After an election with a weak showing from Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, the Tories form a minority government with support from, among others, 9 UKIP MPs.

At this point, David Cameron feels like he’s got away with it. Over the next few weeks he will make several serious misjudgements – Russell Brand’s potency being the biggest.

On the Friday after the election an arrangement is reached where UKIP will support important government bills such as the budget and prevent a vote of no confidence. Further details are to be announced later, but Cameron recommits to an EU referendum before the next election, and to continued austerity, while Farage,  standing on the bar of a Wetherspoons, gives breathless speech about how close the UK is to escaping the yoke of the EU.   

Russell Brand, in a NewsNight interview that same evening, calls the government illegitimate: with a turnout of 55%, the lowest ever, the minority government has the support of less than 20% of voters. Even lower youth turnout means that the government has almost no supporters under the age of 50. Brand called the government a gerriocracy (‘you’ll like that Jeremy, it’s that latin, did it just for you!’), and says today is the day the revolution starts, pumping his fist in the air. Jeremy Paxman looks on with barely concealed excitement.

Videos of his performance go viral, everyone has seen them. All the usual suspects on Twitter – Ricky Gervais, Frankie Boyle, Graham Linehan – circulate the video and add their support, but critically so do footballers and other sports stars, propelling the video to an audience that barely ever comes into contact with politics.

Brand has a point, academics, politicians, celebrity talking heads all agree: how has such a tiny fraction of the vote allowed the Conservatives to form a government? On Saturday protest groups demonstrate all over London, including an unplanned attempt occupy Trafalgar Square.

Many of Trafalgar Square’ special bye-laws – design to limit protest – are violated, and the police move in. In ensuing scuffles six people are hospitalised by the police, including two teenage girls, who give defiant interviews from hospital; the police are left looking heavy handed.

Throughout the week after the election protest spreads across Northern cities and Wales, which have almost uniformly voted against the Conservatives. In Scotland, the SNP mobilises the machinery of the independence referendum. Nationalist sentiment surges, as Scotland contemplates not only another 5 years of (foreign) Tory rule, but also the possibility of being forced out Europe by UKIP’s little Englander mentality.

By the Thursday, exactly one week after the election, it’s clear that the energy in the protest movement isn’t dying away. Further details of the new government are announced. In a crucial slip up, questions about funding of the NHS a left open, and the press and opposition parties begin to whip up fears that the it will be defunded or privatised.

Cameron makes a speech about the need for stability, maturity, fiscal restraint and the rule of law, casting himself in the same mold as Thatcher – on the side of vibrant, pragmatic, capitalism and against rabble-rousing populists who would subvert democracy and destabilise the country, leaving everyone impoverished.

But Lefty newspapers talk of shady backroom deals and a widespread impression begins to form that the Tory government has been deceitful in its UKIP pact – despite the fact that they have behaved exactly in line with constitutional precedent.

Right-wing papers buy into the Cameron rhetoric and point at Greece as an illustration of civil unrest resulting economic ruin.

All the papers carry opinion polls confirming that the UKIP-Tory government is massively unpopular, not to be trusted with the NHS, and perceived as certain to lower living standards with it’s plans for continued austerity. Many Conservative voters have changed their minds.

Friday, in Brixton. Marchers attempt to occupy the town square, while the police attempt to prevent the occupation. As the marchers and the police clash, there is a small scale repeat of the 2011 riots, far away from the main protest in the back streets, a car is set on fire, two shops are looted and gangs of youths give the impression of lawlessness. Cameron takes to the TV, attempting to connect all protests with the ‘rioting’ thereby undermining them.

The real impact of his intervention is to draw disproportionate attention to an almost trivial number of incidents. In contrast to the 2011 riots, many people see the looting as a sign of despair and a symptom of a failing country, and blame the government.

On the Saturday night, the media waits to see if the rioting will spiral out of control as it did in 2011, building the tension as high as it can for dramatic effect. Inevitably, rioting explodes across many cities. But this time, the police are already committed to monitoring Occupy camps in most major cities, as well as marshalling multiple marches during the day. As night draws in, the police are simply unable to cope with rolling acts of looting, vandalism and arson. While they maintain a presence in key locations, they cannot deploy enough officers to police large areas of the capital.

Privately, senior police officers send David Cameron a warning. Having already been committed across the country for over a week, and with all leave cancelled indefinitely, the police are stretched to the limit.  Unlike the 2011 riots, where police could be redeployed into London from other locations, this time there is no spare capacity. And legitimate, legal protests and marches are also adding to the police’s workload. The message is blunt: the police will not be able to hold the line if anything like the 2011 riots occur.

The media speculate along similar lines. They notice that in the last riots police made pledges to subsequently prosecute using CCTV, even if they could not control the rioting as it happened. This time there is no such threat. Low police moral is a mainstay of 24 hours news (which has suddenly has enough material). Talk turns to the deployment of the army.

Cameron says that all options are on the table to maintain law and order. However, senior army officials give briefings: having been deployed on ‘training’ missions in Libya since January, with the cuts, Afghanistan and Iraq, the army simply could not be deployed in large numbers.

Cameron realises that if he is forced into another election in the short term the Tories will be destroyed. Opinion polls show they are suffering badly from a perception of backroom dealing with UKIP,  and bringing the country to a point where the riots could happen. Suddenly, the economic recovery looks less and less convincing, the country seems ever more like Spain, Portugal or Greece.

The party as a whole is terrified, fearing actual extinction if they are forced to go to the polls again. A labour victory is inevitable. The Conservatives would not have won an election outright in 18 years, and UKIP are breathing down their necks. Cameron sees his only way out is to stick to his guns as a symbol of continuity and stability, as well as reinforcing the democratic legitimacy of his government.  

Meanwhile Ed Miliband has resigned, Chuka Umunna is the new Labour leader. He looks unstoppable, dismembering Tory policy with relish.

Next weekend if forecast to be hot and dry, and it’s a bank holiday. Papers scream that future of country hangs in the balance. Russell Brand, Chuka Umunna and Stephen Fry will speak in Hyde Park.

On Thursday and Friday, having satisfied the legal requirements, a number of Trade Unions go on strike, causing massive public transport disruption. Without tube and bus, and with continued low-level rioting, there is a knife-edge atmosphere in London. Parliament Square has been successfully occupied, a symbol of defiance against the police, and the TV news is filled with pictures of makeshift camps in city centres.

On the Saturday of the bank holiday, the day of Russell Brand’s rally, Cameron has a plan to start making the weather himself. In the morning he has a call with Barack Obama about the ongoing deployment of American and British troops to Libya, and he will then go to the BBC to appear on a special lunchtime version of the Andrew Marr show.

Fate is against him and Obama cancels the call so he can go to a basketball game. The Cameron team literally beg, describing refusal to speak with the Prime Minister as ‘regime change’. Obama gives in, but will only speak with Cameron later than planned. The new timings mean he will have to appear on the Marr show via a video link from Number 10.

Andrew Marr’s first question to the Prime Minister is about the protests, Cameron replies that he’ll be happy to talk about the protests later, but that other important issues are his primary concern. He goes on to recount his call with Obama, praising the bravery of the troops in Libya and commending them for recent victories – carefully playing the statesman.

The interview is PR disaster, making Cameron look out of touch, almost deluded, about what’s going on around him. News of Obama’s snub swirls around Twitter, undermining him further.

At exactly the same time, Stephen Fry is addressing the crowd in Hyde Park, telling an anecdote about how nice the Queen is. He’s walking a careful line, inciting the crowd to be open to radical political change, but also imploring them to see the value of being British and not to do anything rash – British people, Fry says, are never rash.

Russell Brand comes onto the stage, and asks Fry about the possibility of a backdoor knighthood (“You should never take it via the backdoor!” quips Fry). Brand has almost no idea of what he will say. Impromptu, he turns over the sheet of notes he his carrying, and says “I’ve got a message for the Prime Minister, it’s time to go!” He writes something on the paper, folds it up, places it the top pocket of the frayed jerkin he’s wearing, tapping it twice. Then he shouts “Hand deliver me to Number 10! Follow me!” and launches himself into the throng, who crowd surf him to the back.

Chuka Umunna watches the crowd disappear. He will not get to speak.  

Cameron is in talks with his advisors, who are advising him that the interview was a disaster, with the news on in the background. Sky News’s Skycopter shows a stream of people marching towards Hyde Park Corner. “What’s going on?” asks Lynton Crosby. Someone who’s been watching explains. The room realises that in approximately 30 minutes the crowd of 200,000 will arrive at Downing Street.

“Is it secure? Crosby asks a Diplomatic Protection Officer. “It’s secure, but if the PM doesn’t leave soon it may become very hard for him to leave without using the helicopter.”  They all realise that the image of Cameron helicoptered from the rooftops of Whitehall is not a good one.

After 10 minutes agreement is reached: there is now no choice but to make major concessions, and limit the current government to a year, leaving the Europe referendum to the next government. The announcement will be made from Cameron’s Oxfordshire home. It’s not possible to get press into Number 10, and background protest noise may be audible if he stands outside the front door as he normally does for announcements.

A single, unmarked car containing the PM leaves Downing Street, turns up Whitehall towards Trafalgar square. A suit hangs in the nearside rear window to conceal the passengers. Progress is slow, news of the Brand march has spread and most people in the Occupy camps in both Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square are trying to see what’s happening.

By the time they get to Admiralty Arch, the protection officers in the car with the Prime Minister make the call that the journey is not safe, and tell the Cameron they can no longer guarantee his security unless he returns to Downing Street. Cameron confers with Crosby who confirms they can make the announcement from the press room in Number 10, they turn left, under the arch and slowly across Horse Guards Parade and back to the other end of Downing Street.

What they don’t realise is that they are actually moving through the crowd which has Brand at it’s centre, waving his letter. The protection officers in Downing Street do, and send out armed police to meet the vehicle, fearing that the protesters may realise that the Prime Minister is in the car.

The car speeds up, nudging people out of the way, and causing a huge commotion. The crowd responds becoming increasingly interested, drawing Brand and the center of the procession towards it. At this point, the two armed protection officers bundle Cameron out of the car and run him towards the safety of the officers coming out to meet them.

Brand and the rest realise, and give chase, although Cameron is well clear of the protest and back inside Downing street’s gates in plenty of time.

Then Cameron realises, the whole thing will have caught by the Skycopter, and is probably live on TV. Him, being dragged behind armed officers while chased by a comedian. Worse, he’s back in Downing Street, without an easy means of getting away, with the world camped outside waiting for him to come outside and receive the letter.

Before he gets back to the door of Number 10, he makes a bold decision. He turns round, and walks calmly back towards the crowd. He waves for the police on the gate to let him though and waves for Brand to come to him. The cameras that have been following Brand form an arc, providing space for Brand to hand the letter to Cameron with a theatrical flourish.

Cameron waves the folded letter, and starts “In a democracy…“, only to be shouted down almost immediately. “In a democracy… “ he begins again, and this time someone squirts him with water from a bottle of Evian. Brand says “Sorry Dave, I don’t think they like you very much”, brand winks a the cameras to a huge cheer. The gates open a crack and Cameron slides back in to Downing Street.

Inside Number 10, he slaps that note down on the table, and asks that arrangements be made for him to phone the queen and tender his resignation. Lynton picks up the note, and reads allowed:

“I’ve shagged Samantha.”  

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 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.

 

 

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.

 

I made a bookshelf at the weekend. As with the table that I built before (which I wish I’d written up), it involves no screws, nails or glue. I’ve tried to design it so that cutting and drilling isn’t required to be particularly accurate either. The idea with both is to put the complexity into the design rather than the build.

It took 10 standard, 8ft lengths of 2″x 2″ and about 3 meters of dowel. Each length of 2″x 2″ had to be cut once and drilled 3 times. Then I just threaded the dowel through to make a grid. To make it stand up, I tied string between the dowels on the back. Materials cost ~  £70.

You can concertina it back up if you wanted to – I don’t why you’d want that. Or take it right a part into its constituent parts.

Being “on the diagonal” means that you can use tension to make it stand up, unlike a standard “vertical / horizontal” bookshelf.  Well, actually, you could use tension on a “vertical / horizontal” bookshelf, but it would be hard to stop it wilting in one direction or another. On the diagonal, it balances itself.

The strings at the back are under quite a lot of tension, and each play a note when plucked. They are about C, A# and D, as determined using a guitar tuner. It might be possible to tune them properly by rebalancing the books.

If you look carefully, you’ll be able to see a VHS copy of Hangin’ With Leo. I hope Leo would appreciate the lengths I’ve gone to to store his video.