Category Archives: Ideas

Heatherwick, Comedy and Web Art

To the V&A Museum, for only the second time in my life, to visit the Heatherwick Studio exhibition. I must admit I’d not been aware of Thomas Heatherwick until the Olympic Cauldron, though of course his design for the new London Routemaster Bus had been on the periphery of my awareness too. A couple of thoughts struck me:
Heatherwick Studio Exhibition
The Comedy of Design

I was impressed with what I saw, and there was a definite theme which emerged from the exhibition as a whole – that of taking a material, pushing it to its’ limits, and stretching, straining it into different shapes and uses. It almost felt that Heatherwick was researching a material, or a product, and taking it to its logical conclusion, or even an illogical one. The plank which could be disguised as furniture; the rolling bridge; the stretchy, re-mouldable furniture and carpets; the zip bag – all of these felt like magic tricks, or jokes. The equivalent of a Monty Python sketch, it really did feel like comedy, expressed in manufacturing. There’s something in that, but I’m not quite sure what, just yet. His works felt almost unashamedly futuristic, immaculately researched but also almost from a naive, playful starting point – why *not* do this with a material – again, every piece felt like it was playing a joke on the original brief – c.f. this almost Bond-villain-esque boat design. I like that.

Web Design as Art

The other thing is something that I think about every time I go to a museum. We regard sculpture, painting, music, writing, even manufacturing as works and processes of art. But when it comes to the Web, our approach is often couched in very utilitarian terms – either in that of technical prowess, or from a position of usability. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those – but it feels like currently there’s not much consideration for web design as an art form. And by that I don’t mean interaction design or visual/screen design – those are catered for. I mean the design of webs. They shouldn’t just be functional. They can be elegant, they can be works of art, too. I’d love there to be more art based on this. I’m sure there’s been similar, looking at things from a more mathematical/theoretical point of view around networks, but why not have exhibitions devoted to great design of webs. The design of a website is so often a careful balance of technical constraints, usability and art, we should be proud of it, and make more of it. Break it free from the screen, and show the topology of different websites. Study it, learn from it – but also allow more artistic freedom in it. Is there comedy in web design, too? (and not just in ‘bad’ design, of course!)

I imagine an exhibit of a dark room, filled with laser/light-emitting objects, perhaps similar (but much less deadly) to those found in the Portal series of games. Each object represents a node of a website. Each object emits a light in the dark, which connects it to another object. Perhaps the light also spells out the semantic link. The objects fill the room, and a visitor can type in a website, and, in a short space of time, the lights reconfigure to represent the topology of that website. Perhaps even make it so people can wander amongst the links, navigating the Web – breaking the links, too – redirecting them. Make the design of the Web almost physical, but forget the screens. That would be an interesting exhibit. Reminds me, too, of Listening Post.

Perhaps the final thing to think about is the way in which we conceive of the world when we think of computers – so often we think of pixels – boxes that sit snugly against each other, and we build stuff out of them. Perhaps we need to think more about networks, and re-imagine worlds out of them.

How to Build a Time Machine

In Steven Johnson‘s excellent book, Where Good Ideas Come From, he explores the idea of ‘the adjacent possible’ – that at certain moments in history, breakthroughs in culture and technology are made more possible because of work that has gone before. Related to this is the idea that innovation is rarely the result of ‘the lone genius’, but more a result of collaboration. Indeed, it can sometimes seem that several people, disconnected from each other apart from through a network of ideas, can be swimming around the same breakthrough. Hence, why there’s probably no single inventor of television, for instance.

Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed that time, as a concept, is becoming one of these whirlpools that people are being drawn to. And personally, I think there’s something really exciting that hooks them all together – it may not be a fully fleshed out thought, but it feels like the right time to get it out there and provoke further discussion. The thought – perhaps time travel really is possible – but not quite how we’d imagined it.

Firstly, though, a quick review of some of those bits and pieces that keep me coming back to this idea. As others have noted, we’re fast approaching the point where we’re not only concerned about the personal information we’re putting online in terms of privacy, but there’s also enough of it for us to want to understand it better. Call it personal informatics (as in various health tracking systems), or something like Memolane – history is becoming a big deal. I’ve written before about the ‘tyranny of breaking news’, so I’m all for something that gets us out of constantly being bombarded with the ‘new’.

One of the most interesting applications of this, in my opinion, has been the ‘Momento‘ app. Nothing revolutionary, you might think – it’s a system that brings together your activity on various social networks, and allows you to annotate ‘moments’. But the important bit for me is the elegant way in which tweets and so on are organised – by date. There’s very few applications (that I’ve encountered) that do this.

A few other, tangential projects, deal with a similar theme. James Bridle’s ‘A Ship Adrift‘ has a stationary object, the titular ship, drifting through time. And Mark Hurrell’s ‘Places I’ve Been‘ is a tumblr of photos he’s taken, with a great big dirty timestamp slap bang in the middle of the photo.

London, Now‘ is a live feed of Instagram photos as they come in, again, with the time/date to the fore. And finally, Ben Ward wrote a really good piece on using time as a design principle. And this, I think, is the main point – too often, time and date have been an extra piece of metadata, on the side, unloved. If we’re lucky, then it’s been used as a quiet way of navigating through archives.

What’s missing, I feel, is the idea of time as the central organising concept on the Web. Matt Sheret, in his dConstruct presentation from 2011, talked about how pocket watches and railroads conspired (not literally..) to bring about a change in the consciousness of the nation – time was becoming much more synchronised across geographical boundaries. It became a thing that you could reference, point at, and organise everything else around.

Of course, as I’ve said to anyone who’ll listen, the Web is all about pointing-at-things. And those things, I feel, can be conceptual as well as physical – this isn’t just the Internet of Things, it’s the Internet of Conceptual Things. And screens aren’t a given, either. So, why not make time addressable, point-at-able?

A couple of years back, myself, Rob Styles and Jonathan Tweed were sitting in a bar discussing our work – we were talking about the foundations for a storytelling platform at the BBC (one which is, as I speak, hopefully coming to fruition). We wanted to make the building blocks of stories point-at-able. Sure, they wouldn’t be everything that makes up a story, the Web not yet fully able to deliver the same tricks that we’ve grown used to in print, audio, images and film. But it was a start. And one of the things we discussed was – what if we didn’t just treat time as a property of an event – what if it was a first order object?

Why bother? We’ve managed to teach computers how to calculate dates and times with ease (save a mass panic over the millennium) – so why go against the grain?

The grand sage Wikipedia tells us of a philosophy of time, called Eternalism. This is the idea that time isn’t something that we are doomed to speed through, but rather that packets of time will always exist. And if there are discrete packages of time, then they can be referenced, they can be accessed. So again, this isn’t time as a property, a query string – it’s time as the main thing.

Theoretically, of course, there are holes in the idea – just as we’ve always thought of time travel into the past, via conventional means (some would say, in reality..) as pretty much impossible. But perhaps it’s possible in a conceptual, constructed manner, instead.

Make time addressable – give packets (i.e. spans of time) URIs, and then we can link to them, we can build services, applications, imaginative creations on top. Web Standard Time.

Imagine a dome, say, the size of the O2 arena, with the inside covered in flat screens. Now imagine that every Google Street View photo has been linked to a packet of time. Before entering the arena, you input details of a street, and a particular date and time. When you step in, you are completely surrounded, immersed, as if you were stepping on to that street on that day. That, is a time machine. And I think we should build one. Just to try it out.

(Thanks to Ben Bashford, Chris Sizemore, Alyson Fielding and Henry Cooke for the nudges to finally get this blog post written, and many others for the inspiration!)

Chain Reaction

In the last couple of years, I’ve been to a few conferences and meetups – more often than not, at the Conway Hall. I’m always uncertain whether I should be taking notes, or whether it’s better just to sit, listen and soak up what’s being said. Often, though, during a talk, I’ll have a question – or something that has been said will set my mind off on a train of thought, connecting it to other things I’ve heard, similar ideas and so on. I’ll tend to jot those down, in some form.

On the few number of occasions where I’ve been one of the speakers, and not been on first, I like to, if possible and relevant, refer to things that have been mentioned by previous speakers – because the audience will be familiar with that idea, and that might help form connections when understanding my ramblings. I like to think it also helps the conference as a whole have more of a coherence. But, at the same time, what I’m going to say is pretty much prepared in advance. As will be most of the speakers’ talks, I would expect. Which means that, in a way, we’re all operating in our own little silos. The conference organisers will have, hopefully, selected the speakers and topics, and arranged them in an order which flows well together, but, on the whole, the talks are, by their nature, self contained things.

Which, for me, seems a shame. Because in some ways the crucially important part of a conference, in my opinion, isn’t the content of the talks – it’s the thoughts and reactions that the talks inspire in everyone else. And at the moment, the reaction to a talk is too disconnected. It’s confined to blog posts, which mainly appear days after the event; Twitter, where it’s often hard to form a coherent response over a number of tweets (and the ‘twitter wall’ of real-time reactions can be a mixed blessing), or, worst still, just confined to someone’s own notebook, never to see a wider audience.

What I’d like to see is a conference where there’s a few speakers, who might be primed with some general thoughts and themes they want to talk about, but the main feature is in the reactions. The first speaker gives a fairly normal talk, but then the following person talks mainly in the form of reacting to the first speaker – talking about how the ideas presented by the first speaker chime (or otherwise) with their own thoughts, and so on throughout the day, so that each talk becomes not a silo, but a melting pot of constantly evolving ideas.

I’m aware that this is very much a format rather than a theme for a conference/meetup, and, in the very basic form that I’ve described above, it’s not completely practical. But it feels that with some tweaking, and perhaps framed with a theme, there could be room for a slightly different style of conference/meetup to see the light of day. And in the spirit of the new year, I’d be very interested in trying to make something actually happen along these lines, rather than it just being a blogged idea.

P. S. Yes, it’s basically taking the format of Radio 4’s ‘Chain Reaction‘ chat show, but compressing it into a conference/meetup, rather than strung out over several weeks – and less ‘interview’ heavy, more responsive.