Interconnected

All posts made in Oct. 2015:

Filtered for automation

1.

An autopen or signing machine is a device used for the automatic signing of a signature.

Used extensively by US presidents: In 2005, the U.S. Justice Department issued a legal opinion upholding the right of the U.S. President to sign bills by autopen.

And:

Lyndon Johnson allowed photographs of his autopen to be taken while he was in office, and in 1968 the National Enquirer ran them along with the front page headline "The Robot That Sits In For The President."

Here's the front page: The Robot That Sits In For the President

See also LongPen, invented by author Margaret Atwood.

the LongPen is not an Autopen, which signs your name over and over without your presence being required. Instead, the LongPen does whatever you have just done at your end, including ‘Happy Birthday Marge’ and a picture of a pussycat

Saves travelling when on book tours.

So hold me Mom, in your long arms. In your automatic arms. In your electrical arms.

2.

On finding new language for space missions that fly without humans.

Unmanned? Robotic? Unpiloted? Uncrewed? Unoccupied? Unhumaned? Drone? Autonomous? Crewless?

The problem is that unmanned is sexist; robotic craft can still contain humans; unpiloted is not accurate because there's still a pilot it's just not human; uncrewed is not in the dictionary... and besides there is a crew, it's just several million miles away back at mission control.

My feeling is that it'll become the default to have spacecraft with no human crew, and we'll end up distinguishing by saying when it does have human passengers, assuming not otherwise.

Just like with robot cars. We no longer say "horseless" carriage; in the future we won't say "driverless" car. It'll be something to point out when there really is a human involved.

3.

The iPhone 6S came out recently, and as usual there were lines overnight outside the shops. At the Apple Store in Sydney, a telepresence robot was 4th in line. Everyone seemed ok about it.

I remember playing Mario Kart on the Nintendo DS and you could get linked up with real human players to race against -- and there was a pretty good A.I. system in Mario Kart so why play against humans? You couldn't chat. But something... the humanness shone through.

Andy Serkis playing Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies. You can see him, through the motion capture and the green screen and the rendered mesh. You can see him right from the back of the CGI.

You get that at the theatre -- you go and see an opera and you're right up there in the gods, but somehow you can tell the emotion of the lead from that tiny thumbnail of a face all the way down there on the stage, the feelings shine up and up, they're larger than life.

In the future our great performers will be those who are able to project their humanity through heavy shrouds of computer mediation.

4.

Soylent is a food replacement beverage; you don't need to consume anything else. I think this is part of the modern mindset, these bimodal extremes: Either you eat at Michelin star restaurants, or you go low-cost low-effort; why bother doing anything between.

The founder of Soylent is Rob Rhinehart. What kind of person conceives of a product like Soylent? He recently gave up alternating current.

The walls are buzzing. I know this because I have a magnet implanted in my hand and whenever I reach near an outlet I can feel them. I can feel fortresses of industry miles away burning prehistoric hydrocarbons by the megaton.

Anyway, so he doesn't have mains electricity. No kitchen, no TV. He powers his laptop and his phone from a solar cell.

Look, this is what got me. He doesn't own a washing machine. And so:

I enjoy doing laundry about as much as doing dishes. I get my clothing custom made in China for prices you would not believe and have new ones regularly shipped to me. ... I donate my used garments.

Unpiloted? Uncrewed? Unoccupied? Unhumaned?

Hardware-coffee morning next week?

Let's do another hardware-ish coffee morning! Next week.

Thursday 29th October, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club (100 Leonard St).

Why? Because it's been A TRILLION YEARS. Something about summer totally knocked out my routines. Plus all that cricket on the TV. Reduced my efficiency somewhat. The last hardware-ish coffee morning was in San Francisco, I'm still due to write that up.

Anyway here's how it works but the short version... it might be five of us, it might be fifteen, we're all vaguely interested in hardware startups, or making things, or knitting.

There's no structure, no single conversation, it's super super informal. Come along! And we have an alarming tendency towards the meetup group cosmic death known as TOO MANY DUDES -- so if you're NOT a dude, please take take this as an enthusiastic invitation. Don't let me sit there with a half dozen men on a Thursday morning for two hours.

Bring a prototype if you fancy showing it round, but no pressure. Always nice to have some stuff to look at.

See you then!

For email updates, join the increasingly infrequent coffee morning announce list.

Why I'm bullish on Twitter

My take is Twitter has three killer opportunities, invented by users and, apart from the first, ignored by the company itself.

Everyone else seems to be chipping in on what Twitter should be doing, so this is me joining in. Those three opportunities:

  • Breaking news. If there's a traffic jam on my road, I find out on Twitter there's a bus broken down a mile away. If a politician is caught out playing fast and loose with the truth, Twitter is where the story comes out, and where I find out first. It's global and hyperlocal, it's the latest analysis and a direct connection with the people involved. Later on, when I'm reading news, I end up going to the Guardian or Reddit -- it feels bonkers given it's Twitter where I learn about events in the first place. Twitter Moments might be the feature that creates value here, by editorialising trending topics for the mass market. It might not be, but as least the company is thinking about it.
  • Customer service. Look at any brand's "Tweet & Replies" tab... an airline, broadband, bank, fashion. It's brands talking to people, it's customer service. Potential businesses abound -- there's a need for automation, artificial intelligence that divides inbound requests into easy-to-repond-to customer "intents." Where are the China-style chatbots that talk customers through problems, account management, browsing the product range, upgrades and so on, efficiently backed up by humans only when necessary? Other companies are trying to build this, outside Twitter, but that makes no sense: Customers are already talking to brands on Twitter, and the brands are at breaking point. This is a prime use-case for Twitter when creating a new developer ecosystem, only one that allows for sustainable businesses this time around.
  • TV. Watching TV alongside Twitter is amazing, it makes it worth watching a show at broadcast time again... The Great British Bake Off alongside the #gbbo timeline is hilarious. And you know, Twitter is also where I hear about new shows. If I was Twitter, I'd do something like Soundcloud's enormously clever audio player that follows you round the site as you browse: Perhaps it would be a picture-in-picture feature, integrated with every streaming service I subscribe to. Tap the pic to see the timeline and to invite others to join you. Twitter could be modern mode of video distribution, of socialising around TV; the TV phone-in, and the electronic programme guide, all rolled into one. Or at least, it should try. It should come with a projector too.

Breaking news, customer service, TV. I don't say these because they're places Twitter could possibly go. I point them out because users have already demonstrated that this is how Twitter works for them, and because Twitter's competitors aren't there. (Yet.)

I'm bullish on Twitter because these opportunities are obvious, and Twitter Moments and the recent leadership changes hint that maybe they're ready to take the advantage.

Art + tech

There's something about art + tech which is niggling at me. The process I'm interested in is when a technology organisation commissions or supports art as a way to understand itself.

I don't quite understand this itch or why I've got it, so I've spent a day looking at examples.

Art as design

The 1951 Festival of Britain... a celebration of science, culture, and manufacturing. This public information film introduces it:

Something Britain devised ... a milestone between past and future, to enrich and enliven the present. A diverse place, of serious fun, and light-hearted solemnity ... That's us. Or some of us. For we're more than that... We are the Lion and the Unicorn. The Lion is our strength; the Unicorn our imagination.

(Transcript)

As part of this: 28 of Britain's leading manufacturers came together to form the Festival Pattern Group -- a collaboration between designers and scientists pioneering the then-new method of x-ray crystallography.

All catalogued in the Wellcome Trust's exhibition, From Atoms to Patterns. Included were table surfaces, lace, plates, carpets, wallpaper, glass, fabrics, and even ashtrays based on the atomic structures of complex molecules like insulin and haemoglobin.

Another collaboration between design and science:

Mark Champkins who is Inventor in Residence at London's Science Museum. His work is sold in the museum shop and includes

Also this bouquet of flowers for the Queen, made out of computer punch cards.

Art as the cutting edge

Chrome Experiments is a showcase of web experiments written by the creative coding community.

I'm not sure that Google would call this art, but there are over a thousand purposeless-but-beautiful explorations of what code can do in the browser, and you can bet the Chrome browser team is inspired and stretched by what's contributed.

One such experiment: Ocean Wave Simulation.

Poetic applications of technology...

These Air Penguins from 2009. Majestic, silver helium-filled robots that swim through the air like penguins through water. Makes me wonder when we're going to see gentle acrobatic robots over Trafalgar Square, or in stadiums. Soon I hope.

The penguins are by Festo, a German industrial automation company. Festo's YouTube channel. I'm sure the techniques developed (they create these animal-inspired robots every year) will fold back into the day-to-day.

Art as revelation

The Bell Labs artist in residence programme in the sixties:

VanDerBeek would show up describing phantasmagoric ideas that he wanted the computers to realize and that then Knowlton [the engineer] would patiently explain what the program was actually capable of. Between these poles of reality they produced some of the first computer animation ever.

I look at some of the early films by Lilian Schwartz and I don't think I'm seeing art as "something to work towards" or even (although it is this too) a kind of buttressing of human meaning to technical work... but as a way of discovering possibility? "Discovering" is too passive a word, the process is two way. The artist reveals and shapes the technology simultaneously.

Schwartz: PIXILLATION occurred at a time when the computer system was linear in time and space; Programs did not yet control pixels as moving, malleable palettes -- Pixillation was made in 1970.

Bell Labs in the 1990s, Listening Post:

viewers are immersed in a sonification and visualization of thousands of simultaneous conversations happening on the internet at that moment in real-time. An arched wall of hundreds of small screens display ever-changing text in a cool glowing blue. Electronically-generated voices in both a pitched-monotone and natural-inflection sing out the text from every corner of the room singly, overlapping, or in strange harmonies.

Rachel Duckhouse making visible the hidden social connections between her fellow artists at Banff. Legends.

The Xerox PARC artist in residence programme is described here. I'm entranced by the work of Judy Malloy who in 1993 created a smart kitchen (an Internet of Things kitchen, a cybernetic kitchen, a ubiquitous computing kitchen...) as a multi-player text adventure. Her description:

the devices were a mobile, audio equipped robot, (Ralph Will Clean Up After You) a database food dispensing table, (GoodFood), a pre-narrative video device, (Barbie-Q) and two electronic books. (Sarah's Diary and the narranoter) The social nature of LambdaMoo was also incorporated into Brown House Kitchen. Players could sit at the table, order meals, and as is usual in LambdaMOO, talk with other players.

And there are extracts from Brown House Kitchen here:

look ralph

Ralph is an aging Will Clean Up After You Unit, manufactured in 2003 by Orlando Kitchen Thingmans. His straight white hair is combed back from his pink, wrinkled simulated skin. When you talk to him, it becomes apparent that his gossip player is stuck in some previous month.

What strikes me about this vision of the future is that, unlike other future kitchens, it feels fully realised. This is a world we might live in.

But the point of Malloy's work isn't to be a vision of the future: It's (in her words) narrative performance art which is a harder to grasp and much more interesting place to be.

There are other residencies:

NPR discusses the programmes at Autodesk and Facebook. The residency run by Amtrak is intriguing: It was about looking outward, but from what I hear from other Amtrak writers, many used it as an opportunity to look inward.

Art as irritant

John Chamberlain's residency at the RAND Corporation (published in 1971).

Chamberlain distributed a cryptic memo to all consultants at RAND ... 'I'm searching for ANSWERS. Not questions! If you have any, will you please filll in below, and send them to me in Room 1138.'

Some responses:

Quit Wasting RAND Paper and Time.

GO TO HELL MISTER!!

An artist in residence is a waste of money.

Art as marketing

I've run across lots of instances of artists being commissioned for marketing -- to get the word out but in a classy way. And of sponsorship of galleries and art prizes.

You know, Andy Warhol drawing Debbie Harry as part of the launch of the Amiga 1000. You can't get any more art.

But it's not the itch I'm feeling.

When the art is outward-facing, as marketing, as communication that runs at the launch of a product and includes no feedback loop into the product's invention... when this happens, the tech company isn't using the art to talk to itself, to understand itself.

That said, you do get instances where it all comes together, technology and art and adverting and reflection: Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962 by Megan Prelinger.

Prelinger documents how the tech companies involved in the space race would use science fiction artists to create their adverts, briefing them on their top secret research to make nod-and-wink messages to other companies, and also - because the artists would feed ideas to sci-fi authors - subtly influencing the emerging consensus cosmogony.

More here.

Art as adjacency

I find it hard to figure out the relationship between Rackspace (a hosting company) and gapingvoid, an artist and now a consultancy. Is it patronage and a kind of "corporate social responsibility," or access to a fresh well of ideas, or an association -- a kind of cultural osmosis that Rackspace believes it needs?

Art as decoration

Graffiti artist David Choe accepted equity instead of cash to paint Facebook's offices in 2005. Choe's stock is now worth $200 million.

Art as curation

Sometimes art is about curation, an intervention that creates maybe a binding gravity, or maybe a sense of history or manifest destiny, or maybe a landscape that produces a new language from the spaces opened up between things.

My examples here aren't always from technology companies, but I find them all inspirational none-the-less.

A Computer Perspective (1971) by the Eames Office for IBM... important milestones in the development of the electronic computer.

Talk to Me (2011) curated by Paola Antonelli at the New York MoMA, which opened up the territory of computers and humans, talking and augmenting one another. A step away from "interface" into something, well, whatever we're in now.

The New Aesthetic (2011) by James Bridle. Vanity Fair: the visible artifacts of the network, the identifiable places and moments where the digital erupts into the physical. He posted dresses patterned in pixels, camouflage that evades facial recognition, and a map of the places most densely covered by Wikipedia entries.

Cybernetic Serendipity (1968) curated by Jasia Reichardt at the ICA:

the links between the random systems employed by artists, composers and poets, and those involved with the making and the use of cybernetic devices. Cybernetic Serendipity dealt with possibilities rather than achievements, especially since in 1968 computers had not yet revolutionised music, art, or poetry, in the same way that they had revolutionised science.

Here's an unofficial archive and a short video of Reichardt opening the exhibition.

And of course: Modern art was a CIA weapon, funded and nurtured to battle in the cultural front of the Cold War.

Art as content

EO1 by Electric Objects -- a screen that leans against your wall and displays art.

Only... this is a TV that sits on its side emitting light. It doesn't make sense to reproduce oil paintings on it. That's not art, that's a screen saver.

What I like is that EO1 launched with an artist programme:

Artworks can take the form of still images, animated gifs, video, generative and web-based works ...

Selected artists will be featured and promoted in Art Club, Electric Objects's collection of new and original art for EO1, and receive an EO1 prototype plus a $500 commission fee.

Art as a way to explore the form. In a way, like when Medium acquired Matter -- long-form content presentation tool acquires long-form journalism organisation.

Art as reflection

Six Monkeys by Brendan Dawes with newsletter-sending-technology-company Mailchimp. From the intro:

Email is often thought of with negative connotations; overflowing inboxes, strategies on how to get to inbox zero ... There is however another side. Email is a ubiquitous, easy to understand system, working across any platform that can deliver not just the unwanted and the unloved but often the exact opposite; messages from friends, exciting opportunities, memories of trips taken and a million other things.

What is it?

Six Monkeys is a series of six connected objects that look at how we might change our relationship to email by changing the surrounding context of how we interact with it. By placing email within our everyday physical spaces it may get us to look at the familiarity of email in a new light; we may even learn to love it again.

Is this marketing? Well Mailchimp got press in the right places. But I think the key is in the phrase, email in a new light. My feeling is that Six Monkeys speaks best and loudest to Mailchimp and its community of users, keeping them alive to what email really is, not just what it is today.

Also this: Each object is named after a famous Chimpanzee used in linguistic research.

Another stand-out:

The Open Data Institute (co-founded by Tim Berners-Lee, led by Gavin Starks) trains companies and lobbies for open data. But since it formed in 2012, it has also commissioned and exhibited art.

The ODI's Data as Culture programme:

Artworks have included a knitted data discrepancy, a larger-than-life sized electronic sculpture, a semi-sentient vending machine, data collection performances, kinetic objects, and pneumatic machines.

Explore some of the collection here but I know there's more -- I'm seeing if I can lay my hands on the catalogues, or find out whether there's an online gallery.

Final thoughts

So I'm not super drawn to art-as-marketing, or even technology-as-artistic-tool -- what's grabbing me is when art is used in some kind of process by a company or organisation to think about itself. Either by commissioning, or via a residency programme, or as some kind of poetic effort or exploration. But not as design, really, or simple patronage. Something else.

And while net.art is brilliant and exciting - a number of artists fizzing as they explore and define a medium - and also art as outsider critique (2005), what's intriguing to me is the deliberate use of art, by the tech organisation itself, for... something. Whatever it is. If it even knows.

An instinctive urge for interpretation?

Connection?

Here's a report on sound artist Bill Fortana at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider:

Fontana recorded the sounds. The popping, tapping dance beat of the protons' regular release is underlaid with the hiss of cooling water and the heavy clang of the magnets charging and discharging. ...

[Fontana] listened to the proton source for a moment, and then handed his headphones to Detlef Kuchler, the physicist who prepares the protons and launches them on their journey. ...

"The picture on Detlef's face was astounding," [Koek] says. "This was his baby -- and it looked as if he had just heard it crying for the first time."

Thanks

The reason I'm looking into this is a short (and visual) report I'm writing -- I lend a hand at a Large Technology Company You've Probably Heard Of, and my hunch is there's some important stuff here. I'd like to understand it better and to bring to their attention.

While I'm not writing up my conclusions here, I've posted the research because most of these projects were shared with me on Twitter and in follow-up emails by a ton of people. Thanks hugely to: @rogre, @paulpod, @hannah_redler, @amcewen, @bull, @uah, @stuartcurran, @iamdanw, @pdcawley, @inthecompanyof, @tomwhitwell, @anabjain, @designscold, @chrisboden, and @monkchips. Special thanks to @gsvoss. Not all of your contributions made it into this list, but each one has been valuable and massively appreciated. Thank you!

Filtered for flowers

1.

New trend: Across China, people are sporting plastic decorations on their heads in the shape of vegetables, fruit and flowers.

e.g. a beansprout.

"Does your country have this yet?" she asked. "It will certainly spread abroad."

2.

Relatively recent appearance in the Spanish-speaking world: The word niñ@s. Here's a fantastic photo by Bill DeRouchey.

A gender neutral way to say both niñas (meaning girls) and niños (meaning boys and also, historically, children generally).

3.

Flowers.

The flowers are drawn with code. When it's written, code is built up with a series of "commits" - a self-contained block of functionality, together with a message by the developer that describes it.

If you read the commit messages for these flowers, there's a poem there.

Full code here.

4.

Disney princesses re-imagined as hotdogs.

Tomtown

Almost a decade ago, there was a florescence of ambient awareness. Because the web was small, we used websites to share our activity in a way that would be overwhelming now... but back then, provided social peripheral vision, creating a sense of togetherness, no matter where we were.

Some of the tools I used:

  • Last.fm which would share what music I had on by scrobbling tracks to a website
  • Jaiku which put a free/busy indicator - and message - right next to my friends in my phone address-book
  • Instant messenger away messages... like a one-time-use status update. My favourite was to write 4!!! then see who messaged me to say 4 what? At which point I'd update my away message: 5!!!
  • Dopplr which simply said what city I was in right now and where I was planning to be next. Serendipitous meetings with friends in foreign cities, there's nothing nicer
  • (Any more I've forgotten?)

My own take on this was Glancing -- eye-contact for small groups, only online. I reached prototype, and I've tried to build it again since. But never managed to get it quite right.

All the weird side-effects that happened! Having to turn your scrobbles off when you're playing an embarrassing track... or not: You gotta embrace your inner midget.

It's all Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and face and FoMO.

Complex, lively, the hurly burly stuff of life.

There are a couple of services which have evolved.

  • Flickr had an element of "what I'm up to right now" but it went all Pro Photography. Instagram leapt in on that low-friction, scrobble-my-view, ambient-awareness thing... but I've noticed in the last few months I'm beginning to miss stuff. My community there is too big.
  • Twitter used to be, for me, this lovely way of having coffee with people because we both happened to be in the same part of town at the same time. And then it started acting more like old school blogging with this general awareness of what people are up to. And now it's all about self-marketing, and so busy that unless you're in the same timezone as someone, you're going to lose touch.

Facebook does a bunch of these things, but not well. One big room with terrible acoustics.

Hey Facebook's new campus has the largest open plan office in the world. NO SHIT.

Can I say something? Email used to be different. You’d spend hours crafting florid, multi-paragraph epics, full of emotion, humour, and anecdote. Imagine giving that much of a shit about an email today.

The web is busy now. No bad thing. But much too busy to have a single place to gather my friends around photos, another around status updates, etc. I used to have one community online, and now I've got a hundred. And while I can shard them by app (business on LinkedIn, family on Facebook, my global village on Twitter), it's a lot of effort to maintain that. And it doesn't make any sense.

Until:

Tom Coates invited me to join a little community of his in Slack. There are a handful of people there, some old friends, some new friends, all in this group messaging thingy.

There's a space where articles written or edited by members automatically show up. I like that.

I caught myself thinking: It'd be nice to have Last.FM here too, and Dopplr. Nothing that requires much effort. Let's also pull in Instagram. Automatic stuff so I can see what people are doing, and people can see what I'm doing. Just for this group. Back to those original intentions. Ambient awareness, togetherness.

Nobody says very much. Sometimes there's a flurry of chat.

It's small, human-scale. Maybe it's time to bring all these ambient awareness tools back, shared inside Slack instances this time.

You know what, it's cosy. I've been missing this. A neighbourhood.

Small groups and consultancy and coffee mornings

There's something in my head about small groups, and consultancy, and coffee mornings. It's a hypothesis I'm running with to shape my own practice, and I'm darned if I can get it on paper. What's in my head isn't an essay, it's more like a mini Wikipedia of articles and associations. I chat with friends about this hunch I've got, and the experiments I'm doing. And the person I'm talking to says: You should write that down.

Anyway. I've not been able to. So I'm just going to keep typing until it's all there, and not worry about whether it's well structured or original.

Or readable.

~

From the introduction to Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut:

Whatever the reason, [the author] wrote this book in pencil on everything from brown wrapping paper to the backs of business cards. The unconventional lines separating passages within chapters indicate where one scrap ended and the next began. The shorter the passage, the smaller the scrap.

The story is disjointed. It appears only while you're in motion, giving you the sensation that the story world exists not on the page but in your head -- and you've done the work to put it together, so it's more real for that. Like reading Markson.

So I wonder whether it's possible to use that process in reverse: Write the scraps in whatever order, squint, and see what kind of logical pattern emerges. If any.

~

A recurring pattern in the consultancy at BERG was product invention workshops: get a good understanding of the material, the business, and the customers, all in a room together, and work through sketches. See what happens in three days.

Workshops had other benefits. They were a simple and relatively low-cost way to see whether the studio and the client got on. We could trial a hundred ideas and surface hidden desires and obstructions quickly. The workshop could demonstrate that design was work, not ivory tower thinking. All of this process faster because it was face to face.

Absolutely exhausting, but useful. Jack and I developed our workshop patterns in 2007, and they were 10x'd by Matt Jones when he joined in 2009.

~

One permanent pattern in our workshop culture:

Best design consultancy tip I know: Don't criticise without offering something better. Called the Ahtisaari Manoeuvre after an early client

Always have something on the table.

Another: Always use fat pens.

Another: It's important to have the right people in the room -- representing knowledge of technical possibilities, business needs, and market insights. But at the same time, the ideal number of people to have in the room is five or six. Any more than that, you can't continue a single conversation without it turning into a presentation.

Another: The one who understands the client's business best is the client.

~

I'm not at BERG now - not for a year - and the consultancy as a regular component of the business ended probably a year before that. Here's a poem about it going into hibernation.

So one of the things I've been doing is letting my own individual practice emerge. To see, without steering, what it is I want to do and how I prefer to work. It's different to what I did at BERG, naturally, and the same in some places.

I don't really want to build a new consultancy business, and I've got enough to keep myself fed and watered between the various other gigs going on. So I can afford to experiment.

~

Author Steven Johnson on his writing process (2009).

The first stage, which is crucial, is a completely disorganized capture of every little snippet of text that seems vaguely interesting. I grab paragraphs from web pages, from digital books, and transcribe pages from printed text -- and each little snippet I just drop into Devonthink with no organization other than a citation of where it came from. This goes on for months and months; I read in a completely unplanned and exploratory way

And then:

And so in the last stage before I actually start writing, I create a little folder in Devonthink for each of the chapters. And then I sit down and read through every single little snippet that I've uncovered over the past year or so of research. And as I'm reading them on the screen, I just drag them into the chapter folder where I think they will be most useful. ... They feel like pieces of a puzzle that's coming together, instead of hints or hunches.

~

CHAPTER 2

~

There are a couple of things I'm investigating:

  1. That a small group is a powerful way of thinking, and of creating action. That repetition matters, and informality.
  2. It might be possible to help with strategy without providing original thought or even active facilitation: To consult without consulting. The answers and even ways of working are inherent in the group itself.

My hunch is this: To answer a business's strategic questions, which will intrinsically involve changing that business, a more permanent solution than a visiting consultant might be to convene a small group, and spend time with it, chatting informally.

~

A couple of years ago I went on a weekend course to learn about group processes, run by the Institute of Group Analysis here in London. They take a psychotherapeutic approach and, well, the best way to communicate experience is through experience, so it's done experientially.

We were ushered into a room and sat in a circle, ten of us. A table in the middle, door closed. And then... nothing. I felt like people were looking at me to say something, probably because earlier - when I'd arrived and gone into the main space which was half full and deathly silent - I'd said, Hey, This feels like a dentist's waiting room or something. That had broken the ice.

This time I wanted to bathe in the sensation of feeling like the group needed me to speak, so I didn't say anything. Someone else did, introducing themselves. Then a pause, then the person to their left. Then the person to their left. Now the group saw a pattern it recognised, and clung to it.

The next person kind of shrugged and smiled. So they were skipped and I'm not sure what happened then. Confusion. So then, the next two hours.

In the absence of any driving force, in the absence of anything to discuss or even decide what should be discussed or what would be the purpose of that discussion -- what happens?

The convener (it turns out there was one, it was the person who shrugged) takes the role of a participant-observer. Following Bion, she declines any effort of the group to grant her leadership.

Thus isolated:

The endogenous processes of the group amplify. From within the group, they become seen and felt.

There were a bunch of small and large group sessions over the next two days. I felt like I'd grown a new pair of eyes, new legs.

I don't have a new language for groups because of this experience, but I did come away with a gut confirmation that the group transcends its individual members. And I'm a little more tuned in, than I would be otherwise, to the internal group negotiations about purpose and norms. And more curious. Mainly more curious.

~

Group Psychotherapy: The Psychoanalytic Approach, Foulkes and Anthony:

the whole is more elementary than the parts.

~

Co-evolution of neocortex size, group size and language in humans by Robin Dunbar (1993).

This paper blew my mind when I first read it, the source of an expanding wavefront rewriting and recomplexifying everything I thought about.

The unexpectedly large group size that humans can maintain (150, more or less) is allowed by the fact we've replaced picking fleas by speech, which is many-to-many instead of one-to-one. And also a consequence of:

the intensity with which a small number of key "friendships" (the primary network) is serviced rather than to the total number of individuals in the group ... groups are built up by welding together sets of smaller primary networks

The primary network is composed of approx five individuals. A psycho-physical link:

a nose-to-nose distance of 1.7m was the upper limit for comfortable conversation in dyadic groups; this would yield a maximum conversation group size of five individuals with a shoulder-to-shoulder spacing of 0.5m between adjacent individuals standing around the circumference of a circle.

~

Then Experiences in Groups by Wilfred Bion, which gave me a way to understand that - just as individuals fall into familiar behavioural patterns like "giddy joy" or "awe" or "mothering" - groups have their own familiar patterns they want to fall into. Perhaps as a way to avoid finding purpose, or to avoid work.

Bion calls these familiar patterns the basic assumptions, and there are three: dependency, pairing and fight-flight.

You know -- maybe, maybe not. But the insight that a group has habits, or strange attractors, or gravities, or desires certain patterns... that the manifold of group behaviours is textured... that insight is sound, I think.

~

From a summary of Experience in Groups.

Quite a lot of what happens in a Bionian group is strange, quite a lot (for the outside observer) is funny. It may begin with a long silence. Something is expected of the leader or of someone. This finally gets said, and the leader may say, 'It appears that something is expected of me' and revert to a silence which sorely tries the patience of the group members. A member may offer a hypothesis about what is supposed to happen, and this is likely to be contradicted by another. People who have not spoken are challenged and do or don't speak. Some speak too soon and too often. There is often a search for something, something believed to be hidden and meant to be discovered. Members seek the approval of the leader, others seek alliances, some have strong feelings of love or hate or comradeship; others get cross or cry. Occasionally someone leaves, usually to return, sometimes not. Someone bids for the role of leader and gets sniped at. And so it goes:

Etc.

That's what happened at that weekend course. Hilarious.

~

The first keynote I ever did, there were 700 people there, I got up there and I tried to see how long I could stand in silence, just grinning at the audience. Not long. But it felt like being charged at by a bear.

~

Moravec describes the conversion of the cosmos into computronium, pure thinking matter:

a vigorous physical affair, a wavefront that converts raw inanimate matter into mechanisms for further expansion. It will leave in its ever-growing wake a more subtle world, with less action and more thought.

...

As the cyberspace becomes more potent, its advantage over physical bodies will overwhelm even on the raw expansion frontier. The Ex wavefront of coarse physical transformation will be overtaken by a faster wave of cyberspace conversion, the whole becoming finally a bubble of Mind expanding at near lightspeed.

Source.

~

WHAT AM I DOING?

~

Sort of coffee mornings, sort of teaching. But neither.

Durrell Bishop is teaching at the Royal College of Art: Running a product design platform at RCA this term. Hope it will be a functional exploration of form, behaviour, systems, language & skills.

Durrell demonstrated the Marble Answer Machine in 1992, it's hard to think of many physicalisations of information and behaviour earlier than that date. The group he's running at the RCA, last term and this year too, is "Object Mediated Interactions."

So Durrell asked me whether I'd like to help out, in some kind of capacity, and I said: Why don't we do coffee mornings? And now we've been doing this for a term, and we've just started the new one.

Once a week we get together -- a half dozen students, often Durrell, whoever is teaching the course with him which was Stuart before and Oscar now, plus a special guest.

It's just for coffee somewhere or other, on Friday mornings, and we chat. It's super casual, sharing ideas and references, talking about the brief and design in general.

I'm curious about informality.

The lunchtimes at BERG, everyone around the table with such a broad range of skills and interests... and after Friday Demos - part of the weekly rhythm - the sparked conversations and the on-topic but off-topic sharing... this is where ideas happen too. Between projects but not outside them.

And I think informality as part of the design process is under-communicated, at least where I've been listening. So much work is done like that. The students are great at speaking about their work, sure. But mainly I'm interesting in how we induct someone into a worldview, quickly; how we explain ideas and then listen carefully for feedback, accepting ideas back -- all conversationally, without (and this is the purpose of the special guest) it turning into a seminar or a crit.

I think the best way to communicate this "lunch table" work informality is to rehearse it, to experience it. Which is what the coffee mornings are about.

I try to make sure everyone speaks, and I ask questions to see if I can encourage the removal of lazy abstraction -- words that get in the way of thinking about what's really going on. I'm a participant-observer.

Tbh I'm not sure what to call this. Visiting convener? It's not an official role.

I think (I hope!) everyone is getting something out of the experience, and everyone is becoming more their own kind of designer because of it, and meanwhile I get to explore and experience a small group. A roughly consistent membership, a roughly regular meeting time, an absence of purpose, or rather a purpose that the group is allowed to negotiate at a place within itself.

~

These RCA coffee mornings grew out of my experiment with hardware-ish coffee mornings, a semi-irregular meetup in London having a vague "making things" skew... Internet of Things, hardware startups, knitting, the future of manufacturing and distribution, a morning off work. That sort of thing. People chat, people bring prototypes. There's no single conversation, and only rarely do we do introductions. This invite to a meet in January also lists my principles:

  • Space beats structure
  • Informality wins
  • Convening not chairing
  • Bonfires not fireworks

I've been trying to build a street corner, a place to cultivate serendipity and thoughts. Not an event with speakers, there are already several really good ones.

It's been a while since the last hardware-ish coffee morning. I'll do another one soon. Join the email announce list if you're interested.

~

And the hardware-ish coffee mornings were shamelessly copied WHOLESALE from Russell Davies and his coffee mornings in 2007. Thank you Russell!

~

Matt Jones introduced me to Brian Eno's term scenius.

scenius is the intelligence of a whole... operation or group of people. And I think that's a more useful way to think about culture, actually. I think that - let's forget the idea of "genius" for a little while, let's think about the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work.

~

I've tried this small group approach commercially. A friend of mine asked me to have a look at a design problem. He's the CEO of a London startup of about 20 people, the problem seemed simple, a way of organising a single screen on their app.

~

To me the fact this problem was a problem was the interesting part -- why isn't the organisation capable of thinking its way through this decision with confidence?

I offered to act as a Visiting Strategist and convene a small group to meet a number of times, ostensibly to discuss this issue, but really I wanted to see what this group wanted to do.

It didn't want to discuss the issue.

~

My setup was that I believed the answer to the issue would come from the group, that they knew more about their business than me.

Which was true. But I also observed that the purpose of the business had recently changed, and while it could be seen by the CEO that the current approach to this design problem wasn't satisfying, there was no way for the group to come together to think about it, and answer it together. Previously they had represented different strands of development within the startup. Now the company was moving to having a new, singular, measurable goal.

So I started seeing the convened discussions as rehearsing a new constellation of the team members and how they used one-another for thinking, and conscious and unconscious decision making. The group meetings would incubate a new way to think together. Do it enough, point out what works, and habits might form.

~

Consulting without consulting.

~

I don't know whether the small group I convened as Visiting Strategist ended up working or not. I ended up participating a little more than I had hoped -- I wanted never to hold the whiteboard pen. But maybe to be a good participant-observer you have to participate just as much - not more, not less - as the others. And I think the group needed more time, more repetitions.

In particular I felt a psychic pressure in response to trying to maintain the group as un-led.

But it felt like we were getting somewhere.

I don't think strategy can be outsourced, I think it has to emerge from a company's nature. So when strategy evolves, there has to be organisational change. When an organisation looks outside itself (for answers that should be derived from strategy) that says to me that it's not thinking straight, that the organisation isn't put together quite right yet. An organisation has these informal components, and cross-team small group meetings feel like a good way to weave them in.

And the CEO seemed happy.

~

One of the double binds of selling anything - a product, consultancy - is that word of mouth only works when the value it provides is easy to talk about. You can't just provide value, you have to provide noticeable, simple-to-point-at value.

No bad thing.

~

I DON'T KNOW

~

I'm not entirely sure where to take these experiments. I'm learning a lot from various coffee mornings, so I'll carry on with those.

I had some conversations earlier in the year about whether it would be possible to act as a creative director, only via regular breakfast conversations, and helping the group self-direct. Dunno. Or maybe there's a way to build a new division in a company. Maybe what I'm actually talking about is board meetings -- I've been a trustee to Startup Weekend Europe for a couple of years, and the quarterly meetings are light touch. But they don't have this small group aspect, it might be that they haven't been as effective as they could be.

There might be something with the street corners and serendipity pattern... When I was doing that three month gig with the government earlier this year, it felt like the people in the civil service - as a whole - had all the knowledge and skills to take advantage of Internet of Things technologies, to deliver services faster and better. But often the knowledge and opportunities weren't meeting up. Maybe an in-person, regular space could help with that.

At a minimum, if I'm learning how to help companies and friends with startups in a useful way that doesn't involve delivering more darn Powerpoint for the meat grinder: Job done.

But perhaps what's happening is I'm teaching myself how to do something else entirely, and I haven't figured out what that is yet.

~

Some art. Some software.

~

A write-only language is

a programming language with syntax (or semantics) sufficiently dense and bizarre that any routine of significant size is too difficult to understand by other programmers and cannot be safely edited. Likewise, write-only code is source code so arcane, complex, or ill-structured that it cannot be reliably modified or even comprehended by anyone with the possible exception of the author.

That's three thousand words of a write-only blog post. Still, it's all out of my head now. I'd like to use what I'm learning about small groups in some way. This should help me think about what to do.

Filtered for space

1.

8,400 photos of Nasa's missions to the Moon, all in high res.

See some examples.

I'm using John's Background Switcher to automatically change my desktop background every 30 minutes to one of these photos. To do this: Create a picture set that gets its pics from Flickr and just a certain user. Use the username 136485307@N06.

See also: NASA Graphics Standards Manual (1976).

2.

Towards a Jupiter Weather Forecast which caught my eye basically because of this diagram of Jove.

3.

GORGEOUS geometric animations by Guy Moorhouse.

And how he makes them. Process, source code, etc.

4.

Natural Born Cyborgs? by Andy Clarke:

We tend to think of our biological brains as the point source of the whole final content. But if we look a little more closely what we may often find is that the biological brain participated in some potent and iterated loops through the cognitive technological environment.

Some old notes (on this blog) on Stewart and Cohen's concept of extelligence, from Mike Holderness:

Your extelligence, then, includes all the elements of what it is like to be you which do not reside in that unlikely grey goo in your skull.

Look, I know the time even though that knowledge is on the lock screen of my phone, not in my skull.

What happened to me this morning was that I had the strongest feeling I was supposed to be in a meeting this afternoon -- and that I'd deleted this from my Google Calendar and forgotten it. I've definitely deleted something - who knows what - and given nobody has gotten in touch, I guess it was meant to be deleted. But still, the feeling.

This feels like a new feeling. I get that tip-of-the-tongue sensation every so often, and it feels like it's located in my mouth. I know it's not, it's in my brain, but it's tangled up with my tongue and by rehearsing syllables I can sometimes retrieve the word.

This feeling - this new feeling - feels like tip-of-the-tongue but located in my Google Calendar, somewhere in the aether. Super weird. The feeling of minor cognitive dysfunction in my exoself.