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.

Keep the campfire burning: a thread of whimsy from Baden-Powell to Berners-Lee

Cubs badges

As a child I hated Cubs. All that running around and shouting, the church parades, and camping on a damp field at the edge of Danbury Common.

But in a twist of fate I find myself parent to three boys far more enthusiastic than I ever was; my oldest recently got a badge marking seven years – more than half his lifetime – as a Beaver, Cub or Scout.

That’s seven years of walking him to and from the weekly meetings in the school hall, driving to the scout hut down dark country lanes, dropping off and picking up at obscure Dales campsites that satnav passed by. If the youngest one follows in his muddy footsteps I’ll be doing the same for the next seven years as well.

I remain both surprised and grateful that there are grown-ups who volunteer to take my children camping so I don’t have to.

And just recently I’ve come to wonder at the infrastructure that has grown up around the scouting movement in the 106 years since Robert Baden-Powell ran his first experimental camp at Brownsea Island, Dorset.

Within an hour’s drive of our home there are dozens of scout sites tucked away in valleys, down farm tracks, one on an unpromising gap between a canal and a railway line. The Wakefield District even has its own canal boat.

Then there’s the knowledge and social capital. My boys are fourth-generation scouts – at least four of their eight great-grandparents were active in the movement. Yet their campfires, penknives, funny handshake and woggles would be instantly recognisable to scouts who bob-a-jobbed in last Great Depression.

I like to think that our digital culture will develop like this.

When I reflect on its future, I’m not that interested in whether we’ll experience life through screens, or glasses or holograms or deep brain implants, or whatever. The scout hut now has flushing toilets, not a hole in the ground, but the boys would still pee against a tree if you let them.

What matters to me as a second-generation geek is the culture and shared set of values that emerges in a movement over multiple lifetimes.

I relish the thought of heritage servers and listed fibre optic cables.

How brilliant would it feel to comment on a 50-year-old Basecamp, or push to a 100-year-old Github repository?

Imagine watching the accelerated sights of a webcam that has lain forgotten on someone’s window sill for a century or more. Or sifting through an heirloom dataset.

How will the do-ocracies that power hackspaces and open source projects manage the passing of batons from generation to generation?

Will the elders entreat sceptical youths to eschew the home comforts of AI-generated code for the delights of hand-whittled trinkets in Python?

In 2093, will our great-grandchildren gather to mark 100 years since the first experimental website was put up by Tim Berners-Lee (like Baden-Powell a knight of Britain’s exclusive Order of Merit)? What greetings will they use? What songs will sing?

And how will the network bear the scars of countries that have come to blows, made peace and repaired the damage, as have many of the nations in the worldwide community of scouts?

I picture a world much more complex than ours, more resilient too, yet in some ways instantly recognisable.

The example of scouting makes me optimistic about the decades to come – not because of the things we’ll invent between now and then, but because of the experiences we’ll share; because the future will have more history behind it.

At Future Everything: nobody likes a smart arse, even when it’s a city

IMAG2101

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, opening line

Why did Glasgow win the right to host the Technology Strategy Board’s £24 million Future Cities Demonstrator? Project Leader Scott Cain reels off a set of doom-laden statistics: a looming crisis in affordable warmth; a high incidence of anti-social behaviour; a shocking 28-year life expectancy gap between rich and poor neighbourhoods. Oh, and good city leadership, the kind that’s up to hosting the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Poverty, conflict and inequality rarely figure in the “smart city” visions of those who seek to sell infrastructure dressed as “technology”.

I’ve railed against these things before. At Future Everything in Manchester on Thursday the chorus was deafening.

From Dan Hill’s call for “active citizens” not “smart cities” – “if we want people to think about carbon, don’t make the lights go out automatically.”…

… through Martijn de Waal’s pitting of computer-rendered master-planned Songdo against the very real, spontaneous “Seoulutions” of Hongdae: “engage and empower publics to act on communally shared issues.”…

… to Usman Haque’s praise for the messy city of Grub Street after 200 years of Enlightenment dirigisme: “a backlash of messiness in which the great uncalibrated rise up.”…

… and the audience’s line of questioning of the panel in which Scott, Martijn and Usman took part…

… it was abundantly clear that nobody likes a smart arse, even when it’s a city.

To frame problems in terms of efficiency is to miss the point of what it means to be a city, a platform for people’s numerous, contradictory drives and dreams.

The hunt for economies of scale chases us inexorably to the lowest common denominator. (So London gets the Future Cities “Catapult” because it’s Britain’s only “World City” – you can guess how this revelation went down in Manchester :)

Worst of all is the abdication of responsibility. Usman: “What I see specifically in the open data movement is that someone else is going to find the solution because it resides in the data.”

We’ve been here before, warns Dan, and the result was not pretty. It was Richard Weller’s “city that cars built when we weren’t looking.”

But if not that, then what?

As Dan notes, the interventions that make us smile, that feel intuitively right, like Helsinki’s Restaurant Day or Silje Johansen’s lonely traffic light, are fleeting and leave no trace but memory.

Dan urges us to consider the power of engaging with the “dark matter” of local administrations and building codes.

Despite its unpromising name, I also found some answers in a session titled “Building Creative Ecologies for Smarter Cities”.

There, Claire Reddington of Bristol’s iShed talked about “keeping the money at the margins” and trusting “the unreasonable expectations of artists”: “Tech conferences often fetishise failure. If you are not predefining the outputs it’s hard to categorise something as a failure.”

I loved Claire’s suggestion that if you want to be part of a network it’s “best not to have all the bits” – for example not having an art gallery on-site at the Watershed had prompted collaborations with surrounding galleries and venues.

On the same panel was Doug Ward, co-founder of Tech Hub Manchester in a listed warehouse in the city’s Northern Quarter. Referencing Brad Feld’s “Boulder thesis”, he listed the reasons he chose to stay as an entrepreneur in his home city: its history, universities and culture.

My take-outs: Endurance is greater than scale; diversity more valuable than efficiency; and actors are what matter, the networks will follow.

The future beneath our feet

This is the text of my presentation at the Leeds Digital Conference on 12 October 2012. If you like this, you may also like my TEDxLeeds 2010 talk, The Makers of Leeds.

In 1763, the Corporation of London, wishing to make way for bigger boats on the Thames, ordered the removal of a central pier of the old London Bridge to form a wide arch near its middle. What could possibly go wrong?

As with more recent innovations in the City with a Capital C, there were… unintended consequences. Torrents of water were now concentrated at one point under the bridge. They started to tear away at the other piers making the bridge unstable. Many people now refused to pass over or under the bridge, bringing the city to a standstill.

So they sent for a Yorkshireman. John Smeaton, of Leeds, designer of the famous Eddystone Lighthouse who worked in a way so novel that he had to make up his own job title. He coined the term “civil engineer”.

Smeaton hurried from Leeds to London where he quickly assessed the situation and made an urgent recommendation.

It was a Sunday morning, but the citizens got to work straight away. They had recently demolished the gates of the City as part of a road-widening programme. Smeaton told them to buy back the rubble of the gates and throw it into the River to stem the flow and protect the remaining piers of the bridge. This they did; the bridge was saved and remained in use well into the following century.

I’m Matt Edgar, and I started out as a history student, telling stories about the past. I became a newspaper journalist hunting down and telling stories in the present day. Now I’m a service designer. I help businesses to imagine and create the services of the future, by working with their current and potential users and the people who deliver services for them.

I’m fascinated by the interplay between our past, present and future. All the more so given the accumulated narratives in a place that was one of the world’s first industrial cities. Those pioneers, like Smeaton, Matthew Murray at the Round Foundry, Thomas Harding at Tower Works, they worked with the stuff the city had in abundance – mainly rocks, coal and water.

It’s no coincidence that this session called “the future” takes place in a 150-year-old former mechanics’ institute and features not just me but Tom, a bona fide museum curator, and Steve, whose company celebrated its centenary last year.

The past is a platform from which we can launch more confidently into the future. To understand what’s possible, we need to understand what we inherit from the past and what we have in the present.

So when the organisers of the Leeds Digital Festival asked me to do something as part of last year’s programme, I wanted to get people away from the screens out onto the streets, to see what was lying around in the present day, the raw materials with which we can solve our problems and build for the future.

Pixels aren’t just on our computers and phones; they’re everywhere we go, leaking out into the environment. What could possibly go wrong?

Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim of Do Projects provided the template in a booklet called “Systems/Layers”. They looked at the interplay of the city and the network and proposed a simple hack. Instead of a workshop, a walkshop: a half-day stroll to looks for tangible evidence of the network collecting and feeding information in the urban environment.

Many of my friends from the Leeds service design community had already done some of this as part of the Global Service Jam earlier in the year. They got out of the building to go through litterbins and interview people about transport to help create new services for the city and its people.

There had been walkshops in other cities – London, Bristol, Barcelona – and these had typically been on a summer’s day, ideally in dry, settled weather. We decided to push the technique by going for a November evening in Leeds.

The brief contained three questions:
- where is information being collected by the network?
- where is information being displayed?
- where is information being acted upon?

In the hours before the walkshop we got the worst weather of the month, which thinned out the field a bit. But then the sun came out, just in time to set over Millennium Square. Our hardy group of walkshoppers met on the steps of this building with the German Christmas Market in front of them.

So here are some of the walkers setting off – David, Jane and Anzoo. After about an hour of walking and talking within the area on our map, everyone got back together in a room at the top of the Leonardo Building, kindly provided by Leeds City Council.

And this is what we found.

A lot of infrastructure…

Visibly, there are cameras everywhere. Also alarms, wind speed sensors, traffic sensors, footfall sensors. And screens – in bars, shops windows, and the granddaddy of them all, the BBC’s big screen overlooking Millennium Square.

Phone boxes have morphed like Superman from kiosks for calling into internet terminals and now into wireless access points. Some phone boxes and cabinets also seemed to be taking up prime pavement real estate despite being completely redundant. In the spirit of these straitened times, we wondered what else we could do with them.

Then there was the invisible. Ground-level lighting betrays cables and ducts buried underground. And layer-upon-layer of wifi blanketed the area we walked. There’s no formal citywide wifi, but, for those in the know, a patchwork of access points spills out from educational and public institutions, covering the area with connectivity inside and out.

Dotted around the Christmas Market we found signs (literally signs) of the cheap and ubiquitous connectivity that enables temporary stalls to affect the trappings of permanent retail. Mobile phone numbers, credit and debit cards welcome, even a fast-food stand with Twitter and Facebook IDs.

Much of this stuff is apparently under-used or unused…

The iconic memory of the walk for me was the sight of a lone, hooded texter, face illuminated by a screen, standing in front of the Henry Moore Institute. On one side of the building stood a brace of Giles Gilbert Scott phone boxes, on the other a Royal Mail pillar box: several tonnes of bright-red painted cast iron disintermediated by a hundred grammes of smartphone.

We saw screens blazing, needlessly bright for the time of day, yet unheeded by passers-by. QR codes went unscanned (though unlike many of the walkshop group I still have a personal soft spot for them).

Smokers lit up in front of the Post Office oblivious to the comprehensive display of foreign exchange rates just inches from them through the plate glass window.

An LCD display tucked inside the entrance to a shopping centre reported alarming malfunctions in the building’s security systems; no one seemed concerned.

Low-fi is high impact…

The utility of the screen tended to be in inverse proportion to its resolution. The two most successful public screens we encountered were the illuminated signs showing numbers of empty spaces in nearby car parks, and the displays at bus stops with real-time departure information.

While people were making real, time-saving, money-spending decisions on the strength of these mono-colour LED matrices, nearby HD TV screens frittered away their millions of colours on drinks promotions and national news tickers. Even parking ticket machines can tell you the time.

And the old still dominates the new…

From our vantage point at the top of the Leonardo Building the most striking visual presence was the clock on Cuthbert Brodrick’s Town Hall. Its trustworthiness enhanced by synchronisation with the smaller clocks on the nearby Civic Hall. I suspect this trick is achieved the old-fashioned way, without the aid of a network time-servers.

And then the sound of bell-ringing practice wafted over from St Anne’s Cathedral.

These effortless assertions of authority by church and state have gone unchanged and unchallenged over more than a century. Together they set a high bar for the new media that aspire to a place in the cityscape. Nothing I saw on our walk came close to clearing that bar.

I say these things not as criticism but as opportunities.

Never in the history of the city has so much infrastructure been so under-used. Our walkshop group came back frothing with what-ifs of connecting this stuff just a little more smartly, to itself and to the needs of the people who use the city. The raw materials for fun, useful and engaging services now litter the streets for the taking.

So I want to spend the last few minutes of this talk on four big things I see for the near future – not far-out crystal ball-gazing things, but rather ones that can easily be made using the stuff that’s already lying all around us.

The first big thing is the trend for services to replace products. There are many things we use but do not need to own, even ones we value very highly.

In my house we used to cram photos into cardboard boxes in a cupboard and mostly forget about them. Now I upload them to Flickr. I have no idea where they are physically stored but I access my online photostream far more frequently than I open that cupboard.

Anyone who drives less than 6000 miles per year will almost certainly save money using a car club instead of owning a car. And our cities will be better for it too, because for every car added to a car club fleet, roughly 25 private vehicles are taken off the road. This stuff is not easy though. It requires understanding the emotional side of car ownership as well as the financial.

Swapping products for services doesn’t always mean that physical objects go away. The American interaction designer Mike Kuniavsky coined the term “service avatar”. Something that looks like a product but actually represents a bigger service. Something that generates and affords access to valuable data. Something that evokes memory and meaning far beyond its tangible qualities.

A mobile phone is nothing without a mobile network. A bank card is a useless bit of plastic if it doesn’t make money roll out of the cash machine.

I think we’re going to see more service avatars as it becomes cheaper to make lots of little, single purpose devices with just a little computing and networking power baked in.

The third trend I call the “don’t-look-down user interface”. At Orange I worked for several years trying to get users to move from this – making phone calls – to this – looking at the screen. We were so successful that one local authority trialled padded lampposts because pedestrians no longer look where they’re going.

Then I had the privilege of working with NFC – near-field communications, which turns your phone into a magic wand. You don’t have to look at the screen – just wave or tap the device to make stuff happen.

So instead of making apps that get people more and more engaged in screen-based interaction, I hope you’ll soon be able to create services that work more seamlessly with the real world. We’ll allow people to concentrate on what they’re doing, where they’re going, or the people they’re with. They’ll be able to use the internet together without even having to break eye contact.

Which brings me to my final trend – services that set people free to do their best work.

Web 1.0 – the era of online publishing and e-commerce sites – brought us massive efficiency savings by replacing high-touch human processes with low-touch digital ones.

Web 2.0 – the high water mark of social networks – helped us stay in touch and share more, but at the expense of putting technology between us.

If Web 3.0 really is this so-called Internet of Things, then I think “things” is a misnomer. Because when you put my last three trends together you have something wonderful – digitally connected tools that augment the actions of humans in the moment without needing to replace them.

In this new world, the best user interface might just be the smile on the shop worker’s face. And it will be our job to help her smile more often.

We have the chance to reinvent the way we do everyday things, to make them more productive and enjoyable for everyone. The materials we need are there for the taking, there for the playing.

I’m inspired by everything to be found in this old city, not just the built environment but also the ways of doing things, of getting on with other people and of living together at scale. This has to be some kind of competitive advantage for Leeds, for Yorkshire and the wider region.

A new idea of the North. Manufacturing has long gone; the people of Brazil, Russia, India and China are no slouches at software; soon they will also excel at marketing and design. But our rich legacy of infrastructure and stories gives us a head start to pioneer new people-centred services and civic technology.

When I speak of the “North,” I do not just mean the North of England, but also the wider, “global North”. When its old world certainties are torn away by the raging torrents of change, what new solutions will we here have to offer?

Thank you.

“That even space travel is now a reality”

And now for today’s news from the Department of Serendipity.

Quote Investigator digs diligently, delightfully and with positive results into the provenance of William Gibson’s lumpily doled-out future|present.

But the bit that stands out for me is Ralph Thomas’ 1967 criticism of Marshall McLuhan…

McLuhan suffers also from a mixed-up time sense. He believes the future has already happened. He often says most people can see thru the rearview mirror, but he seems to have the opposite fault. He appears to think total automation is upon us, that the whole world is linked as “global village” by TV, that even space travel is now a reality.

Meanwhile, 45 years and exactly six Moon landings into McLuhan’s future, this from Ed Booty of BBH London…

As we’ve explored and embraced the bewildering possibilities, we’ve increasingly convinced ourselves that a revolution is here. Meanwhile real peoples’ lives and needs simply aren’t changing at the same pace. What is possible is growing at an exponential rate, but how people actually live and use technologies has changed very little.  This gap between the myth and reality is ever-widening.

Mind that gap, people.

The Dissolution of the Factories, or Lines Composed a Few Days After Laptops and Looms

In the corner of an attic room in one of Britain’s oldest factories a small group are engaged in the assembly of a Makerbot Thing-O-Matic. They – it – all of us – are there for Laptops and Looms, a gathering of people whose crafts cross the warp of the digital networked world with the weft of making and holding real stuff.

It’s a privilege to be here. Projects are shown, stories shared, frustrations vented. This is the place to be if you’ve ever wondered how to:

  • get funding for projects not considered “digital enough”
  • break out from the category of hand-craft without entering the globalised game of mass-scale manufacture
  • create a connected object that will still be beautiful when the Internet is switched off
  • avoid queuing at the Post Office
  • make a local car.

The inspired move of holding Laptops and Looms in a world heritage site dares us to draw parallels with the makers, hackers and inventors of the past. We are at once nostalgic for the noble, human-scale labour of the weaver’s cottage and awestruck by the all-consuming manufactories that supplanted it.

The nearby city of Derby has just hit the reset button on its Silk Mill industrial museum, mothballed for two years while they work out what to do with it. Rolls Royce aero engines rub shoulders with Midlands railway memorabilia on the site of a silk mill with a claim to be the world’s first factory.

Like Derby itself, the museum needs to find a way to build upon these layers of history, or be crushed by the weight of them. Water wheels, millstones, silk frames, steam locomotives, jet engines  – they all go round in circles.

Skimming stones on the river at Matlock Baths, someone mentions how the beautiful Derwent Valley reminds him of Tintern Abbey. And I realise that to understand where we are now, 30 years on from the last great Tory recession, we need to twist the dial back another whole turn, to the age of the English monasteries.

Abbeys such as Fountains, Rievaulx and Kirkstall began humbly enough, as offshoots of the French Cistercian movement. Their needs were simple: tranquility, running water and some land for agriculture. But over time they grew, soaring higher, sucking in labour, expanding their estates, diversifying their industries and dominating their localities. Imagine the noise, imagine the power! Until a greedy monarch who would brook no opposition made a grab for their riches and sent the monks packing.

England’s monasteries were washed away in a freshwater confluence of printing presses and Protestant ideology. The clergy who had used the Latin tongue to obscure the word of God were cut down to size, disintermediated by the Bible in English. They still had a role, but no longer a monopoly on the invention of new meanings.

In the shadow of the Gothic ruins, sometimes literally from their rubble, arose smaller vernacular working class dwellings, cottage industries. Among the cottage-dwellers’ most prized possessions was the family Bible, not as grand and illuminated as the monks’ Latin one, but there, accessible to anyone who could read.

To our modern eyes, there was much wrong with the cottage industries: patriarchal, piecework-driven and still at the mercy of merchants higher up the pyramid. But economically this seems closest to the model to which some laptops-and-loomers aspire, (dread phrase) a “lifestyle business” bigger than a hobby but smaller than a factory.

It was 200 years before Britain’s gorges would see the rise of new monsters: water wheels and spinning frames and looms and five storey factories. Something in the cottage industries had got out of kilter. With the invention of the flying shuttle, home-spinning could no longer feed the weaver’s demand for thread. The forces of industrialisation seemed unstoppable, pressed home by a new ideology, Adam Smith’s invisible hand and the productivity gains from de-humanising division of labour. The pattern was repeated elsewhere in Europe with local variations: Revolutionary France threw out its monks and turned the Abbey of Fontenay directly into a paper-mill.

By then the ruined abbeys had lost their admonishing power; some became romantic ornaments in the faux-wild gardens of the aristocracy. Gothic became the go-to architectural style of the sentimental idealist. I’m still a sucker for it today.

There were warnings, of course. Just six years after William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”  we got William Blake’s “And did those feet in ancient time”. But still the dark Satanic mills grew. They outgrew the valleys and by means of canals and steam engines dispensed with the need for water power. They swept aside the Arts and Crafts objections of Ruskin and Morris, who fought in vain to revive a labour theory of value.

Until one day some time in the second half of the 20th Century, the tide turned. And here we are today picking our way through the rockpools of the anthropocene for glinting sea-glass, smooth abraded shards of blue pottery and rounded red brick stones. Look closely in those rockpools – the railway arches, hidden yards and edge-of-town industrial parks – and you’ll see that Britain is still teeming with productive life, but on a smaller scale, more niche than before. No longer the workshop of the world.

What comes after the dissolution of Britain’s factories?

That 3d printer in the corner could hold some answers. Despite its current immaturity, 3d printing seems an emblematic technology – perhaps as powerful as the vernacular Bible. It may never be the cheapest way to make stuff, nor turn out the finest work. But it speaks powerfully of the democratisation of making, now within reach of anyone who can use a graphics programme or write a little code. Factories still have a role, but no longer a monopoly on the invention of meanings.

These things move slowly. A straw poll in the pub reveals that many of us already come from the second generation of geeks in our families. Some of us are raising the third. A child who grows up with a laptop and a 3d printer knows she can make a future spinning software, hardware, and the services that bind the two.

This time around the abbeys and the factories should stand equally as inspirations and warnings.

Their makers’ inventiveness and determination have left us a rich seam of narrative capital. And for all the current Western angst over the rise of Chinese manufacturing, the Victorians were nothing if not outward-looking. Leeds’ engineers willingly gave a leg-up to Germany’s Krupp Brothers and motorcycle pioneer Gottleib Daimler.

Yet the overbearing influence and precipitous declines of monasteries and mills should make us wary of future aggrandisements. Want to know how that last bit pans out? Please check back on this blog in August 2211.

Thanks to Russell, Toby, Greg and everyone else who made Laptops and Looms happen. And thanks to you, dear reader, for making it to the end of this ramble. As a reward, check out Paul Miller’s proper take-out from Laptops and Looms. He has a numbered list and everything.

The past is a platform from which we launch into the future*


In my dayjob, mobile media, we spend a lot of time talking about platforms. Curiously we like to think of these platforms as eternally new and shiny. “Legacy” is is not a windfall from the preceding generation. It’s a perjorative term. Sometimes we even set our old platforms on fire, which is strange, because, as a historian, the biggest platform of all is the past.

I wanted to use some of my time at Foo Camp to test out a long hunch about the past as a platform: that every one of us comes from somewhere with a past which shapes the innovation that’s possible in its future. It was harder than I thought.

Yes, we captured some great examples of the grand and generous legacies of industrialists who shaped European and North American educational institutions – tour any great campus and you cannot help but wonder at the wealth of history beneath your feet.

Then there were the unintentional cast-offs – the recycling of cheap spaces in marginal locations that bear out Jane Jacobs’ aphorism, “New ideas must use old buildings.” We have no shortage of either in West Yorkshire.

But what struck me most, on asking this question in Northern California, was how many seemed to see history as ballast to be jettisoned, rather than raw material to build foundations. The dominant old world image was of modern-day Rome, littered with the doom-laden ruins of an ancient empire.

In Singapore, so I learned, they erase the historic built environment  but keep the gardens.

At Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, passion for what the place once was impedes the search for a viable future even though the hockey teams have long since upped sticks and gone. New media could help – someone suggested –  by decanting cherished memories from their bricks and mortar body into a digital casket, freeing the building itself to be demolished without guilt.

Technology certainly seems to facilitate such outcomes. From my flip chart notes:

  • Open Plaques
  • History pin
  • Tying archive material to place
  • Geolocated, contextually relevant stories
  • Discovery – phone as augmenting where you are
  • History layer through all location based services
  • Curated paths through a neighbourhood vs random voices passing through

We are, as Ben Cerveny so beautifully put it in another session, busy building a data-based model of the world which we may soon choose to inhabit in preference to the real one. Why should the past be exempt from this dissociative space-hopping?

And there’s a loaded phrase at the back of my head as we shovel our past into the big data sausage machine.

“Since records began.”

I love stuff like the Old Weather project in which citizen scientists transcribe World War I naval data to help improve predictive models of our future climate. I love that Iceland’s genealogy data goes back to the 9th Century, enabling the charting of long-range genetic trajectories.

But I worry that “big data” by definition privileges quantitative insight over the qualititative. So many value judgements are embedded in what we choose to measure and to encode. Before long you have exactly five exabytes and all kinds of other Eskimo snow vocabulary tropes.

People in California told me that they came “from the future”; that their parents moved west in a spirit of optimism where anything was possible. America still thinks of itself as a young country, yet there are roads in upstate New York following paths that people have trod for more than 1500 years.

Maybe this is an inevitable blind spot in an entrepreneurial culture. As Will Davies wrote of Britain’s Big Society cheerleaders:

“Entrepreneurs, by definition, find it plausible that things can be built out of nothing.”

But I reckon Britain’s planners have it right (admittedly in a PDF, sorry):

HE12.1 A documentary record of our past is not as valuable as retaining the heritage asset, and therefore the ability to record evidence of our past should not be a factor in deciding whether a proposal that would result in a heritage asset’s destruction should be given consent.

When I bemoan the loss of whole swathes of a city’s historic fabric it’s not because it was more picturesque than what comes after: the past can sometimes be ugly. Rather, those old buildings represent a resource from which to tell stories, a platform of accumulated pride and achievement which makes the future less daunting.

Communities robbed of their stories have to reach further, and are readier prey to false, easy narratives: the past can sometimes be inconvenient. Entrpreneurs may appear to benefit, at least in the short term, from the proprietorial control these fairy stories give them, but they’ll soon find out that all that extra lifting and stretching outweighs the work of accommodation to unexpected truths. These are the grains of sand around which pearls will form.

Conversely, looking at Michael Brohm‘s wonderful photos of Leeds, I see a city remarkably rich in history which its people can use and reuse in unexpected ways. It’s the opposite of “Londonostalgia“, a rose-tinted version of a city’s past to boost a conservative agenda that ossifies inequality. Rather it’s a dynamic use of the old as springboard for the new.

The past is the platform from which we leap to the future.*


* Ironically, I have been unable to find the source of this phrase. All suggestions gratefully received.