Playable Cities videos

I wasn’t able to get to the Playable Cities conference (for the second year running – next year, I must try harder), but handily they put a number of the sessions online at

They are quite quiet for my deaf old ears, I needed to turn them up to full both in the player and on my computer to get them above a whisper. Though they are all of interest, I’ve embedded linked to (the embedding doesn’t work) a couple of my favorites here. Holly Gramazio offers us a history of public play:

Tom Armitage plays with his cities:

Sam Hill uses SMS for his game, to make it as accessible as possible. (Its good to here the same thought we’d had  on making SMS part of our sadly unfunded Eastleigh project). Great stuff with user generated content too:

And finally Simon Johnson talks pervasive games, including Zombie Chase:



(dis-)Connected Life?

Last week I attended Connected Life, a one day conference at Balliol College Oxford, the home of the Oxford Internet Institute.

There’s an extensive photo gallery of the event here, and I’m sure it will be joined by more content as time progresses.

One thing we’re promised is the transcript of Dr Nick Anstead’s keynote, which was a compelling challenge to the idea of Connectedness, asking whether we in fact find ourselves in an age of disconnect. Acknowledging that the recent success of “more right wing” parties across Europe isn’t necessarily about the rise of right wing voters, but more about disenfranchised voters across the political spectrum he didn’t paint an optimistic picture. The political class seek to be more nimble and responsive by leveraging “big data”, but won’t that make them appear more managerial? Will the connection between government and the the needs of the population be apparent? Do the disenfranchised contribute less data to the the Big Data, and so are we in danger of “data apartheid”? All of this resonated with my thoughts on the Playful Aristocracy and the trolling Leviathan last year.  He tried to end on a more optimistic note, but I share his fear that it may push politics and citizenship even further apart.

Then we split into smaller groups and I enjoyed  a session on Culture and Identity, which kicked off with Stephanie Duguay talking about how the dating app Tinder insists on using your Facebook profile to populate your tinder profile, as though Facebook is the most “authentic” on-line version of you. And for dating of course this policy is interesting, given Facebook’s recent move to 50-odd gender and sexuality descriptions, which Tinder currently parses into more binary “Male or Female interested in Males or Females” type classifications.

The Taiwanese student Chen-Ta Sung asked “Why do Asians take photos of food?” discussing geotagged selfies from restaurants, and Leo Mercer explored the internet at poetry, capturing my agreement when he said that a “a poem is a meme machine.” It sent me off looking for twitter poetry.

My own contribution was to kick off an “Un-conference” session on Virtual Economies and Virtual Selves,  by sharing the disappointing results of my geo-gaming survey.

The round-table discussion that followed touched upon (among many other things as you can see from the above tweet) location as an expression of self, which I though was a great concept that reflected what Chen-Ta Sung had presented and deserves further exploration.

Then a second Un-conference session looked at the Rise (and possible Fall) of MOOCs, during which I had a little epiphany (which may be more obvious to others) about how universities (and everyone in them) can sometimes forget that they are all about the network (in the old fashioned sense) and not about the buildings.

Even though Balliol does have some very nice buildings…


International, interdisciplinary and “on the move”

Today, I’ve been at Southampton University’s interdisciplinary week, for a session on the World University Network, of which, Southampton is a part. WUN sponsors my trip last year to the the US to attend and speak at the the Decoding the Digital Conference at University of Rochester.

After a brief introduction to the session from my supervisor Graham Earl, and another one to the WUN from Elanora Gandolfini, Professor Leslie Carr, of the University’s Web Science Institute, kicked off by trying to claim that universities are old and more sustainable than the countries in which they are based. (I’m not going to agree or disagree.) He does make a compelling case however that there were attempts to make things like the World Wide Web before this academic and open initiative actually succeeded and was given free to the world.

He contrasts this with the rise of for profit academic publishing since the war, and recognizes the tension between the two methods of distribution and sharing of knowledge. But he concludes that universities are more than places to learn, but a vital engine for better worlds, woven into the social fabric, and more sustainable the Johnny-come-lately technology companies.

Then Chris Phethern, a third year PhD candidate, talked about a couple of exchange trips he has made alongside other Southampton students to Tromso and Korea, facilitated by WUN. Graeme Earl explained a little about the Research Mobility Programme (which got me to Rochester) and another programme that makes awards to specific projects.

He then went on to challenge us on various methods of interdisciplinary work, making me realize that though I work collaboratively on all sorts of written work, I do it by sharing multiple copies of the work on email, not by working on a single shared document like GoogleDocs.

I was on more comfortable ground when the discussion turned to social networking and blogging, two fellow PhD candidates I was sitting next to turned out to be far more nervous that I am about sharing this sort of stuff. Partly, I think, because they felt very few other people would be interested in their area. I countered that in the great scheme of things, I don’t expect VERY many people to be interested I this blog. But I feel I’ve already made useful contacts out of sharing my work here and on Twitter. However, justas we turned back to the front, one of the highlighted the concern he had about opening himself up to abuse on social networks. I think this is a very real concern for many, especially (it seems) women, as we transition from a pseudonominous internet society to a real-name one.

I have an action to take away from this session, to find out more about the University’s Internal Communications Network and SMuRF (and CalIT2). As someone who doesn’t spend much time on campus, I do feel I still rely too much on face-to-face real-world networking with my university cohort, and I might be missing the person also working at Southampton on a project that might perfectly compliment my own research.

Overall though, I left the session feeling very excited about the digital future of Universities. We may still be feeling our way nervously through the digital forest, but when the “find it” we’ll look back and realize that we changed the world.

The Invisible Hand – Blast Theory

I’ve had a great first day attending The Invisible Hand a two day workshop hosted by Blast Theory, the Brighton based art collective. I met all sorts of interesting people, and I’ll write in more detail about it later.

But right now I want to process my excitement about a short presentation from Lesley Fosh. A PhD student at Nottingham University, Lesley shared an experiment wherein she worked with eight pairs of visitors to a local art gallery. She enabled one half of each couple to “gift” a personalised tour to their friend/partner. The giver chose five items, and for each chose a piece of music, a vocal instruction to do something, and a personal message, which were combined into a personal “app” that the other then used to explore the museum. Though this was an experiment intentionally limited in scope (the tours were only to be shared with the other half of the pair) a number of us were excited by the potential. For me it’s a great way of confounding the Narrative Paradox. Each was a piece of interpretation, that because I was created for a known individual seemed magically imbued with an emotional quality that turned something quite prosaic into poetry.

I was immediately imagining tagging each segment in some way, and storing it in a database that could then serve up segments in combinations that the original authors never intended. The choice of five segments that the author originally put together would be unique to that gift, and never shared in its entirety with another visitor, but segments from a number of givers could be combined in ways that might give other visitors unique, procedurally personalised, interpretations of a museum gallery.

It’s late, and I’m ready for bed, so I probably am not making as much sense as I feel. But I’m very glad I went, and I’m looking forward to day two tomorrow.

Decoding the Digital Part 2

In my last post, I wrote  about the presentations that made me think the most, but all the speakers at Decoding the Digital were great to listen to. It was a wide ranging and eclectic mix of digital humanities.

There was good contingent from the University’s own humanities school, including Joel Burgess who doesn’t like the phrase digital humanities any more because everything in the humanities is becoming digital. By way of example, he showed us a digital analysis of TV. Where, once upon a time, people would have to sit with stopwatches  to measure, say, the length of each shot in a TV program, now the same program can be loaded into a digital editing software package, which will identify the cuts and time the whole thing pretty much automatically. This is the technique they used to see if the common perception that TV has been getting steadily faster, and audience attention spans shorter, is true. So far, on a pretty small sample size admittedly, that’s not the case.

Morris Eaves, who had a hand in editing one of my favorite books, an illuminated collection of the works of William Blake, talked about digital collaboration, with collections (such as Blake manuscripts) and expertise that are spread around the globe. Joan Saab talked about writing books on-line (in Scalar, which looks interesting) and shared some of her work an local architect Claude Brugden. She is thing about how to tell his story in a 3D model of his work. She could be one for me to follow, or collaborate with…

(A presentation from Kathleen Fitzpatrick the following day, continued the theme of collaborative writing using digital tools, where blogs become eternal drafts, and modern students don’t expect to have to review their work.)

Cary Peppermint is an environmental artist with a little bit of the situationist or psycho-geographer about him. One of his works Indeterminate Hikes, sounds a lot like an app I blogged about a while ago called Serendipitor. I caught him after his talk at a reception and asked him if he’d heard about it. He said he’d worked with Mark Shepard, the creator of that app, and looking at their two websites, you can see a lot of similarity in their interests.

The conference kicked off with a keynote from Thomas Gewecke, Chief Digital Office and Executive VP, Strategy and Business Development, Warner Bros. He talked about Embracing Disruption. An entertaining and charismatic speaker, he talked about the lesson learned from Napster and iTunes in how to deal with piracy, which was essentially, make stuff available to down-load legally as soon, and as conveniently as possible. He and Warner Bros have been instrumental in creating the Ultraviolet standard, to that end. He also talked about crowd-sourcing the funding for the Veronica Mars movie through Kickstarter. There was some controversy about this at the time. People complained that a major studio should put up their own money for such a project and leave Kickstarter to the struggling “little people.”  Personally I think if a studio offered me the chance to pre-order anther series of Firefly, I’d be there, and I doubt the Veronica Mars movie would have got past the bean counters at the studio if they hadn’t shown that a lot of fans had put so much money down. I never saw the TV series, but the extended clip-reel Gewecke showed us makes the movie look pretty good.

Todd Havens, a Rochester graduate, continued the Hollywood thread by sharing some of the secrets of the social marketing machine that now surrounds movies. He is rightlly proud this successful viral campaign for the Last Exorcism:

The Last Exorcism – Chatroulette Viral Video by dreadcentral

The last day started with an interesting presentation from Robert Markley. He told us about a digital analysis of maps of the great lakes that he’s been working on, which has suggested that there was  a massive change in water levels in the early 19th century. For about twenty years, maps show what we think of as one long island as a chain of smaller islands instead. According to Markley, people who know the area believe that the change in water level must be massive to make the shape of the island so much. All the work so far having been digital, a trip is planned to survey the island next year. I noticed he’s writing a book Kim Stanley Robinson, so we spent the following lunchtime sharing our mutual love of The Years of Rice and Salt. Later in the day Henry Kautz explained an experiment that mined twitter to map public heath in New York.

There was also a strong celebratory theme running across the conference in the choice of speakers to end each day. Graduates of the university’s Eastman School of Music, all of whom are now veterans of the music industry, joined us to share not so much academic research, but some great reminiscences. Thomas Mowrey, Bob Ludwig and Don Pulse are names you’ll find in the production credits of some of your favourite albums. I could have listened to them all night. In fact on the last day, I got to sit next to them and Todd Havens for dinner, so in a way I got my wish. There was also a great explanation of the Loudness Wars from David Temperley, and by skype, Jeff Beal,(composer one of favourite TV soundtracks: Rome) who talked about composing for Netflix’s recent version of House of Cards.

I’m sure I’ve missed one or two speakers out, but suffice to say, it was a full and very enjoyable two and a half days. I feel honoured to have spoken on the same platform.

Decoding the Digital Part 1: The Playful Aristocracy

Two weeks have passed since Decoding the Digital at Rochester University, and if I don’t write it up now I’ll have forgotten what my notes mean.

A small aside – I write terrible notes. I always have. I find that I can either listen or write notes, never both. If I try and write notes, then i realise that I’ve be concentrating so much on putting the words down and I’ve totally lost track of the lesson, lecture or presentation. That was especially true of Physics at school. I passed my a-level on just eleven pages of notes for a whole two year course. So in the end I trained myself to just listen at University, and forego notes. That worked back then when my mind was agile, but now I’m older I find I’m not quite so good at remembering stuff. So I’ve taken to writing singles words down in the hope that it will trigger the memory of something I felt was important. I fancy getting one of the new iPads, and that programme that records while you are note taking, so when you tap on a word, it plays back the recording of what was actually being said at the time.

This though is a combination of written notes (from the handy-dandy note-pad and pen that was in our welcome packs), a couple of notes typed on my phone (I’ve taken to tweeting as a form of notetaking but the University of Rochester wifi wouldn’t play with my phone for some reason), and my own imperfect memory.

The meat of the conference, for me, started with the second presentation, from Australian New Yorker, McKenzie Wark. He told us he’s been on “Facebook” since the early nineties. Of course Facebook itself  didn’t exist back then, but the early social internet instead occurred on newservers and listservers. Listserve was an email sharing protocol whereby people shared an email diatribe with a community of subscribers. I used it a lot when I was doing my MA, taking a text to the pub then ranting about it (sorry, I mean critically appraising it) when I got home in the middle of the night. Now of course I’d do the same thing on a blog, however, as a family man, I go to the pub to read texts less often, and drink less, so my posts are somewhat more sober.

Enough about me though, Wark described his time on the listserve NetTime as the Silver age of Social Media, and spoke with a great deal of nostalgia about the proto-utopian, post-perestroikan days of the early internet. His presentation felt like a piece of digital archaeology. The community of NetTime, he said, were explorers of the digital frontier, creating a new culture and new digital artifacts without the limits of real world real-politik (other than the disdain that post-communist eastern European NetTimers had for their western peers’ enthusiasm for a Marxist internet). Some of the people from the virtual commune of NetTime went on to carve careers out of the digital age, but Wark wondered where all the others went. He lamented the freedoms of at early experimental time, commenting that the internet had been enclosed by corporate interests, and the likes of Apple’s iPad. I’d counter that more people have probably jailbroken iOS devices than had even had access to the internet in the 90s, but Wark said in questions afterwards that the same spirit of invention and creativity now only exists in play, in the gamer culture of the twentyfirst century.

Which made me think that all those NetTimers of the nineties were playing, really. Playing at politics, playing around with code, and trying on different identities. And maybe those names who’d disappear from NetTime without becoming academics or movers and shakers, probably only did so, because in the real world, family and work and responsibility had curtailed their playtime.

The social media of today takes a lot less effort than back then when people had to book time on university servers, and wait for the 1200 baud dial-up modems to whistle and whir through their digital handshakes. Back then, to play on the internet took effort and time. NetTime was therefore a privilege, not a universal right. And those who managed to carry on playing, like Wark were (or are?) a playful aristocracy, not the Marxists they (at least the western ones) thought they were.

Once I had the idea of a Playful Aristocracy in my head, it  kept coming up in later presentations. Sarah Higley, Professor of English at Rochester (and creator of Star Trek: TNG’s popular re-occurring guest character Reg Barclay), co-presented, with her Second Life avatar, Hypatia Pickens, a short history of Machinima, the art of creating movies out of virtual worlds like second life and mod-able games. Second Life is another example of how people with time to play, to devote to crafting can build themselves a not just a virtual pad, but a real-world reputation. I watch my kids build intricate Minecraft homes, and wish I had the time to do the same.

(Who am I kidding – I make time to play pen and paper RPGs. I’m not entirely sure I’d choose Second Life to spend my playtime in, I had a look at it once, but decided it would take too much of my time to even look good, that I couldn’t be bothered to continue.)

Aubrey Anable returned to Second Life the following day, this time with a slightly archaeological gaze. After suddenly becoming a media darling and the subsequent massive surge in popularity, the reported population of Second Life has now shrunk to about 30,000 to 60,000 active avatars. Given that users might have more than one identity in Second Life (Higley had previously mentioned a number of avatars that she used), that suggests the number of active users is even smaller. The digital homes, landscapes and other creations that laspsed users created still remain though, empty worlds that few visit any more. The active parts of second life have also been segregated into “adult” areas where participants gather to share alternative sexualities, and the somewhat less popular “clean” areas. Anable introduced us to two artists who explore the ruins of this virtual world, creating machinima of two very different styles. Cao Fei, or China Tracy as her Second Life avatar is know, produced a haunting documentary of the wastelands left by the Second Life property boom, called i.Mirror.

Jon Rafman, on the other hand, offers tours of Secondlife with his avatar, Kool-Aid Man. The sight of this American advertising icon in the silent discarded worlds and even the busy eternal nightclubs of the adult areas is strangely compelling.

Though it feels dilapidated, Second Life has, it seems, shrugged off the the tourists and hangers on, the newbs and time wasters. and those 60,000 avatars belong to a community of dedicated players, like Cao Fei, Rafman, and Higley, another playful aristocracy, who have the space (and time) to create new virtual artforms. Is it sustainable with such a small active population? We’ll have to wait and see. Its a commercial enterprise after all, and the company behind it could turn off their servers at any time.

But who are those who won’t or can’t dedicate their time to creatively play? Lu Wei of Zhejiang University shared some research into the digital divide. Once, he said, the digital divide was easy to define. On one side, a minority had access to the the internet, and on the other, the majority didn’t. But now that so many people, even (as one slide portrayed) peasant farmers in China, have access to the internet through their phones, does the digital divide still exist? He ask the audience who used the internet for email. We all put our hands up. Who used the internet for news? Again, we all put up our hands. Then he asked how many of use played games on the internet. Only half of us put our hands up. Lu Wei had been looking at what people used the internet for. And using date from a US survey in 2008, he showed that of the 11 activities listed in the survey, only a few were used by the majority of respondents. He demonstrated that the people who used the internet for more things tended to be better educated, wealthier etc. So he suggested, the digital divide remains. And it is somewhere around four activities, if you do more, he suggests, you are likely to be empowered by the internet, for example, by actively participating in local politics. If you do four or less, you are likely to be more of a consumer. Now, this data was from 2008, and although the iPhone was released the previous year, the explosion in smartphones mobile internet hadn’t quite happened. And as one of the audience pointed out, the eleven activities in the survey didn’t include playing games, or (possibly more notably) watching porn, so the data could do with updating, but the theory is a useful one, which has some resonance.

It made me think of a counterpart to the Playful Aristocracy which I’ve taken calling the Leviathan, the unawakened digital majority who now have access to the internet, but no time to play with it. Lisa Nakamura and Sara Perry offered two insights into darker side of the Leviathan. In her presentation Blowing up the Digital Humanities, Nakamura touched on identity and race in the digital domain, and how easy it is, and how willing some are, to push people of colour into “the other” on the internet. Perry, meanwhile, explored the transition between the pseudonymous internet (in which Higley, among others could build a playful reputation with her Hypatia Pickens avatar, and post-Facebook “real name” internet, which we have to use now, to build our real-world reputations on Linked-in, etc. Its an uncomfortable period for many of us used to the pseudonymous norms of yesteryear. Back then gender played a different role and, as in Second Life, one could present on-line as a different gender if one so wished. So gender and race, it seemed through rose tinted nostalgia-goggles at least, was less of an issue than now. Now we have awful threats directed towards a woman who simply campaigned for a notable female figure on a bank note, and a respected academic castigated for her looks while appearing on television debating programme,

I don’t want to tar the whole Leviathan with the same brush, but it seems there is a contingent there who, possibly feeling dis-empowered by the those who wield an on-line reputation of any sort, seek to drive their targets off the internet, though constant anonymous abuse. It feels as though we are approaching a fork in the road. Will the Leviathan learn how to engage socially and politically for the good of society? Or will the rule of the loudest drown out the voices of reason, and the internet descend into an angry dystopia?

Check out Sara’s Gender and Digital Culture project here.

Woah! This is in danger of turning into a dissertation, and I’ve covered less than half the speakers. So I better wrap up for the day, and cover the rest in another post,