defining ‘research through design’ by categories of practice or output is a bit futile. To me it seems that ‘research through design’ is research carried out by people who think of themselves as designers, or who have attached themselves to design culture, and there probably isn’t a lot more to usefully say about it, except perhaps to point out empirically it’s success or otherwise.





There’s been a sprinkling of talks that I can’t fit into a theme: Adam Harper on future of music, Jon Ronson, on shaming, food futurology etc. Do people want new textures in their foods because of the ennui of touch screens (Dr Morgaine Gaye)? Fun to think about…

But there’s also been many – perhaps most – talks that fit into a neat conceptual box, from the John Lanchester’s “How to talk money” to Michel Bauwens on Peer to Peer civilisation. It’s indicative that Dr. Michael Osborne (on AI) and Luciano Floridi (on tech & philosophy), both from Oxford University began their talks by emphasising how quickly the amount of information in the world is increasing. One sound bite stat was that there was more 1000 times more data on the web in 2014 than all the words spoken by humans in all of history. We get the idea that something is happening, even if it’s not exactly clear what it means.

Here’s how it crystallises for me: all this new information is a new way to solve the problem of social coordination. How can we act together most effectively to achieve our goals? The best way to understand this is to contrast it with old ways solving social coordination problems. John Lanchester pointed out that the very first time humans wrote things down was to track the movements of goods in the temples of ancient Sumer. What they were facing, for the first time ever, was the difficulty of making sure that a lot of human labour was direct towards a common goal, making the temple rich. You can’t solve a problem that complicated without information tech, in this case writing.

Skipping forward in history a bit, in 1945 the economist Friedrich Hayek says this, which deserves quoting at length:

Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation ….  the shipper who earns his living from using otherwise empty or half-filled journeys of tramp-steamers, or the estate agent whose whole knowledge is almost exclusively one of temporary opportunities, or the arbitrageur who gains from local differences of commodity prices, are all performing eminently useful functions based on special knowledge of circumstances of the fleeting moment not known to others.

What Hayek wanted to say is that money is the information tech that currently solves the social coordination problem, in contrast to central planning, which he said could never handle the complexity. Money compresses a lots of information in to a single system of tokens, which is the most complex thing you can manage before electronic computers. I express my desire for something by my willingness to spend money on it, someone else is then motivated to try and provide that item. It’s both a way of expressing your goals and causing people to work together to achieve them. That’s what a market is. Money is, at least as it is at the moment, created and controlled by nation states. States do this because it’s very effective technology at solving social coordination. (Adam Lanchester [& David Graeber] point out that states originally did this to socially coordinate the mobilisation of armies.)

So coming back to the massive amount of information that we all agree is now being created, one thing we can do with it all is to help social coordination. We can solve Hayek’s problem now.

You can use a ‘money alternative’, like bitcoin, to track value, in which case you are using new information exchange technologies to do something very similar to the old market system, only you don’t have to rely on nation states to issue the money. Or you can think of services like AirBnB, an example of the sharing economy that Michel Bauwens attacked, which are parasitic on the existing money-based system. AirBnB and co use new systems for creating and sharing information (The Internet) to make transactions happen that were too hard before: sporadic letting of a spare room, or lending your car to someone.

But there are more radical alternatives too. If you can find several people who need the same infrastructure as you, say workshop equipment, then you could buddy up and agree to share that stuff, that’s what a makerspace is. What you need to make this work is a) to be able to find other people who want the same stuff as you, b) to be able ensure that one participant to use too much resource, ie spend all day using the lathe if someone else needs it. Elinor Ostrom’s design principles for common pool resources describe this second point nicely in rule 5:

 Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behaviour.

Both of these are information problems that used to solved by money – you’d either have to rent the equipment or have someone else do your manufacturing for you – both exchanges mediated by cash.

Not so any more, hence all the interest across Futurefest in notions of commoning, crowds sourcing, peer to peer community.

As a final point, I noticed that Vivienne Westwood’s view that ‘Capitalists prefer competition and death‘ was quite common across the conference. In rejecting the current economic system many people go beyond saying that it ought to be augmented or improved, and instead want to make the case that it should be abandoned. This is too far for me.

I think the modern economic system has delivered enormous benefits, it’s a liberal way of organising people to work together. The economic crisis has shown us that there are deep problems, rising inequality has to be addressed and no question new information technologies can offer alternatives.

But for me markets are as much about coordination as competition, and the reason they have elements of competition is because in a liberal society people want different things. The market provides a mechanism to sort thought and prioritise those wants. You can’t just throw the whole thing over.

China adopting a free market lifted more people out of poverty than all the development initiatives ever. The next step, which was nascent at Futurefest, is to re-embed the economy is human relations and tame the wild inequality that has come from the ideology of free market economics.

That’s my prism, obviously there are many others, but that’s the crux of my PhD. For me it stitches together lots of otherwise dispirate thoughts.

The effect of representing networks with ‘spaghetti’ network graphs, like the above inscrutable graph I found on Google images, is surprising because simultaneously almost completely illegible and yet at the same time immediately satisfying. Whenever I show a network graph when describing my own work everyone seems to ‘get’ what I’m up to.

If you want to gather data for social network analysis, or check it, or edit it, you tend to do so using a matrix table. Doing so via a network graph is going be very hard.

If you want to boil your data down into some aggregate picture then you can use mathematical approaches to derive properties: modularity, connectedness, etc. If you try to guess these properties by looking at a network graph, your intuition is not going to be great.

And yet network graphs of my work seem to be incredibly important for people to be able to mentally situate what’s going on, to position what I’m doing in their minds. It seems to live in between the comprehensive tabular matrix and the reductionist statistical analysis and fill a unique, qualitative role.

Gephi, which I use to visualise networks as graphs, has various algorithms for creating the network layouts. They are computationally expensive and take several seconds to run, yet after all this computation the result often leaps off the page as visually wrong – unbalanced in someway. Usually I can see what needs to change to make it right.

The sense of orientation that comes from a seeing a network graph, and the immediate ability to layout a graph in a way that apparently a computer cannot might be linked at some cognitive level – do humans have a special module for processing network graphs?

In any case, what I previously thought off as a bug – the seductive quality of the spaghetti graph – I am now reconsidering as a feature – that network graphs, even borderline illegible ones, give us some kind of context and confidence in the data we are examining. Perhaps they just act as a handy prompt to ask some important questions: are there meaningful clusters? Is the graph complete? What are the nodes, actually? What types of edges are there?

Doing Better?

Some brief research has turned up some approaches to reducing the amount of spaghetti in the network diagram.

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Above is an attempt to add matrices to network diagrams[1]. Representing both halves of a necessarily symmetric matrix violates all kinds of Tufte dictums, that aside this graphic fails because it doesn’t aid intuition very much at all, and the hard data is impossible to read off because the matrices don’t have labels.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 15.16.42

In another approach [2] we see an attempt to make clusters more intuitive. I think this work is more successful than the first example because of the specific focus on a qualitative, at a glance approach, however it’s also representing fewer nodes and edges so perhaps has set itself a lower hurdle. In case you can’t tell, the various coloured clusters have been encouraged to form into recognisable shapes – square, circle, heart, light great is approximating a triangle. But why square, circle, triangle? Was the key problem with this diagram comprehending the clusters anyway?


Contextual, rather than algorithmic

In looking through data visualisation books I found pure networks, the kind that the two examples above are trying to represent, quite rare. But we’ve all seen a very famous example of network data vis – perhaps the canonical example of data visualisation – the London Tube Map. What makes it work so well is the judicious addition and removal of information. The Thames isn’t part of the network, but without it the stations are completely geographically unmoored. Yet the precise distances between the stations have been scrapped, a detail that gets in the way of the aesthetic.

The tubemap has been been done to death, so I’ve included British Airways’ network graph of their flights, circa 1989. Here there is an extra contextual detail of the dotted connections which reach around what would be the back of the globe if we were looking at normal map of the earth. I also like the pleasing way that different destinations peel of a central spine.

These bespoke visualisations seem to be pointing out the inadequacy of the purely algorithmic approach of software packages like Gephi.

Even so, it seems that we take something from even the worst spaghetti diagrams.



[1] Henry, Nathalie, J. Fekete, and Michael J. McGuffin. “NodeTrix: a hybrid visualization of social networks.” Visualization and Computer Graphics, IEEE Transactions on 13.6 (2007): 1302-1309.

[2] Shannon, Ross, Aaron Quigley, and Paddy Nixon. “Graphemes: self-organizing shape-based clustered structures for network visualisations.” CHI’10 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2010.



Nesta’s Big and Open Data for the Common Good raced through (I think) 7 different projects, all of them detailed in the report, and including my work with @lagaia, @rowanelena and @mparsfield in Hounslow.

The projects underpinned a more general debate about two recurrent topics – ethics, and who should be responsible for building the open data infrastructure.

Ethics and data

Whenever you are using data about people the question “Have the people in question given informed consent?” arises. When the data is not directly about people, there is still a question “Is the end to which we are using this data ethical?”. This topic generated much debate on the Twitter hashtag – as can be seen in the storify.

Clearly, using people’s data without their consent is an invasion of their privacy as well as a disservice to society. In @lagaia’s example, if Citizen’s Advice Bureau opened up detailed data about what people ask them about payday loans (which, by the way, they have no intention of doing) that might be very useful to unscrupulous lenders.

As upstanding, morally conscious individuals the obvious answer is to be extremely conservative with the uses we put data to. This has a number of non-obvious drawbacks:

  1. Informed Consent is extremely difficult to parse, since most people have no idea of the conclusions that can be drawn from a given set of data using statistical approaches. So strict interpretation of informed consent will be extremely limiting. Much of the activity discussed at the event would at be at best in a grey zone, for example. The ‘bigger’ the data, the harder it is to claim ‘informed’ consent because the the information that can be derived becomes more surprising.
  2. There is a free-rider problem. If one person does not consent for their medical data to be shared for research purposes, but others do, is it fair for the person who does not consent to benefit from any research breakthroughs predicated on other people’s generosity with their own personal data?
  3. Traditionally, academia and the third sector have been very strict about ethics, while unsurprisingly the commercial sector has not. On a case-by-case analysis we might see the strictest ethical interpretation as morally preferable, but if the cumulative outcome is for the commercial sector to have vast lead in theoretic and behavioral understanding, to be decisively more adept at data processing, is that really for the greater good?
  4. Perhaps the most important point is the huge opportunity cost of not doing certain big and open data activities. Being over-cautious could have as bad an outcome for society as an incautious approach. Playing it safe is not cost free.

@Stianwestlake pointed out that rules to enforce ethics are unsuccessful, suggesting that disaster in the financial sector was the result of bad faith and could not have been averted by more rules. In some countries bankers now have to take a hippocratic oath. Perhaps something similar could be beneficial for those using data?  Bankers and data scientists both work with social abstractions that make it easy to forget the human cost of bad decisions, and they both potentially face perverse incentives.

Data as infrastructure

We (nearly) all accept the governments role in enforcing contracts and standardising weights and measures. These activities are seen as precursors to all the public and private activity that makes our society work. Imagine trying to buy petrol if every station used it’s own system of measurement. Systems such as company registration, agreeing to use litres for fuel etc. become part of the furniture. We need rules about how information is recorded and transmitted to make the system work; a kind of systemic infrastructure.

Yet it seems clear the government does not have enough interest in enforcing similar rules for data formats and data sharing in the digital realm. For me this is the most fascinating part of the debate. @willperrin pointed out the huge potential for giving to local causes that is untapped in the UK simply because there is no mechanism to discover local charitable causes. @edtparkes talked about the important data the private sector has and which it easily could share. To me this issues is exactly the same requiring suppliers to list ingredients on packaging (and put me in mind of this amazing podcast, in part about Tesco’s and immigration patterns). @carljackmiller called for an ‘ebay’ style clearing house for collective social action.

How will these systems described above be built? Clearly the commercial sector is going to play a role, @edtparkes said “We’ll have no social impact if we don’t make a profit”, implying that anything that doesn’t make a profit won’t exist in the long term. On the other hand @trisml suggested the idea that for-profit companies could build all of this infrastructure was ‘magical thinking’ – noting that historically infrastructure has always been pioneered by the state. Finally, @duncan3ross, perhaps partially in answer to these questions, pointed out that when local authorities award contracts they should require that some part of the budget be allocated to open data concerns.

It’s hard to reinforce enough the idea – beautifully articulated by Keller Easterling here – that this systemic, digital infrastructure is as important to the public good as the network of roads or the hidden plumbing that we take to be the signifiers of civilisation.




We got off the train at the wrong stop, but, no matter, we’d get a taxi. Except… we’re not in London any more, and there are no taxis in Matera, especially when it’s nearly midnight.

So we walked the last mile to get to the old town, the Sassi, which runs along the side of a ravine. Looking out, I imagined the blinking light on top of a transmitter tower as a boat on the ocean, or a light aircraft over the Sahel – the town has the feel being on the edge of a great unknown, heightened by the even greater unknown of where our apartment was. In the end we found it by chance, just as panic was beginning to take hold.

In the daylight you can see across the valley to rows of caves, some of which are tiny churches with peeling frescos on their walls. Even in the daylight the old town is uncanny, there are so few people there. Before tourism made the Sassi an economic asset, the Italian government moved people out of the medieval caves and into the new town, they are only now moving back.

The Unmonastry is at the cusp of the Sassi’s ravine, the right place for a conference called Living On The Edge; the walls of an ancient cellar rubbing off on your shoulders as you listen to Emmanuele talk about memories of abandoned Italian villages.

Unmonastry, from the other side of the old town
Unmonastry, from the other side of the old town
Unmonastry, from across the ravine
Unmonastry, from across the ravine


The introductory session nicely bookended the LOTE spectrum between Robin Chase and Vinay Gupta. Robin is a Zipcar cofounder and her call was for us to look for “excess capacity” in the system and investigate ways to unlock it. If Zipcar unlocks the value of our underused cars through sharing them, what else could we bring that model to?

Compare with Vinay’s call, of similar kind but utterly different extent: to modernise anarchist theory, cease relying on the government, ignore the market economy and form radical cooperatives that act in our own interests using the internet as a platform. Charities be dammed, they are cut from the same cloth as the corporates. Zipcar type models are encompassed via the theoretical construct of guard labour, but it doesn’t stop there; climate change, wars and everything in between are in Vinay’s purview.

To round off the picture, Fra. Bembo pointed out that everyone would have to clean the toilets, and Jeff (who was dressed variously as a chef and a bin man over the weekend) spoke out in support of a guaranteed minimum income, which I think is rapidly becoming a hobby horse for me.

The stewardship in the title refers, I think, to the idea of an individuals or organisations that attempt to maximise the social benefit of a resource for non-financial reasons – people who ‘steward’ a resource. But the topic that kept recurring is actually the Zipcareque sharing economy. Similar idea, getting more value by sharing resources, but, crucially, driven by market forces rather than cooperative benevolence. This tension came out at the plenary at the end of the first day, with the question “Is Airbnb bad because it makes room sharing, which used to be a gesture of friendship, into a financial transaction?”

The answer that Robin gave, and which I’m inclined to agree with, is that before Airbnb existed people mostly didn’t let their spare rooms, because there was too much friction in the transaction. The new ‘sharing economy’ has probably displaced very little benevolent, non-monetised sharing activity, with either cars or spare rooms. Airbnb is straight out of VC-funded, bubble-valley, hypercapitalist California. I might not like the way it’s come about, but I can see the value of what it enables as despite the economic system in which it arose.

You might have guessed that by now I have an affinity for Robin’s way of thinking, and I think one of the most interesting things she posited was the idea of market failure in the sharing economy. Using economic theory as a lens in very helpful for me, but, I speculate, a total turn off for most other people at the conference. In any case, a massive case of market failure occurs around personal data, where people simply cannot understand the value of their personal data, and the way it aggregates to become incredibly powerful.

So that’s the cut-and-dry economics, but, much more than ever that ever before, Patrick persuaded of a rational position which is sceptical of economic theory. In his view, using money to value things causes people to have a different psychology. It makes it easier, for example, to abuse natural resources, because it makes them abstract. So when I explained that the market is a wonderful way of allocating resources, that it does a magical computation to prioritise what people most want, he agreed. But at the big scale, the environmental scale, the use of money causes this damaging psychological disconnect. When people explain to me why they don’t like economics, I often feel it’s because they don’t get how powerful it is, our conversation didn’t follow that pattern.

Which leads me to the unconference session that Helen and I lead, Art Vs Science. As a spur to discussion, we divided the world into Tribe A – scientists and techies – and Tribe B – Artists and the academic humanities. I proposed that the tribes need to recognise their cultural differences and reconcile them, Helen argued the tribes didn’t really exist like this, and that in any case the differences in culture were a good thing. More is available in the notes, but we did find that the tribe model rang at least a little true with the experience of those in the Unmonastry. Kat was especially good in the debate, bringing lots of useful ideas. I was interested to learn that artists-in-residence at CERN only get three months, those running the program worry  the artists might go native and start thinking like scientists otherwise.

One funny conclusion was that even though Helen identifies as Tribe B, and I identify as Tribe A, we both perceive ourselves to be in the minority – at the conference and in wider society. Obviously impossible.

Listening to the talks I noticed a recurring structure in presentations. Someone would advocate for some kind of action, then we’d lament that not many people agreed with us. This was followed by the idea that ‘people’ should be re-educated so they will want they same thing we do. eg. People should use encryption on the web, but they don’t see the value, so we should re-educate them so they do. People shouldn’t go to supermarkets, but they do, so we should re-educate them to not.

In discussion with Theresia, I realised how pervasive this type of thinking is – to the point where I’ve certainly articulated it myself. It’s not a completely fair analysis, but it gave me something to think about.

Sam, who was videoing the gathering, told me he was having difficulty making the Sassi look real on screen. In the diffused light, with buff-colour tufo buildings between grey ravine and the grey sky, the town looks as flat as film set. In fact Pasolini’s films and Mel Gibson’s Passion of The Christ both used the Sassi as a backdrop, as will a remake of Ben Hur.

At the same time the Sassi is more three dimensional than any modern town. Buttresses fly, shoulder-width steps wind through, over, under. One man’s pavement is another mans roof. The bedrock is a Swiss cheese of human activity. When we arrived at the apartment we were led through a tiny cupboard-style door under the stairs, down a staircase and into a cellar space the size of a 4 bed London flat. There’s a story that at another conference a local showed a someone into his house, to show how it connected to the cave system. They went deep enough to end up under a church, looking into a pit of human bones.

God knows what else is under there. One of the town’s churches (wonderfully called Chiese Rupestri di San Nicola dei Greci e Madonna delle Virtù) intersects with an older church carved into the hill. No one knows how old the older church is, the first docmentation comes from the 14th century – maybe the question doesn’t even make sense, geology and architecture elide in Matera. In 1991 they discovered a Roman cistern, hiding, unknown, below the town square, under everyone’s feet.

The time dimension warped too; in the way that three days a Glastonbury feels like you’ve been away for a month. You could open a door in the depths of a cave and come out of at the top of a campanile a week in the past and on the other side of the valley. Perhaps I was just confused because the clocks changed while we there.

I didn’t have much more luck with trains when I came to leave. Somehow I seemed to keep missing the main train station. I took me too long to realise what should have been obvious: the train station is underground.