We experienced something truly amazing in Marrakech. A taxi took us from the airport to the winding mesh of the medina, and we began to look for cafe. Only after a while we realise where you have to look – up. The cafes are on the rooftops.

Spiralling up and out onto a fourth floor terrace, a rose shaded cubist rhythm of rooftops stretches toward the High Atlas mountains, stepped African crenelations serrate the skyline. Dufy-esque palm trees shade the crows nest cafes, while flocks of tiny birds folded the November sun into barely audible soft peaks. We look down onto the emerald green glazed tiles of the 11th century Ben Youssef  mosque and order mint tea. We order Pastillas – chicken wrapped in filo pastry, dusted with icing sugar just as the mountains across the plain are dusted with snow.

Only then are we fortified enough to discuss the amazing thing we had just experienced in Marrakech – the queue at the airport. Even as the bus delivered us from the plane to the terminal we could see a roiling body of people thronging a low hall. Only when you got in did you realised the scale – a crazed mass of people pushing toward passport control booths that have disappeared behind the curve of the earth.  We join the crush.

After 15 minutes of queuing we realised that concealed within the tumult was a reminder of civility – the snaking Tensabarrier familiar from airports across the world.  We obeyed, and allowed ourselves to be guided perpendicular to our destination. We got deeper in. The temperature rose. Waves of jeering and whistles – a celebrity arrival? The president? Was that the reason for the delay? Nope – instead it was spontaneous outbursts of protest from the front of the queue, presaging what was to come. As the density increased I found myself toppled over other peoples’ luggage, only prevented from falling by the absence of enough space to do so. Someone begins to cry.

A very tall man that’s been behind us is now somehow far in front. We reach a Tensabarrier hairpin only to discover that the frustrated crowd has begun to duck under it – this is the point of where we begin a strange journey. Not to passport to control, but toward the dissolution of the old system, the social norms we arrived with. In its stead we formed a society based on a new morality – the morality of the Marrakech airport queue.

Someone unclips the barrier and we surge forward into space that isn’t there. An English couple we cut past protest – “we’ve been here an hour!”. “So have we…”. Very tall man is behind us again. Couples cling to each other. Progress ceases, every gap is squeezed from the crowd. We begin to forge a new social contract – we realise that obeying the symbols of the past is no longer rational. The barriers don’t mean anything, those who obey them are punished, those who do not are rewarded. Just as the Bible says of Armageddon, when it comes to entering the Kingdom of Morocco “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first”.

Egalitarian mob justice erupts. We collectively condemn the young and able bodied who push forward, while rallying round to support the frail. We crowd surf water to a French woman who has passed out, and attempt to summon the authorities – all without losing our places. Eventually a man in full scrubs – presumably straight from operating on another casualty – drags the woman from the crowd.

We heard wails, shouts and scuffling break out in the parallel ‘fast track’ queuing system next to us – I believe a different, and darker, culture emerged there.

Two hours in we are crushed against the final hurdle, the immovable metal barrier that separates us from a row of passport control booths. Very tall man is ahead.  Not long ago we poured scorn on those who jumped the barriers, now we saw it as the only way. We chanted “Do it!” at old believers who could not adjust to the new ways. One reluctant Chinese man demurred and gestured at his elderly parents. Moments later – and I swear by our newly minted gods this is absolutely true – he stood elevated astride the barrier and shouted “There are no rules any more!”. He looked back at his parents as though across the Berlin wall.

Finally, we were piled against a booth, 30 faces pressed against the perspex like children at an aquarium. Almost there. We watched as the official idly hunt-and-pecked the details of each passport into the computer, queried the minutia of hotel addresses and fastidiously stamped unique numbers into every passport.

We left the airport certain our pre-booked taxi would have have left hours ago, but a man wilted over the arrivals railing held a sign bearing the name of our hotel. We decompressed in the arrivals lounge, a luxurious architectural gesture, apparently intended to welcome travellers to country that sees tourism as its future.

We told him about our ordeal – had he ever heard of such a thing?

“Oh, yes – this happens every Saturday”

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Raspberry Pi has been all over the BBC new page, but before it existed I bought a Beagle Board, which is very similar but perhaps with a bit less charisma. When you get the board (it’s just a circuit board with some USB ports, monitor connection and a memory card slot) you have to install something called Angstrom Linux via memory card before you can do anything.

All told, I think it probably took me about 12 hours get the board working. You can only set up the SD card from another Linux machine, so I had to install a Linux virtual machine on my Mac. All sorts of fiddly things got in the way.

The first time I put the memory card – all perfectly set up as far as I know – into my Beagle Board it didn’t work. I’m not an embedded Linux expert, and there isn’t an error message  –  It just didn’t work. Here is a list of things I questioned in my head:

  1. My Beagle Board is broken (after all, it’s got no case, perhaps I damaged it)
  2. I have the wrong kind of Linux Virtual Machine on my mac
  3. The memory card or card adapter is broken – I’ve never used either of them before
  4. Something unknown is wrong with the files I’ve written to the SD card
  5. I’m following the wrong set of instructions for my Beagle Board, perhaps there are different versions or something?

In short, absolutely everything involved came into question, plus of course a kind of meta-doubt: what if something I’d never heard of wasn’t right?

Eventually I solved the problem by doing the whole thing again. I’ve still no idea what was wrong.

It’s a salutatory experience to be in territory where you’ve no idea what’s going on, as a nerd it’s easy to forget what that’s like. This is a diagram that has been going round the web for ages:

Obviously, this is an incredibly annoying response – a new user  has nothing like this level of clarity.  Here is a sketch of the decision tree that arises from a real world simple (Dad) problem –  entering phone numbers into a Google Spreadsheet, which treats them as normal numbers and removes the leading zero (it used to anyway):

When you are using something for the first their is an unknown cost/benefit of the tech you are trying to get running.  If my Beagle Board was actually broken, then I could spend two weeks on it and get nowhere. My inability to estimate the work involved undermines my enthusiasm to solve the problem. There is no way for me to estimate the time cost of solving this problem.

Even worse, perhaps when you get those numbers into Google Spreadsheets, or make the Beagle Board work, and it won’t be the tool you wanted anyway. The benefit is unclear too.

The diagram explaining how “tech experts” solve problems is a statement of the misconception that users are giving up solving a problem because they’re not up to the task. Of course that might be the case, but on other occasions times the worry that they are wasting their time, quite rationally, makes them stop bothering.

Lo and behold, the Beagle Board’s performance is not up to what I wanted it for. It is quite a fun thing, so I wouldn’t quite say it was time wasted, but the intuition that I should just throw my hands up in the air and give up is there for a reason.

 

In an interview for the BBC’s Virual Revolution documentary – a programme I worked on tangentially – Charles Leadbeater praises Fred Turner’s book From Counterculture to Cyberculture. The book describes the connection between 60s counterculture and modern silicone valley. It pricked my curiosity so I bought a copy.

I’d like to say it’s a great read, but it didn’t live up to Mr Leadbeater’s promise. It laid the facts out, but they never took on a significance beyond intellectual curiosities. Becky Hogge’s Barefoot into Cyberspace (which also references Turner’s book) transforms the same facts into an epiphany. The book evokes epochal urgency, pessimism and outright fear set against a backdrop of technological utopianism – everything it touches takes on gravitas.

Although Hogge deals with much else in Barefoot into Cyberspace, preoccupation with the link between the hallucinatory 60s and the then nascent digital economy this aspect of the the book fairly gripped me for the first few chapters.

What struck me was this: isn’t it weird that two of the most obvious, and well documented, cultural phenomena ever are profoundly linked and nobody talks about it? San Francisco 60s counterculture must be one of the most intensely chronicled moments in history. The catalytic Merry Prankster bus trip, which was at the centre of the wider hippie movement, was paid for by the celebrity author Ken Kesey. The trip itself was documented by Tom Wolfe and Jack Kerouc, with both texts going on to become pillars of American literature. There is an episode of The Simpsons about the bus trip, the ultimate signifier of cultural significance. When people refer to the 60s – surely the most iconic decade since it’s been possible for decades to be iconic – they frequently have this tiny cultural nexus in their minds.

Of course the cyberculture of Silicon Valley itself has also been much celebrated. I was going cite the film about Mark Zukerberg as evidence,  then I realised the film is a footnote compared with the fact that a kid in his University dorm built a website that is nearly as popular as watching TV. And he’s appeared in The Simpsons.

The link between counterculture and cyberculture is personified by Stewart Brand.  A member of Ken Kesey’s famous bus trip, he organsied the psychedelic TRIPS festival, one of the first Acid Tests. In Hogge’s book’s he quoted as having concluded “[computers are] the kind of revolution that we thought psychedelic drugs [were] going to be”. That’s to say, he made a completely explicit decision to stop taking acid and start experimenting with networked computers instead.
I’m not going to retell the whole story here – there’s too much of it – but Brand went on to set up a magazine evangelising computer technology called the Whole Earth Catalogue. He gave some of the proceeds to Fred Moore – the man who set up chip manufacturer Intel. Fred Moore in turn set up the Home Brew Computer Club, whose members included Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Tellingly, the club also got into a bit of a tiff with a young Bill Gates.

Brand was friends with Douglas Engelbart who gave a legendary demo at Stanford University, showing technologies such as hypertext, email and the mouse. He was assisted in the video by none other than a Mr Stewart Brand. Incidentally, Stanford University is also where the Larry Page and Sergy Brin wrote the paper that founded Google.

You get the picture. Many of the major players of the computing industry knew each other long before they were major players in the computing industry, their connection springing from their various counterculture associations. If I didn’t manage to make that sound profound, read the book and it will do.

There’s a lot to the book which isn’t about coutercultural origins. Hogge also reshapes the topography of the news landscape so that Internet activism becomes the single point that knits together some of the most significant stories of recent times. From the influence of the NO2ID campaign on the formation of the coalition government to the meaning of Wikileaks and the recent revolutions across the Middle East, cyberculture is pervasive. The global influence of Wikileaks is a particular focus and, as the author herself points out, a political story that has not had nearly enough attention.

The view is “from other side” as it were, with Hogge focusing mainly on her acquaintance or friendship the protagonists in these news events. This method of relaying the narrative means that we get an intimate feel for Internet activism , and an insight into Hogge’s own unpleasant experience of lobbying Westminster.

Possibly deepest topic that the book broaches is the political influence of architecture, in it’s broadest sense. I’ve thought a lot about what to make of the possibly exclusively titular similarity between the job titles of “Architect” and “Information Architect”. Hogge has an answer, and it’s best summed up by this quote:

“To a hacker, architecture is politics: how you build something will dictate how it will get used. The rest of the world is just getting used to this concept with regard to buildings. Watching the demolition of sixties tower blocks that had dictated community life in my one-time neighbourhood of East London I knew that this was a political act, a confession, that old ways of thinking about welfare provision and social justice had been forced to change by the failure of sixties idealism.”

To me it’s a very profound way of understanding the virtual world, and it makes the analogy alluded to those job titles entirely apposite. The theme is revisited in several places in the book; it’s a topic I’d love to hear more from Hogge about.

I have to admit to finding the Tom Wolfe nonfiction-novel style of the prose a little jarring at first – it’s something that I found difficult Wolfe’s writing too – but don’t let it put you off. As soon you’re sucked into the content you’ll realise it’s a mechanism for bringing you closer to the story in hand.

If you work in tech, this book lends a context to the nuts and bolts of your job. Even if you don’t, I bet you use Google, and this book gives an immediate perspective on what Google means. I found it an utterly compelling. Reading, as I did, the book in every available moment I might have been tempted to reach for the unputdownable cliche. Being virtual, it’s actually unpickupable. Here’s the link:

or get the unputdownable version here:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1906110506/sr=8-2/qid=1311777818/ref=olp_p…

 

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.