What is Sembl and why should you care? This video answers those questions, and proclaims my committment to and aptitude for this project.
Ah, Wellington, where a barista serves coffee to a cashless newcomer with “just pay us later”, op shops have natural-fibre clothes to fit women of long length, and an annual conference exemplifies and amplifies goodness.
I was there primarily to attend the National Digital Forum 2012 and – thrill! – to present on Sembl. It was a wonderful new experience to be on stage early in a conference program – and in a plenary session – because in the breaks, conversations had already started. I didn’t need to perform repeated, monologic self-introductions – and nor did my interlocutors; there was space among the already-started conversation to explore where they were coming from too.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that. For me, sustaining social openness for the duration of a multi-day event – which is critical, because that interpersonal flow is the source of the magic – feels strenuous. Anything that makes the flow flow more easily is like a full lung of fresh air.
Wonderfully, NDF is in general very conducive to such flow. The organisers do a brilliant job of creating a space in which good things can happen. There’s a lovely collegial vibe, and plenty of social events for folks that don’t know folks. And if you don’t know the way to a venue, Courtney will draw you a map:
So many interesting conversations… fuelled by such passionate and thoughtful presentations:
NDF was beautiful and thrilling; so much care, absolutely cynicism-free.
Despite being fairly spent, I trundled myself off the following day to join in the heady fun of THATCamp Wellington. Which was also awesome – thanks, Donelle and Sydney & co. Tim’s workshop was ‘smashing’ Also very useful was the session on linked open data; it gave me more clarity about the authority, provenance and reciprocity of said links:
(For those that don’t know, I have a special interest in reciprocal linked data.)
In the breaks, there were plenty more compelling conversations to be enjoyed, including a very useful pointer from musicologist, Francis Yapp, to Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor. I can now appreciate the fugue musically as well as mentally!
But I failed, actually, to put as much energy into THATCamp as I’d have liked. I devoted most of my energy to NDF and then limped through the day that was meant to be all about action.
So as a homage to both NDF and THATCamp, and in lieu of completing a THATCamp evaluation form, I wrote a fantasy for a more integrated and even more flow-y NDF-meets-THATCamp experience, where more of the threads dangling tantalisingly at both forums could be tugged, if you so chose, and twisted and woven into a few amazing new things. I offer these thoughts without expectation, and with hope that whether NDF maintains its current, beautiful form or evolves, we can sustain it as it sustains us.
And dear reader, please know that I have co-opted real people into this fantasy without their knowledge or consent. They may not actually want to do these things. You are all, of course, are welcome to respond with your own ideas, adaptations, augmentations, even refutations.
The two-day National Digital Forum is extended to a three-day digital festival culminating in a THATCampy makerspace, with an optional extra post-festival morning of relaxation and celebration. NDF has some practical outcomes, and THATCamp has an inspiring lead-in and opportunity to develop some collective vision.
Day 1 is the plenary, and comprises a couple of keynotes, several short plenary presentations and a bunch of ignite talks. So there’s a whole day where everyone can see everything on offer.
Day 2 is for parallel sessions. There are two streams: one is for preplanned, interactive show-and-tell. The other is for action-planning workshops driven by the wishes of the participants and facilitated by the likes of:
- Chris McDowall, Mitchell Whitelaw and Tim Wray – beautiful visual browsing
- Tim Sherratt and Michael Lascarides – really simple RDF, aka beautiful data storytelling
- Sarah Barns – augmented Te Papa?
- Aaron Straup Cope – some strangely but simply useful tool or other
- maybe even Walter Logeman – a Semblified, Jungian, group dream analysis
By the end of Day 2, we have some plans for action the following day.
Day 3 is a makerspace, for making as per the plans from the two days prior, and for documenting the making. Huzzah! And/or you can do one or more preplanned workshops with the likes of:
- someone who can make artisinal QR codes
- a website-builder
- someone with social media smarts
The final session is the morning of Day 4. It’s for unwinding and reflecting, and awarding *prizes* for the most effective work.
In amongst it all, there are other options for engaging, such as:
- a kind of digital maker faire or pop-up museum – an assemblage of digital or digitally-augmented or digitally-designed displays showing everything from Tim’s experiment in richly contextualised HTML to Emily’s Little Slide Dress to an array of Ponoko-printed or lasercut physical objects.
- as a conversation kickstarter, an array of named faces of all the delegates, where each face is a link to a short video of that person introducing themselves and their particular passions for digital work. (The point here is to give any delegate that wants it a voice, including those not on the program to speak. For speakers it could be a channel for an alternative abstract, and for everyone it’s an aide mémoire, a way to name-check those who you really should remember but can’t because your brain is so full right now.)
- some spare screens anyone can use to load up a site as it emerges in conversation
- an excursion to a nearby art museum likely to be ‘doing good shit’
- a game of Sembl – either using Te Papa exhibits or the faces of delegates as nodes
As a whole, the experience would be expansive – as it is – but also active, directed by a collective vision, resolute, convergent. Our collective energy could manifest in physical–digital form.
Another way of saying all this might be: let’s make some *babies* with all this love
A few thoughts from the recent Create World conference of clever, creative people.
Panel on place and creativity – how does digital alter the way we think?
Architect Richard Kirk made the point that perspective drawing as a tool is only a few hundred years old, so we are yet to reap the full benefits of new additions to our creative lexicon, such as virtual worlds. Performance designer Anna Tregloan commented that some people can quite naturally translate a 2D image to imagine it in 3D space, but for others that will always be more difficult, so the theatre tradition of building a little model of the set may endure. Continuing the theme of how we translate human experiences into digital form, and whether we can learn to think in a hybrid way between digital and physical, creative innovator (?!) Hael Kobayashi described the process of making penguins dance for Happy Feet. Humans danced in a warehouse, each one wired for motion capture. A set of screens displayed the merger of their movements with the digital penguins, so the director and key creatives could see, in real-time, penguins dancing on an iceberg.
Keynotes on photography, animation and the active audience
Tom Ang‘s keynote was an entertaining blend of a romp through the history of photography, some behind-the-lens information about particular shots, and some philosophical observations about value and power in photography’s new world:
- Photoshop has programmed us!
- Boundaries of what is shareable have shifted.
- The concept of the ‘still image’ is now a misnomer: they fade, zoom, slide – and fast. And the more abundant they become, the less we attend to each.
- Because images are so abundant, there are no longer iconic images of world events. (I’m not convinced of this point. The process by which images become iconic has changed, but I reckon crowd wisdom will choose images over time. Note, for example, the twitter #ows discussion of iconic imagery, and the meme of the cop casually pepper-spraying seated protesters.)
Ian Taylor’s story of the success of Animation Research Ltd – and his team’s down-home methods – was awe-inspiring. But my strongest takeaway from his talk was the importance of taking your time to learn – ergo the immense value of free education. Which we no longer have.
As a longtime advocate for participatory approaches to cultural representations, I was very interested in Ernest Edmonds‘ talk on art and the active audience. My favourite parts:
- Some early research found that babies less than one week old can learn – by controlling the turn of their head on the pillow – to switch a light on and off, and that once mastered, they become bored with it.
- Our vocabulary for interaction is developing. For example, there are many different kinds of play: danger, competition, camaraderie, subversion, fantasy, sensation, captivation, difficulty, simulation. And so on!
- Don’t assume that more is better. Performance and communication might be better with lower bandwidth. This is an intriguing point, and I wanted more from him on this. I wonder if he means, for example, that in some cases audio works better than video, because it gets inside your head but doesn’t restrict your visual attention. Or that pixelated imagery like in Minecraft, works in part because it’s low-res, so the player can more actively/imaginatively inhabit the scene and the characters. In short, I suspect this point relates to the value of leaving space within a representation, for the audience to fill from their personal creative sources.
An audiovisual meditation on gold
Not your average academic conference, Create World includes a range of clever, creative performances. Of the four, this was my favourite – it’s an audiovisual meditation on the mineral gold, and it made my heart hum. (I recommend: go full-screen and use headphones or big speakers.)
The quality of stream-session presentations was consistently good. I attended those on:
- a multi-disciplinary creative technologies degree (Judit Klein, Auckland Uni of Technology)
- iPads for music-making (Jamie Gabriel, Macquarie Uni)
- an iPad app for assessing teachers of music, art and drama (Julia Wren & Alistair Campbell, Edith Cowan Uni)
- EEG-mapping of artistic consumption and as artistic work (Jason Zagami, Griffith Uni)
- a weather-data-generated sonic sculpture in Sydney (Kirsty Beilharz, Uni of Technology, Sydney)
- kinaesthetic potential of educational gaming (Helen Farley & Adrian Stagg, Uni of Southern Queensland)
- serious games (Tim Marsh, James Cook Uni)
- digital research methods, including Wikipedia article-writing (Kerry Kilner, Uni of Queensland)
- Playtime, an animated movie (Thomas Verbeek, Uni of Otago)
- Ishq, an audiovisual work commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of its exhibition on Islamic art (Kim Cunio and Louise Harvey, Griffith Uni)
As part of his ‘Mining the museum’ installation at Maryland Historical Society in 1992–93, artist Fred Wilson placed a set of shackles in a display case with fine silverware and titled it Metalwork. Pow. United by the metal of their fabrication, the racially-divided, hierarchical histories of these objects dramatically distances them:
Who served the silver? And who could have made the silver objects in apprenticeship situations? And [...] whose labour could produce the wealth that produced the silver?
A general principle can be distilled from this. Perhaps: In the very moment we identify a similarity between two objects, we recognise their difference. In other words, the process of drawing two things together creates an equal opposite force that draws attention to their natural distance. So the act of seeking resemblance – consistency, or patterns – simultaneously renders visible the inconsistencies, the structures and textures of our social world. And the greater the conceptual distance between the two likened objects, the more interesting the likening – and the greater the understanding to be found.
This simultaneous pulling together and springing apart of the sociophysical world interests me, and I’ve been thinking about it in relation to Sembl, where the challenge of the game is to identify a way in which a given object is related – surprisingly or humorously or otherwise interestingly – to another object.
What constitutes ‘interesting’ is of course difficult to define and depends to a large degree on the particular players playing. But if the natural conceptual distance between the two related objects is great, the relationship is more likely to be interesting – perhaps because it enables you to think about something in a new way. That’s what made Wilson’s juxtaposition of shackles with silver tableware interesting, and powerful.
In the same vein, the Sembl players who linked the above branding iron to the breastplate – because both are tools for labeling bodies – cast new light on the colonial practice of giving metal breastplates to Aboriginal people.
My (big!) point here is: Hipbone games and Sembl alike can create a safe space for people to explore differences. When identified, similarities form bridges across and clarify difference. Attending to relatedness in this way inspires understanding; and opens a channel toward reconciliation.
At THATCamp Canberra, I hosted a session on designing a dedicated digitally-enhanced physical space for collaborative, intergenerational, play-based learning about history (yes, it was ambitious!). I am finally getting down to documenting it.
How I thought it might work
In the lead-up to the camp, I had put a lot of thought into the issues, but I had consciously resisted planning the session in any detail. I genuinely wanted to facilitate rather than lead. I did consider splitting people into small groups for part of the time, but decided against it because the numbers seemed not to warrant it. (Didn’t realise at that point that people would continue to wander in throughout the session so by the end, it was quite a large group.) Ultimately, for better or worse (!) I resisted imposing any real structure on the session and instead surrendered to hosting an engaging discussion of possibilities in terms of both form and content, and inscribing it with as much clarity as I could on a whiteboard.
What actually happened
You can probably guess that we didn’t go so far as to devise a single, clear plan for a game-space. But we had a great chat, which I will try to represent here. What follows is a transcription / translation / slight elaboration of the whiteboard notes.
Do what can’t be done elsewhere
- in museum space, draw on the authentic, interesting objects
- invite peer collaboration (note that teenagers in particular prefer to relate to known others rather than strangers)
- encourage social interaction with strangers in a safe place
Pedagogy / structure / approach
- use real-world physics (in digital designs) for improving literacy about how the world works
- draw on imagination
- welcome failure
- involve the bodies of participants, not just the minds, index fingers, eyes
- provide a loop structure: Context –> Challenge –> Feedback –> (Joy made this point after the sesh)
Elements of the experience
- include a preparatory / warmup / contextualising activity
- establish rules for local interaction but leave space for emergent collective behaviour
- if the activity is individual, then build in a moment of sharing at the end
- enable people to make / build / create something
- build in different levels – a progression of experience, with rewards for completing each stage
- provide a takeaway – go home and log in for… / or a physical memento
- solo or collaborative
- multi-layered approach (so it works for short, shallow or prolongued, in-depth engagement)
- engaging for young children (7 and up), teenagers, parents and grandparents
- ‘glass wall’ for being visible from the outside / online
- an interactive augmented-reality RPG (role-play game) with historical characters, props; visitors inhabit a character, choose clothes; re-enact a historical scene of their choice (time, place, indoor, outdoor);
- integrate user-generated media
- ‘customisable avatar – discovery’ – I can’t recall what this means!
- interactive video
- mission-based games versus play-based games – there was a leaning toward the latter as less reductive / prescriptive
- a whole room full of buttons and levers and motion-sensors that you could explore in a completely freeform way, either alone or in collaboration – this idea was imagined in a (beautifully sun-drenched) post-session chat with Mitchell and Geoff
Models / inspirations
While we spoke, Michael drove a web-connected laptop so we could look at possible models or inspirations for this space:
- The structural evolution project – a collaborative sculpture of white lego
- new technology-enhanced school programs at the Museum of Australian Democracy
- Ghost world – kids can make things within an exhibition space
It was absolutely fantastic hearing ideas from everyone at the session and afterward. I’ve probably left things out and got things wrong here. I know I haven’t captured all the nuances of the conversation. Corrections and additions are of course most welcome. Leave a comment and I will incorporate it into the post.
Over time I will revisit these ideas. For now, I am letting them simmer in my subconscious.
Applications are almost due for the Bold Ideas, Better Lives challenge.
I was thinking to submit an idea – something that came out of reading Steven Johnson’s book, Emergence. But I haven’t done enough research or had enough (as in, any!) feedback to know if it’s worthwhile. And I just realised that on top of writing a 1900-word intro to the idea, you’re meant to put in a 3-minute pitch. Then there’s the small issue that I’m not sure I’m keen to champion this idea to the point of implementation. I’d use it. I’d be happy if it worked! And I’d be more than willing to help make it manifest. But the idea of talking it up through the whole process of shortlisting and selection… Well, I’m probably just not that much of a champion. In that regard, anyway.
So instead, I offer the first 700 words of an idea to anyone who happens to read this, and hope for some (constructive) critical feedback, or at least some expressions of interest.
What is your idea? (100 words)
I’d like to strengthen communities by facilitating real-world interactions through an online hyper-local aggregator and hub. Enter The Neighbourhood – a platform for creating a directory, noticeboard and town square for residents, visitors, business-people and local government to exchange information and ideas about local conditions, events, opportunities and ideas. It would feed information about the weather, infrastructural and social issues, jobs, trade, community activities. It would invite and enable people to share goods, ideas, and media – in other words, to funnel relevant parts of our current activities for the benefit of the community around our physical home.
What is the social need or challenge your idea could address? (300 words)
City living can be isolating – especially in very car-oriented cities – and in many neighbourhoods people are almost unknown to each other, having very little contact. We have opportunities to share information, experiences, goods and ideas through workplaces, distributed networks of family and friends, and digital communities. But where we live is important; our local community is potentially a rich source of interaction. If we have a lost pet, or surplus home-grown zucchinis, if we are creating an art installation, or need a new footpath – in all these circumstances, a good outcome can depend on the quality of our local relationships. Our individual and communal wellbeing could be dramatically improved by a digital town square that facilitated real-world relationships. If we know each other better, we would be in a better position to take good care of each other – to look after our neighbours’ house, garden, or pets when we’re away; to look out for the neighbourhood children; to care for, listen to and learn from our old folk.
The Neighbourhood would build constructive real-world relationships – and thereby improve collective wellbeing – through a simple and useful aggregation of relevant information, and hub for activity both online and in physical space. As well as the community benefits, an actively engaged community would be advantageous for businesses and governments. For businesses, it would constitute a highly effective channel for communicating with residents, promoting local products and services, and tailoring them in accordance with feedback. As the dawn of Government 2.0 approaches, access to a hyper-local community network would also be highly beneficial for two-way communications – genuine dialogue – to identify priorities, refine policies and so on.
The Neighbourhood would cultivate goodwill and generate social capital.
What inspired you to come up with your idea in the first place? (300 words)
This idea was inspired by Steven Johnson’s book Emergence. He looks at how swarms or networks operate in micro-organisms, insect colonies, human cities and the internet, and finds that at every scale – and in the absence of a master planner – local interactions suffice to bring about emergence – a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
I was thinking about this notion of emergence in relation to my own neighbourhood. I live on the main street in a suburb of Canberra, where although people do walk past, most traffic is motorised and, particularly on Friday nights, vandalism and ‘criminal damage’ are common. (I know this from experience but also because my street makes a regular appearance in the Neighbourhood Watch newsletter.) I don’t believe people are the problem here. I think our cities and lifestyles are serving us poorly, and we need a solution based on goodwill rather than fear. Surely, the more we interact locally, the better off as a community we’ll be.
Steven Johnson has in fact implemented a similar idea in Outside In – a platform for aggregating hyperlocal news, blogs and discussion. From my perspective, however, it is limited in that it’s not focused on the physical world except insofar as it uses location to organise the news feeds, and it’s not intended to facilitate interaction, only to supply information.
I’m actually surprised there isn’t yet a thing such as The Neighbourhood already. Aggregation; social media; cloud computing; we-think; and emergence – all these capacities enhance our potential to improve the way physical neighbourhoods operate. It seems we could all benefit by augmenting our physical communities with a digital overlay – by using our digital networks to enhance and empower our local communities. Such would be the point of The Neighbourhood.
Happy Ada Lovelace Day!
In planning this post, I had a strong urge to write about Ada Lovelace herself. Reading a chapter by Howard Rheingold, I marvelled at the clarity and potency of Ada’s vision for computer programming, in which ‘the mental and material [...] are brought into intimate connexion with each other’. Indeed, we unite this binary every time we use computers either to translate ideas into form, or to expand our consciousness of the world around us. Amazingly, Ada wrote that 100 years before computers existed.
Then I briefly thought to celebrate Evelyn Fox Keller – for figuring out that each cell of slime mould is an agent of its own aggregational destiny – ie, that there are no commanding cells directing all the others to form into a mass, moving entity; for unearthing the dispersed history of thinking about decentralised forms of authority, which has since coalesced into the field of emergence; and for her meta-work on feminist science, which is how I first encountered her.
But the achievements of both women have been well documented. I prefer to write about someone with a smaller digital footprint, even if it means traversing into more foreign technological terrain. So here is a brief tribute to an atmospheric scientist – a climatologist – whose contribution to science is mostly mysterious to me, but whose capacities for independent, steadfast investigation and analysis are unquestionably impressive.
My Mum reckons that my younger sister, Julie, was inspired to embark on a scientific career by our step-uncle, a paleontologist, when he gave her a piece of dinosaur egg from South Australia. She won the Australian National University Medal for her Honours degree in physics, and by age 30 she had a PhD in atmospheric gaseous exchange – you can read it here. I don’t grok its scientific significance, but I know that the research involved camping in a forest in Siberia, and building metal towers to climb in order to collect air samples. That’s quite an effort.
I also know that in her work for the federal Department of Parliamentary Services, she wrote a report, Climate change: The case for action, that dissolves any excuse the Australian government might have had for failing to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It says that the climate is changing; that most of the change is due to human influences; that the changes present serious risks; that those risks can be managed; and that the longer we delay, the more drastic our mitigation measures will need to be. It’s clear! (It’s just a pity that the problem here is not purely scientific – mostly, it’s cultural. People are apparently not yet ready to accept those mitigation measures.)
As well as being scientifically inclined (and successful), she is a rockclimber, adventurer, nature photographer, mother of two, animal lover (she has three Siberian huskies and two cats) and since last month, medical student. So, I celebrate Ada Lovelace Day by celebrating my multi-talented sister, Julie Styles.
With some hesitation – even trepidation – I have published some pages about me and some of the things I’ve made. Why the worry? Well, because I’m no extrovert. Plus, I’m in some kind of transition phase, so it’s even harder than it usually is to talk about who I am and what I do. Plus, I’m nervous. Change is a little bit scary. Thrilling but, mmm, scary.
I love drawing, and making things, and pootling about with software for making things that both look nice and mean something. But between a PhD, parenthood and full-time paid work, my energy for making things has wandered off to the sidelines. It is feeling neglected, and no doubt it has shrivelled a bit. I suppose I have prioritised being clever over being creative, for pragmatic reasons (although I read somewhere this week that the perceived value of creativity is on the rise). Actually, I think I have not ever really believed in my creativity. I think I thought I’m too introverted to be arty. I thought I was more your logical, left-brained type. But now I’m wondering why I can’t be that and creative. I want integration!
Now, I’ve quit my full-time job. Now, I am determined to give my professional endeavours more of a creative curve. I have lots of ideas – and I’m looking forward to exploring them. It feels good.
With some trepidation due to my lack of geek credentials, I have registered to attend Govhack. Keen to find out how I can contribute.
I’ve also added a project idea to the wiki, based on this idea. As a conceptual taster for how useful it might be to have a browseable overview of government activities (which you can control / explore and then use to find a pathway to web-based material that interests you) I made this Wordle tagcloud using the latest Administrative Arrangements Orders:
Whether or not this idea takes off, I’m excited about being involved in this event. Hope to meet you there!
This week I’ve invested some time in thinking about time and how to spend it well. I was prompted by someone dear to me, who is currently challenged by a peculiar combination of:
- a disruptive schedule – teaching 9 classes a week in 8 venues
- a natural aversion to administrative work
- a hankering to play music and sculpt stone
His disruptive schedule (1) creates a general condition of restlessness, which amplifies the effect of his natural aversion (2), causing certain kinds of work to pile up even more than they otherwise might. Both of those factors then work to increase his hankering (3) because the general restlessness and the agitation – of knowing there is a pile of work looming ever larger – join forces to thwart the creative impulse. Which in turn exacerbates the restlessness and agitation. It’s a vicious circle of joyless dissatisfaction.
To solve the angry jellyfish dilemma, we have devised a simple, twofold plan:
- Find a good tool for listing, prioritising and tracking all the Things That Need Doing – currently trying out the (Mac) tool Things.
- Create a timetable for the working week, so it’s clear what time is available when; schedule in some regular (but short!) periods of time for finding admin joy; and identify where creative exploration and expression might fit.
Below is the first-draft timetable, made in InDesign. I couldn’t find a template to start from, so for anyone else who might use it, here is the timetable template – 450kb zip file of an InDesign template. (And if someone out there can tell me how to get a full choice of colours in the fill for the table cell style, rather than be limited to a range of about 5 CMYK colours, I’d be grateful! Flip, maybe I should have made it in Graffle.)
The timetable seems to be helping already, to reveal the time that is there for the things that need doing; so he can see how to get them done. So, hooray. Maybe I should have called this post ‘How a timetable can soothe an angry jellyfish’.