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.

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.

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.

On the way to dConstruct: a social constructionist thought for the day

A desire to put some theoretical acro props under my vague unease with the determinist narrative of so much of our technology discourse has led me to the writing of the French anthropologist Bruno Latour. His work on the social construction of science, an ethnography of the R&D lab, has a special resonance for me, a humanities graduate who finds himself colleague to a legion of French engineers.

I’m stumbling intermittently through Catherine Porter’s translation of Latour’s 1991 work “We have never been modern“, as a prelude to David Edgerton’s “The Shock of the Old“. At times it feels a bit like eating up the broccoli before allowing myself desert, but the rich, buttery morsels like the following make it all worthwhile.

The story so far.

Latour argues that modernity, from Civil War England onwards, managed its contradictions by placing boundaries between nature and society. Thomas Hobbes, writer of the Leviathan, was taken up as a founder of political philosophy while Robert Boyle, he of the air pumps, was channelled as a natural philosopher and pioneer of scientific method. In truth both men speculated on both politics and science, but this inconsistency was whitewashed by their modern successors seeking only the pure narrative of one or the other.

And so we are today in a world still riven by CP Snow’s two cultures, where right-wing bloggers can grab acres of media coverage against climate scientists by finding just the tiniest trace of political “contamination” on the lab’s email servers.

But I wonder if the disconnection and reconnection of nature and society is also a useful way to understand some of the ideas I’m expecting to hear today at dConstruct, a conference at the cutting edge of technology and media convergence.

The 19 years since Latour published “Nous n’avons jamais été moderne” roughly spans my working life so far. I’ve witnessed the amazing things that can happen when you expose the humanities-soaked world of newspapers, books and TV to the attentions of software engineers and computer scientists. The results have been delightful and depressing, often both at the same time. Who knew back then that floaty copywriters would have to cohabit – for better or for worse – with the number-crunchers of search engine optimisation?

This fusing of the worlds of media and technology is only just beginning, and the next step is evident in the hand-held touch-sensitive, context-aware marvel of creation that is the latest smartphone.

Hitherto we have seen the the world of human-created information, the texts of the ancients and the tussles of our own times, through the pure window of the newspaper, the book, the TV, the PC screen. But the smartphone is a game-changer, like Robert Boyle’s air pump. With its bundle of sensors, of location, of proximity, and in the future no doubt heat, light, pressure and humidity it becomes a mini-lab through which we measure our world as we interact with it.

All manner of things could be possible once these facts of nature start to mix with the artifacts of society. My Foursquare checkins form a pattern of places created by me, joined with those of my friends to co-create something bigger and more valuable. My view of reality through the camera of the phone can be augmented with information. We will all be the scientists, as well as the political commentators, of our own lives. This is the role of naturalism in my “Mobile Gothic” meander.

To recycle Latour on Robert Boyle’s account of his air pump experiments:

“Here in Boyle’s text we witness the intervention of a new actor recognised by the new [modern] Constitution: inert bodies, incapable of will and bias but capable of showing, signing, writing and scribbling on laboratory instuments before trustworthy witnesses. These nonhumans, lacking souls but endowed with meaning, are even more reliable than ordinary mortals, to whom will is attributed but who lack the capacity to indicate phenomena in a reliable way. According to the Constitution, in case of doubt, humans are better off appealing to nonhumans. Endowed with their new semiotic powers, the latter contribute to a new form of text, the experimental science article, a hybrid of the age-old style of biblical exegesis – which has previously been applied only to the Scriptures and classical texts – and the new instrument that produces new inscriptions. From this point on, witnesses will pursue their discussions in its enclosed space, discussions about the meaningful behavious or nonhumans. The old hermeneutics will persist, but it will add to its parchments the shaky signature of scientific instruments.”

I don’t yet know where I stand in this picture. Am I the experimenter, his audience, or the chick in the jar?

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768

A desire to put some theoretical acroprops under my vague unease with the determinist narrative of so much of our technologydiscourse has led me to the work of the French anthropologist Bruno Latour. His work on the social construction of science, anethnography of the R&D lab, has a special resonance for me, a humanities graduate who finds himself colleague to a legion of 

French engineers.

I’m stumbling intermittently through Catherine Porter’s translation of Latour’s 1991 work “We have never been modern”, as a

prelude to David Edgerton’s “The Shock of the Old”. At times it feels a bit like eating up the broccoli before allowing myself

desert, but the rich, buttery morsels like the following make it all worthwhile.

The story so far.

Latour argues that modernity, from Civil War England onwards, managed its contradictions by placing boundaries between

naure and society. Thomas Hobbes, writer of the Leviathan, was taken up as a founder of political philosophy while Robert

Boyle, he of the chicks in air pumps, was channelled as a natural philosopher and pioneer of scientific method. In truth both

men speculated on both politics and science, but this inconsintency was whitewashed by their modern successors seeking only

the pure narrative of one or the other.

And so we are today in a world still riven by CP Snow’s two cultures, where right-wing bloggers can grab acres of media

coverage against climate scientists by finding just the tiniest trace of political “contamination” on the lab’s email servers.

But I wonder if the disconnection and reconnection of nature and society is also a useful way to understand some of the ideas

I’m expecting to hear today at dConstruct, a conference at the cutting edge of technology and media convergence.

The 19 years since Latour published “Nous n’avons jamais été moderne” roughly spans a working life in which I’ve witnessed

the amazing things that can happen when you expose the humanities-soaked world of newspapers, books and TV to the

attentions of software engineers and computer scientists. The results have been delightful and depressing, often both at the

same time. Who knew back then that floaty copywriters would have to cohabit – for better or for worse – with the

number-crunchers of search engine optimisation?

This fusing of the worlds of technology and media is only just beginning, and the next step is evident in the hand-held

touch-sensitive, context-aware marvel of creation that is the latest smartphone.

Hitherto we have seen the the world of human-created information, the texts of the ancients and the tussles of our own times,

through the pure window of the newspaper, the book, the TV, the PC screen. But the smartphone is a game-changer, like

Robert Boyle’s air pump. With its bundle of sensors, of location, of proximity, and in the future no doubt heat, light, pressure

and humidity it becomes a mini-lab through which we measure our world as we interact with it.

All manner of things could be possible once these facts of nature start to mix with the artifacts of society. My Foursquare

checkins form a pattern of places created by me, joined with those of my friends to co-create something bigger and more

valuable. My view of reality through the camera of the phone can be augmented with information. We will all be the scientists,

as well as the poticial commentators, of our own lives. This is the role of naturalism in my “Mobile Gothic” meander.

To recycle Latour on Robert Boyle’s account of his air pump experiments:
“Here in Boyle text we witness the intervention of a new actor recognised by the new [modern] Constitution: inert bodies,

incapable of will and bias but capable of showing, signing, writing and scribbling on laboratory instuments before trustworthy

witnesses. These nonhumans, lacking souls but endowed with meaning, are even more reliable than ordinary mortals, to whom

will is attrributed but who lack the capacity to indicate phenomena in a reliable way. According to the Constitution, in case of

doubt, humans are better off appealing to nonhumans. Endowed with their new semiotic powers, the latter contribute to a new

form of text, the experimental science article, a hybrid of the age-old style of biblical exegesis – which has previously been

applied only to the Scriptures and classical texts – and the new instrument that produces new inscriptions. From this point on,

witnesses will pursue their discussions in its enclosed space, discussions about the meaningful behavious or nonhumans. The

old hermeneutics will persist, but it will add to its parchments the shaky signature of scientific instruments.”

I don’t yet know where I stand in this picture. Am I the man in the white coat or the chick in the belljar?