Category Archives: Humanity Enhancer

Art hits Tech Hard in Rhizome’s “Seven on Seven” LHC: The Loooong Part One

The line between “artist”and “technologist” is blurring as code fluency becomes increasingly critical to the creation of meaningful cultural objects.

Three years ago, Lauren Cornell and the Rhizome/New Museum team launched “Seven on Seven“, a 24-hour “sprint-posium” pairing artists/technologist teams to create privately and explain publicly…something. A work, an idea, a prototype. Something resulting from the collision of their very different world views. Like a cultural LHC, “Seven on Seven’s” real premise is: can seven successive impacts of sufficient force throw off new cultural particles?

W+K got involved because the “Seven on Seven” platform confronts issues we tackle daily: What is an idea, now? How fast can you get to a compelling idea? How do artists and technologists productively collaborate? How do we build timeless stories in timely ways?

The teams had 24 hours to create two equally critical things: a collaboration, and the story of that collaboration. The story without the thing was fantasy, the thing without the story was unengaging.

A brief synopsis of the teams and the results:

Team #1 was Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz, who used “the hidden spaces between cultures” as a visual root for their project: a tool that translates a query into a local language image search in fifteen countries – a “simple” act that exposes cultural differences visually (e.g., here’s “party“). Aaron described their process of considering “how supposedly neutral and statistical tools that claim to present an unmediated world carry with them biases that program us.”  The internet, they argued, has created an illusion of cultural flattening that this tool exposes.  (other examples: Liar, crazy and freedom).  Simple Formula, complex results.  So hot Clay Shirky (@chsirky) was tweeting it during their presentation. Watch their presentation here.

Charles Forman and Jon Rafman were Team #2.  They were interested in using images to explore memory and its plasticity. Charles described how looking at old photos created  “chronologically impossible” memories.  Jon has found unintended stories in images. Both sparked to the way old photos confront us with our “mistaken notion that we’ve always been whomever we’ve become,” and their collaboration generated the “Memory Box“. As described, by Jon, it’s as an “ivory box with golden circuitry” that records a reaction to any of your personal images, then serves that image and reaction back up seven years later for re-consideration. Not an archive of memories, the Box is an archive of what we’d forgotten, intentionally or not. Your chance to confront your neuro-plasticity. Without their invention, said Charles, “Ten years from now, I’ll remember that I was the funniest guy here at that you all loved me. And right now, there’s nothing to prevent me from doing that.” 20:47 video here.

Team#3 delivered the event’s “homeless hotspot ZOMG” moment.  Jeremy Asheknas, who enjoyed lifting “the constraint of the newsroom requirement of sticking to just the facts”, was working with Stephanie Syjuco, an artist who amongst other things, leads counterfeiting workshops. “I’m supposed to be transgressive,” she said,  “and he has a code of ethics.” Together they created an alternate “crowd-sourced” Seven-on-Seven they called “Seven on Seven, Again“.  They described their recruiting process and the resulting seven ideas – from “Hushamaphones” to a “Market of Intangibles”, but the mood shifted perceptibly in the room when the two revealed the entire project to be a fiction.  As required, they’d built a product (a website of the event) and a story – but in this case, the product was an artifact of a story that was a fiction. They raised all kinds of questions about authenticity you can watch here.

Team #4’s Aram Bartholl and Khoi Vinh were one of two team in Wieden’s NY office. While outside their office people leapt a swimming pool filled with rancid coffee and stale donuts, the two considered the ubiquity of the internet: Aram noted “it’s in pockets and cafes, but always in rectangles.” Khoi noted screens had gone from social experiences to personal ones, and wondered if you could reverse that trend. Aram didn’t buy technology deliverance – “I don’t believe in the AR thing – floating in a pool, connected to a brain…”, “or floating in a pool of coffee and donuts…” added Khoi.

They built a circular case for an iPad, then filmed Aram wearing it around NYC to see what reaction it caused. And while a circular screen “may not be culturally viable”, it was an important part of breaking cultural expectations for screens.

To see how it would change interactions. To see if people would engage with it differently. What would it mean if people could touch your content? Unsurprisingly, it took some convincing for women to engage with the gestural interface on Aram’s chest. Their video is priceless.

Team #5 was Blaine Cook and Naeem Mohaiemer, representing activism and left politics.  In wrestling with the creative process and where ideas come from, they considered the way the brain processes images and ideas, and thought about “slow” and “tactile” time. They explored five concepts:

“Don’t let me be lonely”: Naeem quoted Blaine with “poetry looks like ass on a blog.” And I can’t remember how this explained the concept, but it was so good, it’s here.

“Killing Time”: Now that people “Google” mid-conversation, everyone is an instant expert.  Or as Blaine put it, “I feel my memory doesn’t work anymore, and it doesn’t matter.”

Constellation Theory: Not a single note here. I google-ed it (see “killing time”, above) and got this blurb: “the self is organized into a stable concept, our defenses protect the self-concept and how to be aware of our defensive nature” from this book.

For the specificity of the local: you can’t flatten everything.  Local matters, illustrated by way of the German word, Doch, a hard-to-translate word roughly meaning “I affirm your negative structure.”  Also, (and I’m not sure why) they described Tacqawores, a work of fiction that described a micro-community (“Punk Muslims”) that was inspired to form because of the book.

Back to a room of my own: Naeem asked “how do we get our minds back when they are so linked into rectangles?” Blaine “we are against pecha kucha and TED. we are for the slow jam. we need our room back.”

The result: roomofmyown.org – a deliberately reflective collage-wall of ideas you can share with a limited number of people. While today’s “social” tools pressure us to expand our networks, this one forces choices to be made – and attention to be paid.  The prototype, said Naeem, is a means to an ends: How do we slow down? Watch their video here.

Team #6, Anthony Volodkin and Xavier Cha built an idea around the notion “you are what you eat” – and felt a fair proxy interactively was the twitter stream you consume. What if you could see the tweets someone else consumes, rather than projects? Would you get better insights into who they than reading their carefully curated tweets?  Boom: Peep, the tool that lets you step into someone else’s twitter feed. Xavier: “Foursquare isn’t a record of where you’ve been, it’s a record of missed opportunities – at any given moment, a friend is having a better time than you.” Peep looks for you in your incoming stream – in other words, the you you’ve chosen, not the you you create. You can watch them here.

Team #7, Latoya Ruby-Frazier and Michael Herf (also based in the W+K building) shared a concern about how technology is used – and how it affects us. Both interested in how you talk about culture and images – and how you raise visual literacy around the meanings embedded and encoded in images. Their project, Decode: A Encyclopedia of visual culture, is a collaborative platform on which users (identified by age, gender and race) can offer their cultural insights and perspectives on images in popular culture and communications. The tool would look for modifications, and layered cultural meanings. So that the font you use isn’t the one used by…say…Nazis. Video of the presentation is here.

If you’ve made it this far, wow. Buckle up – travelogue is over. Next stop: key takeaways

in

post….2.

(and here’s the liveblog stream of the event from Rhizome. Nifty.)

Everything has an app – even kids

I was at the playground with my two boys yesterday.

We began a game of tag.

As I closed in on the older son, he shouted “magnet charge”.

Beeping loudly, the younger son came at me from the side, wrapped his arms around me and clung while his brother scrambled to the top of a jungle gym.

With my younger son still beeping triumphantly around my ankles, I asked the older about the ‘magnet charge’ move.

From atop the junglegym came the answer:  “It’s one of his apps.  He’s got ‘move silently’, ‘night vision’, ‘minigun’ and a whole bunch of others.  We downloaded all of them.  Isn’t that awesome?”

“Beep!  Beep!” came the shout from my ankles. “Beep!”

Turns out amongst his friends, you don’t have ‘skills’ or ‘superpowers’ on the playground anymore, you have ‘apps’.

From the top of the jungle gym came the closer:

“You can activate the apps across the playground with Siri – you just need to know their names!”

Retro-nology, John Bacone and cardboard

Had the opportunity to sit down with Portland artist John Bacone, who brought by some recent examples of his work.

cardboard sculpture of music device
Artist John Bacone's cardboard sequencer and pedal

He’s been building gorgeous intricate cardboard sculptures of musical instrument/devices.  In addition, he’s been experimenting with machines/motion contraptions, to explore the limits of his chosen material:

Moving Sculpture from John Bacone on Vimeo.

My favorite learning: “cardboard gears don’t hold their teeth well.”

Crochete + Robots = Crobots

Tom Poindexter's "Crobots", 1985

According to the folks over at corewar.co.uk, C-ROBOTS was a “programming game inspired by RobotWar and released as Shareware by Tom Poindexter in December 1985″.  Twenty five years later, if you love crochete and robots, or better, crocheted robots, you’ll love Crobots – a new book featuring twenty designs for crobot Amigurumi.

Here’s Boxbot:

BoxBot, a crobot from the book 'Crobots', about making crobots

if you aren’t cooing with soft techno-delight, you’re probably dead.

Download the original crobots game here.

Instructions for a robot Amigurumi here.

Seven on Seven

W+K is collaborating with Rhizome.org and the New Museum on the upcoming Seven on Seven event –

“Seven on Seven will pair seven leading artists with seven
game-changing technologists in teams of two, and challenge them to
develop something new –be it an application, social media, artwork,
product, or whatever they imagine– over the course of a single day. The
seven teams will unveil their ideas at a one-day event at the New
Museum on April 17th.”

Who’s in?

On the “technology” team

And on the “artists” side of the floor:

Why is W+K there?  Because the future of storytelling, narrative and human experience lie at the crossroads of art and technology.

Seven teams of two will offer you a glimpse of the future.  And they’ll make it real in twenty-four hours.

And then they serve cocktails.

Sweeeet.

Brain Belches and Sentience

Somewhere this past year, I effectively traded blogging for brain belches.  Blog posts gave way to tweets, FB status updates and foursquare check-ins. "@"replies and retweets replaced blog comments as my virtual crack.

I'm not proud of it, and I will  rectify that this year (resolution #3, just after #2's "ripped abs")

In Katie Hafner's NYT piece "Driven to Distraction, Some Unfriend Facebook" (a piece dealing with kids attempts to self-regulate their Facebook addictions) she quotes Michael Diamonti, head of school at SF University High School:

"[I support] these kids recognizing that they need to exercise some control over their use of Facebook, that not only is it tremendously time-consuming but perhaps not all that fulfilling."

Hafner goes on to quote Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, who writes of an 18 year old male who quit FB while working on his college application:

"Facebook wasn't merely a distraction, but it was really confusing him about who he was."

Jonathan Harris, in his recent piece on World Building, writes

"Our online tools do a great job at breadth (hundreds of friends,
thousands of tweets), but a bad job at depth. We live increasingly
superficial lives, reducing our relationships to caricatures and our
personalities to billboards, as we speed along at 1,000 miles an hour.

We trade self-reflection for busyness, gorging ourselves on it and
drowning in it, without recognizing the violence of that busyness,
which we perpetrate against ourselves and at our peril."

There is something beautiful, terrifying and powerful about the rise of ambient intimacy, and our willing adoption of the latest and greatest tools to feed it.  We feed it with our hearts and souls like a confessional booth after a Las Vegas bender, but occasionally forget that every wry observation and catty tweet is now searchable, indexable and forever. 

But seeing is not knowing.  Telling alone does not create understanding. And the fact I can't actually deal with the immediacy of a restaurant until I've "checked in" in pursuit of my "Crunked' badge is…well, a little sad.

Sad, but I believe it will evolve into something beautiful.  This stuff would not survive, we would not be obsessed by it, if it did not meet a fundamental human need.  Our job is to understand that need and work to meet it with technology that enhances our humanity, and deepens our connections, rather than reduces our rich world of experience to 140 character bleats.

But it does make you think – children learn interaction by observing our emotional states.  How much of our hearts and souls can we pour into the technosphere before it develops its own api to tap our raw data, and begin to react?

It feels inevitable that a status update will someday generate a reaction – "feeling blue" may generate a skype call from an unknown (but somehow familiar soothing) voice, suggesting you "look on the bright side – you've got that Mexico trip coming up!  You'll be tan and happy, and you'll probably hook up!" – and when the line goes dead, you'll feel great, and maybe slightly, momentarily unsettled.  But you shouldn't be – you put the trip into dopplr, booked it through Expedia, and you've got a profile that matches someone else who did the same (and is single)…weather.com predicts sun for the 10-day forecast, and the tweets you posted from Tulum the last time were, algorithmically speaking, the happiest of your 8,956 posts. 

You can't miss!

Mobile Weapon?

Connectivity: harbinger of a Tech-enabled Utopia?  Pain in the ass?

A connected world, the thinking goes, is an empowered, informed and an enlightened one. 

Of course, we've had a few World Wars since the telegraph and telephones were invented, so jury's out.

But fine, if connectivity is good, well then, mobile connectivity, is, well…it's like Utopia plus. 

Because while connectivity gives us show times on Fandango, mobile connectivity will both save the world and level it.

"The World is Flat"-ter Thomas Friedman's OpEd piece "The Land of No Service"
in the 16 August 09 NYT describes a trip to the Okavango Delta in Africa, where there is little wireless
connectivity.  He writes: 

"like it or not, coming here forces you to think about the blessings
and curses of “connectivity.” “No Service” is something travelers from
the developed world now pay for in order to escape modernity, with its
ball and chain of e-mail. For much of Africa, though, “No Service” is a
curse — because without more connectivity, its people can’t escape
poverty."

And he may be right.

Because if you want to get out of poverty, you need to be able to save money.  And on a continent (!) where less than 20% of the aggregate population even has access to a bank account, that's a challenge.

According to the World Bank, 90% of Kenyans, 85% of Liberians and 95% of Tanzanians operate without access to banking services.  Enter services like M-PESA and Wizzit, providing the ability to "bank" and micro-transact remotely.

Each market is unique – M-PESA started in Kenya, Wizzit is operating in South Africa – and M-PESA Kenya has seen substantially higher adoption than Tanzania's M-PESA (read here for a CGAP paper on just this topic). 

But despite scale, replicability and market variations including "country demographics and cultures, market structures, business models,
and strategic implementations", these experiments are being carefully monitored.  Mary Kimani, in "A Bank in Every African Pocket" writes about Wizzit’s South African mobile banking pilot operation, and quotes Mohsen Khalil, the World Bank’s director of global ICT:

"If this model works in South
Africa…the World Bank will help the company expand coverage
within and beyond the country. We may be looking here at . . . the
most effective way to provide social and economic services to the
poor.”

Hopalong Selebalo – an intern for ISS in the Organized Crime and Money Laundering Programme – quotes Brian Richardson,  Wizzit's CEO and MD, on the advantages of mobile banking in an ISS paper entitled 7 May 2009: Mobile Phone Banking in the South African Economy.  The key positives:

  • the safety of not having to carry cash around
  • the absence of risk of account closure for inactivity, which enables
    people that do not have a regular income to do banking
  • lower costs, partly because there are no transaction-by-transaction fees
  • saving of time by avoiding long distance travel for banking
  • flexibility,
    in that users can change markets by making small business-to-business
    transactions immediately and reliably, and
  • facilitating popular participation in the economy, which ultimately is positive for the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Selebalo, despite the risk of abuse and money laundering via mobile, posits that "mobile banking could increase national rates of saving, increase
incomes and boost the resilience of the economy. At a broader level, it
could improve taxation, and encourage reinvestment of money that is
currently not in effective circulation."

OK.  OK.

But can it help us win the "information war" going on in Afghanistan right now?

Maybe. Thom Shanker, in his 08.16.09 NYT piece "U.S. Plans a Mission against Taliban Propaganda", begins with a note that the Obama adminsitration acknowledges that they are "engaging more fully than ever in a war of words and ideas" in rural Afghanistan. 

And the proposed solution involves both (a) FM stations to combat pirate stations the Taliban has been operating – in some cases off the back of roving donkey carts – and importantly, (b) providing cellphone
service.

How can cell coverage turn the tide?

“The ability to communicate empowers a
population,”  said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, NATO’s
director of communication in Kabul. “That is a very important principle of
counterinsurgency and counterpropaganda.”

Giving folks cellphone coverage gives them access to independent (read: non-Taliban) information sources.

"In southern Afghanistan, insurgents threaten commercial cellphone providers with attack if they do not switch off service early each night.

That
prevents villagers from calling security forces if they see militants
on the move or planting roadside bombs; the lack of cellphone service
at night also hobbles the police and nongovernmental development
agencies.

And the kicker?  Despite the fact that mobile-enabled transaction will inevitably help finance terrorism (and probably already have), according to Shanker:

"Expanding and securing cellphone service
has the additional benefit of assisting economic development, officials
said, as it could provide wireless access to banking systems for those
who now must travel long distances for financial services."

But back to Utopia.  Or at least Wikipedia's definition of Utopia:

"a compound of the
syllable ou-, meaning "no", and topos, meaning place. But the
homonymous prefix eu-, meaning "good," also resonates in the word, with
the
implication that the perfectly "good place" is really "no place." 

Hmmm.  Given how effectively mobility has enabled us to "be" anyplace and
noplace, connected to the big world and disconnected from the immediate, maybe
Utopia IS the right analogy.

Weapon and Savior?

A "good place" that's "no place"? 

Mobility is transforming both society and culture.

And…oh wait – hold on.  I need to talk this call.

Twitter::blogging as USA Today::Monocle

For the long silence. 

For anyone still reading here (Hi, Mom!), I've been having a bit of an internal debate on the value of blogging.  It's resulted in my near complete migration to twitter for sharing insights and info. 

And questioning why one would post thoughts to a blog, or provide links to cool stuff via one, when it's so damn much easier to 'bit.ly' great stuff, punch it out in 140 characters or less and move on, and get the 'social credit' for having done so via the twitter community.

Twitter has become a great medium for the zingy barb aimed at a Retweet.  Many of my friends play Twitter like a game, with RT's and @replies as their scorecard.  And I'll admit – it's pretty satisfying to get a reply or RT.  Human beings want to interact. And a comment-less blog post isn't a conversation.  An RT or an @reply feels more like one.  And so the draw.

HBS tells us less the median for tweets is 1.  Yep, one and done.  Back in 2008, Technorati told us 95% of blogs hadn't been updated in 4 months.  Remember Second Life?  I still think 90% of their registrations were from ad agency jackasses trying to figure it out to sell tot heir clients.  But people want feedback.  They need feedback.  We are hardwired to seek it out.

A draft White Paper entitled "Tweet Tweet Retweet" (Download TweetTweetRetweet) by Danah Boyd, Scott Golder and Gilad Lotanon even names the phenomenon of "Ego Retweeting".  Some of the data cited (and yes, the paper leads with a 'do not cite' header):

"Based on 720,000 tweets captured at 5-minute intervals from 437,708 unique users, they found that: 

• 22% of tweets include a URL (‘http:’)
• 36% of tweets mention a user in the form ‘@user’; 86% of tweets with @user begin with @user and are presumably a directed @reply
• 5% of tweets contain a hashtag (#) with 41% of these also containing a URL
• 3% of tweets are likely to be retweets in that they contain ‘RT’, ‘retweet’ or ‘via’ (88% include ‘RT’, 11% include ‘via’ and 5% include ‘retweet’

Based on 203,371 retweets captured from 107,116 unique users, they found that:

• 52% of retweets contain a URL
• 18% of retweets contain a hashtag
• 11% of retweets contain an encapsulated retweet (RT @user1 RT @user2 …message..)
• 9% of retweets contain an @reply that refers to the person retweeting the post

It doesn't take much thought to zing off 140 characters of self-indulgent crap (exactly the reason many dismissed Twitter in the first place), but it does take time to compose something meaningful. 

We need more ways not just to connect, but to connect with each other.

And we'll migrate to the tools that do it best.

**UPDATE**

Oh thank god there's an ironic T that summarizes this whole damn post.

******