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 – part 2

I promised more on the Blast Theory workshop I attended a couple of weeks back, and here it is. The two days were kicked off by Matt Adams of Blast Theory explaining why they’d titled the event with a term the Adam Smith had coined a couple of hundred years ago. Smith of course wrote about the Invisible Hand as a good thing, turning selfish acts into selfless ones:

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations Book IV, chapter II, paragraph IX

However the Invisible Hand that we examined during the workshop had the power to be good, a more sinister. We were looking an profiling and personalisation. Matt started with off with an example of profiling. Mosaic is Experian’s database of UK households and organisations use to identify markets. My own day-job at the National Trust uses Mosaic, but you don’t have to be an organisation to access at least some of the data, their ForSite app is available for free  for your iOS or Android device. At the National Trust, we know that a number of the sixty segments into which Mosaic divides the population are more likely to become members than others, so certain postcodes might, for example, respond more positively to a fundraising appeal. Of course its a pretty broad brush, and describes a population by the people they live among, not as individuals. Its all about inference, not fact.

But technology enables organisations with the inclination to collect more and more data on individuals, not just addresses, and modern manufacturing processes allows a degree of mass-customization that moves the world of profiling into one of personalization. Matt spoke of the chain Zara, the high street face of Spanish company Inditex where staff collect feedback every day from customers, and send it to HQ, where designers collate and respond to what customers are looking for within weeks. Apparently only 3 or 4 units of each design are shipped to branches, and using the daily feedback from stores and a  2-3 week production process, the entire stock of a shop will change every 11 days.

Matt’s question to us all was, what does this mean for the arts?

Of course personalized art has been around for decades. Matt cited  Allan Kaprow’s 1959 work, 18 happenings in 6 parts; the neo-futurists’ ongoing Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (which is not just personalized but also randomized – a roll of a dice defines your ticket price); and Lev Manovitch’s Soft Cinema as examples.

Blast Theory themselves are not alone in the contemporary application of technology to create art: Invisible FlockNon Zero OneConey; and Urban Angel all create worlds that are part theatre, part game experiences that create unique experiences for each audience member. Many of these experiences collect data on their participants, is this a good thing or an abuse of privilege?

In the discussion, concern was expressed about the power of profiling and personalization. I found myself playing devils advocate. Yes, profiling is a blunt tool, and can be used to exercise power unfairly upon minorities, but personalization, if its done right, is a dialogue. Some years ago, when I was a young man, I liked Levi’s 620 jeans. Then, with some retro rock and roll, Levis introduced 501s and 620s disappeared from the shops. I was gutted, I’m not a handsome man, but I’ve got a pretty fine set of pins, which 620s showed off at their best (or did at least, when I was slimmer), tight in all the right places (around the calf I meant!!). 501s were baggy, which might have been fashionable, but what I would have given for the manufacturing process that dangles now so temptingly in front of us now, where those few of us that were not persuaded to convert to 501s might still buy 620s, even better than they were before because they’re made to measure.

Of course the debate turned to privacy, such a vital topic in these post-Snowden times, but even here, despite my abhorrence of the state spying on its democratic masters, I found myself an apologist for Big Brother. Is “Privacy” actually an aberration, a blip in the long history of society, brought about only a few generations ago by scraping together enough coin to live in the luxury of separate bedrooms? For most of human history we’ve lived with a different concept of privacy, where communities knew pretty much everything that when on, and privilege bought some people only a reduced number of people to share the toilet with.

I think we concluded that the debate was less about privacy than power. We discussed the politics of knowledge, touching upon Marilyn Strathern’s simple hierarchy of data, information and knowledge. Data being the unprocessed stuff that we see (or sense by any other means); information being that data organised in some way so we can begin to see some sense in it; and, knowledge is information that has an effect, that makes us change our behaviors in some way. The fear is that data is being harvested  by large, wealthy organisations, in such huge quantities and the “common man” or woman can not make sense of it. So we let these organisations organize it into information, and offer us knowledge that manipulates our behaviours to the organisations’ benefit. A new Invisible Hand that isn’t working for the benefit of society as a whole.

Kelly Page offered us examples. Doubleclick was a company that monitored websurfing, following clickthroughs on banner ads especially, a form of anonymous behavioural profiling. They acquired an off-line catalogue company called Abacus with the intention of merging their anonymous data with the  personal information within Abacus’ database. (though after Microsoft called foul, they were prevented from doing so by the US FTC. Later they (and their data) were acquired by Google. Page worked for a time at DunnHumby, who run Tesco’s Clubcard, and surprised us with the revelation that Inland revenue use club card data to validate your tax return.

But why should big and sometimes anonymous corporations be the arbiters of data, information and knowledge? We explored ways in which artists might take the mechanics of big data and transform it into different, playful information and knowledge. Blast Theory shared projects that tried to do just that from early experiments with Prof Tanda’s Guess-A-Where to a more recent and on-going collaboration with National Theatre Wales. Then John McGrath and Katherine Jewkes both from National Theatre Wales came on to talk about being an organisation that started out as an on-line community, and how even they struggle to cope with the “small data” that their participants have shared.  But they also gave us a taste of a lovely game/perfomance that imagines having to smuggle yourself of the border of a newly independent Wales. Part of that game involves creating a fake passport for yourself, and they were surprised by participants willingness to give their real names and data rather than making stuff up.

Giles Lane of Proboscis told us about a fascinating co-creation with Anglia Ruskin University and the R&D section of Phillips who have a interest in telehealth. Their idea which echoed our earlier discussion around the politics of knowledge, was to take an individual’s medical data and turn it into a 3D printed model, a talisman, a lucky pebble, which they carry with them. A beautiful object used as a tangible locus of meaning, mindfulness, rather than the dull data which means not enough to change behavior.

So can art use big data/infomation/knowledge to benefit society? And what are the ethics of doing so? That was the meat of our discussion, and Blast Theory, having collected our thoughts (data), are organizing them (infomation) and will shortly share them in some useful format (knowledge).

When they do, I’ll share a link here.

Questions for tech SMEs and cultural heritage institutions on working together

I’ve been putting it off for weeks even months, finding distraction activities rather than tackling the challenge that appears so simple, but feels incredibly complex. Even now, I’m wrestling the impulse to go and see if the chickens have laid eggs that need collecting, 0r to try one of the new games that I’ve downloaded.

But my task is to plan the structure for the interviews that I need to conduct with technology SMEs (small and medium enterprises) that have worked with heritage organisations, and cultural heritage personnel who have worked with tech SMEs.

My intellectual paralysis is due to the fact that while I’m sure the interview structure will change as I conduct more interviews and discover what makes my interviews open up and offer real insights, I don’t want my initial interviews to be “just practice.” I want to be reasonably confident that I’ll get something worthwhile from these first ones, and not wish, twenty interviews down the line, that “I wish I’d asked that question!”

My opening  is easy:

“I’d like to ask you about one particular project where you’ve (been commissioned by a heritage organisation/commissioned a digital technology provider). I’d like to keep that one project in mind as well talk, though of course please feel free to refer to other projects to illustrate particular points of alternative ways of working. If you have a number of projects to choose from, I’d like to to select one that is relatively recent, and ideally one that you think might have gone better if you (and/or of course your client/supplier) had handled things differently. Of course, if every project has been a perfect (or alternatively, and absolute disaster) feel free to select one of those. All the details of the project(s) will be anonymised, and these notes will be secure and confidential, so I hope you to feel able to speak freely about even difficult issues.”

But then I have a muddle of questions, and a huge amount of doubts over order. So I thought I might share where I am so far, the hope that writing this post will help me, or force me, to make some sense of it all. Of course any comments will be thansfully received.

  • What was the objective of the project? (I’d hope that is is understood the same way by clients and suppliers?)
  • What organisational strategic aims did the project realize? (For suppliers this might be: What was your perception of your client’s strategic aims?)
  • What were the specific outputs of the commission? (talking here about the specific outputs of the client/supplier contract/partnership)
  • Roughly what was the budget or contract price for the work?
  • Did the outputs change over the course of the commission?
  • What was the contracted timescale of the commission?
  • Did the timescale/milestones change during the commission?
  • Tell the about the project management regime?
  • What were your measures of success?
  • How is the project now? or What were the results?
  • What were the real successes of working with this (supplier/client)?
  • What difficulties did you overcome?
  • What persistent difficulties were there?
  • What (or who!) was the greatest barrier to progress?
  • How did you attempt to overcome these difficulties?
  • How did you feel about the difficulties?
  • Why did the difficulties persist? (if any did)
  • What actions did you try to solve these problems?
  • Why do you think the solutions (being the actions in the question above) didn’t work?
  • What frustrated you most about these?
  • What other options were there?
  • Would you work with that (supplier/client) again?
  • What advice would you give somebody planning to work with that (supplier/client)?
  • If attempting a similar project again, what would you do differently?
  • If you had no constraints on time. money, power, etc what else might you have done?
  • What was the final cost of the work?
  • What comparable projects have you seen?
  • What do think your project did better than those?
  • What did you learn from those comparable projects?

Putting them all down here, and re-arranging some of them as I did so, makes me think how similar they are to the sort of questions one gets taught on coaching/leadership or managing people courses. I guess that’s no surprise as I’ve tried to write them to be open and not leading. If fact I’ve just pulled out an old manual from a managing people course I did (woah!) ten years ago, and there, the questions are similar in style but actually quite different, as its about coaching somebody through a dilemma, rather than reviewing a working relationship around a project that is likely (though I guess possibly not) to be completed. However there is one question which I’ve just nicked and added to the list.

Can you tell which it is?

Principles of digital economy?

A picture of Lev Manovich, which isn’t here at all but rather sitting on a UCLA server. Isn’t modularity wonderful?


I’m enjoying Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media. I wrote about this before, describing his unconventional prologue which hooked me into buying the book in the first place.

Right now, though I think it’s worth exploring his answer to that most fundamental question: what is “new media”? As he says “the popular understanding of new media identifies it with the use of a computer for distribution and exhibition.” Such an understanding, he argues, leads to the somewhat absurd situation where a text or photograph is old media when printed in a book, exactly the same text or image is somehow transformed into “new media” if distributed via web or e-book or stored on CD -ROM.

Such a definition is too limiting, he argues. To understand new media as a mode of distribution makes it “only” as revolutionary as the printing press. To think of it as a mode of storage renders new media as incapable of transforming culture as the transition from shellac records to vinyl.

The introduction of the printing press affected only one stage of cultural communication – the distribution of media. Similarly, the introduction of photography affected only one type of communication – still images. In contrast, the computer media revolution affects all stages of communication, including acquisition, manipulation, storage, and distribution; it also affects all types of media – texts, still images, moving images, sound, and spatial constructions.

So, instead he sets out five “principles” by which we may know and understand new media. And I think they may have a broader application, to the the digital economy as a whole. That said, Manovich is reluctant to use the word digital in this thesis “because this idea acts as an umbrella for three unrelated concepts – analog-to-digital conversion, a common representational code, and numerical representation.” I am, however, not so fussy. Besides, the word new stands for many more unrelated concepts, doesn’t it?

Anyhow, back to his principles. They are (in a carefully composed order because after the first, each is a consequence of it’s predecessors):

  1. Numerical representation – We’re talking digital media here, and the clue is in the name (whatever Manovich may think). Whether created on a computer, or scanned or ripped from an analogue source, a new media object is a function of numbers. Which means that it can be decribed formally, and can be manipulated algorithmically.
  2. Modularity – As every digital object is a number (or series of numbers, or algorithm) elements of every type (sounds pictures text etc etc can be assembled into other objects. The most obvious example that Manovich uses is web page like ths one, which is only presented as a single object by our browsers, but is in fact made up from a piece of text I’ve written, pictures I saw on anther site (and which is still stored on that site’s server, all I’ve done is point your browser at it) and other features created (for all I know, I didn’t put them there) by the WordPress software.
  3. Automation – As Manovich says “The numerical coding of media (principle 1) and the modular structure of media object (principle 2) allow for the automation of many operations involved in media creation, manipulation and access. Thus human intentionality can be removed from the creative process, at least in part.
  4. Variability – This is particularly interesting (not just because I’m interested in adaptive narrative). Manovich correlates industrial and now digital media with the ideologies of the industrial and digital age: “In industrial mass society everyone was supposed to enjoy the same goods – and to share the same beliefs. This was also the logic of media technology. A media object was assembled in a media factory (such as a Hollywood studio). Millions of identical copies were produced from a master and distributed to all the citizens. Broadcasting, cinema and print media all followed this logic. In a postindustrial society, every citizen can construct his or her own custom lifestyle and and “select” her ideology from a large (but not infinite) number of choices. Rather than pushing the same objects/information to a mass audience, marketing now tries to target each individual separately. The logic of new media reflects this new social logic.” So, if you are ready this page on your mobile browser, it will look different to the same page on a desktop, unless of course, you choose to return the desktop version. And of course this variability is a function of the automation in principle 3, I haven’t created the mobile version, its done automatically.
  5. Transcoding – Everything that happens to a cultural object  in the principles above created a new type of object that exists in two “layers.” In one, cultural, layer it is the old media object we all recognise, the photograph, the song, the story, and in the second “computer layer” is is a file in a database.

As Manovich says “New media may look like media, but this is only the surface.” Is this true of the digital economy as well?