Some things I wrote down today

  • “Managed by her nine-year-old niece.” – Bryony Kimmings
  • “We should create and imagine and lie. It’s good for us.” – Jane Pollard
  • “Being creative is sometimes about connecting the dots and taking two things and combining them.” – Kyle Bean
  • “What file formats want…” – Kenyatta Cheese

Stella Duffy at The Story

  • “‘Unfortunately the Arts Council is interested in something Miss Littlewood isn’t. Art.'” – Stella Duffy
  • “Going viral felt like something that happened too me.” – Bill Wasik
  • “A life-long suspicion of media funded by advertising” – Tony Ageh
  • “Put four words down on paper and have resonance to shatter glass.” – Meg Rosoff
  • “Accidentally annexed a third of North America” – Gruff Rhys
  • “The ideas that I come up with when distracted are better.” – Philip Larkin
  • “Everyone had the same story even though the details of their lives were different.” – Lisa Salem
  • “There’s a box of completely destroyed machines in the Guardian office at the moment.” – Alan Rusbridger

Lovely time at The Story. Thanks as ever to Matt Locke and the crew. More follows.

dConstruct 2013: “It’s the Future. Take it.”

It puzzles me that technology so easily becomes the dominant metaphor for explaining society, and not the other way round. “Self-organise like nanobots into the middle,” exhorts dConstruct host Jeremy Keith as we assemble for the afternoon session at the Brighton Dome. We shuffle obligingly to make room for the latecomers, because everyone here accepts without question that nanobots really do self-organise, even if they’re so tiny we can’t see them with our puny, unaugmented eyes.

“It’s the Future. Take it.” Dan Williams mocks strident techno-determinism and refuses to take anything at face value: “I find the concept of wonder to be problematic.” Even Wenlock, the Olympic Mascot, conceals in plain sight a sinister surveillance camera eye, homage perhaps to London’s insouciant acceptance of closed-circuit television. Maybe we should “take it” like the CCTV filmmakers whose manifesto includes the use of subject access requests to wrest footage of themselves from surveillance authorities unaware of their role in an art phenomenon.

Other speakers also touched on this theme of acceptance – the ease with which we come to terms with new tools in the environment and extensions of the physical and mental self.

For cyborg anthropologist Amber Case “design completely counts.” Just contrast reactions to the in-your-face Google Glass and the “calm”, unobtrusive Memoto Lifelogging Camera. I love the history lesson too, starting with Steve Mann‘s 40lbs of hacked-together heads-up-display rig from 1981. This stuff is shape-shifting fast, from the 1950s mainframe to the “bigger on the inside”, Mary Poppins smartphones we’ve so readily come to rely on as extensions of the mental self.

Digital designer Luke Wroblewski seems more matter-of-factly interested in the quantity of change than in its qualitative implications. Designers who have struggled to cope with just one new interface, touch, now face up to 13 distinct input types. Luke’s our tour guide to a dizzying variety of input methods – each with its own quirks and affordances – from 9-axis motion orientation sensing to Samsung’s Smart Stay gaze detection to Siri’s role as a whole other “parallel interface layer”. No wonder, I reckon, that minimal “flat UI” is the order of day. What with all these new interactions to figure out, designers simply lack the time and energy to spend on surface decoration.

Simone Rebaudengo imaginatively plays out the internet of things. He’s against a utilitarian future, and for one in which objects tease their way into their users’ affections. “Rather than demonstrating their buying power, people have to prove their keeping power.” He imagines a world in which toasters experience anxiety and addiction. People apply to look after them (though they can never be owned, only hosted) by answering questions of interest to the toasters. Hosts throw parties with copious sliced bread to make their toasters feel wanted. No, really. Simone has a unique and playful take on the service-dominant world. (I just wish he would stop calling things “products”. It’s so last century.)

However, conflict and repression are always nearby.

Nicole Sullivan presents a taxonomy of internet trolls: the jealous, the grammar Nazi, the biased, and the scary. Women in tech experience trolling far more and far worse than men. And we all need to challenge our biases. Fortunately there’s a handy online tool for that.

After watching ‘Hackers’ and ‘Ghost in the Shell’ at a formative age, Keren Elazari makes a passionate defence of the hacker, tracing a line from Guy Fawkes through V for Vendetta to the masked legion of Anonymous. Quoting Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Pinboard-founder Maciej Cegłowski (stand-out phrase “social is not syrup”) voices admiration for the often derided fan-fiction community. Fans fight censorship, defend privacy and improve our culture. They have also developed elaborate tagging systems, and when alienated, like so many of us, by a Delicious re-design, they created a 52-page-long Google Doc of Pinboard feature requests. “It was almost noon when Pinboard stumbled into the office, eyes bleary. His shirt, Delicious noted, was buttoned crooked.”

Visibility is a central concern of our optically-obsessed culture. Much conflict arises from our suspicion of hidden biases and agendas, and our struggle to reveal them. Dan: “Every time we put software into objects they behave in ways that aren’t visible.” People who neglect to read the press releases of bin manufacturers may have missed the appearance on City of London streets of MAC address-snooping litter bins. Fortunately we have James Bridle to war-chalk them and Tom Taylor to consider stuffing them with rapidly changing random MAC address junk.

Amber wants to render the visible invisible – like Steve Mann’s “diminished reality” billboard-cancelling eyewear – and to make the invisible visible, by exposing un-noticed behaviours of smart objects. There can be unintended consequences in the human world, such as a touching conversation between student and construction worker sparked by Amber’s inadvertent placing of a target for GPS game MapAttack in the middle of a building site.

Making the invisible visible is what Timo Arnall’s celebrated ‘Immaterials‘ films are all about. I’d seen them online, of course, but during the dConstruct lunch break I popped into the Lighthouse where they’re beautifully displayed in the gallery setting they deserve. Dan talks of Buckminster Fuller “creating solutions where the problem isn’t quite ready to be solved”. Which is exactly how I feel re-watching Timo’s 2009 work on RFID. Creatives and “critical engineers” see this stuff in many more dimensions than mainstream imagines possible.

Not just seeing but hearing. Robot musician and sound historian Sarah Angliss tells of instruments that died out – the Serpent, the Giraffe Piano, the castrato’s voice – and of the way we’ve become accustomed to things our ancestors would have considered uncanny, unheimliche. Feel the fear induced by massive infrasonic church organ pipes. Look at a photo of people hearing a phonogram for the first time. Listen to Florence Nightingale’s voice recorded, musing about mortality.

And yet, towards the end of the day, something unexpected happens that makes me optimistic about our present condition. Dan Williams shows ‘The Conjourer‘ by magician-turned-cinematographer Georges Méliès – he of Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ – performing disappearing tricks on the silver screen. We all know exactly how they’re done. They’d be trivial to recreate in iMovie. In spite of this we delight and laugh together at the tricks, as if the film was only made yesterday. This stuff has been the future for a long time now, and we seem to be taking it quite well.

Thanks to all the speakers, organisers and volunteers. dConstruct was brilliant as ever.

dConstruct threads: Arrogance, uncertainty and the interconnectedness of (nearly) all things

The web is 21, says Ben Hammersley, it can now legally drink in America. And yet, as it strides out into young adulthood, it has much to learn. At dConstruct we hear some of those lessons – ones about humility, unpredictability and the self-appointed tech community’s responsibilities to the rest of humankind.

I agree with Ben when he advocates a layered approach to the web and its next, next, next, larger contexts – the single user, groups of users, society and the world at large. “Make the world more interconnected, more human, more passionate, more understanding.”

“Don’t become enamoured of the tools,” he urges. Think of the people looking at the painting, not the paintbrushes and the pigments.

And then he throws it all away with a breath-taking streak of arrogance: “How do we as a community [of practitioners] decide what to do?” To which the world might legitimately respond: who gave you the authority to decide?

And then comes the most arrogant over-claim of all: “We are the first generation in history to experience exponential change!” Exponential change, don’t get me started on exponential change. That was last year’s dConstruct-inspired strop.

Jenn Lukas shows a little more self-awareness. Teaching people to code is a Good Thing. That much is motherhood and Raspberry Pi. And as she digs deeper into the plethora of resources now coming online, she takes a balanced view.

Some learn-to-code evangelists have taken the time to swot up on pedagogic principles that traditional teachers have known all along, like the one that says a problem-based learning approach built on students’ existing motivations is more likely to be retained. Others simply dump their knowledge on an unsuspecting world in a naive splurge of information-based learning. “It’s a tool seeking a problem,” says Jenn.

It strikes me that the learn-to-code advocates who bother to Do It Right could be at the vanguard of the new disruptive wave in education. The approaches they pioneer in online code classes may easily be extended to other domains of learning.

What I missed in Jenn’s talk was a rationale for why learning to code might be important, besides solving specific personal pain points or seeking to earn a living as a developer. For me learning at least the rudiments of computer science is a prerequisite for empowered citizens in the 21st Century. I want my children to grow up as active masters, not passive recipients of information technology. Also, they should know how to make a rubber band jump fingers.

Jason Scott puts those pesky twenty-one-at-heart Facebook developers in their place with his talk on digital preservation. “We won! The jocks are checking their sports scores on computers, but you dragged in a lot of human lives.” Facebook is “the number one place that humans on Earth store our histories. But there are no controls, no way of knowing what they’re up to.”

One day, the law will catch up with the web and mandate backups and data export as standard. “Pivoting” will not absolve businesses of commitments they made to customers under previous, abandoned business models. Until then we can simply implore those responsible to be, well, responsible, with people’s personal data. Or stage daring multi-terabyte rescue missions when companies that should know better shut down Geocities, MobileMe and Muammar Gaddafi’s personal website.

I also loved the concept of “sideways value,” the unexpected things you learn by zooming in on high-def scans of old pictures, or sifting through data that people uploaded for quite different purposes.

Revelling in the unexpected was a big theme of Ariel Waldman‘s talk about science and hacking. Hacker spaces, like black holes, have had a bad press but it turns out they’re really cool. Both suck matter in and spit it out as new stuff, creating as much as consuming. In Ariel’s world of delicious uncertainty, satellites inspire new football designs, citizens pitch for experiments to send into space, and algorithmic beard detection turns out to be good for spotting cosmic rays in a cloud chamber.

Plenty of sideways value too in the sheer joy of making stuff. It came across viscerally in Seb Lee-Delisle‘s demo of glowsticks and computer vision and fireworks and kittens on conveyor belts. Then intellectually in Tom Armitage‘s thoughtful, beautiful reflection on the value of toys, toying and toy making. Tom is the master of the understated, profound observation, such as noticing the hand movement he makes when talking about toys: it’s small, fiddling, taking stuff apart and putting it back together to see what happens. Only by making stuff and playing with it can we really understand and learn. What does it feel like to interact with time-lapse photography, or to follow your past self on Foursquare? Make it, play with it, and see.

Tom also touches on connections between stuff, with Twitter as a supreme platform for linking one thing – Tower Bridge opening times – with another – the web. Thereafter new uses emerge. Expats seek the comfort of a distant but familiar landmark while taxi drivers consult it to route round the problem of a communications link that’s always going up and down.

While other presenters tackle big picture subjects, Scott Jenson‘s talk is the most UX-ey of the day but none the worse for it. Every word rang true to me. In my time at Orange, I frequently found myself pushing back against the knee-jerk request for an app. If only, as Scott says, we could strip away the “thin crust of effort” that comes as standard with native apps, then we could empower users with a more natural experience of “discover, use, forget”. Instead with silo’ed apps we spend time “gardening our phones.” I glance down at the status bar of my needy Android which is currently pestering me for 28 different app updates.

All this becomes even more pressing when we consider the coming plethora of smart devices that use GPS, wifi, Bluetooth and NFC to link to mobile platforms. Before we even start trying to chain together complex sequences of connected services to second-guess the user’s intent, it makes eminent sense to take Scott’s approach and solve the simpler problem of discovery. Let devices detect their neighbours and expose simple functionality through HTML standards-based interfaces. It may be a tough challenge to liberate such interactivity, but it will be worth it. If smart toasters are mundane, there’s all the more reason for them to work elegantly and without making a fuss.

James Burke takes the interconnection theme to a whole new level. As a child I loved his pacey, unorthodox TV histories of science. Looking back, I think that’s where my own fascination with the Age of Enlightenment was first kindled. Now he seeks to inspire a new generation of school children with exercises in interdisciplinary rounders. He tickles my Ruskinian sensibilities with the suggestion that “focus may turn out to be what the machine is best for, and a waste of human brainpower”.

Only connect. “It is now much easier for noodlers to be exposed to other noodlers with explosive effects.” Children should be schooled in skipping from chewing gum to Isaac Newton in six simple steps, or Mozart to the helicopter in 10. Two hours of daily compulsory wikiracing for every Key Stage 2 pupil, say I.

Sadly James ends the day with a classic “never meet your heroes” moment. Having reeled me in with the unpredictable, wiggly “ripple effects” of innovation, he proceeds to lose me completely at the end of a 40-year-long straight line to a world where autonomous self-copying nano-technology has brought about an abundant, anarchic equilibrium. It is, I suppose, one possible path, but how a social historian of science can jump from so delightful an account of past serendipities to such a techno-determinist vision of the future turned out to be, for me, the biggest mystery of the day.

As ever, I had a great time at dConstruct, saw some old friends and great talks. Thanks to Jeremy Keith and everyone who made it happen. I’m already looking forward to next year.

“Our real stories are too dangerous to tell”

Once more to The Story at the Conway Hall, where facts and artistry have an uneasy relationship.

  • Matthew Sheret‘s god-like view of Last FM users’ scrobbles calls into question the hours spent by artists, producers, and record companies in sequencing the songs on an album. “Before we had data…” explains away Simon Thornton, recalling past triumphs of artistic freedom over commercial received wisdom.
  • Matthew Herbert wants to cut out the intermediary step of interpretation by making music from found, solicited and hard-sought-out sounds: “Music has always been about something, now it can be something.”
  • In spite of the police’s best efforts to protect his work from the public, Scott Burnham uncovers “the stories people make with their hands in the city.”
  • And Karen Lubbock’s Karen Magazine  strips away the artifice of the glossy mag, to find universal beauty in the fabric of everyday life. “Something quite provincial is more global,” she says.

But the plural of datum is not story – too much information can dull the soul.

  • “More spreadsheets than friends,” Ellie Harrison was an early bird in the belljar of self-quantification: “I felt trapped. I was spending hours each week employed as administrator of my own life.”

By spinning narratives out of facts, storytellers do more than just reflect reality, they change it.

  • Tom Chatfield and Phil Stuart enable gameplayers to make their own sense of death. The End, abstracts the dictats of great thinkers into a “philosophy mechanic” explored by choosing doors in the game-space (83% believe there’s a cause worth dying for.) But once through a door, revealingly, “you could then be led on.”

And exposing  game-changing truths can be uncomfortable.

  • For how long could Tom “What Would Lester Freamon Do?” Watson have continued “shouting into a vacuum” when the Murdoch-fearing mainstream media failed to give oxygen to a story he understood to be explosive? As Emily Bell noted, even when five out 10 top stories on the Guardian website were about phone hacking, “we were constantly being told that this wasn’t a story.” Only by stepping outside the system, with the alternative air-supply of the Twittersphere, were they able to see what was hidden in plain sight.
  • How, in the uncertain moment of revelation, does Liz Henry deal with the guilt of denying agency to a Lesbian blogger from Syria – even as “the Amina entity” is unravelling into a bunch of fictitious sock-puppets? The confusion sewn in the West is nothing compared to the very real fallout for genuine activists in the Middle East. “This is how marginalised people lose their histories, they’re drowned out by the fake stories. Our real stories are too dangerous to tell so the false stories, so much more palatable, trump them.”
  • And where does that leave Jeremy Deller‘s re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave? Is his reconstruction one of those fake stories, or a truer representation than contemporaneous media reports? Can he “jog the memory of the public” to recast the story in a new light?

Last year’s the Story was mostly about fragments – Cornelia Parker’s exploded shed, Martin Parr’s snapshots of northern life and Pepys’ Diary sliced and diced by Phil Gyford into 140 characters – until all that remained was a feeling, Adam Curtis’ “emotional realism”. Stories were left hanging by the most tenuous of threads.

For 2012, the narrative was back in town, but not always cast as the hero. The potential for easy stories to lie and mislead was ever-present.

  • Danny O’Brien in semi-riposte/semi-synthesis of Curtis (“There’s something like the internet in every generation.”) tells how billionaire libertarians convince themselves that their quest for sea-steading “slave societies” puts them on the side of the good guys, using the “initial conditions” of the internet, “rough consensus and working code” to remake the world more to their liking. Maybe they could learn some things about society – and sailing – from the anarchists of the Occupy movement? Certainly at times, it can be hard to tell them apart.

Thanks once again to Matt Locke for curating such an amazing bunch of speakers. Here’s to Story 2013.

At dConstruct, the real world is calling. It wants its designers back

Kelly Goto stands on the stage at Brighton’s Dome, head down, staring at her palm, a perfect mimic of the modern smartphone user, and issues a simple challenge to the dConstruct audience: “Help people to stay upright.”

This is the pivotal moment at which digital design finds itself. After decades training people to gaze into ever more enchanting screens, it’s time for a shake-up, to re-engage with the world around us, once more to look each other in the eye. And it may not be a comfortable experience.

Kevin Slavin dares to ask a roomful of designers why we always look to optics to provide wonder and comfort. Why do we feel the need to mediate the world through a screen, to create (according to a beautiful if only half true story from World War II USA) an upside down backwards town? Why are we not more aware of the dangers that “things that serve the eye trick the eye”? Don’t we remember the beguiling Cottingley Fairies, who showed us long ago that we can’t believe everything we see?

In place of the uncanny valley marketing vision of augmented reality – “We’ll make it magic by putting stickers on everything” – Kevin argues for engagement through behaviour. Pixelated monochrome Tamagotchi inspired more devotion than max polygon count 3d graphics, not by looking real but by exhibiting real traits – being hungry, vulnerable, rewarded and sick. And Kevin should know the power of the invisible: he admits to being spooked by his own code when Crossroads’ Papa Bones swept through the Area/Code studio late one night.

Bryan Rieger and Stephanie Rieger challenge us to engage with the world by releasing stuff that’s not finished, because people prefer it that way. For me their case is marred by over-reliance on the “accelerating pace of change” trope (on which another post follows) but I reckon they have a point about the value of good enough.

As Matt Sheret eloquently puts it: “Hacks scratch the itches that contemporary product design hasn’t caught up with yet.” Time-traveller Matt talks us through the special qualities of things you can put in your pockets – from a Victorian watch to an RFID bike hire key. “RFID is a huge gift for interaction,” he says. I think this is because of its potential as a gap-closing technology that helps link the real world with its digital mirror image.

“Think about the spaces between the experiences you are creating,” says Kelly Goto: to make things that work in the world, we have to understand its people, their rituals and the way they live their lives.

Kars Alfrink makes his own attempt to do this: pointing out the dark side of gentrification. Our cities are divided in plain sight, sharing territory yet blind to each other, like the young Hackney couple enjoying a glass of wine while a tense gang stand-off plays out around them. How do designers get out of their bubble and contribute to a resilient society?

Respect for time and memory surely have a big role to play. Don Norman, in a slide-free talk rich with insight on the state of the user interface art – says we should design memories not experiences: “A memory is a form of augmented reality,” he posits.

And Frank Chimero, who always gives good metaphor, forever replaces my previous best image for our online history. From now of it’s not data exhaust, it’s “walking through snow”. Also Instapaper, Delorean.

Full marks to Frank for the most compelling account I’ve seen of “curation” as applied to web content. Until today I’ve seen “curation” online as a pale, twisted imitation of the real thing, as practiced in museums and art galleries. But Frank put his finger on the thing that makes for good curation – not just hit-and-run picking of stuff but making an educated second pass to transform a collection of objects into a meaningful narrative.

Craig Mod seems to be on similar territory. He talks about data as if it were a living herd, needing to be corraled, then as a field of dead artifacts, in need of “excavation”. What is the shape of the future book? Kilometres high, and chopped up into a million pieces, apparently.

Dan Hon has also dedicated his career to chopping up stories – having followed transmedia storytelling from web 1.0 to 2.0 and beyond. There’s online storytelling the hard way (do it in 2001) and the seemingly easy (do it all on Twitter) though the common thread is good storytelling. Some platforms lend themselves to stories, others do not. Heello is a platform for pretending. Quora is not.

Curiously Dan and Frank both need the same tool for different purposes – something to break out of the blocky file-status-update-album-art tyranny of today’s web services into ways to tell more fluid stories. For Frank it’s about making stories from our real lives, for Dan its creating pretend lives from stories, but in essence both demand the same aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic whose time has come – one that’s authentic without being skeuomorphic. The real world is calling. It wants its designers back.

Small pieces loosely joined: on the way home from the Story

Cornelia Parker got the army to blow up a shed full of stuff and then hung the shards from an art gallery ceiling.

It felt like a metaphor for almost all the talks at Matt Locke‘s brilliant event, The Story: everywhere narratives are fragmenting, and no one seems certain how to put them back together.

  • Adam Curtis‘ experiments with archive video footage demonstrated persuasively how we’ve lost confidence in the veracity and validity of smoothly packaged news bulletins.
  • Mark Stevenson berated us for losing faith in a bright human future.
  • Martin Parr documented the vanished minutiae of a Northern English mill town and analogue studio photography.
  • Karl James gave voice to families thrown off balance, one by childhood leukemia, another by rape; and to children who felt written off by their teachers.
  • Lucy Kimbell dissected her own sense of worth and wellbeing to create ‘Audit’ and the LIX Index.
  • Players armed with toy guns blew apart Mary Hamilton‘s carefully constructed live action role play set pieces (though she didn’t seem to mind so much).
  • Matt Adams reduced teen pregnancy to 100 or so text messages scattered across seven days, while Phil Gyford is dicing 10 years worth of Samuel Pepys’ diaries into Twitter-ready chunks.
  • And with all those cats just a click away it’s no wonder Graham Linehan‘s attention span is so shot through that he hasn’t read a book in six months.

These things are not stories but snapshots, vignettes from, as Curtis put it, our age of “emotional realism”.

If there was one disappointment today it was that we were denied any straightforward, spellbinding storytelling performances, as delivered by Tim Etchells, Cory Doctorow and David Hepworth at last year’s The Story.

Fortunately, while none had the full prescription, some of the speakers did offer tantalizing hints of how the frayed and shredded fragments of stories that surround us might be woven back together into a genuinely new genre for our age.

I’m not sure what it looks like but I think these are some promising elements:

From our repertoire of emotional realism, I think we can keep and work with the heightened sensations:

  • the arresting visual image of the Maldives Cabinet meeting underwater
  • the excruciating 19 seconds of silence while the father of a sick child composes his thoughts
  • the details you only spot when you study the news from Helmand uncut.

Add to that the data exhaust of a billion mobile phones taking readings and measurements for a super-charged, real time LIX Index. And as for adding a soundtrack to e-books, whatever next, talking pictures?

Adam Curtis’ diagnosis of the need for a frame, for a less starry-eyed appreciation of power in the Internet age is spot on. One can detect this re-framing implicitly in Cornelia Parker’s work too.

But with this frame in place, we can safely build on the wonderful things that happen when storytellers open up the process and let their “audiences” in on the shaping of the story:

  • At least half the wordcount in Blast Theory’s ivy4Evr came from recipients of her texts responding and talking her through the issues as they themselves might experience them.
  • Mary Hamilton’s Zombie LARP “story machine” solidifies stories by institutionalising “froth”, the over-excited re-telling of events that follows inevitably from a successful live action role play happening.
  • Pepys Diary on Twitter has attracted a 14-strong menagerie of other characters spontaneously responding to his tweets.

And now @glinner uses project management software to co-write the IT Crowd with a small group of hand-picked Twitter followers. I loved the idea that he could go away for a week and return to find that “the stories accrete like coral” around the provocations he has sewn on Basecamp.

When I made ‘1794: A Small Story‘, I got an inkling of what happens when you put fragments out there, unfinished, joined to the web. Now I’m inspired to make it more sensation-al, more social and more savvy about the undercurrents of the sea in which it swims.

Also, Monsters! Made of people!

More discussion of The Story 2011 on Twitter.

Seeing Interesting patterns

I love going to conferences, and I love writing about them, but I hate doing those write-ups that march relentlessly through the speakers in the order they appeared. If you wanted that kind of experience of Interesting North my best recommendation was to go to the conference yourself. Or click the links on Lanyrd.com, which is rapidly becoming the de facto, vowelly-challenged implementation of Adrian McEwen’s Long Conference.

Instead I get to indulge my all-too-human cognitive bias towards the Clustering Illusion by trying to weave a single coherent pattern out the joyously random talks that Tim Duckett and the crew lined up for us in Sheffield last weekend. The pattern I see is made of Baseball, Poker, music, sleeping and Lego.

Stefanie Posavec talked delightfully on Baseball Scorekeeping. True to the Interesting brief to share a secret passion, she applied the graphic designer’s eye to the folk infographics of amateur scorekeeping. I loved the idea that these scraps of paper depicted, in just a few dozen square inches, the entire arc of a three-hour sports event, reducing the excitement of a live event to just a few pencil marks, yet preserving so much information in the process.

This too seemed to be the process in electronic music, laid bare by Ed Goring‘s live demo of the amazing tools that shape the music we hear around us. Ed illustrated graphically how barriers to creativity have tumbled as software in bedrooms replaced multi-million pound studios.

But the thing that jumped out at me was how basic some of those music user interfaces looked – as unlike the music they made as Stephanie’s baseball scorecards were unlike the games they recorded.  Just as some of the first cars sported wooden horses to help travellers feel at ease in the new horseless carriages, so Ed’s laptop was filled with software interfaces made to look like the studio mixing desks and hardware widgets of yore.

I got the feeling that there must be more to it than this. What happens when you put a Wii controller in the musician’s hand, or the musician in the path of a Kinect sensor? Or, for that matter, give them the kind of mind-boggling multi-screen UI that the world’s elite online Poker players use to play multiple tables at a time, using software to spot interesting activity that merits their costly attention?

Chris Dymond‘s talk on poker was an eye-opener, exposing the way the web is not just multiplying the amount of Poker played but fundamentally changing the game itself, thanks to increased visibility and the use of sophisticated number-crunching over massive databases of past hands. I also wrote down in my notebook “elite Swedish Poker psychologists.” Over lunch, I was lucky enough to hear Chris expand a little on the culture clash between the old and new worlds of Poker, and how the new online players may get through more hands in a month than an old-time champion did in his whole career. The rules may be the same but they’re playing a different game.

Which brings us to Five Things Rules Do, Tom Armitage‘s lovely discussion of games – all kinds of games. I’m a sucker for user-generated innovations like rocket jumping, especially when designers manage to embrace and extend the rule-bending as part of the game. The most profound parts of Tom’s talk were the simple and heartfelt accounts of how rules embody stories – from the doubling dice that says “Backgammon is a social game for drunk people” to the softly-spoken messages of Gravitation and Waldschattenspiel, or the more brutal Train.

Oli Shaw‘s Catching Sleepers pulled off just this kind of magic. Whoever gave him the mid-afternoon slot was a genius. It certainly made me feel sleepy. I’m still not sure quite how Oli got away with showing photos of numerous unsuspecting individuals caught asleep on public transport without being drummed out of the Cutlers’ Hall by a crowd baying “stalker!”. I think it was because of the tenderness with which he spoke of his victims. As did Frankie Roberto showing us his Lego collection (“sorted by size, not colour, which would just be wierd”) and exposing the foibles of his fellow AFOLs. Lego seemed to embody its own sophisticated rulesets and creative constraints.

And more, much more, such as James Boardwell on the bikes of the future and Toby Barnes on James Bond: Architecture Critic, both of which I think I’ll come back to in future posts. Oh, and Sheffield honey, riding sidesaddle, cake, a tourist volcano, wikiality and some other stuff.

I got to impose on the crowd for 10 minutes with my story of Green Sand and Subterfuge, also stuffed into the goody bags in glorious newsprint. A pedant might say this story of 1802 Leeds was a little out of place in Sheffield’s 30-years-younger Cutlers’ Hall, but there was a John Ruskin quote on the wall, and the audience made me feel very welcome.

Also, my own goody bag contained this book, which seemed fitting.

Thanks once again to Tim and everyone else who made Interesting North happen. I really hope it becomes an annual fixture.

On a faster horse: meanders heading home from dConstruct

OK, so I have to get this stuff down by midnight before my head turns into a pumpkin.

dConstruct
was a day well-spent, listening, tweeting, scribbling and discussing design and creativity – with nine of the most thought-provoking talks we’ll hear in the UK this year. And some of my smartest colleagues and former colleagues were there too, which was nice. There follows my highly partial first draft, to which I may return in the coming weeks.

The past is the new future. I’d seen James Bridle‘s work in print and online but never heard him speak live. Of course I’m biased,  but I found his argument about the importance of preserving our digital history both intuitive and fresh. Like the game of wiki-racing to which he introduced us, James linked effortlessly from his formative years in Geocities to the whole Internet in a shipping container, to the Library of Alexandria and back to the Iraq War.  I now see why Ben Terrett named James as one of his “five things“.  He’s a revelation and if there’s any justice in the world he’ll get his own series on BBC4 or something.

Tom Coates showed the same respect for humanity and history (Darius the Great’s superhighway!) in his talk on the network. I’ve been thinking for a while about the reinvention of everyday life through networked, connected services. Tom is way ahead on this stuff, thinking about TfL’s blue bikes as spimes, connected weighing scales and San Francisco’s smart parking meters. I’m currently conducting my own personal trial of vehicles as a service and will come back to this subject soon.

Just as Tom imagined washing machines as a service, so Samantha Warren hinted at the change we’ll see on the web as the likes of Typekit and Fontdeck bring typography to the networked developer’s toolkit, alongside identity, location and the social graph. She too honoured the history of her subject. I’d like to have heard more about the contrast between her father’s career as a printer and her own as a digital designer. Some may feel they know type already, that Samantha was preaching to the converted. But there’s a whole generation of young designers out there who’ve known only a handful of “web fonts”. As Merlin Mann warned later in the day, the trick is knowing the next things to get geeky about, and typography could be one of those.

Merlin said a lot of other stuff too, some of it very fast. And he was the second speaker of the day to trot out Henry Ford’s dismissive assertion that “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” It struck me that concepts such as user engagement, participatory design, and even customer experience were curiously absent from the whole of the dConstruct programme. From this I assume that either they have become so commonplace that everyone accepts them as a given, or (I fear more likely) we’re seeing a fightback from those  who believe designers have unique powers of creativity, unobtainable and unquestionable by mere mortals.

Marty Neumeier certainly seemed to imply this in his talk on the Designful Company. His opening felt a lot to me like the content of Robert Verganti’s book “Design Driven Innovation” (on which a separate post some time). While I can buy Marty’s idea that enduring products and services need to be both good and different from the competition, he failed to produce any way of judging “good and different” from “bad and different” other than giving the market a few years to decide, or employing the fabled “intuition” of designers, which other disciplines in business are assumed to lack.

Brendan Dawes was fun and engaging when talking about the way designers collect inspiration, on how you can break a pencil into several smaller pencils, and on the delights of designing for the new tactile user interfaces, but his process also contained a black box component in the form of “good taste” and “you shouldn’t be a designer if you haven’t got good taste.”

John Gruber took it further, hailing the auteur director in film as a suitable model for design. That’s all for the good if it makes designers feel better about themselves on a day out by the sea, but I know how most of my non-designer colleagues in business would react to this kind of a pitch, and it wouldn’t be complimentary.

I was much more convinced by the perspectives on process from David McCandless and Hannah Donovan. David had a wonderful take on the way visualisation can be used to tell a story, such as putting huge sums of money into perspective, but also how visualising a dataset can reveal the story to the data-designer-journalist. For example overlaying BNP-membership hotspots with population ethnicity revealed the two to be largely exclusive, with only a few pockets of overlap. This seems like reflective design at its best, playing with the data to see what it can teach us. David also suggested that our continued exposure to design and infographics in our culture is making everyone more design-literate. I like this idea – a suitable counterbalance to the notions of “taste” and the “intuitive” anointed.

But I found Hannah’s talk on improvisation in music the most compelling account of how design happens, as a team enterprise. Like my other favourites, her session, complete with live improv, was steeped in an appreciation of the history from Mozart to Hip Hop. To an outsider improv may seem free and effortless, but it relies on tools, structures, clarity of roles and mutual respect to make it happen. The best designers I have known have always appreciated these things; the most painful to work with behaved like John Gruber’s auteurs.

Matthew Murray: what next?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Interesting North is “a one-dayer of interesting, unexpected and original” stuff at Cutler’s Cutlers’ Hall, Sheffield, on Saturday 13 November 2010. It’s like the other Interestings, only in the North. Credit to Tim Duckett for making it happen.

Among other things there will be talks about Eyjafjallajökull, cake, riding side-saddle, feral children and what you can learn from Lego.

My contribution is 10 minutes on the story of Matthew Murray and James Watt Junior, on which, in keeping with the rules of Interesting, I am obliged to Deliver a brand-new talk and Share something I haven’t shared before.

Tickets are a steal at £20 for a whole day’s entertainment and enlightenment. Hope to see you there.

Barcamp Leeds 2009 highlights

I really enjoyed my day at Barcamp Leeds, part of LSx 2009 – Leeds’ second web festival.

Photo by Nik_Doof under Creative Commons license

Having turned up meaning to talk about kids and code (see separate post) I also ended up reprising The History of Leeds: What Every Geek Should Know, fortuitously followed by Jon Eland on Exposure Leeds‘ vision for Leodis.net, a massive online photographic archive digitised with lottery funding by our local council.

Mohsin Ali, just back from Where 2.0, had also picked up on the growing interest in using old photos and maps as part of mobile, geolocated services. Old is the new new, apparently, especially when it’s out of copyright. I can’t wait to play with this stuff in the cities where I spend my time.

Matt Seward of Kilo75 was thought-provoking on the Art of (Digital) Conversation. So many brands still seem to be stuck in a monologue when dialogue is the order of the day. I can’t help wondering though, whether people really want conversations with brands at all. Surely the only authentic conversations are those with the people who work for brands, not the brands themselves?

Dave Mee’s Merzweb was a revelation. From his associated blog post:

While it feels like our online lives are unprecedented, at least from a technological perspective, they’re not, from an avant-garde art perspective. From the 1920s to the 1950s, a sadly neglected artist from Hanover, Kurt Schwitters, derived his own practice that has earned him accolades from being one of the first multimedia artists, to a pioneer of collage and objets trouvés. I’d like to afford him a new title; Patron saint of the Social Web.

I recently attempted my own One Song to the Tune of Another, so I admire the skill with which Dave weaves together the threads from separate decades and separate media to show that we’re not that different from our forebears.

And how could I forget Microsoft (criticism), John Leach’s latest addtion to the Ukepedia? Seven down, just 2.8 million articles to go :)

There was more, much more, than I’ve written up here. It was a privilege to see a great set of talks in stimulating company, with as many sessions again that I would love to have attended, if possessed of the power to be in two places at once. In particular, I’m sorry to have missed my former colleague Dean Vipond on A Tactile Experience of Digital Music, Sarah Hartley on Blogging in a News Organisation and Emma Bearman‘s Cake and Culture. Maybe next time!

Thanks as ever to the organisers, Imran, Linda, Dom and Tom.

Telco Too Point Oh

I had the privilege to take part in last week’s Telco 2.0TM Industry Brainstorm in London – an excellent and thought-provoking two days, and the programme for the next event looks just as enticing. It’s all now being written up on the obligatory Telco 2.0TM Blog. I hope I wasn’t one of the participants who gave the impression that advertiser inertia would be an excuse for operator indifference to new models. That’s certainly not true.

It’s great that some of the basic ideas around communities and context are becoming buzz words throughout our industry, but I find it disappointing that we can only talk about these by creating a false opposition against supposedly closed operators, totally uninterested in customers and their communities – the so-called “Telco 1.0″ (guess no one’s claiming trademark rights over that one!)

Having worked indirectly and directly for ISPs and MNOs for nearly 10 years, I can safely say these have been hot topics inside the operators since the days of dial-up modems and monochrome mobiles. We’ve been rolling out high-bandwidth, always on networks and subsidising costly multimedia devices with just this stuff in mind. It’s nice to see the rest of the content ecosystem finally catching on ;)

One other feature of the conference attracted attention: every table had a couple of wifi-enabled laptops through which we could submit comments and questions on the session.

I have to say I found the technology-mediated version less interactive than the old-fashioned convention of putting up your hand to ask a question (is this consigned to the deeply unfashionable world of Conference 1.0?). It meant that instead of responding to unpredictable questions, speakers could skim through the questions and pick the ones they wanted to answer.

As Edward Tufte points out in his treatise against Powerpoint, innovations in presentation technology generally favour the speaker, not the audience. Someone in the conference world tell me there is a better way, please.