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StoryMap is a project that I worked on with Rift theatre company, Peter Thomas from Middlesex University and Angus Main, who is now at RCA, and Ben Koslowski who led the project. Oliver Smith took care of the tech side of things.  

The challenge was very specific, but the outcome was an interface that could work in a variety of public spaces.

We were looking to develop an artefact that could pull together all of the aspects of Rift’s Shakespeare in Shoreditch festival, including four plays in four separate locations over 10 days, the central hub venue where audiences arrived, and the Rude Mechanicals: a roving troupe of actors who put on impromptu plays around Hackney in the weeks leading up to the main event.

We wanted something in the hub venue which gave a sense of geography to proceedings. In the 2014 Shakespeare in Shoreditch festival the audience were encouraged to contribute to a book of 1000 plays (which the Rude Mechanicals used this year for their roving performances). We felt the 2016 version ought to include a way for the audience to contribute too.

The solution we ended up with was a digital/physical hybrid map, with some unusual affordances. We had a large table with a map of Hackney and surroundings (reimagined as an island) routed into the surface.

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We projected a grid onto the table top. Each grid square could have a ‘story’ associated with it. Squares with stories appeared white. Some of the stories were from the Twitter feed of the Rude Mechanicals, so from day one the grid was partially populated. Some of them were added by the audience.

You could read the stories using a console. Two dials allowed users to move a red cursor square around the grid. When it was on a square with a story, that story would appear on a screen in the console.

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If there was no story on the square, participants could add one. We had sheets of paper with prompts written on them, which you could feed into a typewriter and tap a response. Once you’d written your story, you put it in a slot in the console, and scanned it with the red button. (Example, Prompt: ‘Have you been on a memorable date in Hackney?’, Response: ‘I’m on one now!’)

Nearly 300 stories were submitted over 10 days.  Even though there really difficult to use, people loved the typewriters as an input method. Speaking from my own perspective, I found an input method that legitimised spelling mistakes and typos less intimidating. 

There were two modes of interaction – firstly, through the table based projection, which allowed a conversational, collective and discursive understanding of what had already been submitted.  Secondly, there was a more individual process of reading specific stories and adding your own story using the screen in the console. The second mode still relied on the projection, because you needed to move your cursor to find or submit a story.

The resolution of the projection was too low (because of the size of the table) for fonts or details to be rendered well. From this perspective, the map routed into the table really worked; it increased the ‘bandwidth’ of the information the table could convey, fine lines and small text worked well (which gave us a chance to play around with whimsically renaming bits of Hackney).

Having a way to convey spatialised data on a table where people can get round it and discuss it, combined with a (potentially private) way to add detail might work in a number of scenarios. Could it be a tool for planning consultation? A way to explore data spatialised in some other way, eg. a political spectrum or along a time line? Perhaps in a museum context?

The whole thing was developed as a web app, so it’s easy to extend across more screens, or perhaps to add mobile interaction. It’s opened my eyes to the fact that, despite all the noise around open data, there are relatively few ways to explore digital information in a collective, public way. The data is shared, but the exploration is always individual.  More to follow…

(I did a quick technical talk on how we delivered StoryMap for Meteor London, slides here.)

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 of gling 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 compegling 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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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[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.

 

 

A particularly good exhibition of sonic art by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, which I wanted to keep some notes about.

The first thing, the most important thing, is that everything was presented beautifully, and worked. Where ultrasonic sensors were supposed to detect a person approaching, they did; when a button was supposed to record your voice, it did. I can say from experience this is no small achievement – so hats off to that. The second thing, which is also often lacking in exhibitions that involve something digital, is that everything was beautifully presented and looked as though the artists had been able to fulfil their intentions.

The artist has a concept of ‘speakers as pixels’ and in the piece Sphere Packing below it really works. Each sphere is covered in lots (sometimes hundreds) of tiny transducers working as speakers. They are so quiet, so close together, that from a distance each sphere emits white noise. But if you put your ear very close you can hear that it is actually playing a discernible song. For example, one sphere plays Mozart, but each speaker is playing a different bit of his work, so in total its just a random mess. I haven’t seen this played with before.

Sphere Packing
Sphere Packing

In this instance the way the effect works means that you to literally put your ear against the speaker to get an individual signal. I wondered if it would be possible to have the cross over from noise to signal a bit further away, but the logarithmic nature of perception might make this rather hard to achieve. I also wonder what the effect would be if the speakers played different but more related sounds, for example just fractionally out of sync. Virgin territory, as far as I know, it’s seems to explore a really interesting cross over between noise and music in a spatial way. This especially, but also perhaps the exhibition as whole, makes me thing of applications in calm technology.

In Voice Array visitors are able to record a short sample of their voice, which is played back on it’s own, then with all the previous contributions simultaneously. For me the sound aspect of this was less exciting than the way LEDs worked, each independently twinkling in slightly different shades of white, giving an effect that set it apart from the clinical look these things normally have.

Voice Array

Finally, Pan-Anthem, which features magnetic ‘bricks’ representing each country in the world by playing back their national anthem (although I seem to remember hearing that Oman doesn’t have a national anthem because music is banned there?). The magnet in the speaker sticks to the metal sheet on the wall, so the bricks can be re-arranged to visualise different sets of data. Weirdly reminiscent of the vitamin calendar, and obviously I like the idea of stand alone devices that play one song – being, this the eventual goal of the Rifff project.

Overall, the sound was actually quite annoying and didn’t add that much, but I feel like there is a realisation that could really make the sonic dimension work. I guess the problem with country’s national anthems is that they are mostly unknown and don’t evoke anything. If the system relied on a palette of sounds or songs I knew, or triggered a mood, perhaps it would work better. As with everything else though, beautifully, functionally executed.

 

Pan-Anthem

 

 

 

 

 

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 Antonegli 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.

 

 

Ames gunstock

Ames Gunstock Lathe in the Science Museum’s Making of the Modern World exhibition

The Ames Gunstock Lathe is a tool for carving rifle gunstocks from wood. It functions by running a probe over an already shaped “template” gunstock. The probe is mechanically linked to a cutting head that produces an identical copy from a wooden blank.

According to geographer Jarred Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel, the ability to make guns has shaped global history. Ian Morris, in his book Why The West Rules For Now echoes this sentiment, suggesting that mass-produced guns tipped the power balance away from nomadic tribes and in favour of the sedentary urban populations that we now take to be defining feature of civilisation. Mechanisms such as this lathe are clearly influential in the broad sweep of history.

Specifically, this tool was built in the Springfield Armoury in the United States. The facility’s ability to mass produce guns had a profound effect on American history, and is now a national monument and museum for this reason. The production techniques pioneered there also seeded the Industrial Revolution in the United States.

In terms of historical impact, this exhibit couldn’t have much better credentials for inclusion in a gallery about the making of the modern world. It was the novelty of the mechanism that caught my attention, but what set me thinking more deeply was the attached description:

“This machines’ legacy is the computer numerically controlled (CNC) machining systems that characterise mass-production today”.

Perhaps if the label had been written more recently it would have referenced 3D printing instead of CNC.

To me, it’s not clear the lathe warrants a place in the gallery on this basis. While superficially similar to a CNC lathe in terms of it’s ability to automatically produce a complex form, the two things are in fact profoundly different.

The authors of this description have not appreciated that the Ames Gunstock Lathe has no numerical or computational aspects at all.

The machine is so fascinating exactly because it operates without any level of abstraction. It takes as input one gunstock and makes another with no representational intermediate. In this sense it’s the absolute antithesis of the “information age” in which now live, as defined by the rise of abstract representation.

In fact the lineage that leads to modern computer technology and CNC tools was already well established by 1857. The Jacquard loom used holes punched in cards to control the patterns which it wove into fabrics, a genuine information technology. The link between the Jacquard loom and modern computing is unambiguous. The system of using holes in cards as an encoding method was prevalent in computing right up until the 1960s. Much of the standardisation of punch cards was undertaken by IBM, very much a link to the contemporary.

So the Ames Lathe, which was built 50 years later than the first Jacquard looms, doesn’t feature in the genealogy of CNC machines after all.

Disinheriting the Ames Lathe is more than just an exercise in taxonomy. Comparing the Jacquard loom to the lathe is a case study which can shed light on the defining characteristics of information technology.

Claude Shannon published A Mathematical Theory of Communication in 1948, giving an account of how measure information that is widely accepted. However what information actually is and how it is deployed in technology is less clear.

The Ames lathe is a vivid illustration of the contrast between highly malleable and liquid data which powers the modern world, and the non-representational physical object which has been so much less fertile in terms of innovation.

As far as I can think, the only functional modern device that users an analogous mechanism to the Ames Lathe is the machine used for copying keys at high street shops. Meanwhile, the informational approach of the Jacquard loom was already exhibiting the advantages that make information based manufacturing so powerful.

For example, the cards that controlled the Jacquard loom could be converted into electrical signals, sent over telegraph nearly instantaneously and recreated at some distant location. Conversely, by requiring a physical full scale wooden representation of a gunstock, the Ames lathe can only transmit a design at the same speed as any other medium-sized physical object.

Punch cards can be reordered to produce new patterns in woven cloth with very little effort, while for Ames lathe to produce a new design a whole new template must be hand made.

This ease of manipulation and transmission are the key features of information technology.

For me the inclusion of this lathe says more about the making of the modern world than many of the exhibits in the gallery that genuinely embody computer technology. By illustrating a technological cul-de-sac it throws into sharper contrast the path that progress has actually taken.

Balint Bolygo mechanical sculpture

Device using similar mechanism made by artist Balint Bolygo. In this image it is copying a cast of his head onto paper.

Every day, every day. Every day on my laptop. If feel a bit like a prisoner in solitary confinement who forgets how to walk more than two paces: my arc of gaze is limited to the 13″ of my MacBook. It’s a voluntary arrangement, but it’s so useful I can’t get away from it. Will it be like this forever?

I’m interested in the iPod as activity-specific device. You can listen to music, but not browse the internet or send an email. As a result, it could never dominate your life like a laptop does.  I think we’ll see more of activity-specific form factors, instead of the ‘swiss army knife’, all purpose devices that pervade at the moment.

Steve Jobs said that Apple would not be releasing an e-book because “people don’t read“. Obviously some people read, what I take from that statement is that the e-book market is too small for Apple to bother with. (It’s seems like they were right: Amazon has a particular strategic interest in the Kindle, things like the Nook have not be very profitable.)

What Apple would rather sell is a universal device that can do everything, and therefor has a bigger market. The iPod was a beachhead, a personal device from a time when screen and processor tech made a multipurpose device impossible. Even then, the iPod targeted a use-case, listening to music, that is almost universal. As soon as it could, Apple bought us the iPhone and the iPad, which allow you listen to music, browse the web, any task someone can write an app for. This is a great place for them to be because the market is enormous.

Now they are stuck. What could make the iPhone or iPad or MacBook better? I would suggest there are essentially no improvements to be made to it (I’m not alone). The only things left are incremental tweaks to the OS, battery life, camera technology. Apple isn’t alone in this, phones and tablets all offer similar specs with few obvious areas for improvement, except perhaps battery life. Chromebook laptops are available at virtually disposable prices, and are increasingly reasonable offerings. Especially if you put Ubuntu on them.

The crux of it is that the tech to build a great device is not expensive or rare any more. A Raspberry Pi (£18) has (just) enough power to run an OS and a web browser, which is basically all you need. Any additional complexity can be shunted into the cloud.

The free availability of Android and tailored versions of linux obviously make a big difference, but perhaps the biggest factor is that we’ve stopped demanding faster and faster processors, there just aren’t any tasks a consumer wants to do that are pushing at this limit any more.

For these reasons I foresee that tablets and phones will be increasingly commodified (as do others) in the future. Probably laptops also, however for reasons I don’t understand no one seems to make laptops that are quite as good as Apple’s – perhaps because they have the whole area locked down with patents (just a guess).

I started by contrasting the universal device with the activity specific iPod. I think the pendulum might swing back to the activity specific device while the big manufactures are stuck in a cul-de-sac of increasingly commodified universal devices.

There are two reasons. Firstly, as devices get cheaper it will become feasible to own more of them. Secondly, the only significant improvements remaining to be made to devices are their physical interfaces, moving away from the “picture under glass” paradigm.

An example of this I’ve been toying with is the idea of portable device specifically for writing. It would have an excellent, real, tactile keyboard and a e-ink screen. It might connect to the Internet to save files, but would have no browser to avoid distractions. Without a backlit screen it could have great battery life and be very portable. It could be cheap, perhaps less than £100. I’d buy one.

I think this diversified future is something to look forward to. While Facebook and Google might still dominate the web landscape, perhaps in devices there will be a more pluralistic market. Lower barriers to entry and smaller markets to harbour niche manufactures.

Finally, I’d like to suggest this vision might be a more plausible frontline for the Internet of Things. At the moment, we mostly think of IoT as putting processing power in previously non-digital objects: often fridges, or smoke alarms, or bedside lamps. I’m not always sure these offerings quite ring true for me. Perhaps the slightly IoT-ified tablet or laptop will be the way that ubiquitous computing creeps into our lives. It seems more plausible the computational ubiquity will seep out through devices that look gradually less and less like a laptop, as opposed to leaping directly into the toaster or bicycle.