Meta-bricolage – an inventory of enduring obsessions

I have recently had the honour of being asked to present to two different teams, but with the same brief: talk about anything. This is both flattering and terrifying for I count myself among the category that Edd Dumbill once dubbed the “self-critical generalist“.

So if I can talk about anything, then the temptation is to talk about everything, and if I talk about everything then I feel duty-bound to put some kind of frame around it, to explain how all this stuff is somehow connected. There follows an account of the interests and obsessions that recur in my work and recreational blogging. There will be links.

It starts with the situation in which we find ourselves. Wired UK’s Contributor’s Guidelines defiantly state that “Wired is NOT a magazine about computers or the internet — which is now the water in which we all swim.” I beg to differ. If one self-identifies as a fish, surely water is of all consuming interest? Wetter water, slimier slime, I say!

And so at the risk of banality, as someone born in the Second Year of the ARPANET, I find myself documenting my visceral reaction to the flood and to the way my tribe, raised on the sea shore, has taken to its depths.

In doing so I try to avoid the trap of perceiving this stuff as “technology,” a neutral scientific construct that runs parallel to human culture. The artist’s studio and the R&D lab may be separate trains but they run on the same tracks to a common timetable, if not always fully coupled then with a frequent chance of bumping up against each other. Hence the appeal of Bruno Latour’s ethnography which treats human and non-human actors alike and seeks to identify the political networks that connect them.

My Ignite talk, A Message from Your Mobile, pushed this conceit to absurdity. What if the smartphones really were a new species? What would they say to us?

Endowing gadgets with agency is one tiny way to shift the narrative about human progress and change. Instead of being something that happens to people, connected things become service avatars with which individuals can have a dialogue and fill with their own meanings and values. This is the single most important takeaway I hope people get from my Pace of Change tirade:

“The idea of free-wheeling change disempowers individuals. It puts them at the mercy of forces they cannot control or even understand. It sends them the message that their past experiences count for nothing. It squeezes out critical thinking and softens them up for the change proponent’s chosen flavour of inevitability.”

Collectively, we have the potential to reinvent the way we do everyday things to make life more productive and rewarding for everyone. But to do so means giving up the tools of change so that all the world’s people can shape things for themselves. I want my children to feel they can boss the computer around:

“They should not feel like GUI tourists gesturing towards the goods in a shop where they don’t speak the language.”

We should worry less about external forces of change and spend more energy cultivating the internal quality of changefulness – one of John Ruskin’s six qualities of Gothic. Let’s deliver generosity of service and imagination in design. Here’s me musing about what a Gothic mobile service might be like, in opposition to the classical strictures of the icon grid.

I hope to have brought these sensibilities to my work for Orange with Near Field Communication (NFC). NFC is a new actor on the scene that turns the mobile device into a magic wand through which an endless array of online services can interact with the world in a very physical way. Don’t look at the screen – just tap. Watch what is being exchanged at the moment of the tap. Follow the flow of attention from hand to phone to barista to coffee. (Coffee, why is it always coffee?)

Two species are in play – humans and phones. The defining characteristic of both is mobility. Homo sapiens have colonised every continent, adapting to hostile environments on the way. Meanwhile smartphones have jailbroken computing power out of the lab, the office, the school and the home to come with us everywhere we go. Contexts are all-important, which is why Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim’s walkshop concept was so appealing. We made a walkshop in Leeds and this is what I learned.

If physical infrastructure and networks are the flesh and blood of a place, stories are its memory and soul. Hence my history things, The History of Leeds (What Every Geek Should Know), 1794 and Good Engines. I want to reconnect today’s technologists with their forerunners in the Industrial Revolution – people who had the ambition to compare their Northern English town with the city states of the Italian Renaissance.

In Down with Facadism, my talk at Culture Hack North, I wondered what if all these stories were made more visible, as likely they will be, by services such as the wonderful (still in private beta) Pinwheel. How would that slowly alter the physical fabric of the city?

So many stories, so much potential, how to make them into more useful and meaningful for more people? The time is right for user-centred service design. Kathryn, Tero and I started running Service Design Thinks and Drinks in Leeds a couple of years ago, and have been amazed at the response.

Simon Wardley draws a business lifecycle from innovation to custom built to productisation, and finally to commoditisation. From his chart I draw two conclusions that are highly revelant to me:

  1. Lots of the stuff with which I have been privileged to play over the last decade and a half is approaching, or has already reached, the point of commoditisation.
  2. In the transition from product to commodity, services are born.

Together those two conclusions point to a Cambrian explosion of useful and engaging new services and business models.

New actors + the quality of changefulness = service innovation.

Some of my other favourites from this blog

“Think of 1950s catalogue shopping as the e-commerce of its day, and Kay’s as” – Temple Works 3.0 Alpha

“Information flowed in only one direction – away from them – leaving them to revel in their own self-importance.” – Erm, excuse me, but I think Everybody was here all along

“Now I offer it wreathed round with hyperlinks, in my own grossly ahistorical London-As-Tokyo-style attempt to make the words of an 18th Century cudgel-proof-hat-wearer fit the world in which we now live.” – One song to the tune of another: the 18th Century prophet of social media revealed

“Just listen to the sound of the roller transferring ink to the block – gorgeous” – Old / new media mash-up – first impressions

“6. got told off by a monk” – 20 things we did on our trip to Japan

“I expect to require this service for approximately five cubic metres of Lego some time in or after April 2019.” – Forward planning

“Somewhere in the world, sometime soon (if not already) a Dopplr baby will be born” – Dementia and Dopplr – how designing for extreme users benefits us all

“And I’d have ended in an overblown flourish and a bold font: beneath the pixels, the silicon!” – Sous les pavés la plage

Everything since 2001, on and off


Some timeless ramblings from my happy childhood…

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