Conference Notes

On writing my talk for dconstruct…

A few people have asked me to put up my slides for the dconstruct talk. However, I’m going to be doing a variant on the talk at Web 2.0 Expo Berlin in a few weeks so I thought I’d let it relax a bit in my head and see if there’s anything I’d like to adjust before I put it out into the world as it stands. If you need a version to persuade your boss of something in the meantime, let me know and I’ll send you a copy. Otherwise I’ll post one up in early November.

A week after dconstruct and I find myself jet-lagged to hell, awake and mostly alert at 5.30am PST in a Marriott hotel in Redmond. I’m here in Microsoft heartland for a Social Computing Symposium where I’m going to be talking a bit more about Fire Eagle and then I’m heading down to San Francisco for a bunch of meetings and stuff. I quite like travelling. I like the change of context. I like meeting people and the almost total solitude that you get in alternating chunks.

One of the things I like most about travelling is when you travel east-to-west and the jet-lag kicks in. The evenings sort of suck–I pass out around nine or ten for the first couple of evenings–but the mornings are pretty great. You find yourself glancing a the clock when you wake up and it’s 4am. You lie in bed getting a lie-in and when you’re bored it’s still not light. With nothing else to do, these first few hours are wonderfully relaxing and a great time to catch up on things that have rather got on top of you. I’m spending my pre-dawn hours today catching up on e-mail, posting to and generally catching up with stuff. Makes me feel so productive.

I don’t always feel so terribly productive. A little over a week ago I was also waking up pretty early and working, but that was mostly because of my talk at dconstruct. And while finally delivering the talk was tremendously enjoyable and invigorating, writing it was anything but. It was instead a bloody horrible experience. And sitting here in bed–it still dark outside–it occurs to me that maybe it’s an experience I should bring out into the open, both to get it out of my head and to give other people some perspective on what it’s like to try and drag a talk together when you’re not actually a terribly extraverted person. Maybe it’ll help someone. Who knows.

Let me take you back to the middle of August – a full three weeks before dconstruct. At that point, I’d already been having real trouble getting my talk together and it had started to stress me out. I’d been thinking around the subject for a month or so, trying to scrabble my thoughts together, but it hadn’t got very far. So I came up with a solution – I’d take off three days to bring it all together. The three days bled into the weekend, and the weekend into a bank holiday. Six days to work on a talk! What bliss! What ecstacy! That’s going to be fine! What could go wrong?

It was a disaster. I woke up in the morning, stared at a screen for a while, wandered around my flat, wrote things on post-it notes and stuck them to every surface in my house. I stared at myself in the mirror. I bought lots of dental floss and had a really good go at my back teeth. I paced a lot. I did occasional spats of press-ups to try and get the frustration out of my system and ended up just feeling a bit sore. My brain refused to focus on doing the talk itself, just on worrying about writing it.

I found myself doing absolutely anything I could possibly do that would be in any way useful in my life instead as a way to legitimate my lack of progress. I bought light-bulbs. I sorted out all my old VHS videos and got rid of them via freecycle. I did inordinate amounts of washing. I went through all my books and took the ones I didn’t want to a charity shop. I emptied a cupboard. I even considered hoovering, which should give you a sense of my state of mind. Day Three came and went and nothing was flowing.

I’d managed to phrase my talk as a follow-on to Native to a Web of Data, which is probably the talk of which I’m most proud. I felt that the pressure was on to match it with a sequel. Also about forty of the people I respect most in the industry had decided that they were going to come down to Brighton for the day and I was going to be performing in front of all of them. Worse still, somehow I had landed the responsibility of being the last on stage for the day in front of six hundred people or so. To put it mildly, I was terrified.
Another three days passed and I’d got nowhere substantial. My break now over and back in work, I started trying to get it together in the evenings after finishing my normal day’s workload. On a couple of occasions, I worked in the office from 10am until 1 or 2am the following day to try and get something out. Mostly this was unsuccessful.

If any of you guys out there think that this just happened to me for the first time with this talk–by the way–I need to disabuse you of it. Most of my talks are this much pain, as most of my friends can attest. I get enormous stage-fright. Standing up in front of people to give talks of this scale (several hundred people) scares the living crap out of me and always has done. In the end though, normally it’s worth it. I battle with talks to such an extent that they’re normally always pretty decent, they force me to think through and systematise things that have been in my head for a while, and the reception is normally pretty good. But god, they’re a nightmare to write.

And speaking of my friends, there are a few of them I need to thank explicitly because they normally end up being the catalyst that helps me pull the bloody things off. In particular I should thank Matt Webb, Cal Henderson, Simon Willison, Natalie Downe and Denise Wilton who have all calmed me down (and sometimes just told me off) when I’ve been freaking out about a talk.

Anyway, so the talk for dconstruct didn’t actually start really firming itself up in my head–didn’t really start coming together properly and making sense to me–until probably two days before the event itself. The day before the event I finally had a structure and all the points but still absolutely no slides. The day before the event I started knocking out some slides but found myself rapidly running out of time. At one point Cal sat down with me and just went, “Okay, what’s your next point? Write it down. Leave it. Now what? What do you want to say next? Write it down. Next.” He was–frankly–amazing. If he hadn’t have been there, I’m not sure I’d have won the battle this time.

That evening, we were supposed to go out for a dinner and a drink with the other speakers, but that was completely impossible for me. My heart had been pounding in my ears for about three days solidly, and so instead of going and drinking and socialising I found myself barrelling along, fighting and wrestling with this aggravating thing that I’d decided to create, sitting in Simon Willison and Natalie Downe’s flat scratching out slides. At around eleven I gave up for the evening. My brain felt like it had been hit dozens of times, as if it had been tenderized. Nothing I did to it could get it working again.
Five hours after going to sleep at my hotel room though, I was up again – writing slides, bashing points around. It’s worth saying that at this point I’m still fiddling with the character spacing on some of the slides, that they look right being still as terrifyingly important as what they actually said. Such is the depths of my lunacy. By 10 am I was not with the rest of the speakers upstairs watching the talks, I was downstairs hidden in the Green Room blocking through the thing section by section. And with occasional breaks to go and buy fizzy drinks and things with sugar in them, that’s where I stayed for the rest of the day. No doubt I made my fellow speakers nervous with my frantic energy and buzzing adrenal frenzy. Everything tasted of metal.

And then finally, suddenly, around midday – after weeks of fighting it just started flowing naturally.

I finally finished the talk at 3.30pm, having seen not a single other speaker on stage all day, hiding in one of the chorus rooms in the basement. I had to get my laptop onto the stage by 4.30pm when Matt Webb’s talk started (my talk was directly after his), so I had nearly an hour to do my one and only rehearsal. Reassured and comfortable that it was going to be okay, I read it out loud to myself.
And it stank. It really really stank. I’d been trying to just get a sense of the time, but I started to realise the gaps and absences in the argument, where it was running long, where I sounded like a hippy and where I sounded like a corporate drone. Quickly squeezing in a few extra bridging comments in my notes, and adding in a couple of extra slides, I turned around and had to call it finished.

I always find at conferences that the forty-five minutes or so before I’m actually talking are among the easiest of the whole time, and this was no exception. It’s like my brain accepts that there’s nothing more that it can do, that there’s no longer any point in worrying, and it just gets out of the way. It’s great. My brain-state was also helped substantially by Matt Webb’s talk on The Experience Stack. I found it beautiful and fascinating, and as elliptical as ever. You have to work with Matt’s talks–he makes these extraordinary leaps–but if you do you’re normally rewarded. There’s always something that makes me raise an eyebrow in suspicion or disbelief, and always something else that makes me see something old in a new way. I’m a systematiser, on the whole. He makes inspirational leaps. In many ways we’re completely different from one another, but those differences often got us to good places when we worked together. In this case, he got my brain moving again and engaged with what he was saying, and it got me nicely focused for my turn.

Which by all accounts, after all this stress and pain, seemed to go fairly well. I’ve heard lovely comments from a bunch of people and despite all the misery it took to get there, I genuinely enjoyed presenting it. I don’t think it’s as good a talk in the end as Native to a Web of Data or Greater than the Sum of its Parts, but I think there’s substance in it and some challenges to our current ways of building and thinking about the web. That makes me pretty happy.
I’d love to know what you guys thought of it – and whether you had any points or suggestions about it. It’s probably going to get another airing at Web 2.0 Expo Berlin in about six weeks, so any thoughts that you had would be very very much appreciated. As I’m doing the talk again though, I’m still undecided about whether or not I should post the slides. If you’re keen to see them, can I ask you to wait a month? Or if you’re really desperate and need them to make a case to your manager or boss, then let me know via e-mail and I’ll send you a version of them.

With dconstruct over, the rest of the weekend became about letting my hair down, but it wasn’t going to start immediately. I stuck around for some of the main after-party, but by eleven in the evening, I was basically unconscious with exhaustion. I ducked back to my hotel room to dump my bag and passed out almost immediately and woke up still fried the day afterwards. Only after a lovely breakfast with fellow dconstruct nerds and a good chunk of BarCamp did I start to feel human again. And only a couple of hours at the pier on Sunday afternoon could really shake all the cobwebs out of my head. You can see all my post-dconstruct pictures on my Flickr stream: After dconstruct, but here’s one to capture the mood:

I suppose in retrospect I’d call the whole thing a difficult but worthwhile experience for me. I need to find a better way to deal with my stage-fright and to get these talks out without so much pain, but at the moment it’s survivable. The most important thing is that they’re enjoyable and interesting to the people who watch them. So if you were there, I hope you enjoyed the talk as much as I (finally) enjoyed delivering it. And if you have problems speaking in public, then maybe this post will have given you some perspective. You’re not alone!

Conference Notes Social Software

Thoughts around "Social by Design"…

No doubt tomorrow when they’ve sobered up there’ll be a good bit of reportage from the Techcrunch UK guys about the Beers and Innovation: Social by Design event that I got back from a couple of hours ago, but since I wasn’t drinking I can catch a bit of a march on them and give you my thoughts straight away. All in all, not a bad evening – it was lovely to catch up with some of the people that I don’t really see that often and see what people are talking about, although it’s also a little frustrating to see some of the same conversations making the rounds that we heard three years ago about Friendster and six years ago about Six Degrees. Still the speakers were pretty good value with Meg Pickard‘s talk being particularly cool. I should expect that, I’ve known her for years and I count her as a friend, but still, it’s worth saying.

It wasn’t all super good fun. There were a bunch of questions and comments from the audience that I got really tense about and wanted to jump in for, but being stuck in the audience meant that there was a limit to the amount I could effectively stick my oar in before I felt I had to be quiet, but hey – I’ve got a weblog, so I can give my opinions on a bunch of them now instead.

Things that particularly stuck in my head – a statement about design being irrelevant in social media environments, which I’ve heard around a hell of a lot, normally with MySpace presented as evidence. I’ll agree that shiny graphic design doesn’t always carry along a conversation or make a place feel friendly and informal enough to talk and connect, but there are two things that it’s important (albeit obvious) to say about this – firstly that design is not about purely the visual layer. Design in social software is about creating functional social environments that fulfil user needs, extend or enhance the social or collaborative abilities of the people within them, are clear and easy to use and avoid falling foul of trolls, griefers and internecine conflicts. If you can create mechanisms for helping people create something collectively of aggregate value as well, then that’s profoundly important too. These are all places which involve considerations of design and I’ve yet to see a single site that doesn’t take these seriously do well in this space.

And secondly, I think it’s worth debunking the MySpace example for a minute – people find it genuinely entertaining and engaging, it meets social needs, but sure it’s not totally usable and it’s ugly as all buggery. But on the other hand, it was bootstrapped with a list of millions of e-mail addresses and heavily marketed towards aspirational communities (musicians). If you look for the features that distinguished MySpace from Friendster before it, there were only really a couple. One of which was massive personalisation, which is definitely a big deal however badly it was implemented. The other is in the sheer innovation and focus of the marketing. The fact that it flies despite the fact that it doesn’t look great doesn’t mean that it thrived because it didn’t look great. There are other factors involved in a site’s success other than what it looks like and MySpace did a pretty extraordinary job in a bunch of these.

Another comment or question that arose from the crowd was about the social benefits of social software – was there any evidence that it might engender a cultural revolution? How was it being used for the good of mankind? I heard a room full of people talk around this stuff but absolutely none of them said the obvious things which we really need to be aware of. I look to the net and I see Wikipedia (a massive repository of free data available for everyone to use), Open Street Map (a collective effort to map the world for the good of the world) and Flickr a photo website full of millions of photos free for anyone to use. I see a resurgence in the commons, with creative work being made collectively by hundreds of thousands of people across the world. I see fifty million weblogs giving individuals the ability to express their opinions and organise and collectivise, forming relationships and arguing their particular political perspectives helping to form the news (for good or ill). One way or another this stuff is having an impact and it’s such early days. It’s not obvious what changes this stuff will engender over the next twenty years, but this stuff has already changed the discourse forever, even if at the moment the way it’s reshaping the world is far from clear.

And a final comment that I’ve heard frankly far to many times already but which we have to start refusing to take seriously – where is the money? Some people seem to find it impossible to believe that social media can create value even as all around them people seem to do so. Look to the grandfather of ecommerce – look to Amazon and tell me that there’s no money. Look to MySpace and eBay and Flickr. And don’t just look to advertising. Look to premium accounts. Look to affiliate sales. Look to brand building. Look to the creation of content with financial value. Look at the creation of marketplaces. There are endless possibilities, and it’s time peopleparticularly in the UKjust recognised that and moved onto the more interesting discussions…

Conference Notes

Podcasts and Presentations…

I’ve just noticed that Ryan Carson and the Carson Workshops crew have put up presentations and MP3s for the Future of Web Apps summit that I spoke at in San Francisco a few weeks ago. For some reason there is no associated MP3 with my talk—probably I didn’t plug in the microphone properly or something. Can’t be helped. However, the slides are still up should anyone out there be interested in reading them.

While I’m on the subject of presentations and podcasts, I thought I should mention that shortly after the Carson talk Brian Oberkirch came into the Yahoo offices to talk to me and record a podcast about the two major subjects I’ve been talking about publically this year: designing for a web of data and building social software that helps individuals get together to make something greater than the sum of its parts. I’m afraid I think the MP3—which is around fifty minutes long—is a bit random and sprawling. I started off on-edge and I don’t think I ever really relaxed into it. But if you’ve got the time to sit through something that long and unfocused then there’s probably something in it that some people will find useful. Brian’s page about the podcast is here orif you’d ratheryou can listen directly to the MP3 or via this player from Odeo:

It’s not my finest hour, but it’s probably not completely without value. Brian’s also done a lot of other podcasts with people recently, including two of my favourite people Chad Dickerson and Ted Rheingold. I’d definitely recommend listening to them.

The other thing that Brian did was take a photo of me to go along with the podcast. I’m so used to looking tired and old in photos that I’m actually going to specifically mention how much I like this particular photo. Thanks old chap!

Tom Coates by Brian Oberkirch

Conference Notes Gay Politics Talks

I'm the only gay in this village?

Right. I’m in a bit of a mood right now because Valleywag just called me the token gay at all-white-male conference Future of Web Apps. Apparently this was in response to Chris Messina’s post the other day on the future of white boy clubs which argued that white men should do something about the diversity of the tech community. There’s something deeply entertaining to me about fighting for inclusivity by suggesting that some people only got to speak because they were in a minority group. Smart move! Inclusive! Fuck you Valleywag! And while I generally applaud Chris’ post for being positive and saying that people should do something in a positive direction, I’m still a bit weirded out by his labelling of Tantek as ‘Turk’ compared to ‘white’ for the rest of us, and I still don’t actually see anything in his post which suggests actually solid actions to go forward with rather than just the positive sentiment, which I wholeheartedly agree with.

This whole thing is really beginning to piss me off, and it’s beginning to piss me off because lots of smart, good people are getting involved and fighting for some really weird things. Let me talk to you briefly about conference organising. I’ve had some conversations with people recently who organise conferences. They say that if you do a conference in visual design, web design, web standards and all that kind of stuff then audience and speakers are fifty-fifty men and women. The same holds true in the academic conferences. I have no idea about the various ethnicities of the people involved, nor of their sexualities. People comment on those things less frequently. But at least the gender thing is worth noting.

What’s more interesting is that the very same conference organisers, when they’re trying to do something around the geekier or more-business focused ends of the industry find that those ratios skew massively towards men. Note these are the same conference organisers! Their heavily prejudiced attitudes don’t seem to be causing endemic sexism or homophobic imbalances in the design and academic communities. So why on earth do they get lynched every time this debate comes up in the technology industry? It’s bullshit! The problem is elsewhere. Technology community, heal thyself!

I’ll give you another example – last year’s ETech committee was pretty much specifically chosen to open up to new communities. I was on the panel for the first (and I suspect last) time, as were Paula Le Dieu and Liz Goodman (among others). The conference team looked wide and far and tried to find a whole range of new people to talk at the conference, and clearly trying to open up the conference to previously excluded communities was a priority. And after all of that, with a real focus on uncovering hidden women and getting them to speak, we only managed (roughly) 15 female speakers to 95 male speakers. I think the ratio of men to women in the audience was even more imbalanced. Again, I don’t know the numbers of gay people or ethnic minorities off the top of my head. SXSW was much more balanced in the gender stakes, but again – it’s a very different subject area.

I really want to make this clear, the industry would probably be better able to provide products for a diverse group of users if it was itself more diverse. But wishing doesn’t make it so, and nor does shouting at the organisers of conferences. If you know people within the industry who should be talking or standing up, then you should encourage them to do so. If you’re observing brilliant people being passed over for venture money because of their gender, ethnicity or sexuality then for god’s sake there’s a real business opportunity there! And sure, if you genuinely don’t believe that conference organisers are doing their bit, then talk about it and pressure them. But let’s not just assume that a conference that evidences a giant skew towards straight white men is anything more than a reflection of the lamentable current state of our industry – a state that’s not going to be transformed by conference organisers alone. And while we’re at it, I’d really rather prefer it if people stopped arguing that anyone who is at a conference and isn’t a WASP is a token stab towards political correctness. The way this debate is being conducted at the moment is doing no one any good whatsoever.

Conference Notes Talks

Decompressing after Future of Web Apps…

The conference is over and the reviews are in and I appear to have survived with a decent proportion of the people who wrote about it seeming to think it was a good and useful talk. I cannot tell you what an enormous relief that is. There’s something about the Carson events that I find more intimidating and scary than almost any other conference I’ve ever done. The audience is quite substantial, you’re on a big stage separated from them and there are lights on you and dramatic music and it all feels a bit like you’re on Broadway rather than mumbling incoherently to a bunch of your colleagues and peers. Still, the talk went successfully and pretty much as soon as I came off stage I felt a weight lifting off me and after a good night’s sleep everything became entirely more manageable in the world.

I honestly don’t know that I’d have got the thing together in the first place though without Simon‘s help. He really performed way beyond the call of duty by coming into the office with me on a Sunday and calming me down while I tried to block through the whole thing from beginning to end. I know it sounds ridiculously melodramatic but standing up and talking to eight hundred odd people is bloody terrifying to me and having someone to just reassure me that I wasn’t going to be talking unmitigated bullshit really helped. Other people who were incredibly helpful included Denise Wilton, Suw Charman, Paul Hammond, Cameron Marlow, Cal Henderson, Matt Webb, Elina Rubuliak, Ben Cerveny and Matt Biddulph. Thank god for friends, eh? And thank god it’s only large-scale public speaking that really gets me quite this tense, otherwise I’d be a non-functioning drool-heap most of the time.

Anyway, I’m going to try and get my slides online in the next few hours, but I just thought I should probably surface and say thanks to everyone who came to the talk, who has given me feedback afterwards and particularly to those people who helped me out during the process. And obviously, if I’ve forgotten anyone then please remember, I was a burned out shell of a man about three days ago and it’s really not intentional.

Conference Notes Design Technology

Maps, Invaders, Robots & Throwies… (FOO 06)

So I thought I’d end my series of posts on FOO (which some of you may have determined was originally one grotesquely long post of approaching 5,000 words, roughly chunked to last as long as possible sometime last weekend) by talking about some of the more frivolous things that happened. You need an example? The football-playing robots were pretty extraordinary:

You can see the original by dewitt over on Flickr or – if you’re feeling particularly cheerful and playful, you can watch a tiny bit of crappy phonecam footage of Stewart Butterfield having a play with one of them. There was apparently a large football game between two teams of these monsters. I missed that, but got have a private fiddle which in the end is all that matters.

What else was awesome? There was a great set of films displayed by the Graffiti Research Lab displaying some of their work on Throwies and magnetic / projected graffiti. You can see a whole bunch of videos of their projects on their site – but can I recommend Jesus 2.0, Night Writer and LED Throwies 2.0 if you haven’t seen them already. I think my favourite bit of that particular part of the evening was when Simon started muttering to himself that they were all a bunch of noisy vandals. That particular film also introduced me to new favourite track Bustin’ Loose by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. Which rocks.

Oh and then there was the Applied Mindsish rotating map table of wonder and the laser-etching machine which made a lot of people very happy / nerdy. I only wish that I’d figured out that this was going on earlier in the day when I still had time to get something personal carefully-etched with a space invader.

Speaking of space invaders, the most fun out-of-camp project was organised by Chris DiBona and heavily featured space invaders of various kinds. He’d managed to get a plane from Google to fly overhead to take photos to put onto Google Maps and Google Earth. Chris and the lovely Jane McGonigal organised one particular pretty substantial project to take advantage of this opportunity – to build a representation of a crashed Cylon Raider out of bin-liners in the grounds of the O’Reilly offices.

There’s was clearly the most technically proficient of the projects, but I think ours has a chance of being as entertaining. Cal, Simon, Paul, Heathcote, Suw Charman, Biddulph and I – with help from variously lovely people including (again) Jane, decided to assemble two massive space invaders out of large sheets of white cardboard that I’d bought on the way to FOO in the morning for the princely sum of $100. Everything was going really well until about fifteen minutes before the plane flew over when the wind blew everything away (we’d not thought about how to moor the paper down), but we ran around frantically and piled them up with apples and with any luck you’ll be able to see our stunning works of pixel art on your second-favourite maps site sometime in the next month or so. Here are some pictures to whet your appetite:

All photos from Julian Bleecker’s FOO Camp set.

Anyway, that’s my FOO experience all done and dusted. Thanks for being so patient. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. As of Monday afternoon I’ll be in San Francisco, more than likely crapping myself with fear about the prospect of speaking in front of a thousand people. I’m around for about a week after the conference as well if you’d like to meet up. Otherwise, speak soon – after all, I haven’t said the slightest thing about Dirty Semantics yet – the talk that I gave at FOO and which I think will be occupying the dark moist spaces in the back of my brain for the next six months or so.

Conference Notes Net Culture Personal Publishing Technology

Terahertz waves vs. Alexaholics… (FOO '06)

Wrapping up my coverage of FOO sessions, I just thought I should probably mention the two last I attended, even though I don’t have so much to directly say about them. I’ve got one more post to come though, so don’t get your hopes up. No one gets out of here without hearing about the Space Invaders.

One session that I found astonishingly awesome, but honestly don’t know if I really understood 1/100th of, was on Terahertz waves and imaging and was presented by a guy who used to grow diamonds for NASA. He has since moved on to trying to build a small super-hi-tech terahertz whatsit that he plans to use for everything from building a tricoder to heating up collagen beneath the skin and smoothing wrinkles. His talk was … hard … for a non-scientist, and it probably says something about it that the things my brain caught upon were the beautiful silver wavers with tiny grooves upon them that clearly fulfil some purpose that I was unable to focus upon. It was a talk useful for putting the rest of the talks in perspective I suppose – and maybe reminding you of your limited place in the world – if nothing else. Humbling.

The final talk I went to of the weekend was presented by Ron Hornbaker of Alexaholic. Alexaholic is a service that uses data from Alexa’s traffic rankings and provides ways of interpreting it. It was an unusually well-attended session, with Stewart Butterfield from Flickr and Joshua Schachter from both in attendenace. According to Ron, Tim O’Reilly is also an enormous fan of Alexaholic and uses it to observe trends in the market. Stewart and Joshua are clearly both well versed in tracking what’s going on in the market through Alexa as well – all commenting on a recent upsurge in Web 2.0 properties that was apparently more of a consequence of the removal of spammers than an unusual upspike in their respective traffics (which continue to grow quite solidly). They particularly commented upon Seth Godin’s List of Web 2.0 properties and their respective rankings. Tim O’Reilly apparently arguing that the removal of sites like Google from the list missed out on the ‘harnessing collective intelligence’ aspect of the emerging ecosystem. It was a pretty interesting session, and the product will – I think – get more interesting still when you’re able to assemble your own list of sites to track regularly which was mentioned as the next stage in functionality for the site.

Right then. That’s the sessions all done. You’ve got one more post to endure about FOO, and it’s a fun one – it’s about all the extraneous activities and projects and installations around the place that I experienced, and I’ll be putting it up tomorrow. Thanks for bearing with me through this long series of posts. Next week – San Francisco and the Future of Web Apps. But for now, sayonara!

Conference Notes Health Technology

Brain stimulation for the masses… (FOO '06)

There was one speaker at FOO this year that would literally have blown my brain away if he’d happened to have had his equipment with him. Ed Boyden talked about transcranial magnetic stimulation – basically how to use focused magnetic fields to stimulate sections of the brain and hence change behaviour. He talked about how you could use this kind of stimulation to improve mood and fight depression, to induce visual phenomena or reduce schizophrenic symptoms, hallucinations and dreams, speed up language processing, improve attention, break habits and improve creativity. Frankly, the whole territory sounded extraordinary. Some examples – a depression study found that stimulating parts of the brain for half an hour once a week massively lifted mood and that the effects lasted for around six weeks after the treatment had stopped. Another study found that by stimulating deep reward centres associated with addiction you could ween someone off smoking.

The whole session was sort of terrifyingly awesome and itself rather brain-melting. Apparently complications from this kind of treatment have been reduced to nearly zero after some safety rules were proposed in 1998. There have been over three and a half thousand papers written around the subject in clinical settings as well. It’s pretty much mainstream science. The only reasons – apparently – that it’s not more widespread is because of (1) the disjunction between neurologists and psychiatrists and (2) the cost and size of the units themselves.

So Ed Boyden’s proposal (along with some colleagues) is to create an open source community that could develop and apply safe brain stimulator technology. They’re currently using Sourceforge, following in the tracks of the Open EEG project. Apparently to construct a brain stimulator is surprisingly easy – you only need a reinforced coil, a high-capacity capacitor, a power supply, control circuitry for discharging the capacitors, hardware for holding and positioning the coil on the head, safety circuitry, optional measurement devices and some form of software and hardware combination to act as an interface. Absolutely fascinating. I shall expect to see pictures of Schulze and Webb experimenting with one shortly.

He ended by telling the story of one prominent thinker in this field who developed a wand that she could touch against a part of your head and stop you being able to talk. Apparently she used to roam around the laboratories doing this to people. She also apparently had her head shaved and tattooed with all the various areas of the brain and what direct stimulation to them (with a wand) could do to her. She has, apparently, since grown her hair. I’d love to meet her.

Conference Notes Politics Science

On the Politicisation of Science… (FOO '06)

One talk from FOO Camp 06 started off fascinating me and end up driving me to distraction with frustration. Chris Csikszentmih√°lyi from the MIT Media Lab did a talk about the implicit politics that lies behind all technology. Initially I found this highly engaging – it reminded me a lot about the cultural studies work that I’d been involved with during my incomplete doctorate – only with a more practical bent. Specifically Emily Martin’s article The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance based on Stereotypical Male-Female roles leapt into my brain – an article that argued that scientific discourse was regularly distorted by cultural prejudices and explained how unexamined assumptions made a mockery of concepts like ‘good science’.

Csikszentmih√°lyi described his work as exploring the implicit assumptions of technological work and science – the difference between what the scientists think they’re doing and what actually happens. One of the interesting facts he revealed was that only 3%-5% of experiments in advanced science are ever reproven (ie. the experiments are successfully replicated) for a whole range of reasons. This is not because the science was wrong (necessarily) but simply because some of the experiments can only be performed using incredibly expensive equipment that might only be owned by one laboratory (CERN’s particle accelerators?) and that many of the experiments could only be replicated with the ‘tacit knowledge’ of the people who had performed the initial experiments – knowledge that often was not successfully captured in the write-ups of the experiments. He argued that, ‘scientific conflict is not resolved by individuals replicating stuff like that, it’s resolved in a remarkable social process’.

Anyway, so far so good. He then talked about tool neutrality and how where you received funding from – and the perspective from which you were viewing the research – inevitably revealed that all work was political, and that ideas like ‘tool neutrality’ (I’m making something neutral and it can be used for good or ill) and ‘technology is out of control’ were both missing the point and were completely irrelevant to the debate. That the politicised nature of science was indisputable, but did not necessarily result in anti-technological standpoints.

The parts that got difficult for me were when – accepting that there was no science that was not political – Csikszentmih√°lyi seemed to me to wander rapidly down into relativism, almost seeming to argue that there was no such thing as empirically ‘better’ or ‘worse’ science, but simply different political takes on the same field. I tried to get him to expand around this and challenged a few points that seemed to be logical extensions of this without much success at all, and left frustrated and irritated by the whole enterprise. It seems to me that the inevitable idea that science is politicised needs to be kept distinct from the quite abhorent concept that there is no qualitative difference between different theories, only perspectival ones. This seems to me to be an idea that’s seeped into the world from my old discipline to the good of precisely no one. It seems to me that there remains some way of arguing that a theory that was demonstrably disprovable was conceptually ‘worse’ than a theory that fitted the available data, and that this metric was implicated in and connected to but orthogonal to the inevitably politicised nature of the science itself. That is to say that the politicisation would inevitably exist and would always and inevitably obfuscate any model of a ‘real world’ that one might wish to posit as a useful mechanism to think against (subject to disproval, of course). But that while we accepted that, there were metrics that could often be used to measure practicality, utility, plausibility or whatever that could be a debased but functional analogue to ideas of ‘what makes good science’.

I have no sense of whether I managed to successfully challenge Chris on these theoretical issues, whether he simply did not get what I was trying to ask him or whether I was just evidencing my stupidity in public again. However, the whole thing did seem to reach a nasty point when I said that he seemed to be arguing for the death of logic itself, only for him to say that he believed in logic – as a fundamentally perspectival and human way of interpreting the world. At which point I could not help but feel he’d managed to destroy the platform on which he himself was talking – running hard into the wall between modernity and post-modernity that left feminism with no concept of a woman left to defend.

I’m still thinking around this talk, and would appreciate any insights anyone else might have on it out there in the world. From talking to many of my ex-colleagues in the humanities it seems that much of the sociological and philosophical frameworks for these kinds of the positions are being rapidly abandoned by community after community – but this is purely hearsay. Anyone got any thoughts?

Conference Notes Technology

On a global AIBO consciousness… (FOO '06)

My third FOO post in a row, and I’m only just getting onto the talks themselves. This time I learned from my experience last year and made sure that I tried to steer myself towards talks that were outside my natural territories. I think I only really screwed up twice – once by going to a session on the democratisation of media hosted by the guys from Digg, Kevin Kelly and Dan Gillmor and once by going to Steven Levy‘s session on the future of the music industry. Steven’s always good value and it was great to see Dan again (however briefly), but realistically I knew these territories too well and wasn’t likely to get my mind very satisfactorily blown. It’s possible of course that my presence was useful for other people, but to be honest I kind of doubt it. Two things however do stick in my head – firstly when I told Kevin Kelly that most magazines were just regurgitated press releases (having completely erased from my head for a moment that he was the founding editor of Wired). Not the right context to go about making massive generalisations, really. The other thing that really made an impact was how nice the guys from Digg are. Simon, Paul and I did some exploring around Digg a while back for work and my impression of the site completely changed from it being a trivially easy proposition to a highly polished and carefully crafted piece of work – both things that seemed to be reflected in the people who had worked on it. Smart, decent, honourable people. Very interesting.

Anyway, the talk that I really wanted to start with was one by an old colleague – Matt Biddulph. He was talking about some of the things he’s been doing (during his year of slacking off) that hybridise Second Life with the rest of the web-based internet. I’d seen his Flickr screen in-game, but the thinking he’s been doing around it was really fascinating to me. In particular he’s been thinking about Second Life as a useful prototyping environment for ubicomp stuff of the Adam Greenfield Everyware variety and his thinking pushed me off in all kinds of interesting directions. A few of the key concepts he described that stirred me up:

  • The Invisible Tail – being the sheer number of real-world objects or products that are currently not represented in data at all (with the result that you can’t yet leverage any of the long-tail benefits supplied by the Interweb). Lots of Age of Point at Things stuff in there, but more interestingly framed;
  • The relationship between the above and concepts like, which allow individuals to give individual items identifiers that will make them annotatable over time;
  • Ubicomp Middleware – specifically, “what’s the outboard brain for an object in second life” and what could you do with it – lovely concepts there;
  • Each AIBO becoming not an individual object but an endpoint for a global AIBO consciousness – and if that didn’t get you salivating then you’re dead inside;

Lots of things occurred to me during the talk, including the possibilities of using in-game architectures as structures to layer visualisations of extra-game information. So for example, could you have a huge structure that was designed to reflect the spacial territories in the Google NewsMap? That is to say, could each room in the structure represent a story and could its size be influenced by the current significance of the news story in which people could discuss the story in question. Could you basically create a virtual building that actively guided the discussions within it – literal forums for short-term topics of interest that grew or shrank depending on various metrics.

Another thing I started wondering about was to what extent you could use collaborative filtering mechanisms (or mechanisms like the old BBC Homepage patina) to alter objects in-game in real-time to reflect the usage patterns of the people who used them – and what implications this could have to automatically reconfiguring objects in the real-world. When I mentioned this to Matt he said it was like your Powerbook automatically getting smaller when you got onto a plane because it had discovered that people who used the smaller ones tended to bring them out more often on planes. I started wondering about evolutionary algorithms and slowly evolving functionality spreading virally across mobile phones. I don’t really have a sense about whether this is all one great conceptual dead-end but something tells me that objects that can learn from how all other objects like them are being used is an idea that will have a time.

Anyway, that’s enough to be getting on with. More later.