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.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

 

 

 

 

It’s hard to write about the Creative Citizens conference, it’s given me so much to think about that I can’t corral all the ideas into any sensible shape. A lot of the specific topics – participation, creativity, community, the city – have been in the air for so long that I won’t recount all my notes here.

Collectively, the big-picture keynote talks, plus all the on the ground research, snapped into focus a macro view of policy, politics, money and economics in a way that was completely fresh to me.

The panel at the end of the first day, composed of representatives from four think tanks, was the peg on which I mentally hung the rest of the conference.  It was during their discussion that I realised that the measurement of value was, for me,  the concept that tied everything together.

The research presented at Creative Citizens was asking people to value social cohesion, inclusivity, creativity, empowerment.

On another level, the wonks, quite bluntly, pointed out that politicians would evaluate policy by how it helped them claw their way across the next electoral threshold – services delivered cheaper, better education as measure by exam results, reduced benefit expenditure etc.

On the third, even more dismal, level, everyone accepts that as a society economic value is the default setting for measuring everything, which we shorthand as neoliberalism. This is inimical to the Creative Citizens agenda, which is two levels away on my just-invented policy measurement vagueness hierarchy (PMVH?).

When I worked at the (co-operative) council in Lambeth we said the co-design agenda was about, approximately, ‘getting more for your money in the era of austerity’. Very often I think academia gives the same impression, but it’s a bit of charade in both cases – one because it’s not clear how co-design or hyperlocal etc. convert to economic value, and two because I’m not sure that’s what we truly care about anyway.

What Geoff Mulgan’s talk made me think is that what’s really going on is an intellectual rejection of the notion of economic value. We aren’t really interested in hyperlocal media or co-design because it will help eek out the budget, but instead because it’s alternative value system to the remorselessly market based one, a system which we suddenly realised was horribly dysfunctional in 2008.

I heard four different speakers talk about the Occupy movement, regarding things like horizontal organisations, the hyperlocal perspective, what Occupy tells us about participation. But isn’t there a part of us that is interested in Occupy because it was literally manning the barricades against neoliberalism? Surely it’s a factor.

This ties into Adam Greenfield’s talk at LSE of the same week, where he was absolutely frank about his political views. I saw huge crowds thronging to see FT economist Martin Wolf speak on the financial crisis, before finding a more modest lecture theatre for Greenfield’s talk – I now take this to have symbolic significance. His thinking focuses on Creative Citizen themes, but from the perspective of ‘the city’, and I should note that he comes from a very different place on this.

The city, rather than the country, naturally becomes the unit of analysis, because a country, as abstraction, encourages abstract statistical and economic thinking, while the idea of a city makes us think of concrete things – town halls, street parties, the homeless. This is the mode of thought which gives rise to the Creative Citizens agenda, the two are one and then same. Geoff Mulgan and Paola Antonelli both spoke a great deal about projects led by mayors rather than presidents or prime ministers, I think for this reason.

So what should we make of the wonks telling us the Creative Citizen worldview wasn’t sufficiently ‘instrumental’? Creative Citizen ideas promise to serve up a little bit of everything with a selection of intangible benefits on the side, but as I’ve noted, politicians care about social indices – GDP, educational attainment, life expectancy, and in the short term.

Another question – wonkspeak alert – does community-led design “go to scale?”, or, how would it look if you did a lot of it? In my experience this isn’t something co-design proponents are particularly concerned with, but if you want to affect a change, surely it’s an issue?

I sensed that a lot of the audience felt that the think tankers didn’t ‘get it’. But it’s more interesting to assume that they did.

I wish I had a more intellectual reference point, but I kept on thinking of Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You, along time ago, when Bush was in power. He said that intellectual lefty Americans loved watching The West Wing because it let them pretend the President was a left-wing nobel laureate played by Martin Sheen, rather than confront the reality that he was a neo-conservative malapropism-prone Texan.

I wondered if there is a sense in which advocating small-scale, community-led, DIY policy could be seen as hiding out too, doing well-motivated, beautifully crafted projects, but failing to engage with governmental thinking – instead doing projects that aren’t expected to scale and aren’t persuasive to policy makers.

When I spoke to Leon Cruickshank about the community-led project he led in Lancaster he said that as part of his process he absolutely expected local government experts to have closed meetings where they could use technical language and voice expert opinions. It seems to me that many people wouldn’t always want to highlight that part of their project because it seems to go against the ethos.

But it absolutely addresses one of the points raised by the think tank panel, which was that community-led design ignores the experts who are needed to implement complex and technical aspects of projects. Perhaps these concessions to reality are should be made more of.

I do sometimes admire the brutally prescriptive approach that ‘deliberative democracy’ takes for exactly this reason, although Leon did mention some drawbacks to this approach.  Deliberative democracy also interests me because it seems so on-topic for these types of discussion but it never gets mentioned, perhaps because from an American university?

Anyway… it seems to me measurement could be part of the answer too. If it was possible to articulate measurements of inclusivity or community cohesion perhaps they would become more attractive targets for policy, and move up politician’s agenda. Where economic value and social values are in tension, one could make the tradeoff explicit. Currently, economic value wins because it can often be captured by a number.

Tying this back into my own research, what I’m looking at is studying community cohesion by looking at the digital signature it leaves behind, which I really hope has some potential to make more visible slippery constructs such as community cohesion, and play a part in this measurement idea.

Which again loops back on the Creative Industries workshop I attended in Beijing, where the idea of measuring the economic impact of creativity was discussed in some detail, including the notions of stated preferences as alternative to the revealed preferences of standard economic thought.

The conference ended on the day of the Indyref result, with all of the talk of revivified political culture that bought. Yesterday Ed Miliband proposed breaking up the banks and more local powers, perhaps the economists and the wonks are underestimating the Creative Citizens approach to politics, and it can be part of a new era of civic dynamism.

 

 

Matt Biddulph (one of the Dopplr founders) is to blame. At least I think he’s the one that started the “Silicon Roundabout” name off.  What did Larry Page say when someone told him Google were buying space at London’s Silicon Roundabout? Probably, “what’s a roundabout?”. Americans are so cut-and-thrust they don’t have roundabouts, roundabouts imply too much collaboration between drivers.  At least Brighton’s Silicon Beach makes sense, in that sand is made of silicon (only, there’s no sand on Brighton beach.) Anyway, the organisers of Silicon Milkroundabout can’t be blamed for perpetuating a silly name, or making it sillier by punning it with the idea of the university milk round.

In case you haven’t come across it Silicon Milkroundabout is a job fair – startups (and mature companies) have stalls. On Saturday product managers went round the stalls and tried to find jobs, on Sunday developers did the same, and in much greater numbers. Having tried to hire developers, I can say that anything that makes finding them easier is a good thing.

I’ve never quite known what my job title ought to be, but it seems like I’m mostly in the product manager camp. So it was nice to meet a bunch of people who do the same thing and chat about our shared experiences. But I’m also a bit of a dev, so I went on Sunday too.

Aside from trying to find some work, it was an opportunity to see what kind of companies are growing. Distilling customer tastes from big data was definitely the standout theme. There were companies that mined data on previous purchases to discover what products you might like, others that looked at your results in personality test, and others that looked across you social graph. The objective was either to serve better targeted adverts, or to customise a website to highlight the products that a particular user is most likely to buy.

I’m slightly inclined to question a fundamental assumption in all this: that I have fixed propensity to purchase any given product, and that propensity can be discovered by looking at my behaviour, or my friend’s behaviour.

I have quite a vivid memory of going to a party where guy with a massive beard and a comforting northern accent was playing music. Everything he put on was different, unknown to me and really good. Everything he put on I asked what it was, and he told me some interesting things about the song and its context. He worked in a record shop, and if I was a customer I think I might have bought about 50% of the stuff he was playing.

Instead I got home and YouTubed most of it. It turned out that, listening off my laptop on my own, I liked much less of it – Yacht was the only band that really stuck with me. Even then, by playing perhaps 6 records he found one that was of genuine interest. He had a good conversion rate.  Obviously this is anecdotal, but there are two things that might be interesting:

  1. I felt “active” in the discovery process. I was at the right party speaking to the right guy to find these things out. I had exclusivity, if someone asked how I found out about Yacht I had a story to tell. Not a great story, but there was a real connection behind it.  I would have dismissed exactly the same results if they’d appeared to me as automatically generated recommendations in a  UI. In fact, I would probably have said they were stupid, because there was no personal investment in the selection process.
  2. No amount of looking through my previous purchases would have shown artists similar to Yacht. No amount of looking through my social graph would have shown that my friends liked Yacht. That was what made them a great discovery, I could say to my friends – “Hey, I found a cool thing”, and be reasonably sure I had new information.

Often I want website suggestion algorithms to fail, confirming what I like to think of as my unique and distinctive tastes.

Liking Yacht isn’t a deep-seated feature of my brain that could be discovered if you had enough data about me. It was something that happened when I guy that thought was cool, but not too cool, told me about them. Meeting him in that context made it better.

I hate Amazon Books suggestions. Even if they could perfectly predict what I would have bought, as soon as I see the suggestions I change my mind. My reading is a deep part of my individuality; if it can be predicated by an Amazon algorithm then I feel obliged to switch it up a bit. Conversely, I’d be more than happy to have a film recommended to me: film taste isn’t something that’s particularly important to me.

I love the Hype Machine, a site that finds music from blogs. It understands that my musical taste is not going to be formed by a suggestion engine, but by what other identifiable humans have said. Each track is presented with a snippet from the blog it appeared in. I have to search for it – I’m an active participant. I discover the music, rather than it being suggested to me.

Obviously, suggestions systems do work, enough for Netflix to invest in a million dollar prize for anyone who could improve their algorithm by 10%.  Small increases in conversion rate are worth a lot of money – I just wonder if they would work better if they took a deeper account of the social factor than crawling my Facebook friends. Or if you can generate the “meeting a guy at a party” moment on a website.

Turns out I’m not that into Yacht that much anymore. I don’t want to be identified with the kind of people who “like” them on YouTube.

 

 

Today I spoke at Bar Camp Media City in Salford, Manchester. Part of the appeal was getting to see the new Media City home of the BBC. You get the tram from the train station – there’s something about getting on trams that makes me feel like I’ve left the real world and slipped into a theatre set where everything is just pretending. I quite like that. It’s because of the monorail at Chesington World of Adventures I think.

I’m glad the security gards that checked my computer cables, validated my photo ID and escorted me to the 5th floor of the BBC Quay House building didn’t find anything suspicious. They wouldn’t have hesitated to do a cavity search. You’d think the Queen was giving a presentation.

Who called it Media City? Accountancy consultants? They’re probably signing off the plans for Content Hamlet and Return On Investmentshire right now.

Anyway, I was just going to post something quick explaining the talk I gave. Forgive me if this isn’t watertight, and apologies that it’s been written in haste – hopefully it will clarify what I said for anyone who’s interested.

The Internet is not a medium

TV, radio, the novel, the Internet. It sort of makes sense. OK, the Internet is perhaps a broader category than radio, but we often think of the Internet as just another type of media. I’m going to argue that it isn’t and that thinking it is has negative consequences

Definition of a medium, No 1 

A medium is a method of transmitting messages where all the messages transmitted by that medium have similar features. Some of those features ar  conventions – for example that newspaper article have bylines, lead paragraphs explaining the facts and are written in a particular style. Other features that distinguish a medium are matters of technological expediency – there are no moving pictures in newspaper articles.

Mediums can nest, as illustrated below.

Recursive_media

My contention is that podcasts, YouTube, eBooks and blogs are so dissimilar that there is literally nothing about them that puts them in one media category. Not even in the same broad nest. This might seem like a semantic point, but I think it leads to a number of problems:

  • Often people speak of the Internet as though it is one medium, and their claims need to be made more specific. “People who use the Internet for 4 hours a day have lower attention spans” doesn’t really mean anything – what are they using the internet for? That’s the critical fact, otherwise it’s about as broad as saying “people engaged in activities for 4 hours a day have lower attention spans”.
  • Erroneous assumptions that generic properties of the Internet exist. It’s also common to hear statements such as “the Internet is democratising”. Obviously this is widely debated, and that debate could proceed with more if the language was tightened up. What features of the net are democratising?
  • ‘First-TV-programme syndrome’ – When the first TV programmes were broadcast they simply pointed cameras at people doing radio shows. It took time to work out what could be done with the new technology. Clearly we’re on that same curve with the Internet. Being careful about what we’re referring to can only help. (Hat tip to The Guardian’s Martin Bellam)

Horn

Definition of a medium, No 2

A medium is a method of transmitting messages between people. This feels like an all encompassing definition of media to me, but this definition is still narrower than the Internet.

The reason is that the Internet can be used for transmitting data that is not intended for human consumption. It’s possible to email someone a CAD file and get a 3D prototype back without a human having ever read the data you supplied. With increasingly ubiquitous computing, and more sophisticated ways of shaping matter using data, this is a growing mode of Internet use. In this sense it’s more like an all purpose manufacturing aid. I think of it as similar to the way steam increased productivity in the industrial revolution (I’m not trying to make a comment on how important it is though).

Information is hard to charge for, but physical things are not. Projects such as Newspaper Club take advantage of this. They allow you to print your own low  volume newspaper. You’d never pay to publish something online, but paying to using a web app that makes something physical is a reasonable proposition.  Thinking like this might help you identify a revenue stream.

I think the fun of BarCamp is that you get to explain a pet idea, and it’s also a lovely arena to have a go a pubic speaking – I hope my audience weren’t too confused. Thanks to everyone that came along!

I wasn’t expecting BCB6 to be like it was. What I understood was that anyone could talk, what I didn’t realise was that if I didn’t talk it would feel like a cop out.
There’s a board in the reception area with a grid of all the rooms and all the time slots. Anyone that wants to can stick up a card with a subject for a room, with each session lasting 30 minutes. It could be anything, one person had a card up saying “Come and hit me. This is not a metaphor, I have boxing gloves” .  Another person did a test of a board game they were designing (“Peacehaven the board game” – Peacehaven is one the least nice parts of Brighton).

 

The first thing I went to was a workshop on looking after your mac. It’s only now that I write that down that I realise how twatty that could sound. It was very helpful though. I might upgrade to an SSD, in case you were wondering –  it’s the best upgrade you can do. X Code loads in three seconds.

 

Standout talks came from James Hugman on revolutions and the web and Jim Purbrick on games.  

I think everyone accepts that calling the various bouts of civil unrest that have occurred recently ‘Twitter’ or ‘Facebook’ revolutions was hyperbole. As James Hugman proved, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some interesting stuff to say about tech and politics. He started his talk by explaining an encryption service aimed at activists called Rubber Hose. It’s designed so that it can be decrypted in multiple different ways, preventing an unintended recipient from knowing if they have the original message. It’s called Rubber Hose because if an activist is tortured to reveal their password they can give the one that decrypts the data into an innocuous message. Here’s the thing that really surprised me – Rubber Hose was programmed by Julian Assange. He’s a nerd!

 

Other gems included an image of a manual called “How to protest intelligently”. On the front page the instructions read (in Arabic and English) “Do not spread through Facebook or Twitter”, because the publishers knew the government was monitoring social networks.

 

In economically crippled Spain, tenants who get eviction notices have taken to using the web to summon up flash mobs when the bailiffs arrive. Faced with the prospect of having to remove 100 people from a house they police usually advise the bailiffs to give up.

 

Finally, I was very interested to hear that the Police in the UK are struggling to get the data they want to arrest rioters. Although RIM (makers of Blackberry devices) have handed over the text of all the messages sent, they have not passed on all of the associated meta data, which seems to have a different legal status.

 

No where in the talk did James Hugman try to convince us that the Internet was about to unlock a Utopian Global Democracy, and the discussion covered topics such the use of tools intended for activists by criminals and the use of the web to track dissidents.  Every time a quesiton was asked and the James Hugman said ‘I don’t know’ my admiration for him increased. He simply presented some interesting facts without trying to try to force a point of view on us.  

 

If the topic of the web and democracy has been bedevilled by bullshit, then the topic of “gamification” has had it even worse. However, Jim Purbrick, who used to work on Second Life, clearly drew on a deep affection for games and long experience to support his views – quite the opposite of the band-wagon-jumping phonies who litter the Internet with blogs about Gamification.  There’s a substantial literature around games which I’d love to check out, including the economist Edward Castranova and MMO pioneer Richard Bartle, who described online games as giving users a opportunity to learn more about themselves by going on a “hero’s quest”. This lead to my favourite quote of the conference, when Jim Purbrick, who speaks in a manner very similar to Mark Kermode, blithely remarked that “a hero’s quest is obviously the canonical meta-story”.

 

I was particularly interested in the Bernard Suits definition of a game as “voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. This puts an interesting perspective on the idea that we might use game mechanics in areas such as helping people reduce energy consumption or improving eduction – concepts which are often mooted. It seems to make sense to me that as soon as a game is about overcoming a necessary obstacle then it’s no longer a game.

At no point the the word game have the suffix ‘ification’ added to it. Enough said.

 

Then it was my turn to talk. I wasn’t expecting to, so I only had about an hour to put my talk on Philosophy and Technology together. Although my subject was something I’ve been thinking about for ages I found it very hard to communicate. However, it resulted in an interesting debate, loosely in the same vicinity as the point I was try to express.  There are so many well known philosophical debates that it’s quite hard to steer around them, in my case we ended up talking about the ethics of genetic engineering, which wasn’t really what I was trying to get at.   

 

Trying to articulate your thoughts out loud is a real insight. I discovered that having what you think is an interesting idea in your head and being able to transfer that idea to other people are two very different things.

 

Of the four geek events I’ve blogged about so far, Bar Camp Brighton has been the most fun. It runs over the whole weekend, I felt that just going on the Saturday was enough for me – although I imagine the Sunday has quite a different atmosphere.

 

When I first arrived and told someone that I wasn’t intending to speak they told me about their pancake philosophy. When you cook pancakes the first one is always rubbish, but the following ones get better and better – the same is true of speaking in public. So I’m pleased I’ve just tossed my first dud, and looking forward to having another go.

I’ve been to the Royal Society once before for an event about understanding risk, and I was surprised to see some of the same people at the Web Science conference. I’m envious that for some people the Royal Society is a way of life. Especially the man who wears two pairs of glasses at the same time and always asks questions from the perspective of torpedo design – I should say that so far as I understand the questions they always appear to be pertinent, so far as they are comprehensible.

You might reasonably ask what Web Science means, ironcically it’s question that Google will not help you answer. I’m not sure there is a short answer, but there were strong and consistent links between the speakers so it definitely designates something. In terms what university department Web Science belongs in, it seems to be something of a coalition of disciplines, mainly social science, network mathematics and computer science.

However you triangulate the location of Web Sciencce, it’s in an area that I think is very exciting. I hope to have a tiny claim to have played some part in the area through having worked on the BBC’s Lab UK project, which uses the web as social laboratory.

Despite the spectrum of intellectual backgrounds day one was remarkably focused. Other than to call it Web Science the only way I can think of to elucidate the commonality is to use the example of Jon Kleinberg’s talk, which seemed most neatly to encapsulate it. Here goes…

You may have heard of Stanley Milgram for the famous electric shock experiment, but he also did an investigation which gave prominence to the idea of ‘6 degrees of separation’. His ingenious method was to randomly send letters out which contained the name of a target person and short description that target (eg. Jeff Adams, a Boston based lawyer). In the letter there were also instructions indicating that it should be forwarded to someone who might know the target, or know someone who might know someone who would know the target, etc.

Famously the letter will arrive at it’s target in six steps, on average, hence the frequently cited idea that you are six friendships away from everyone in the world (though his experiment was US based).

There’s a strikingly effective way to understand how it can be that the letter finds its destination. It involves imaging the balance between your local friends and your distant friends.

If you only had local friends then a letter would take a large number of steps to find a target individual in, say, Australia. The reason the average can be as low as six steps is that everyone has friends who live abroad, or in another part of the country, so the letter can cover long distances in big hops.

However, imagine all friendships were long distance. If I live in London and I want to get a letter to the lawyer in Boston then I’m going to have a problem. I could send the letter to a friend who lives in Boston, but then his friends are spread equally around the globe, just like mine are. So although the letter can travel great distances it’s course is so unpredictable that no one can tell which direction to forward the letter to get it nearer to it’s target.

It turns out that there is a specific ratio of long and short links which allows the notional letter to get to its destination in the shortest number of links.

This discovery came some time ago, but nobody could measure it the actual ratio of short and long range friends that real people have. To measure it would require a list of millions of people, their location and the names of their friends. Cue Facebook…

Computer scientists have analysed the data on Facebook and it turns out that the actual ratio of short to long links is very close to the optimal ratio, in terms of getting that letter to it’s destination. That is, the mixture of distant contacts and local ones as indicated by the information on Facebook is exactly the right on to deliver the letter in shortest number of links – six.

That’s pretty incredible, and of course it probably isn’t a coincidence. Social scientists posit that perhaps in some way people will their friendships to exhibit this distribution – after all, as we’ve just demonstrated in one sense it’s the most effective mode of linkage. Whatever the eventual explanation, it’s a fascinating incite into human behavior.

Stepping back from the specifics of this argument, here is a perfect example of web science: mathematical theory posing a hypothesis (calculating the optimum ration), computer science providing empirical evidence (working out the real world ratio), and then a social scientific search for explanation. It’s the combo of these three areas which seems to constitute the “new frontier” described in the title of the Royal Society event.

There are other configurations of the various disciplines. Jennifer Chayes, of Microsoft Research, pointed out that mathematicians like herself will study any kind of network for it’s intellectual beauty. She suggested that a very important role for social scientists was to pose meaningful real-world questions which mathematicians and computer scientists could then collaborate to answer.

The ‘web science approach’ has produced all kinds of exciting results. For example Albert-László Barabási (whose excellent book Bursts I can highly recommend) has used the data to discover that the web is a ‘rich get richer’ type of network, meaning that is has a distribution of a few highly connected websites (ie. Google) and many less connected web pages (ie. this one) – which it turns out makes it similar to many other types of network. It’s by using this kind of understanding of how the web grows naturally that Google can tell a potential spammy website from a real one.

A number of predictions flow from this work which I won’t go into here, but there are plenty of practical results coming out of his work. To prove this he showed a graph of citations for ‘network science’ papers which has peaked recently at 800 a year, compared with approximately 300 for the famous Lorentz attractor paper which more or less defined chaos theory, and even fewer for various other epochal chaos papers. That isn’t surprising, Barabási use examples from yeast proteins to human genomics in his talk – it’s much deeper and more widely applicable than just the web.

If you’re still thinking this research might have limited practical application then Robert May’s talk should convince you otherwise. He demonstrated that understanding of ecological networks has spilled over into modeling the extremely real subject of HIV transmission. One of the most ingenious ideas he bought up was that of giving a vaccine for a infectious disease to a population and asking them to administer it to a friend. That means the person with most friends gets the most vaccine. This is handy, because the person with the most friends is also the person most likely to spread the disease.

There were so many other contributions that an exhaustive list of even the most exciting points would also be exhausting to read, so I’ll stop now. But it was an exciting event, not least for the fact that its a genuine intellectual frontier, but one that seems to be surprisingly easy to understand for people who don’t work in full time academia, at least in a broad sense.

Why are people so nervous of the status update? [Published in .net mag]

Mary Beard, Cambridge Professor of Classics, doesn’t like Twitter. You might think that isn’t a surprise – the two things are from different chronological perspectives, but then she does have a successful, if initially reluctant, blog. Only duress from her publicist (or whatever equivalent Cambridge professors have) made her start publishing on the web. Now she describes herself as a convert, and blogging has been transformed in her mind from the basest means of communication to a medium where she can link to research papers and discuss in more depth than she would “even in the Times Literary Supplement”.

I gathered this from her presentation at a conference on improving communication between academia and the public. When she spoke of Twitter she could hardly be more emphatic that she will never use it – hers is a crusade against the tyranny of 140 characters. I imagine she once felt similarly of blogging.

There are few things in the world more over-journalised than Twitter, but no matter what I do I can’t pare the following down to less than 700 words – so please accept my apologies and forgive my verbosity, or perhaps blame Professor Beard for provoking me.

If you bother to ask people about their emotional response to status updates you’ll find an undercurrent of antipathy that verges on a rip-tide, and it seems to be Twitter that draws most ire. Even David Cameron has recourse to unparliamentary language when asked his views on the site.

Why is it then that people become upset at the idea of Twitter? One friend who has recently started using the site told me that he felt he’d lost some kind of battle when he gave in to it – why the fight?

The truth is that it’s just small talk. That’s the point of it. If you don’t want to listen to someone’s blatherings then don’t follow them, just as you avoid boring colleagues. If you don’t want to hear any small talk at all then you can always retreat to the desert in the manner of a biblical hermit. Phatic communion is the sacrament that bonds us, and Twitter’s 140 character limit is designed to enforce short messages strengthening social bonds. From all the hostility to Twitter you think that people only spoke in brilliant, lengthy soliloquies, rather than the boring platitudes that are the majority of everyone’s conversation.

Do people worry that they’ll sign up and then discover that they’ve embarrassed themselves by participating in some passing fad?

Or perhaps it’s a misunderstanding about the nature of publishing text. Do we worry that because Twitter is a public medium there is some kind of narcissism and arrogance associated with making your personal trivia available to the world? Some might even see these same qualities in the kind of nerdy early adopters of Twitter and think that being Twitee (I don’t know what the term is, one thing I won’t indulge in with Twitter is it’s artificial portmanteau language) says something rather unpleasant about your personality.

Or is it a perceived lack of quality assurance? Do the anti-Twitter demographic think that users lack some kind of quality filter and will sign up to any craze like lambs to the attention span slaughter? If so, I think people should be reassured that cynicism is alive and well you the web – and it fits perfectly well into your allotted 140 characters should you need to express it.

These are the kinds of things people say when they explain their antipathy. But I think they are excuses, the real culprit is unease at conducting an important part of your social life online. Facebook is one thing – we’ve always mediated event invites textually, but to carry out the most mundane social chit-chat on the web is a psychological leap.

Moreover, if you aren’t able to speak to a real world friend on Twitter then it can’t serve you as a small-talk-shop, because the point is primarily to reinforce social bonds, not create them. If you don’t know anyone on the site then it’s the written equivalent of hearing one end of a phone conversation on the bus – which perhaps accounts for the anger that some people express at the medium.

It might not be under Twitter’s auspices, but I think the status update is here to stay. Today’s unbelievers are just waiting for the social connections to welcome them to the short-messaging congregation.