London hackspace is a club for people who want to make things out of electronics,  a perfect city-centre shed. The kind of place where Fred Dibnah would be comfortable if he were born in 1998. Rather than steam and wrenches and grease, there are soldering stations, 3D printers and circuit boards. During one of the presentations the inventor of a device called Nanode explained how much time he’d given to the project. Someone reverently whispered “he’s got a wife!”. I suspect he may have been in the minority.

Hackspace is important and it knows it, as was attested by an incongruously sharp suited man who ask questions about commercial prospects. It’s important because the residents are exploring the border between the physical and the virtual worlds. There’s a device that calculates the number of people in the building using two laser beams to detect comings and goings. A label on it says “do not hack”, presumably because if it didn’t someone would take it pieces and turn it into something else. It’s symbolic, even as you walk in your physical presence is turned into data.

There were two presentations, both on the theme of the turning the physical environment into data. Before we went I explained to two friends that came with me that I thought the Patchube website (talk No. 1) was like YouTube, only for physical data: a place where anyone can upload time-sequenced information about the temperature of their greenhouse, the location of their smart phone, whatever takes their fancy. This description turns out to be pretty accurate, but in fact that Patchube is pronounced Patch-bay, so I’d just made the analogy up. When the nuclear disaster happened in Japan, people started using Patchube to stream data from Geiger counters they had bought. Patchube served as an aggregator, and others produced visualisations of the data. The resulting maps of radiation were apparently more accurate than any data the government realised.

Patchube relies on there being lots of sensors in the world. The Nanode (Talk No. 2) is the answer to this problem. It is a circuit board about 5×5 cm with an ethernet connection so you can plug it into a network just like you would a laptop. What’s really special about it is that it runs as a web server, so if you know how to make web pages (which must be the most widespread type of programming knowledge) you can understand the data Nanode produces. It can send data straight to Patchube, at which point anyone can start using it. The Nanode retails at £18.

Invention is the mother of necessity, but it’s clear that Patchube and it’s associated network of sensors haven’t quite found their necessity yet. They’re exciting, but it’s hard to put your finger on why.

To give an example of permeability  between real and virtual, Usman Haque, the founder of Patchube told us of a gardener trying to grow a particular breed of Indian chillis, requiring very precise conditions. He has sensors measuring soil PH, humidity etc. What he needs is for someone in India to do the same, and then he will be able to copy the environmental natural conditions precisely, thus successfully growing his chillies. Physical stuff -> Data -> Physical stuff, it’s a fax machine for topsoil.

We accidentally turned up an hour early for the talks, and decided to get something to eat before we went in. Conversation turned to the hotdog man at Old Street (apparently they’re great hotdogs) who tweets his location. If we’d have known then what we know now, perhaps we’d have talked about him streaming data from his grill into Patchube to give it genuine physical context (queue length, remaining sausages etc.)

The Nanode is open source hardware,  in the sense that you can order the components and make it yourself using the freely available design. The process is such that it doesn’t involve any complex industrial tools.  Preassembled and kit versions will all be shipped from China. Some might think this morally dubious, but I’m impressed by the fact that Ken Boak, it’s inventor, went to stay in Shenzhen to meet the companies who would manufacture it. He also pointed out that, unlike some other similar devices, the Nanode will be affordable to Chinese workers who are paid in the region of £150 a month.

The missing killer app, the creative approach that will make Patchube’s practical appeal manifest, probably isn’t going to be thought up exclusively by the current Hackspace residents. Making it all function is nerd fun, but put to good use needs wider participation.

I know that that Hackspace does a lot of work to embed itself in the community, but I suspect a lot of people who would be fascinated by its multifarious possibilities don’t know about it. I mean this in kindness, but precisely because it’s where computers interface with the real world Hackspace should also be a place where nerds do the same.

An aside: The Hackspace toilets have a sign saying “Techhub memberships – please take one” above the bog roll. A rivalry? I’m backing Hackspace. (For the uninitiated, Techub is the more commercially oriented hot desking space for tech startups in Old Street.)

The digital revolution will not be televised – to the contrary, is it possible that no artist or medium can be said to have adequately addressed the information age?

Zizek once sumerised Marx as having said that the invention of steam engine caused more social change than any revolution ever would. Marx himself doesn’t seem to have provided a useful soundbite to this effect (at least not one that I can find though Google), so I’m afraid it will have to remain second hand. It’s a powerful sentiment, whoever originated it – which philosopher’s views cannot be analyzed as the product of the social and technological novelties of his day?

It’s easy to see that the technology that is most salient in our age is the internet, which has been made possible by consumer electronics. Have our philosophers stepped forward to engage with the latest technological crop?

Moving on from philosophers, what of our artists? Will Gompertz recently posted to share an apparently widely held view that no piece of art has yet spoken eloquently from or about the internet. He cites Turner prize winning Jeremy Deller describing “a post-warholian” era, presumably indicating that Warhol was last person to adequately reference technological change in the guise of mass production. I wonder if the Saatchi-fueled infloresence has also captured something of marketing-led landscape we currently live in, but whatever the last sufficient reflection on cultural change afforded by art was, I think we may be on safe ground in stating that the first widely accepted visual aperçus of the digital era is still to come.

Which is some surprise when you consider, for example, how engaged the news agenda is with technology: I was amazed to see that Google’s Wave technology (still barely incipient) got substantial coverage on BBC news.

With my employment centering on the web, and my pretensions at cultural engagement, this weekend I visited the Kinetica Art Fair. Kinetica is a museum which aims to ‘encourage convergence of art and technology’. The fair certainly captured one aspect of contemporary mood – a very reasonably priced bar was a welcome response to our collective financial deficit.

Standout pieces included a cleverly designed mechanical system for tracing the contours of plaster bust onto a piece of paper and a strangely terrifying triangular mirror with mechanically operated metal rods. It looked like a Buck Rogers inspired torture device designed to inflict pain by a method so awful that you’d have to see it in operation before its evil would be comprehensible. The other works included a urinal which provided an opportunity for punters to simulate pan-global urination (sadly not with real urine) by providing a jet of water and a globe in a urinal. I would defy anyone not to be entertained by spending time wondering round the the fair.

However, Will Gompertz’s challenge was not answered at Kinetica – the essence of the technological modernity was distilled into any of work – not even slightly.

I’ve been mulling over various possible reasons for this failure, and quite a few suggestions spring to mind. Do computers naturally alienate artists? Is information technology to visually banal to be characterised succinctly?

I’d like to suggest that its the transitory nature of our electronic lives that makes them so hard to pin down. Mobile phones, web sites, computers and opperating systems from a decade ago all look ludicrously dated – it’s almost impossible to capture the platonic form of these items because they have so little essential similarity. Moreover, their form is almost an accident, and not connected with their more profound meaning in any way. The boats of the merchantile age and the smoke stacks of the industrial age all seem to denote something broader – how can communism be separated from its tractors? Yet the form factor of my computer is trivial. Form and functional significance are of necessity separated by digital goods, their flexibility is the source of their power.

In someway I think films give us tacit acknowledgment of the contingent nature of the digital environment that we spend much of our lives in: no protagonist is ever seen using Windows on their computer, in films computer’s interfaces are always generic. When we see a Mac in a film it impossible to see it as anything other than product placement.

So, the Kinetica Art Fair may not have been able to help society understand its relationship with technology, but actually, despite their rhetoric, I think it was a little unfair to expect it to. Really the fair was about works facilitated by technology, rather than about it.

But, in case you think I’ve picked a straw man in Kentica, let me say that the V&As ongoing exhibition Decode really does no better, though its failures and successes are another topic.

Whatever we end up using the web for, don’t the world’s citizens lead more equal lives if they are all mediated by the same technology?

The queen tweets. She’s commissioned a special jewel embossed netbook and a bespoke Twitter client with skinned with ermine and sable.

I made that up. For starters, she hasn’t actually started tweeting – there is a generic royal feed which announces the various visits and condescensions of Britain’s feudal anachronism, but nothing from miss fancy hat herself. Perhaps royal protocol means she can only use it if her followers can find a way of curtsying in 140 characters?

The feed does give an insight into how boring the Royal’s lives might actually be – opening wards and meeting factory workers – when they aren’t having a bloody good time shooting and riding. However, as a PR initiative it breaks the rule that states for a Twitter account to be of any interest then tweets must emanate from the relevant horse’s mouth, if you’ll forgive the chimerical metaphor. If you can’t have the lady herself, I don’t really think there is much point in bothering. But that’s not the point I’m here to make.

I’m more interested in the fact that, should any of us choose to, Bill Gates, Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet OBE, Osama Bin Laden and I will have exactly the same experience when we use Twitter (assuming it’s available in the relevant language).

I suppose Bin Laden might have quite a slow connection in Tora Bora, and probably Bill Gates has something faster than Tiscali’s 2meg package. Details aside, everyone is doing the same thing.

Actually, not only will we be using the same website, we’ll be using very similar devices. Bill probably doesn’t have a Mac like me (he may be the richest man in the world, he can still envy me one thing), but all our computers will be very similar.

The reason for this is that for both websites and computer technology have very high development costs, and low marginal costs per user. Even the Queen can’t afford to develop an iPhone, but everyone can afford to buy one.

If a lot of your life is mediated by technology then this is going to be very important to you. While there is healthy debate about the web’s democratisation of publishing, I think we might reasonably add to the web’s egalitarian reputation its ability to give people of disparate incomes identical online experiences.

That doesn’t sound like a blow against inequality and tyranny in all its forms – but none the less I think its important . Even people using OLPC computers [low priced laptops aimed at the third world] have basically the same experience of the internet as you or I. That’s to say Uruguayan children will quite possibly spend a good part of their day doing exactly the same things as New York’s office workers and Korea’s pensioners. When you consider that only very recently there were probably no major similarities in these disparate lives I think it does constitute a significant development.

Of course, for all I know a line of luxury websites will come along and exclude some strata of the social pile. In a way it’s already happened – we’ve seen the thousand dollar iPhone app – but its hard to see this one off as part of a pattern. This is not to say that the ‘freemium’ business model [basic website for free, pay to get the premium version] couldn’t exclude certain people, it’s more that this model can only exist when there isn’t much pressure for a free version. At the moment, there aren’t any widely used web applications that aren’t available at zero cost – of course this may change if your audience is sufficiently well off to attract paid advertising, but there again it may not.

This is a phenomena that’s been observed before: technology tends to eliminate differences between cultures. It’s been termed the Apparatgeist, and has been developed as a concept in response to the observation that mobile phone habits, one differentiated locally, are now more or less identical in all developed economies. As a concept it surely applies equally as well to class and income – leaving us us in a more equal experiential world. And perhaps also a monoculture – but then isn’t that entailed in the new equalities that so many internet optimists evangelise?