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.

A hallmark of the bien pensant intelligentsia is to be accepting of all forms of art. The most abstruse Turner prize winner, the most aesthetically banal Damien Hirst dot painting.

This is in contrast with the proletarian view, which is to hate modern art as an elaborate con being played by on and by the pretentious. Nothing could be more low brow than to criticise art on the basis that it demonstrates no skill or wasn’t a labour of love, summed up with the phrase “could have been done by my 5 year old”.

Perversely, this  means that people who think of themselves as having the most sophisticated and political thoughts about art actually have a completely atheortic view. Meanwhile, ironically, the tabloid, white-van-man position is actually a version of Marx’s labour theory of value.

Google Now predicts where you want to go next, big data knows what you’re going to buy next. Neuroscience knows what you are going to do before you do (A horribly scripted clip, but it gets the idea across).  Whatever the details of the philosophical wrangling, free will as we naively like to imagine it is under attack.

It’s interesting to contrast this with the political rhetoric that is dominant in UK and US currently. Freedom and ch ch change are the clear themes. You might not have free will, but at least the leader has their own agency, the Prime Mover. Perhaps these messages soothes the collective unconscious’s anxiety about free will.

We like the idea of personal agency, and if our leaders can embody the concept we reward them with votes.

Whatever we may like to think, world leaders probably can’t claim any more free will than anyone else.  Fashionable theories or development economics prefer to emphasize the importance of institutions over individuals. Probably what politicians will do is even more predictable than what the private individual will do, we have the framework of Public Choice Theory to understand political behavior.