Technology

‘My client is civilisation’

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There’s an interview with Stewart Brand in Volume, 24 — Counterculture: ‘With the help of countercultural figures, historians and architects, this issue of Volume examines the popularized characteristics of the 60s that have influenced our beliefs about technology, the environment and community’. Fred Turner country. From Jeffrey Inaba’s introduction to the issue:

At first glance, what appears prescient about the 60s when looking at current American culture is the preoccupation then and now with computer technology, the natural environment and alternative forms of community; but today each is disconnected from the radical political action and oppositional ideologies of the earlier era. For instance, concern for the planet, which was cast as flaky and indulgent, is shared by the majority of people despite the ideological differences between the counterculture and popular American opinion now. Sustainability is so much a part of our collective economic consciousness that its importance is cited in business sectors – like real estate development – which once ardently resisted entertaining pro-environmental stances. Similarly, the communal principles of the counterculture – such as participation, sharing information, erring on the side of social inclusion, networking and identifying areas of agreement with others in order to form collaborations – are the basic axioms for building social capital now.

*

SB: My client is civilisation and my approach is that of a hacker: to figure out the shortcuts that make things happen. …

JI: … What’s your definition of a hacker?

SB: Lazy engineer. The aspect of hacking that appeals to me is looking for the fiendishly clever shortcut. A ‘real’ engineer will do the homework – do the calculations, run the prototypes – all the necessary stuff to make something work. A hacker is usually looking for an easy solution. The code still has to run – it has to do whatever it is you’re attempting. But a hacker tries to find a way to do it with minimal effort, which is considered good; or with great cleverness, which is considered extra good. Fun is finessing an outcome. Stuff like that is just being lazy, and lazy is not necessarily bad. I was trained in the army to be a lazy officer. The worst officer is stupid and industrious. The best officer is brilliant and lazy. I don’t think I would be accused of industry. …

JI: … Would you consider yourself a hacker of policy? From what you say in your book, stewardship of the planet involves vigilance in monitoring all technologies and then deciding to employ some with great speed. Do you look for shortcuts to put into service technologies because the process of governments, institutions, and concerned individuals carefully weighing a technology’s consequences takes time?

SB: Some technologies take off on their own. Cell phones took off in very short order to the great benefit of all. Wikipedia and Google took off that way. The things that people see as beneficial and that don’t do recognizable harm can move quickly. But like you say, by far the best approach with complex systems is diplomatic negotiation with a lot of vigilance to ensure that things don’t go astray.

JI: The last chapter of Whole Earth Discipline is on statecraft. You start it with the Marshall McLuhan quote: ‘After Sputnik there is no nature, only art’. What significance does that statement have in relation to the responsibilities of governance and policymaking?

SB: It’s probably the most radical comment he ever made. Sputnik was shorthand for acting at a planetary scale. We consequently bear a completely different relation to everything on Earth and can no longer treat it, meaning nature, as existing independent of our own artifice – our own purposeful intentions.


‘the more I write, the more I shall have to write ... I shall never overtake myself’

I go silent on my blog without explanation. It may seem, in the short-term, like a blip, but in the long-term … the pattern becomes clear. — Tom Armitage, ‘Telling Stories’ (Reboot 8, Copenhagen, 2006) (pdf)

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months paring and pruning, trying to focus more closely on the things which really matter to me. I’ve got something to put down here soon about attention and curation, but before this new year runs away with me and everything, yet again, tilts Tristram Shandy–wards, I thought I might look back, sum up, take stock (a bit).

Here’s something I wrote for our annual school magazine about last year’s talks. (It goes over some of what I’ve written about here during 2009–2010 and I’ve given the links, in square brackets, where that’s the case.) It's very … potted.

ICT Talks 2009–10

This year, our talks continued to cross disciplines. We kicked off with Andy Huntington (RCA graduate, designer, musician) on interaction design [see 20.9.2009 entry]. In Digital Ground (MIT, 2004), Malcolm McCullough set out how interaction design ‘studies how people deal with technology — and how people deal with each other, through technology. As a consequence of pervasive computing, interaction design is poised to become one of the main liberal arts of the twenty-first century’. Andy, who has worked on interactive objects and experiences for clients from the BBC and the Science Museum to Nokia and the Bartlett School of Architecture, talked us through tapTap (‘The system is built up of individual knock boxes. Each box has its own memory and is completely self-contained. As you tap on the top of a box, the box waits for a few seconds and then taps back what it has heard. If you want more you add another box, and another, and another, tap, tap, tap’) and Beatbox (‘a physical programmable drum machine’). Later in the autumn we were delighted to welcome Usman Haque, architect and co-founder of Pachube (‘store, share & discover realtime sensor, energy and environment data from objects, devices & buildings around the world’):

Usman Haque

The domain of architecture has been transformed by developments in interaction research, wearable computing, mobile connectivity, people-centered design, contextual awareness, RFID systems and ubiquitous computing. These technologies alter our understanding of space and change the way we relate to each other. We no longer think of architecture as static and immutable; instead we see it as dynamic, responsive and conversant. Our projects explore some of this territory. — Haque Design + Research

Playing with tapTap and Beatbox, thinking how objects are now interacting with us through the internet, reflecting on how we can use Pachube … Ubiquitous computing has well and truly arrived and, as McCullough foresaw, educators need to address interaction design as a matter of urgency.

Also in the autumn, Adrian Hon came to talk about his games company, Six to Start [see 30.9.2009 entry]. He began by looking at the role of story-telling in human society, the reception of the first European novels, the ways in which our strong identification with literary heroes and heroines has been elicited and the striking role now played in our lives by online text. The main part of his talk focused on We Tell Stories — a project developed for Penguin: ‘six stories, written by six authors, told in six different ways — ways that could only happen on the web … released over six weeks’. Adrian, who left a career in neuroscience to co-found Six to Start with his brother, sets great store by narrative: ‘Writers are important. When a game’s graphics grow old, and the game mechanics become dated, all that’s left to remember is the story. As designers and writers of games, we all need to set a higher bar for ourselves’. His ambition for games is, indeed, remarkable: ‘Historians will look back hundreds of years from now, and they will say that the explosion of narrative and game forms that we have now was a momentous time that transformed the way that people think and see the world. … It’s hard to imagine a world without books; without Lord of the Rings, or Catch 22, or Pride and Prejudice, or Great Expectations. Equally, it’s already hard to imagine a world without games. Just imagine where we’ll be in a few decades time. We have the opportunity to make those new types of games and stories that will changes people’s lives in the future, and there are so many possibilities.’

Professor Chris Frith, FRS, talked about how our brain generates emotions and thoughts and he was followed soon afterwards by Professor James Paul Gee, the distinguished American scholar, on games and learning. In his book, Making up the Mind [see 22.9.2009 entry], Frith argues that, ‘on the basis of its belief about the world, my brain can predict the pattern of activity that should be detected by my eyes, ears and other senses … So what happens if there is an error in this prediction? These errors are very important because my brain can use them to update its belief about the world and create a better belief … Once this update has occurred, my brain has a new belief about the world and it can repeat the process. It makes another prediction about the patterns of activity that should be detected by my senses. Each time my brain goes round this loop the prediction error will get smaller. Once the error is sufficiently small, my brain “knows” what is out there. And this all happens so rapidly that I have no awareness of this complex process. … my brain never rests from this endless round of prediction and updating’. In Gee’s thought, the world of a complex game mirrors the functioning of the mind: ‘We run videogames in our heads’ [see 30.10.2009 entry]. At the heart of his critical understanding of games is the idea of situated meanings and their role in learning. Games are about problem-solving. Today’s problems are now all complex ones — complexity and complex systems interacting. Today, we must be able to work way beyond standard skills, learning how to be part of a cross-functional team — a very high order skill common to play in many games.

Another theme this year has been how we are living in a time when information is becoming more accessible. We welcomed Timo Hannay, publishing director of Web Publishing at Nature Publishing, to talk about open science and in March we had the opportunity to hear Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia [see 22.3.2010 entry]. Timo spoke about the nature of early scientific publishing and the rise of the expensive (and therefore relatively inaccessible) specialist journal. He explained projects he has helped to develop at Nature, including Connotea, a social bookmarking service for scientists, Nature Network (a social network for scientists) and Nature Precedings (‘a platform for sharing new and preliminary findings with colleagues on a global scale’). Jimmy, arriving straight from Heathrow, spoke to a packed hall on the origins, vision and role of Wikipedia. One thing to emerge from this very well-received talk: about 80% of the students present had edited Wikipedia. Next day at a Guardian conference for heads of media, the same question from Jimmy revealed that only about 30% of that audience had edited the online encyclopaedia.

Another highlight of the year was the chance to hear Stewart Brand and Brian Eno talk about the Long Now and Brand’s new book, Whole Earth Discipline.

Stewart Brand & Brian Eno
The idea of the active intellectual is very important, Brand said, and we’re very pleased that St Paul’s is the first school in the UK to join the Long Now and engage with its commitment to long-term thinking and sustainable living. This takes us neatly back to Pachube and the way we interact with technology. The future requires that the young grow up learning about the history of technology, of man’s long journey of inventiveness in manipulating nature and of the possibilities, for good and ill, that lie in this relationship we have with our world.


Datadecs

One of the things which brightened up our Christmas holiday was the arrival on 23 December of these datadecs:

Datadecs

(After years of large trees both real and, recently and unappealingly, fake, we were given this wee-but-living tree. As one of our sons said, ‘Not so much minimalist as miniature’. Give it time.)

Datadecs

Datadecs

A lovely present: many thanks to Russell, Tom and Ben at RIG, and to Andy — who writes,

For Christmas 2009 the Really Interesting Group wanted to create a a gift comprising a series of 4 unique decorations based on each recipient’s use of the Flickr, Dopplr, Last.fm and Twitter. Having used a couple of the software APIs they were thinking about using (flickr and dopplr) and with experience of rapid prototyping we worked together to turn the data into something physical. … Three of the four Datadecs are laser cut and one is rapid formed. For the laser cutting I developed a series of Processing sketches to generate cutting paths and the snowmen were generated using RhinoScript.

As Phil summarises it:

The snowman’s head size represents the number of followers I have on Twitter. The cloud and its rain represent my year’s trips on Dopplr. The blue shape shows the apertures of my photos on Flickr. And the red shape is the amount of music I played during the year, got from Last.fm.

More about these datadecs and their making in Andy’s post, and see, too, RIG’s page about them, Twitter mentions and Flickr tagged photos.

Very struck by these. Julian Bleecker: ‘this association between things materialized and things quantified is really significant’.

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Google

When I was at the Saïd Business School in September for the Oxford Social Media Convention 2009, I heard Matthew Hindman (author of The Myth of Digital Democracy) say that Google has spent more in the past six years on R&D than was spent on the entire Manhattan Project (figures adjusted for inflation: ‘constant 2002 dollars’).

In my opening remarks I strenuously disagreed with other presenters’ claims that the Internet provides for “low barriers to entry.” Different barriers to entry? Sure. Low barriers in 1995? Of course. But low barriers today? Not in any of the mature part of the Web, and certainly not in the niches that I study.

I thought of this again whilst reading John Naughton’s column on Sunday morning. If you have seven minutes to spare, watch this first:

John Naughton summarises:

The sting in the Android tail was also unveiled this week: Google has launched GPS navigation for the new handsets. It does everything that TomTom, Garmin et al do, and a lot more besides. For example, you can talk to it: tell it to “navigate to the museum with the King Tut exhibition” and it will do an instant Google search and present you with a list of options. Its maps are continually updated because they’re not held on the phone. It’ll give you live traffic data for your route. And when you get close to your destination it switches to Street View to show what it looks like. And it’s free.

That same day, in my Delicious network stream, Bill Gurley’s (now much lauded) post, Google Redefines Disruption: The “Less Than Free” Business Model, popped up, in which he reflects on Google’s progress from licensing data owned by the mapping duopoly of Tele Atlas and NavTeq to today’s state of independence:

… as a venture capitalist it is imperative to understand ways in which a smaller private company can gain the upper hand on a large incumbent. One of the most successful ways to do this is to change the rules of the game in such a way that the incumbent would need to abandon or destroy its core business in order to lay chase to your strategy. … when I read this week that Google was including free turn-by-turn navigation directions with each and every Android mobile OS, I had an immediate feeling that I was witnessing a disruptive play of a magnitude heretofore unseen. … Rumors abound about just how many cars Google has on the roads building it own turn-by-turn mapping data as well as its unique “Google Streetview” database. Whatever it is, it must be huge. This October 13th, just over one year after dropping NavTeq, the other shoe dropped as well. Google disconnected from Tele Atlas and began to offer maps that were free and clear of either license. These maps are based on a combination of their own data as well as freely available data. Two weeks after this, Google announces free turn-by-turn directions for all Android phones. … To understand just how disruptive this is to the GPS data market, you must first understand that “turn-by-turn” data was the lynchpin that held the duopoly together. … Google’s free navigation feature announcement dealt a crushing blow to the GPS stocks. Garmin fell 16%. TomTom fell 21%. Imagine trying to maintain high royalty rates against this strategic move by Google.

There’s much more to read there about the implications of Google’s move. Much, much more. Including the irresistible new ecosystem that will open up:

Google is apt to believe that the geographic taxonomy is a wonderful skeleton for a geo-based ad network. If your maps are distributed everywhere on the Internet and in every mobile device, you control that framework. Cash starved startups, building interesting and innovative mobile apps, will undoubtedly build on Google’s map API. It’s rich, it is easy to use, and quite frankly the price is right. In the future, if you want to advertise your local business to people with an interest in your local market, chances are you will look to Google for that access.

(Yesterday, talking to some business savvy students, I was struck by how much they already knew about this and how they lapped up Bill Gurley’s article for its navigation of the very far reaching implications of Google’s move. That breath on the nape of your neck? The next generation, coming up fast.)

Gizmodo reflected on this in Google and the Deadly Power of Data:

This is not an attack of Google’s business practices, but an explanation of the sort of destructive innovation that has made them so huge so fast. (It’s also a warning to consider carefully any entities that gets this strong, especially if you plan on going into business with one.) Though predecessors like Microsoft experienced similar explosive growth, and grew a similar sudden global dependence, we’ve never seen the likes of Google. The GPS business isn’t the only one that will be consumed by its mighty maw before it’s had its run.

We’ve already seen the devaluation of the office apps that make Microsoft rich; we’ve already seen how Google’s experiences with Apple and others helped it create telecommunications platforms (both mobile with Android and completely virtual with Google Voice) that threaten its former partners’ existence; we’ve already seen how Google converts photos, videos, news wire stories and other former commodities into freebies by smashing the false notion of scarcity that “service” providers had literally banked on.

Meanwhile, pundits remain fascinated by the economics of YouTube and the same edition of the Observer, in an article about Google’s ContentID system, repeated the line that, ‘Three years after Google bought the site for $1.65bn, it has yet to turn a profit and there are concerns the division is devouring the internet group’s cash reserves’. Last month, Eric Schmidt said, ‘We’re starting to make signifigant money off of Youtube’. But it was a recent Wired piece that held my attention:

… a new report from Arbor Networks suggests that Google’s traffic is approaching 10 percent of the net’s traffic, and that it’s got so much fiber optic cable, it is simply trading traffic, with no payment involved, with the net’s largest ISPs.

“I think Google’s transit costs are close to zero,” said Craig Labovitz, the chief scientist for Arbor Networks and a longtime internet researcher. Arbor Networks, which sells network monitoring equipment used by about 70 percent of the net’s ISPs, likely knows more about the net’s ebbs and flows than anyone outside of the National Security Agency.

And the extraordinary fact that a website serving nearly 100 billion videos a year has no bandwidth bill means the net isn’t the network it used to be.

(According to Chad Hurley, CEO and Co-founder of YouTube, YouTube now serves ‘well over a billion views a day’.)

More here on the Internet Observatory Report from Arbor Networks (I’d really like to get hold of the report itself and scrutinise the details), from whence this:

Evolution of the Internet Core: Over the last five years, Internet traffic has migrated away from the traditional Internet core of 10 to 12 Tier-1 international transit providers. Today, the majority of Internet traffic by volume flows directly between large content providers, datacenter / CDNs and consumer networks. Consequently, most Tier-1 networks have evolved their business models away from IP wholesale transit to focus on broader cloud / enterprise services, content hosting and VPNs.

Rise of the ‘Hyper Giants’: Five years ago, Internet traffic was proportionally distributed across tens of thousands of enterprise managed web sites and servers around the world. Today, most content has increasingly migrated to a small number of very large hosting, cloud and content providers. Out of the 40,000 routed end sites in the Internet, 30 large companies – “hyper giants” like Limelight, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and YouTube – now generate and consume a disproportionate 30% of all Internet traffic.

About the Wired piece, Ian commented on Delicious, ‘Another way to put it: Unless you own massive infrastructure, you will *never* be able to compete with Google. Welcome to the new net, indeed. Meet the new boss…’. The field certainly ain’t level.

All of which made me do what I’d a while ago grown bored of doing and once more note down something here (as a marker for myself) about … Google. Creative destruction.

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Tower Bridge talking

Exciting times in ICT as its interconnections with other school subjects become clearer and as we build new areas to our curriculum. And some of that really does involve building.

This is a video made by my colleague, Olly Rokison, of his working Tower Bridge model. Both model and video are being used this year in our ICT course for our 13 year-olds as we explore how things are now talking to us.

From our school website (where the full, annotated Arduino code can be downloaded):

At St Paul's, we take a steady interest in new and emerging technologies. We have been experimenting recently with the open source Arduino hardware.

In this project, Oliver Rokison, Technology, ICT and Computing teacher, built a working paper model of Tower Bridge, connected it via Arduino gear to the Tower Bridge Twitter account — and the result is a model that mimics the movements of the real bridge.

The Tower Bridge Twitter account was, of course, set up by Tom Armitage. Tom wrote about putting Tower Bridge on Twitter in February, 2008, in Making Bridges Talk:

I’ve written before about how wonderful Twitter can be as a messaging bus for physical objects. The idea of overhearing machines talking about what they’re doing is, to my mind, quite delightful.


tapTap and Beatbox

A very great pleasure last Thursday lunchtime to welcome Andy Huntington to St Paul's — to talk about his work as an interaction designer and artist. Part of a strand in our talks that seeks to show how computing is now intimately involved with the creative arts as well as the sciences, Andy’s talk both explained the background to his approach and interests and gave plenty of opportunity for hands-on engagement, focusing on tapTap and Beatbox, as the pictures show.

Andy

tapTap and Beatbox

tapTap and Beatbox

tapTap and Beatbox     tapTap and Beatbox     tapTap and Beatbox

Experiencing the shared delight and pleasure in the room when tapTap left the realm of talked-about-concept and leapt into life under Andy’s hands was just great. Toy + game + interaction + music. Play and enthusiasm.

Lots of good feedback about this talk. Thanks, Andy.

We hope to be doing some follow-up, inter-disciplinary work with Andy.


Flight

 Denham Airfield

Last Thursday, I was very fortunate to have a chance to fly again in a helicopter. Back when I was a teenager, the RAF took some of us up for about five minutes — but last week we flew for an hour in a Twin Squirrel, from Denham into London, then back out along the Thames. An opportunity for Jonathan to take some aerial photos of the school.

Over St Paul's        St Paul's School

Amazing the price of helicopters — and that’s a pre-owned Eurocopter EC155B, the old version, I presume, of one of these. But what reduced me to pretty well speechless wonder was the experience of sustained helicopter flight, flying through and over London, hovering for several minutes at a time 700 feet up, the world below us … a map. The all-at-once and almost shocking change of scale and perspective, so different from what I'm used to when flying by plane: it's close to the human, but we're difficult to pick out — our larger artefacts and their patterns fill our vision. It's simultaneously beautiful and unsettling, alluring and alien.

The day was hazier than we might have expected from the ground (you could see the haze over London as we approached) and my photos were all shot across the cabin and through the perspex of the windows. Some of the quality was affected and I’m pretty inexperienced at handling processing software, but I was surprised at how good the results were nonetheless.

Wonderful, too, to fly a few minutes East and come to St Paul’s Cathedral. The school began at St Paul’s, 500 years ago this year, and Barnes is as far West as the school’s ever been — or likely ever to get.

St Paul's School 

St Paul's School

St Paul's Cathedral

Once it was done, I told my 92 year-old mother about the flight. I needn’t have worried — she wasn’t. Just excited and thrilled.

Of course, this makes me think of that clip of Louis CK on YouTube, Everything is amazing right now — and nobody's happy. I’ve shown that to 13 year-olds this term, very early on in their ICT course, and I’m pleased to report that they love it. ‘Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero?’

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Back in May …

… St Paul’s held an open day to celebrate its 500th anniversary. For our part, we put together a small show in our main ICT room. My thanks to the four pupils who helped me set this up and who looked after our visitors so well for the whole of what was a fun but long afternoon.

Open Day  Open Day  Open Day  Open Day

Making use of the bank of desktop machines in the room, we gathered together a number of videos under this umbrella:

A brief introduction to the modern web: an overview of how computers shrank, became mobile and ever more powerful, an insight into how we teach about all this and a glimpse of the world we’re all soon going to be living in.

It may be that some of what follows in this longish post (a lot of video) is of interest beyond the immediate occasion of the day. I put the videos in playable form here as you may want to scan quickly and then dip in when something catches your eye. On the day, visitors could go round a number of videos/slideshows (mostly paired and in the sequence below) but of course, and as we expected, people dipped in and out: it was that or giving over a lot of the afternoon to this one room. (For me, in these very general talks or events, there’s quite a bit of churn, but it seems always to be the case that there’s plenty of new hooks for anyone whose life isn’t spent immersed in this stuff.)

Incidentally, one of the successes of the afternoon was the discovery of what you can do with the simplest of devices. Spotted in the field the previous week at Manchester’s Urbis, Staples’ slanted clear acrylic sign holders are a brilliant way of signing an exhibition with the minimum of fuss and a lot of clarity:

 The internet of things 

The only nod towards a more formal, display-board style of presentation was this:
 Moore's Law

(Sources: see the first slideshow below, Gizmodo for the smiling boy with the make-believe mobile and Intel’s Moore’s Law 40th Anniversary Press Kit for the two charts on the right.)

Finally, alternating on the overhead projector throughout the afternoon were these videos:

                     

1/

Slideshow 1 (credits as per the links and also: original Apple iPhone ads — see 6/ below; stills from Did You Know; the Flickr slide — from here).

A short history of how computers have grown in power, how their size has got smaller and smaller … and how they’ve gone mobile. Also (and very swiftly), an overview of developments in technology and the web, the advent of both cloud-computing and ubiquitous computing … and the emergence of astonishingly rich social sites and practices.

 
Steve Jobs (1991?) talks about what computers mean to him: ‘Computers are like a bicycle for our minds’.

 

2/  Apple, 1984

In January 1984, a youthful Steve Jobs demonstrated the first Apple Mac. This film still has the power to impress, such was the reception this innovative machine received. And then there’s also Jobs’ own reaction …


This advert, directed by Ridley Scott, was shown on US TV in 1984 and introduced the Mac personal computer. As they said in a later campaign,
Think Different.

 

3/  California dreaming

‘Knowledge Navigator’: another Apple film, from 1987, imagining a personal computer that would be like a PA, memex machine, scholastic aid, visual display — oh, and phone. (Sound familiar?)


‘Time Capsule’: an Apple film made in 1987 and imagining the future of 1997. “No question about it, the 1990s have really been the Apple decade.”

 

4/ Google and Cloud-Computing

It’s hard to believe that Google is just ten years old. In January this year, the company released this film looking back at what they’d done in that time. All 4th Formers get a thorough grounding in using Google’s tools and in managing their personal identity and privacy.


Cloud-computing: more and more of the data we create and use and store is not on our devices but “in the cloud” — in data centres such as this one. Google makes energy efficiency a priority.

 

5/  Google Earth

Everyone knows Google Earth and Google Street View. We explore in our 4th Form course the implications of these technologies for the visualisation of information. We also discuss the emergence of location-based social software and its implications for privacy.

Here’s a beautiful example of the educational value of Google Earth: Ancient Rome (a layer in Google Earth) as it looked in 320AD.

 

6/  iPhone

A game-changing device. The original advertising campaign from June 2007 summarises brilliantly what had been achieved.


The iPhone brought touchscreens into the lives of many. Will it be a key player in bringing ubiquitous computing into our lives, too?
4th Formers are taught that “computers” are much more, and much more present in our lives, than the single desktop this film is playing on.

 

7/  Living in a digital world

Slideshow 2:

An idea of how our students use web-based tools and a panoramic view of our course for 4th Formers.

(I used much of this material in my talk at C4’s recent What Comes Next? The Channel 4 Education Summer Conference.)


Editing Wikipedia: a time-lapse film of the edits made to the page about the London 7 July, 2005, bombings. The article was created, that morning, at 9.15am. In its first four hours, it was edited over a thousand times. All 4th Formers are taught how to understand, evaluate, use and edit Wikipedia.

 

8/  The near future

CGI: no water was harmed in this film. Or even used. Programmers from St Paul’s can look forward to working on enhancing such techniques even further, in film and videogames.


Big Dog, a robot built by Boston Dynamics, walks on rough terrain and ice whilst carrying heavy loads (340lbs). Control Technology works in areas that prepare students for fields like this.

                                          

 

9/  Games

A contentious area for some, the development of a substantial body of critical literature and the wise words of respected reports such as last year’s Byron Review, along with research and better knowledge generally, are leading to a more considered reception of computer games. This slideshow outlines some important research from last year and highlights a talk given here in November 2008.


Old Paulines created Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto, etc). In school today, we are creating an intelligent ethos for the discussion and understanding of games.

In designing videogames, something called The Uncanny Valley needs to be avoided. An entertainingly presented talk.

 

10/  The internet of things

Many of us have grown up thinking the internet is mainly the web — a web of pages. But the machines are coming: embedded devices of all kinds … Machines … talking … to us.

Gartner think that, “By year end 2012, physical sensors will create 20 percent of non-video internet traffic. … The extent and diversity of real-time environmental sensing is growing rapidly as our ability to act on and interpret the growing volumes of data to capture valuable information increases.”

Sensors to monitor energy consumption will become very common. Simon Hay, OP, has been working on this concept (see this poster and site) and three current pupils in the school will be using AMEE to record and monitor our energy usage.

This final Apple video shows the iPhone 3.0 and its use with medical devices — for example, in the monitoring of diabetes.

 

(And for further food for thought, Matt Jones’ iPhone 3.0: everyware-ready?.)

 

11/  Getting it wrong

So many of the things we imagine about the future are wildly wrong. This trip round the recent past and the fast-developing present has tried to avoid such wild predictions, preferring to look instead at some things that are coming true already (a near-future becoming the present) or that are already here.

Cue Postcards Show the Year 2000 (circa 1900). And then:

Here, in two parts, is the GM Futurama 1939 World’s Fair looking ahead to the imagined 1960s, a techno-utopian vision we still haven’t achieved.

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Being that much better

From the immemorial to the ephemeral. I’ve been moving steadily Mac-wards in the last couple of months. If nothing else, it’s liberating to learn to think with different tools. (The desire to have tools that are ready-to-hand, but the value that lies in appreciating constraints — then we have a fighting chance when the picture might otherwise hold us captive.)

The operating system I should really be using is Linux, for the reasons John Gruber summed up so well in a footnote to his recent blog post about Google Chrome OS/vapourware. What he had to say about Linux is so good it’s worth quoting it all:

“Linux” means different things to different people. At a precise technical level, Linux is not an operating system. It is a kernel that can serve as the core for an operating system. What most people mean by “Linux”, though, is an operating system built around the Linux kernel. For use as a desktop PC operating system, all the various “Linux distributions” are basically the same thing: variations of Gnome or KDE sitting atop the ancient X Window System.

Ubuntu is almost certainly the pinnacle of these distributions, but they’re all conceptually the same thing, and the only significant difference is the choice between Gnome and KDE, and even there you’re just choosing between two different environments that are conceptually modeled after Microsoft Windows. The entire X Windows/Gnome/KDE “desktop Linux” racket has never caught any traction with real people. Almost no one wanted it, wants it, or will want it.

My theory on this is rather simple. Early versions of Gnome and KDE were pretty much just clones of the Microsoft Windows UI. They’ve diverged since then, and I’d say Ubuntu’s default Gnome desktop is in most ways better from a design and usability standpoint than Windows Vista. But it’s still fundamentally a clone of Windows — menu bars within the window, minimize/maximize/close buttons at the top right of the window, the ugly single-character underlines in menu and button names. At a glance it looks like Windows with a different theme. The idea being that if you want Windows users to switch to Gnome or KDE, you’ve got to make it feel familiar. But that’s not how you get people to switch to a new product. People won’t switch to something that’s just a little bit better than what they’re used to. People switch when they see something that is way better, holy shit better, wow, this is like ten times better.²

So I think Gnome and KDE are stuck with a problem similar to the uncanny valley. By establishing a conceptual framework that mimicks Windows, they can never really be that much different than Windows, and if they’re not that much different, they can never be that much better. If you want to make something a lot better, you’ve got to make something a lot different. …

² The group that’s the most enthusiastic about Gnome and KDE desktop Linux systems consists of those who care the most about the political and licensing aspects. With regard to the freedoms that stem from the software being open source, something like Ubuntu isn’t just, say, ten times better than Windows or Mac OS X, it is infinitely better.

In amidst fruit-picking, I’m playing with a better camera and I think I’m moving on a little, inspired by time spent alongside Jonathan, engaged by how he works, and, interesting-to-me, by computer games. To start with, that familiar sense of panic that, years ago, poetry once gave me (“I’ll never get this”) and then, at first slowly then more and more quickly, the coming of understanding and pleasure. Games absolutely encourage a try-and-fail-and-try-again approach. I used to be paralysed by the seeming unpredictability in learning anything much at all about digital photography, but treating it like play (which is certainly how I see Jonathan set about things) makes it all right — and fun.

Hammersmith Bridge

Tools for thought: this post was semi-made on a Mac — I could have made this in a pure-Mac way (following a path no doubt excellent but seemingly laborious), but LiveWriter remains the best tool I know for blogging (a lot of the time it gets out of the way). And VirtualBox is free — and works.

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Kayaking

The internet means you don’t have to convince anyone else that something is a good idea before trying it.
Scott Bradner, former trustee of the Internet Society (quoted in Here Comes Everybody)

The communications tools broadly adopted in the last decade are the first to fit human social networks well,
and because they are easily modifiable they can be made to fit better over time.
— Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody, p 158) 

Clay Shirky at the ICABack before Easter, I was at the ICA for the Eno/Shirky evening. One of the books I then read over the break was Here Comes Everybody. I’ve been meaning for some time to put down a few notes about it here. This has grown to be a long post as I’ve added to it, wanting to get a few things out on the page and, so, clearer in my own mind.

It’s a great book to suggest to friends who are not familiar with the technologies Shirky discusses as it hides its knowledge well — but there are still leads to follow up. The modest ten or so pages of the Bibliography threw up a number of articles I'd either not heard of before or hadn’t visited in a long while. In the former camp, I recommend: Anderson: More Is Different (Science — 1972); R H Coase: The Nature of the Firm (pdf) — a 1937 economics paper; Richard P. Gabriel — Lisp: Good News, Bad News, How to Win Big: worse is better (1991); Alan Page Fiske: Human Sociality. (There’s an online “webliography” here.) And chapters 8–11, covering so many big topics — social capital; three kinds of loss (some solve-a-hard-problem jobs; some social bargains; negative aspects to new freedoms); small world networks; more on social capital; failure (‘open source … is outfailing’ commercial efforts, 245); more on groups (‘every working system is a mix of social and technological factors’, 260) — hit my Amazon Prime account hard. (Incidentally, there’s a Kevin Kelly piece on “more is different”, Zillionics, that appeared earlier this year. See also Kevin Kelly’s The Google Way of Science and Wired’s The Petabyte Age: Because More Isn't Just More — More Is Different.)

Further reading to one side, a number of things discussed in the book particularly interested me straightaway. Firstly, sociality, privacy and exposure online. Leisa recently posted Ambient Exposure, an update (of sorts) to her post of last March, Ambient Intimacy. The titles tell their own story. Early on, Clay writes about ‘how dramatically connected we've become to one another … [how much] information we give off about our selves’. This took me back to Adam Greenfield’s recent talk at the Royal Society (I’ve also been re-reading Everyware). Our love of flocking is being fed handsomely by means of the new tools Clay Shirky discusses so well.

Privacy is always coming up in conversations at school about online life, and what I’m hearing suggests our students are beginning to look at privacy and exposure with growing circumspection. Facebook’s People You May Know functionality has made some sit up and wonder where social software might be taking us. We’re slowly acquiring a stronger sense of how seduction through imagined privacy works (alone in a room, save for screen and keyboard) and a more developed understanding of what it means to write for unseen audiences. Meanwhile, there are things to be unlearned: ‘those of us who grew up with a strong separation between communication and broadcast media … assume that if something is out where we can find it, it must have been written for us. … Now that the cost of posting things in a global medium has collapsed, much of what gets posted on any given day is in public but not for the public’ (90).  In the Bibliography, Clay refers to a post of Danny O’Brien’s — all about register — which is a longtime favourite of mine, too.

Then there was what the book had to say about media and journalism. Simon Waldman, well-placed to pass comment, on chapters 3 and 4:

The chapters most relevant to media/journalism - ‘Everyone is a media outlet’ and ‘Publish first, filter later’ should be required reading for pretty much everyone currently sitting in a newspaper/broadcaster. It’s certainly the best thought through thing I’ve read on this, and the comparison to the decline of the scribes when the printing press came in is really well drawn. 

The summary to Chapter 4 (‘Publish, Then Filter’) runs, ‘The media landscape is transformed, because personal communication and publishing, previously separate functions, now shade into one another. One result is to break the older pattern of professional filtering of the good from the mediocre before publication; now such filtering is increasingly social, and happens after the fact’. ‘Filter-then-publish … rested on a scarcity of media that is a thing of the past. The expansion of social media means the only working system is publish-then-filter’ (98). (Language like this can sound an utopian note that rings on in the head long after the book’s been closed, as if we’d entered a world beyond old constraints. And look!: the Praetorian Guard of elite gatekeepers is no more.)

I was interested, too, to read Shirky’s thoughts about the impact of new technologies on institutions. His application of Ronald Coase’s 1937 paper and, in particular, the idea of the Coasean floor (‘activities … [that] are valuable to someone but too expensive to be taken on in any institutional way’), was very striking: the new tools allow ‘serious, complex work [to be] taken on without institutional direction’ and things can now be achieved by ‘loosely coordinated groups’ which previously ‘lay under the Coasean floor’.

We didn't notice how many things were under that floor because, prior to the current era, the alternative to institutional action was usually no action. (47)

Later in the book (107), he comes back to institutions, taking what is happening to media businesses as not unique but prophetic — for ‘All businesses are media businesses … [as] all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences — employees and the world’:

The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organisational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration, and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complete the change will be. The linking of symmetrical participation and amateur production makes this period of change remarkable. Symmetrical participation means that once people have the capacity to receive information, they have the capability to send it as well. Owning a television does not give you the ability to make TV shows, but owning a computer means that you can create as well as receive many kinds of content, from the written word through sound and images. Amateur production, the result of all this new capability, means that the category of "consumer" is now a temporary behaviour rather than a permanent identity.

‘Every new user is a potential creator and consumer’ (106) is reminiscent of Bradley Horowitz in Creators, Synthesizers, and Consumers (2006).

*****

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