Some things I wrote down today

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

Stella Duffy at The Story

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

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


How’s it going to end?

For the past four years a story has accreted on this blog. It’s a meta-narrative, a story about stories.

Looking back, I believe the arc began with the partial collapse of Leeds’ Temple Works. That’s what led me to encounter the people who made this city, and then to talk about them in pixels, in print and in person.

Along the way, I have questioned what it means to tell a story in the place where it happened. I have celebrated the often overlooked asset of narrative capital, the capacity of a population to imagine and make a future out of the stories they inherit from the past.

And for a while now I’ve felt as if this arc is drawing to a conclusion, only I don’t know how it ends.

It’s something about England’s North. Not the North of cliches, of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and flat caps and “Good Honest Broadband from Yorkshire”, but rather the future of the North. Not the future of economic development and high speed rail and devolution of power, though all of those things make a difference. It is something about a new idea of the North, a social and cultural and technological way of being that grows out of all that has happened here thus far.

As evidenced by the paragraph above, I am rather better at saying what it isn’t than what it is, so in a bid to hasten the moment of closure, I have taken two steps.

First, I have begun to collate my talks and blog posts into the structure of book, which I plan to release under the same Creative Commons license as this blog. It will be a tentative, provisional book, one with version control and footnotes, but I feel this will help me to get the ideas in my head out of alpha and into some shape where others can engage more easily with the emergent arc.

Second, with Imran Ali and Andrew Wilson, I started to collect examples of what the New Idea of the North might look like. We made a Tumblr and started to throw in stuff that seemed relevant. We’ve had a couple of sessions where we tried to wring meaning out of all the stuff we’ve collected. I think it’s helping but we’re still not there.

The New Idea of the North

So please take a look at the Tumblr, tell us what you see. I can’t wait to find out where it leads us.

Down with Façadism: a provocation for Culture Hack North

I was honoured to be asked to do a short talk on the opening afternoon of the brilliant Culture Hack North event in Leeds this weekend.

For one thing, it was a chance to appear alongside Rachel Coldicutt‘s dream team of Rohan Gunatillake, Natasha Carolan, Lucy Bannister, Helen Harrop, Frankie Roberto and Greg Povey.

Also, I got to try out a half-baked thought about an unexpected way in which situated stories could lead to long-term, physical changes in our cities, even better, to do so with some people whose Culture Hack projects could be pivotal to bringing that change about.

I made a Prezi to go with the talk, but for those who can’t abide all the whizzing and swooping here it is in static words and pictures. I’d love to know what you think.

What if the interior lives of buildings were as exposed as their exteriors?

I ask because I think we’re heading for a profound change in the way we experience our built heritage.

We’ll start by considering a heritage concept that got a bad name in the latter part of the last century. There was a trend for ripping out the hearts of old buildings but leaving the shells intact. Critics called this trend “façadism” – the privileging of the exterior or front to the detriment of the building’s deeper character.

“Façadism (or Façadomy) is the practice of demolishing a building but leaving its facade intact for the purposes of building new structures in it or around it.” – Wikipedia

Here’s a particularly egregious example from Estonia:

Victorian architects and builders sowed the seeds of this practice themselves in the way they put their emphasis on the public face of a structure, while skimping on the unseen parts. Here’s Temple Works in Holbeck, Leeds. In front, it’s a grand millstone grit temple; round the back, nicely detailed but workaday redbrick…


That tension remains today. The building’s blue plaque focuses on the spectacular facade, the industrialist and architect who erected it…

But if you listen to local people, the complex is important to them as something else, the unglamorous Northern Distribution Depot of Kay’s Catalogues, the of its day. This sign is from Slung Low’s Original Bearings project which sought to capture some of those real Holbeck stories and expose them on the street…

This is the inside of Kay’s as we found it a couple of years ago, a pre-digital data centre abandoned by its previous occupants…

And still the same site: fittingly, Reality was the name of the last company to occupy the complex…

But now it’s possible to see inside buildings through time and space. The pun is too good to miss…

All this would be academic if it wasn’t for the fact that planning law is shifting, away from purely national, architectural significance, towards a system that gives weight to local people’s views of what’s important in their environment.

The Draft National Planning Policy Framework talks (page 55) about “heritage assets” which should be…

“identified by the local planning authority during the process of decision-making or through the plan-making process (including local listing).”

According to English Heritage, local listing is …

“… a means for a local community and a local authority to jointly decide what it is in their area that they would like recognised as a ‘local heritage asset’ and therefore worthy of some degree of protection in the planning system.” – Good Practice Guide for Local Listing

And while the Tory-led government seems to use localism as cover for an attack on communities’ rights to resist inappropriate developments, the National Trust is leading the fightback by positioning heritage in terms of dialogue between people and places:

“I believe that the planning system should balance future prosperity with the needs of people and places – therefore I support the National Trust’s calls on the Government to stop and rethink its planning reforms.” – National Trust Planning for People petition

The upshot of this focus on local significance is that the images and stories of use that we expose through geo-location and augmented reality could influence which buildings are preserved and reused and which are demolished. Historic buildings won’t just stand or fall on architectural merit, but also on local residents’ attachments to them.

Those attachments tend to arise from the activities carried on inside buildings as much as what they look like on the exterior. I visited the old Majestyk nightclub on City Square a year ago because it was on Leeds Civic Trust’s Heritage at Risk list…

And I found this – a spontaneous display of affection for a derelict building…

And while it’s a striking building in a prominent location, I don’t think whoever wrote that loved it for its architectural merit. They were remembering the good times they had at Majestyk’s – the laughs, the drinks, the music, the snogs.

And then there’s this unassuming late 90s box, called the White House, on Melbourne Street…

It has its own Facebook page! Or rather the people who worked here do…

In this building they launched Freeserve, the UK’s first free ISP which got millions of Britons on the net for the first time. If anywhere deserves local listing for its historic significance surely this does.

But I think the real potential is for places like the Leeds district of Chapeltown. (I owe a debt for many of the ideas in this post to my wife Caroline Newton who has just completed her MSc in Historic Building Conservation, studying the development of the Chapeltown Conservation Area. Ask her about it if you get the chance.)

Currently buildings get protection for their contribution to the Edwardian streetscape. But the really interesting stories are ones like this launderette, which was started as a cooperative in response to the needs of the immigrant community in an area that many had written off as a slum…

Such narrative capital is fragile and often completely disregarded in the name of regeneration. If stories like the laundry coop’s were better known, they might count for something in decision-making about the district.

Finally, this is the Mandela Centre, also on Chapeltown Road…

I stopped to take this picture because I loved the big sign commemorating Nelson Mandela’s visit to Leeds in which his drove through this area. But then I noticed the cups in the window. I have no idea what they’re for, but they speak volumes about the activities that go on in a community centre and the pride of the groups that meet there.

What if those stories were as obvious as the sign on the wall? The great thing is that, for the first time, they could be.

Maybe in the future buildings will no longer need to shout for attention with elaborate archiecture. In fact, to do so will be useless as nobody will see their peacock finery through the data smog. Instead, places will be recognised for the richness of their inner lives, meaning we preserve a fuller, messier cross-section of structures for their historic significance.

Just as in quantum theory, the act of observing changes the outcome. Facadism is dead; the future is all about interiors.

A fanboy with a strange device

So my two best things ever of the past fortnight are Punchdrunk’s Doctor Who adventure the Crash of the Elysium and SVK, a comic from Warren Ellis, Matt “D’Israeli” Brooker and BERG.

The former is a live performance for six to 12-year-olds, so if you’re a grown-up you may have to borrow a child to see it. The latter is an adult comic, so if you’re a child you’ll just have to grow up; it’s worth the wait, honest.

But the reason for this rather vague, dancing-around-the-plotlines-to-avoid-spoilers post is to mention one thing they both do really well: integrating a new device with conviction and coherence.

In SVK’s case it really is a device, an ultra-violet light source that reveals extra features of the story when beamed at the pages. It could so easily have tipped into gimmickry, but in Warren Ellis’ hands SVK becomes integral to the plot. It’s intricately woven into the world of the hero, Thomas Woodwind. The device shines a light on some characters’ innermost thoughts, but, even as the story unfolds, the intentions of some others remain a closed book. This is a necessary and consistent feature of the technology as imagined.

What Punchdrunk do on a vacant building plot next to the new BBC building in Salford is something else. There the novel device is the integration of the audience into the story. I won’t tell you how, but the children really do save the day. The genius of it is that only the audience, only the children, can save the Doctor – because of their knowledge of the Doctor Who universe. The audience are elevated because they arrive with special information not available to the story’s other protagonists. That, to an eight-year-old, is incredibly exciting and empowering.

The common thread: masterful restraint in the way the new device is integrated. I think there’s a lesson here for a lot of transmedia, augmented reality, and other buzzword-based story-telling forms: it’s not what you do with the technology, it’s what you leave to the imagination.

History and the copy machine: the economist’s price of everything

The Economist (and it could only be the Economist) blog makes an astonishing attempt at quantification with the following chart, titled “When history was made”:

The underlying equation is this:

SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one.

Up to a point, Lord Copper, but the clue is buried in the word, “history”. History is stories, and stories have value.

Yes, history is made by, and of, people. Those “grand deeds of great men” mask for the most part an appropriation of the untold stories of other women and men who made such heroism possible. And yes, our planet’s soaring human population for all its potential harm, holds out the theoretical possibility of exponentially greater numbers of stories, depositing layers upon layers. Narrative capital is a natural resource that never runs out.

But here’s where I part company with the (small e and big E) economist’s approximation. The chart above assumes that units of history – like gold, coal or currency – are fungible. That’s to say one of a kind can be replaced easily by another. My contention is that stories are not fungible: each has value in its uniqueness.

Further, some of the very mechanisms currently sustaining population and economic growth actively militate against the production of new stories.

The 20th Century was the era of mass production – of any colour as long as it’s black. By its end it became the age of globalisation – of Coca-Cola and golden arches in every city on every continent. You can have everything you want at ever-cheaper prices – so long as what you want is the stuff that the invisible hand deems to produce. The gains have been spectacular. Without this Fordist approach to the production of food, medicines and other essentials the population bars on the chart would likely be back down at the level of all preceding centuries.

And as we entered the 21st Century we did so with the internet, the most insanely efficient copy machine the world has ever seen. We can take any text, picture, song or movie and, in seconds, copy – not transmit but copy – it from one side of the world to another. This too is a cause for celebration. We are better informed, better connected and better documented than ever before.

But all these extra people, their extra stuff, their bits and bytes, do not in themselves constitute new history. Innate human potential to write new stories needs to be nurtured, and in many respects our ancestors had it easier. Each handmade tunic encoded stories, more than a thousand Primark t-shirts. Their oral traditions could be mashed up more readily than a million-hit video on Youtube.

If we’re to realise the true historic potential of our time it will not be through mass consumption but mass creativity, turning everyone into a maker of things. And it’s up to us to make an internet where all are free to follow their own curiosities, not the predetermined paths of mass media. Only then will we reap the historic rewards held out by this hockey-stick growth curve.

“You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.” – John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice

“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.