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.

“The bit where the screen went black and you said ‘look up'”: on the irresistible pull of a story in the place where it happened

This is my youngest son, Pascal, when he was two years old. He’s looking sheepish because he’s just picked an apple. It’s an apple from the orchard at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, the orchard where Isaac Newton first conceived of gravity.

We were drawn to this beautiful, remote farmhouse for a tea break on a long journey, and ended up learning some science. A master storyteller can make the laws of gravity come alive anywhere, even in a lift, but to experience them at Woolsthorpe adds an extra weight. The National Trust which now owns the house has turned a barn into a small discovery centre where you too can see the forces of nature anew, right where Newton did more than 300 years ago.

In his famous Proposition 75 Theorem 35, Newton wrote:

“If to the several points of a given sphere there tend equal centripetal forces decreasing in a duplicate ratio of the distances from the points; I say, that another similar sphere will be attracted by it with a force reciprocally proportional to the square of the distance of the centres.”

That “reciprocally proportional square of the distance” bit means the attraction gets stronger, much stronger, as things get closer together.

So it is with stories.

Sheffield and Leeds are 34 miles apart. When I told the story of Leeds steam engine pioneer Matthew Murray in the Cutlers’ Hall, Sheffield, the Interesting North audience gave me polite applause. (Granted, it was 10:30am on a Saturday when many had got up early to be there.) When I told the same story in Temple Works, Leeds, just across the road from the site of Murray’s Round Foundry the audience gave much more. I could have raised a mob there and then to tear down James Watt’s statue in City Square.

  • A story in the same county is quite interesting.
  • A story in the same city is more compelling.
  • A story in the place where it happened is extra powerful.

It’s more than just playing to a home crowd. Actually being there increases exponentially the return on just a small leap of imagination. We can picture the protagonists standing beside us, under the same sun, breathing the same air. It’s why the microcontent of blue plaques is so powerful.

It’s why it was so much fun to talk last week about the Corn Exchange in the Corn Exchange. Several people have remarked on the same moment in the talk, something that brought this thing home to me.

Bettakultcha follows a lightning talk format of 20 slides in five minutes. When I reached the part about the amazing domed roof, there seemed little point showing people a Powerpoint slide of the inside of the Corn Exchange in the Corn Exchange. Cuthbert Brodrick’s masterpiece speaks for itself. So I blanked the screen and asked people to look up.

They looked up at the Spartan, modern-before-its-time structure above our heads. It turns out this was the point of maximum attraction, the moment people were as one with place, the point most remarked on in my conversations ever since.

Similar connections to place cropped up in some other Bettakultcha talks too:

All of which must not be taken to mean that local stories are static, parochial stories. As I argued at TEDxLeeds and hinted in my Corn Exchange talk, our city owes its dynamism to outsiders and their connections with other great cities around the world. Without Egypt, we would have no Temple Works; without France, no Louis Le Prince.

These unexpected links with other places, these wormholes, only open up when we open our imaginations to the things that happened in the past, in the places where we now find ourselves.

An oft-remarked characteristic of the internet is that it erases distance and difference, that it allows a script kiddy in Kazakhstan to cripple a business in California. In this account it seems local differences will be erased by the swelling ranks of the Republic of Facebook.

But this emerging medium must surely also power a resurgence in situated storytelling. The location-aware dimension of the mobile internet is uniquely well placed to bring stories to people where they need to know them most. The hyperlinked web dimension makes it possible to leap through wormholes from one situated story to its entangled quantum twin.

I wonder where they will take us next?

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.

And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet

The depths of winter, two weeks off to take stock of where we are and where we’re going, a chance to catch up with family and friends. We travelled through blizzards, cooked and ate good food, lit fires, drank wine, fiddled with MP3 play-lists, time-shifted TV, and made one (thankfully minor) visit to Accident and Emergency. We – friends, family, all – talked about our lives in early Twenteenage Britain: public sector insecurity, the choice of good schools, distant relatives, our new phones and other devices. The confection that follows is made from the left-overs.

Our current preoccupations seem to boil down to two resources, both of which are unequally distributed within families, communities, our nation and world at large. To understand these resources is to see where opportunities and conflicts lie, to look for unlikely allies and unexpected lines of agreement.

The first of the two resources is disposable time – the uncommitted minutes and hours in which we make our own choices.

The clichéd “cash rich, time poor” professional classes are not alone in their want of this resource. The pressure on the “squeezed middle” is as much a temporal crunch as a financial one. As Ed Miliband said: “If you are holding down two jobs, working fourteen hour days, worrying about childcare, anxious about elderly relatives, how can you find the time for anything else? … Until we address the conditions that mean that people’s lives are dominated by long hours, then the big society will always remain a fiction.”

Time wealth ebbs and flows as we move through life-stages, and is at least partially subjective – there are huge variations in people’s estimations of their own and others’ busy-ness. But, whether acknowledged or not, the debate over fairness and equality – over social security, pensions and the division of unpaid labour within families – must be as much about time and energy as it is about money.

The second resource, sometimes a skill, but as often a learned attitude, is tech mastery, a belief that computers, the internet and mobile phones exist to help us achieve our goals, not to enslave or bewilder us.

Tech mastery is the toolkit to take control in the modern world, to “program or be programmed.” Good technology products and services increase the mastery of their users; poor ones sap it. That tech mastery tends to rise and fall with age, and to be more concentrated among men than women, says more about the biases of tech implementation than about the innate abilities or preferences of those demographic groups.

I believe 2011 will be a year when people get angry about bad usability and the failure of the new media to meet the needs of all but a narrow section of society. As the web becomes more mobile and more, genuinely, worldwide, it has to do better at empowering all its users, young and old, rich and poor, not all of whom have the latest device designed in California.

The interactions between disposable time and tech mastery reveal (via sweeping generalisations, I know) some interesting gulfs in understanding to be overcome…

When free tech culture meets the law it’s more than a matter of understanding the “what.” There’s also the “why”.

One person’s innocent checking of their mobile phone is another’s gross intrusion into quality time.

We also find some opportunities…

What services could bridge the gaps between the generations and social groups by drawing on what they have in common?

How could two groups of people make the most of their complementary resources?

To square this circle, we need to pay attention to the different characteristics demanded at each point, and find ways to spread the wealth more equally. Something like…

Right now, at the start of 2011, I have many more questions than answers about disposable time and tech mastery inequalities. But I reckon we’ll see a lot more of these themes before the year is out.

A tale of attention and abundance: Why service design matters on the new mobile web

Over the last few days I’ve had a chance to reflect on the relationship between the mobile web and service design. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the two are tied together, in a way that was not the case with either the PC-based web or pre-internet mobile services.

Why? Well it goes like this…

In the beginning, was the Screen, and the Screen was a Television, and we gathered round the Television and gave it our undivided attention. And there were not many channels, so producers devoted their time and money to making good programmes in which we grateful viewers were immersed.

Then came the Web, and unlike the TV, it offered near limitless choice of sites and services. So the producers of Inter-Net Web Sites had to worry about stuff like findability, and usability, and (yuck) “stickiness”. They had competition, and we were easily bored, so they strove to give us novelty in content and agility in development. They invented SEO and pay-per-click and the Million Dollar Homepage.

Yet still all the striving happened within the bounds of the Screen. By and large the world outside the browser window was of little concern to the web designers.

Meanwhile, there were Telephones, and unlike TV and the PC-web, they existed in a world of divided attention. We made short calls in busy places, and sent hurried text messages in the gaps between other important stuff in our lives. The context of use was filled with constant distractions. As I’ve advocated here before, try using your service in broad daylight on a busy street corner, preferably in a slightly dodgy area of town, and you’ll see what I mean.

The life of a mobile service provider was a hard one, focused on finding the right customer needs and meeting them with usable solutions. Technology was fragmented and its vagaries absorbed much time and effort, but at least this meant that the few who conquered the technology could enjoy substantial rewards. The world outside the Screen was complex and confused but, compared to the wild, wild web, services were scarce and contention for “real estate” was limited.

Now, joyfully and at long last, those technical barriers to entry in mobile are melting away. Anyone can make content or services, offer them to consumers anywhere in the world, and monetise them through payments and advertising. We can experience those services on bright, light, sleek, enjoyable devices.

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The smallest book

It was a delight to welcome the writer Steven Johnson to Leeds last week and to hear first person some of the themes in his book, the Invention of Air. We were, I think, doubly fortunate to hear Steven just a day after his appearance alongside Brian Eno at the ICA. It’s worth listening to the audio from the event, right to the questions at the end, where the pair responded to Matt Jones’ challenge: how would you write a minimum book?

It chimed with some stuff I’ve been wondering about lately, such as how the emergence of the web on devices smaller than a paperback could change the medium of the book itself. It certainly seems as if the publishing industry could be about to go through the kind of transformation that has beset the music business in the past decade.

And just as some of the greatest beneficiaries of the music revolution were the unsigned “long tail” artists, so I think the place to look first might be in the world of self-published, small books, pamphlets, chapbooks, and the like. These seem in a way to be more suited to the new mobile media than the big set-piece hardbacks like Johnson’s inestimable canon.

Small books

Ivor Cutler’s unique works apart, the foremost examples of the art must be the 16-page pocket books published by the late JL Carr under the Quince Tree Press imprint.

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