Categories
Books & Literature Net Culture Personal Publishing Social Software

On Andrew Keen…

Andrew Keen makes me furious but I don’t write about him as a rule. Why not? Because you don’t feed the trolls. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so clearly acting like a troll. I mean, you only have to read his post Etes-vous elitiste in which he declares that people have labelled him an anti-Christ and then uses that as a platform to sell his speaking gigs, while the right-hand column of his website lists all his media appearances. He wants to stir up an argument to get attention. We’re not supposed to enable behaviour like this in our children. We have to be firm. He must be placed on the naughty step.

Andrew is the chap who thinks that the whole internet is full of amateurish morons and that nothing rises to the top and that professional media has become corrupted and less good as a result of all this stuff. I could agree with his comments about mainstream media losing the plot if it didn’t seem to be quite the other way around. As far as I can see in the US at least, mainstream news became about entertainment way before the bloggers came along, there’s lots of money in cinema still and Harry Potter sells by the ton. I watched a TV programme about how in the US they sold Life on Earth as basically animal on animal bestial snuff movies. Presumably also the effect of the nascent internet, even if about four people in the world were using it back then. And clearly the blunt utility of Wikipedia counts for nothing, the beautiful pictures in Flickr aren’t worth looking at, Keen’s own blog presumably yet another indication of how low you now have to stoop to make an impact in the world rather than something we should celebrate – another citizen gets to express their opinion and try and persuade the world he’s right.

The thing is about this, all this conversation is a total waste of time. I don’t understand why he gets the traction he does. I mean, what is he actually trying to accomplish? Does he think that the millions of bloggers will get bored and go home if he explains why their voices don’t count? Does he think that Wikipedia will stop being useful to people (even with its inaccuracies) or YouTube will stop being entertaining? No, of course he doesn’t. He can’t honestly think he can accomplish anything. The future comes, for good or ill, whether you like it or not. The best you can do in such a situation is try and work to fix the issues you see. No market for decent commentary and opinion? Look for a business model that could support it! No way that Encyclopedia Britannica can compete with Wikipedia? Well then why not move some of the resourcing of Britannica towards creating a trusted version of Wikipedia? Check articles every so often for factual accuracy, pull them aside and enhance them and make that your business.

The world we have as a result of technologies of the internet is not a world I find particularly troubling, because it’s a world finding its feet and its a world that has also created significant beauty. It’s a world I feel comfortable in, and there is always a market for what people want and often for what people need. I don’t doubt that journalism will survive or resurge but it will have to adapt.

People like Keen are professional complainers, stirring up fights, decrying the state of the world that we find ourselves in without facing the fact that it is where we are and wishing won’t make it not so. If you don’t like the way the world is, then use the tools that exist and push them further and find a way to compensate for the problems that you think the existing technology has created. I’m afraid it’s a clich√© but it’s true. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The world we have is the world we can work with, and anyone wanting to push it back to the fifties will fail.

And that’s what really gets to me. Because it’s pretty clear that he knows this. He’s writing his own bloody blog for a start. He knows he can’t win the battle, but he’s put himself on the side of respectability, trustworthiness, reliability and is decrying all the terrible new things in the world. As I once said of Nick Carr, this is a brilliant strategy to make yourself like a terribly intelligent and responsible, serious person without actually having to go to any of the trouble of thinking. That’s why he’s a troll – because his opinion cannot do any good, cannot change anything for the better, but in its decrying of the nascent environment of millions of people finding their voices for the first time, he can get nothing but attention, media coverage and book-sales. It’s not an appeal to better standards, it’s not an appeal to quality or tradition. It has no aspirations to honour. It’s disingenuous to the core, manipulative of the people, anti-progressive, cynical and hypocritical.

Categories
Advertising Net Culture Religion

The Vatican and the ethics of advertising…

I’ve discovered that in one territory at least I’m in perfect tune with The Vatican, or at least with the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. I confess, this was entirely unexpected. From their perspective perhaps it would reassure them that there is hope even for the godless. From mine, it suggests that much of human ethical behaviour is biologically hard-wired and that it can be extraordinarily beneficial to an individual from a social species like ours to operate in altruistic and honourable ways. For more on that, if you’re interested, I can recommend pretty much everything but the last chapter of Matt Ridley’s extroardinary The Origins of Virtue.

The area that has triggered such an outpouring of love between the Pope and myself is advertising. It’s a territory that’s been on my mind a lot recently, along with marketing and particularly public relations. I’ve been trying to work out in my head what I think of all of these industries, which are both seemingly necessary and fundamental to the world we live in and yet simultaneously–to me at least–obviously ethically dubious. The Vatican seems to agree. Even though it has a pretty balanced view of these industries, recognising the good they can do, it also defines public relations as, ‘the systematic effort to create a favorable public impression or “image” of some person, group, or entity’. It’s difficult to view that description as anything but faintly damning.

When confronted with any accusation that industries like advertising are intrinsically dubious, however, the same arguments are trotted out in its defence. The one that I find particularly offensive (while accepting that it is not representative of the entire industry) starts off with the (entirely reasonable) move of declaring me and my sort hopelessly na√Øve and idealistic. It then roams off into altogether less plausible territory, first stating that we live in a world fundamentally red in tooth and claw and then retreating back into a weird childish rhetoric: “Everybody’s doing it, so why can’t we?”.

The most grotesque example of this position that I’ve ever read was in a book by celebrated advertising guru Paul Arden called It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be. I can’t find any of the (limited) substance of the book online to interrogate accurately and I absolutely refuse to buy a copy, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to hopelessly mischaracterise from memory.

In the book Arden confronts in two small pages of large type (with pictures) the question of whether advertising is fundamentally immoral. The question he’s specifically addressing is basically this – isn’t trying to make something look better than it is to sell it really a form of lying?

His response is to cite some examples of when people engage in advertising every day. He talks about the person who dresses nicely to go outside, or puts on make-up. These people are engaging in advertising he declares, and we don’t decry them. So what’s the problem? Then he talks about a vicar standing up in church and proselytising the Word of God. Clearly, Arden argues, in trying to make God sound sexy to his audience, the vicar is engaging in advertising. And if they’re doing it, what’s wrong with me selling the odd Pot Noodle, some powdered milk, a couple of MIG fighter jets or the Labour party? Just to be clear, I chose these examples on his behalf.

When I first heard this argument I was absolutely horrified and explored its logic to try and work out if it made any sense. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t. And here’s why. The whole position is based on a weak argument by analogy. Argument by analogy works on the basis that if two things are similar in one or many ways that one can argue that they are similar in another. Getting dressed up is an attempt to put someone in a positive light. Talking about God from the pulpit is an attempt to represent a position or belief system in the best light. Advertising is an attempt to put any object or pattern of thought in the best light. There is nothing wrong with the first two and therefore there is nothing wrong with the third.

But this only works if the three things are truly similar. So here’s the test – can we think of any significant differences between the advertising executive, the business woman dressing for work and the country vicar? Is there any possibility that the concept of ‘promoting the good’ might mean something rather different for each of them? The answer should be obvious.

Nonetheless, let’s dig into it a bit more. Number one – do people ‘buy’ other people as products, and are they likely to be seriously misled about paying for someone’s services if the physical appearance of the person without their clothes and make-up on is radically different from their appearance with them on. Answer, almost exclusively no. So the analogy doesn’t stand. Women who look nice are not normally engaging in the same kinds of exchanges as those that advertising participates in.

There are exceptions of course, so let’s look at one of them. An apparently attractive female prostitute is paid for by a young man. The man ‘falls’ for her positive messaging and invests money in the possibility of intercourse only to discover she is in fact a man in drag. This might be considered a closer analogy to the process of advertising. Is he likely to be happy about this exchange? Is he likely to think it harmless? If we said this was ‘like advertising’ would we think of advertising in a positive light. Probably not. We may not have much sympathy for the john in question, but that’s not really the issue.

And do we really think that the vicar stands up and sells God each week purely in order to get his salary and nice house? I would argue that he or she would have at some basic level a belief in the divinity they were talking about. Do we think an advertising executive has the same belief in Pot Noodles as a vicar has in God? Again, clearly not. The analogy again does not stand. If there’s a process of selling going on at all, it’s a very different one indeed.

The truth is, many of these jobs (marketing, advertising and public relations) are business optimisations. A division of labour between people who make and people who promote results in more efficient practice in both. But separating the jobs in this way also has its risks – it cuts off being an advocate from believing in what you advocate, from making the thing you advocate, from being responsible for the thing you advocate. And with the personal social responsibility for what comes out of your mouth removed, then there’s an obvious tendency towards corruption and lying.

And yet, advertising, marketing and public relations can result in a better world. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications says so in their work on Ethics in Advertising (Part Two, The Benefits of Advertising), and I agree:

Advertising can play an important role in the process by which an economic system guided by moral norms and responsive to the common good contributes to human development. It is a necessary part of the functioning of modern market economies, which today either exist or are emerging in many parts of the world and which — provided they conform to moral standards based upon integral human development and the common good — currently seem to be “the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs” of a socio-economic kind.

Political advertising can make a contribution to democracy analogous to its contribution to economic well being in a market system guided by moral norms. As free and responsible media in a democratic system help to counteract tendencies toward the monopolization of power on the part of oligarchies and special interests, so political advertising can make its contribution by informing people about the ideas and policy proposals of parties and candidates, including new candidates not previously known to the public.

Because of the impact advertising has on media that depend on it for revenue, advertisers have an opportunity to exert a positive influence on decisions about media content. This they do by supporting material of excellent intellectual, aesthetic and moral quality presented with the public interest in view, and particularly by encouraging and making possible media presentations which are oriented to minorities whose needs might otherwise go unserved.

So what is to be done? Advertising has its value, it’s clear. It’s important that it exists in the world and it’s not going anywhere. But it’s also clear that people involved in advertising–like Paul Arden in fact–are prepared to leap through highly dubious intellectual hoops to defend their sense that ‘everyone else does it, so why can’t we?’ when it comes to massaging or deforming the truth, with no sense of context.

Which brings me to the Vatican’s recommendations, as filtered through Creative Review and noted down on Design Observer as “What God Says”. If you can find me an individual who works in advertising who follows these rules, then they’ll have my respect. However, I suspect that it will be easier to squeeze a camel through an eye of a needle…

  1. Advertisers are morally responsible for what they seek to move people to do.
  2. It is morally wrong to use manipulative, exploitative, corrupt and corrupting methods of persuasion and motivation
  3. The content of communication should be communicated honestly and properly.
  4. Advertising may not deliberately seek to deceive by what it says, what it implies or what it fails to say.
  5. Abuse of advertising can violate the dignity of the human person, appealing to lust, vanity, envy and greed.
  6. Advertising to children by exploiting their credulity and suggestibility offends against the dignity and rights of both children and parents.
  7. Advertising that reduces human progress to acquiring material goods and cultivating a lavish lifestyle is harmful to individuals and society alike.
  8. Clients who commission work can create powerful inducements to unethical behaviour.
  9. Political advertising is an appropriate area for regulation: how much money may be spent, how and from whom money may be raised.
  10. Advertisers should undertake to repair the harm done by advertising.

P.S. I wonder if anyone has had the nerve to turn these into a simple ten commandments of advertising?

Categories
Net Culture Politics Technology

The Open Rights Group Party…

As some of you know, I’m on the advisory board of ORG, the British Open Rights Group which is a non-profit organisation focused on making sure that British people have the right to use technology in reasonable ways and that their traditional rights aren’t compromised by companies using technology in restrictive ways. The organisation acts as a balance to some of the vested interests in business, government and elsewhere. It’s there to try and fight people who would rather compromise your rights to protect out of date business models than they would innovate and change. It’s there to make people aware of the abuses or errors that might result from electronic voting schemes or huge databases of information on UK citizens. It is, generally, a pretty honourable little organisation and a smaller, bottom-up version of the EFF.

But that’s not important right now. The important thing is that they’re having a party for supporters and people who are interested in their activities on Shoreditch High Street in London next Wednesday, and that you should find some way to come along.

There will be ‘public domain’ DJs celebrating the importance of publically owned culture, remixed visuals and free culture goodie bags as well as the appearance of Danny O’Brien, long time NTK nerd, EFF activist and general wit. It’s free to attend, although obviously we’re hoping it’ll result in a few more people signing up to fund ORGs activities.

The event will be at Bar Kick at 127 Shoreditch High Street, London E1 6JE from 6pm until 11pm next Wednesday 11th April. You can find more information and register for the party on the support ORG page which also includes a map and instructions for how to find the venue. Hope to see you there. There’s also a raffle

Categories
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 Del.icio.us 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!

Categories
Gaming Net Culture Social Software

On things that aren't fun, and fun that is bad…

Last Friday – around ten in the evening – Pentheus, my main character in World of Warcraft, hit level sixty. Thinking back, I’m now not entirely sure where he was when this happened, although I believe it was in the wastes of Silithus. I waited until I’d got to the Altar of Storms to start my quests for my Dreadsteed before I took the above picture.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about the whole thing. It was – frankly – sort of an anti-climax. Nothing happened, I just remained being level sixty. There was no sense of a threshold being reached. My character – the same character I’ve been playing on and off since November – was just slightly more powerful than he was before. And a whole range of long extended new quests wandered off before him. There would be no new spells, no new pets, no real development – except in sets of armour and property. Each quest, each raid will now be longer and more involved than they were before – a dungeon taking two or three evenings to explore properly and requiring a group of people to play with that I’ve struggled to collect along the way. The whole game now feels very laborious and slow – the simple pleasures of earlier in the game, where you were picking up new abilities and developing quickly have just disappeared, to be replaced with something more drudgelike, robotic and … as the people in game describe it … grinding.

Now the interesting thing about this is you’d think that was a very good reason to stop playing the game immediately – but somehow no. My relationship with World of Warcraft is a lot more complicated than that – so complicated that it’s forced me to reconsider a lot of my assumptions about gaming. These assumptions have been further challenged by reading Raph Koster’s book and weblog, A Theory of Fun for Game Design. The two experiences – reading and playing – have not pushed in the same direction however – they’ve not led me to the same conclusions – and this has resulted in me spending a lot of time wondering about the relationship between entertainment and productivity, fun and work, drudgery and compulsion. I’ve started wondering whether a game could still be considered good if you want to play it a lot but at the same time resent the time that it takes from you. What if you find it boring but still somehow can’t put it down. Can you love and hate a game at the same time and still call it ‘fun’? Can a game be a narcotic, or a guilty secret or an addiction? Can it be a fruitless activity without value that still feels good

Raph’s book includes a really interesting analysis on what games are, and what fun is and is not which is far too long to quote in full here, but which includes this summary:

Games aren’t stories. Games aren’t about beauty or delight. Games aren’t about jockeying for social status. They stand, in their own right, as something incredibly valuable. Fun is about learning in a context where there is no pressure, and that is why games matter.

This sort of fascinates me because it contains a weird twist of logic – that fun is learning without pressure, and that therefore games matter – presumably because learning is de facto a good thing. But what if you’re learning a system or a landscape with no transferable value – what if a specific game presents you with a structure designed to purely generate the sensation of perpetual fun by short-circuiting the learning impulse and misdirecting it into valueless territories? There would be a memetic advantage in being a game that could be intoxicating in that way without requiring that people learn skills that were transferable elsewhere. For a start, real-world skills are harder to develop and perhaps less short-term satisfying. Secondly, a process that teaches you real-world skills would result in you evolving and changing. A game that could short-circuit your learning instinct wouldn’t have to do that. There would be no reason for you to leave.

There’s another quote in Raph’s book which is about what happens when you get older and why people stop playing games. He says, “We don’t actually put away the notion of ‘having fun’ as far as I can tell. We migrate it into other contexts. Many claim that work is fun, for example (me included). Just getting together with friends can be enough to give us the little burst of endophins we crave.”

I think this is really interesting, because it hits on a few more weird contradictions – working can be a learning exercise, it’s true, but there’s normally some risk involved. if you do bad things in a job, you can be fired. There are consequences. So that seems rather at odds with his earlier sense of fun. And a work environment has no formal ruleset, has no structure that you’d recognise as game-like. And of course it can have real-world rewards. If work can be fun, then I’d argue that’s not because it’s like games – an environment in which you can learnwithout risk, but precisely because it’s not like games, the productive element generates a satisfaction that is totally missing in World of Warcraft. The creative and generative element is also absent. Perhaps the reason we think of games as a childish activity is because play in our youth is supposed to inform work in our adulthood. Perhaps then, a game that feeds on our desire to learn and our childlike instincts but cannot give us the satisfactions of creation or real dangers, is a con, a short-cut, a parasite. Perhaps adult gaming is nothing more than an opiate, designed to provide satisfactions and a sense of development or progress that the real world is unable to provide for most people, or that people are too nervous to fight for.

Apparently you can get a character on World of Warcraft to level sixty in about three months of consistent after-work play. Personally, my experience has taken me three times that length of time, and has been squeezed around long hours on work projects and more travelling than I’ve ever done before. Given that it hasn’t massively compromised these parts of my life, I’m guessing that the level of compulsion I’ve felt to play has not been massively excessive – but it’s still felt like a time sink that somehow claims me for my out of work creative time. That really worries me.

Let me put it this way – while I feel no massive compromise to my life is occurring now, while my relationship with the game is merely grudging at the moment, I can imagine coming to hate the game and yet still wanting to play it. Is that an extraordinary statement? Is that a piece of self-insight there, or is it something about the game? I can’t tell where the fault lies if there is a fault? Can you build something that is too addictive simply in the way it presents challenges and rewards, to the extent that it becomes psychologically addictive. Can something with no pharmaceutical components be a drug? Or is this simply a matter of self-discipline and self-control? How tempting does an alternative world filled with mechanisms for alleviating status anxiety have to be before the space between fun and craving gets crossed? Is television any different? Am I just coming to some weird form of Protestant neurosis in my mid-thirties?

One of my older posts is currently full of people talking about their problems with World of Warcraft in particular – wives saying that her husband ignores his children to play, men who say they would rather play WOW than have sex with their wives, teenagers who say that they’re failing school so they can play, and it’s led me to this weird point. Are they all making excuses? Is the game a scapegoat? Are they weak-willed and to be pitied? Or are we as a culture starting to construct toys that are too effective and end up hurting people? I know it sounds alarmist, but I really want people’s opinions. What do you think?

Categories
Design Net Culture Personal Publishing

On Carbonmade…

There’s a site that I keep coming back to because it’s so simple and well-constructed, and yet also represents so many of the visual and interface design principles of the current zeitgeist. It’s a site that has design smarts massively in excess of what would normally be necessary for a utility of its size and scope and needs of its users singularly well. It’s a site that I find myself returning to again and again for inspiration when I’m thinking about other projects. The site is carbonmade.com.

Carbonmade Homepage

The service is simple – this is not a complex web app. It’s a place where designers and artists can come to quickly set up a really simple, clean and elegant online portfolio. It’s got a few problems around the place which I’ll come to later, but right now I want to concentrate on the great things about it and how generally well it’s been assembled.

It is, as must be clear from first impressions, drenched in the current design tropes of Web 2.0 – the fonts are large and there are gradient fills all over the place, but it’s all done with rather more character and personality than many other sites and introduces a few innovations along the way. This is a truly elegant riff on the current thinking, rather than a slavish copy.

Let’s start at the beginning – the character of the designer is the heart of the enterprise, and how to represent them and their work in the best possible way. Hence the cute, but not overly cartoonish character of the designer presented in front of an expressive green spray of look-at-me-ness. The whole site is already really there in that image – along with the six words that dominate the front page, “Sign up for your free portfolio”. Add the tagline, “Show off your work,” and you’ve just communicated the whole purpose of the enterprise in about three seconds of visual parsing time. If you’re a designer or an artist, you now know what the site is for:

The first thing you’re pushed towards doing on the homepage is to either play with the demo portfolio or start your own. The demo is a really solid idea – there’s no risk in misrepresenting someone else, no half-botched effort that other people can look at and mock you for. So if you’re a little unsure about this interweb thing, then you can play quickly and try it out with no risks. And I don’t doubt that – for the most part – sticking the demo up there has really paid off for them in the past, because the interface is incredibly simple – you basically create a project and then add things to it – using large, clear and open interface elements on large blank spaces. There’s no visual complexity. No confusion. No swathes of threatening buttons or navigational options. It’s all relatively simple. There are a couple of minor things I’d resist in that interface, I think. But they’re few and easy to fix and will probably condense themselves a little bit in some time.

Once you’ve got your pictures onto the page you can specify some very basic design attributes to help you define what your portfolio will look like. You can choose whether there will be text displayed on top of the thumbnails; whether you’ll get one, two or three thumbnails in a row on your front page; whether the background should be white or black; and whether it should use serif or san serif fonts. All through the process, mostly successfully, they’ve looked to see which of the Ajaxy or DHTMLish design elements would give you the feedback to know that something’s happening behind the scenes. They’ve also made elements of the UI discoverable, like the ability to reorder photos. You don’t need to use it, but eventually you’ll twig and it’ll be there wait for you. There is no rotate feature. There is no group functionality. There is little or no metadata. This is an experiment in creating super-elegant UI for a niche audience with a simple function to perform and when it works it works beautifully.

I think my favourite part of the site is the portfolio-browsing section. The porfolios themselves are pretty self-contained entities. There would be little reason for a client to want to know how you were presenting your work, so carbonmade restrict themselves to a small link at the bottom of each portfolio page directing you back to their core site. But that doesn’t mean you can’t explore the portfolios in the other direction – they maintain an index of all of the collections people have made, along with interesting ways of exploring them. There’s enough design inspiration in there already to last a couple of months. And they’ve done a really beautiful job in making all the work within the site look exciting and interesting. Have a look at their featured portfolio index page:

The whole thing feels tremendously immersive and exploratory and interesting – but more specifically, while the pages aren’t necessarily particularly light, the HTML is mostly solid and decent and degradable. As I said earlier, it’s not perfect, but it’s bloody good. And fun. And cool. And engaging.

The porfolios themselves are slight and elegant things which really let the artworks of the people concerned shine through. They constitute nothing more than an index page which lists the projects with a thumbnail, a page for each project with a Flash gallery upon it that you can use to scroll backwards and forwards through the pictures in that section and a page where you can talk a little about yourself as the creator of the galleries. This is no Flickr – it has no need to be. Here’s an example porfolio:

It’s literally an online portfolio in the sense that the background is as generic a property as the large leather presentation cases that graphic designers take with them when they’re trying to get work.

Anyway, I said there were problems with the site, and there are. Not all the interface elements are quite as self-explanatory as perhaps they might be, some of the exploratory sections feel a bit hidden as you’re encouraged quite forcibly to sign up and start using the, the portfolios have some odd navigation options that hide how you get back to the homepage and – my main issue – the individual images within each gallery tend not to be linkable. Because of the Flash elements you have to link to a project rather than an individual picture. But these are all fixable.

And in the meantime, I’m really getting something off the aesthetic and the scale of the thing – the expressiveness of the interface and the way in which it has made itself into a place that both has a personality but also has the class to get out of the way when it’s showing other people’s work. I think it will define as many of the next stage design tropes as it has stolen from the current ones and is well worth keeping an eye on…

Categories
Net Culture Politics Technology

Protect your bits with the Open Rights Group…

Tell you what – you go on holiday for a couple of weeks and the e-mail that piles up… Sheesh, I’ll be ploughing through this lot for weeks. Earlier today I think I managed to get up to a rate of replying to around ten serious e-mails per hour, but now people are bloody replying to the earlier ones, so now I’m struggling to break-even. And given that I’ve got another five hundred to plough through, I could be here quite a while. Sigh. And this is after I’ve got rid of all the bloody spam and mailing list stuff.

Anyway, one of the more interesting e-mails I’ve received was from Suw Charman of the Open Rights Group – a progressive digital rights organisation that I’m on the advisory board of. The whole thing came about because of Danny O’Brien’s pledgebank proposal during which a thousand people pledged to donate five pounds a month to support an organisation that could fight for digital rights in the UK. Unfortunately – several months down the line – there’s still a bit of a shortfall between the people who said they’d donate and those that actually have. Hence a new project – to get another five hundred people to sign-up and donate. That five hundred, along with the current supporters, will become known as the Founding 1000, and will be able to stand up proudly and say that they were working to change the digital rights landscape in the UK.

I’ve already started encouraging the crew at Barbelith to sign-up, and now I’m going to ask you lot to stand up and be counted as well. You can get badges for the ORG on this blog post: Protect your bits. Support ORG or you can just leap straight in and start supporting ORG. You won’t regret getting involved, however peripherally. It’s a really good bunch of people trying to move the culture in a really positive direction, but they need funding and volunteers to really start having an impact. You can help.

Support the Open Rights Group

Categories
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Who's afraid of Ashley Highfield?

Today it was announced that the BBC’s New Media operations are going to be restructured radically. At the moment most of the content creation parts of the organisation are kind of co-owned – for example, Simon Nelson who was the ‘controller’ of the part of the BBC that I used to work for (BBC Radio and Music) reported equally to Jenny Abramsky (in charge of the BBC’s radio and music operations) and to Ashley Highfield (in charge of the BBC’s New Media Operations). Ashley himself had pretty much direct control over a centralised part of the organisation known internally as New Media Central.

After working at the BBC for a few years, it seems to me that this structure was a sort of clumsy compromise that had a lot of problems but a lot of benefits. I wasn’t in the right positions to see the whole picture but there seemed to be organisational and communication problems with such a layout, and a certain splitting of resources. But on the other hand – and this is a big other hand – increasingly the divisions between ‘new media’ stuff and content creation were able to blur, creating new opportunities for each to support the other which couldn’t help but be a good thing.

The other thing which almost seemed to me to be a good thing – sort of by accident – was that it created an environment where parallel parts of the BBC could operate independently and in a rather more agile fashion. More specifically still, it meant that certain parts of the organisation with a kind of critical mass of smart and clued-up people could really thrive and generate their own culture and goals and get things done, even as others weren’t doing so well. It may be just because I worked there or Stockholm syndrome but I rather think that BBC Radio and Music was one of those places, and despite the fact that a bunch of my favourite people have since moved on, I think it probably still is.

Having said that not all parts of the organisation were similarly dynamic, despite the often amazing number of talented people working within them – specifically, in my opinion, Central New Media under the direct management of Ashley Highfield.

You’ll have heard a lot of announcements coming out from his part of the organisation over the last few years, but surprisingly few of them have amounted to much. They all made headlines at the time, but they’ve all rather disappeared. Do you know what happened to the grand plans of the Creative Archive or the iMP? They were both being talked about in press releases in 2003, but the status of the iMP now appears to be a closed content trial and the Creative Archive has amounted to nothing more than a truncated Creative Commons license used by several orders of magnitude less people and a few hunded short clips of BBC programmes. Highfield’s most recent speeches from May this year are still talking about these projects, with him showing mock-ups of potential prototypes for the iMP replacement the ‘iPlayer’ that could be the result of a collaboration with Microsoft. Are you impressed by this progress? I’m not.

And then there’s BBC Backstage – a noble attempt to get BBC APIs and feeds out in public. What state is that in a couple of years down the line? Look at it pretty closely – despite all the talk at conferences around the world – and it still amounts to little more than a clumsy mailing list and a few RSS feeds – themselves mainly coming from BBC News and BBC Sport. There’s nothing here that’s even vaguely persuasive compared to Yahoo!, Amazon or Google. Flickr – a company that I don’t think got into double figures of staff before acquisition – has more public APIs than the BBC, who have roughly five thousand times as many staff! This is what – two years after its inception? Even the BBC Programme Catalogue that came out of this part of the organisation a while back has gone into a review phase (do a search to see the message) without any committment or indication when it’s going to be fully opened up.

I’m sure – in fact I know – that there are regulatory frameworks that get in the way of the BBC getting this stuff out in public, but these long lacunae go apparently unnoticed and unremarked – there’s an initial announcement that makes the press and then no follow-up. If Ashley Highfield really is leading one of the most powerful and forward-thinking organisations in new media in the UK, then where are all these infrastructural products and strategy initiatives today? And if these products are caught up in process, then where are the products and platfoms from the years previous that should be finally maturing? It’s difficult to see anything of significance emerging from the part of the organisation directly under Highfield’s control. It’s all words!

And that’s just the past. This is a man who decides to embrace social software and the wisdom of crowds in 2006 – clearly waiting for Rupert Murdoch to buy MySpace and show the self-appointed R&D lab of the UK new media industry the way. His joy for this space is expressed in lines like, “The ‘Share’ philosophy is at the heart of bbc.co.uk 2.0 … your own thoughts, your own blogs and your own home videos. It allows you to create your own space and to build bbc.co.uk around you”, which is ironic given that earlier last year he stated in Ariel that he didn’t read any weblogs because he wasn’t interested in the opinions of self-opinionated blowhards. This is a man who apparently coined the term, Martini Media and thinks that expressing your future strategy through smug references to 1970s Leonard Rossiter-based adverts is a surefire way to move the ecology forward. This is a man described by the Guardian in its Media 100 for 2006 as follows:

Exactly how much the impetus for such initiatives stem from Highfield, and how much from the director general, was the source of some debate among the panel.

“Ashley Highfield is among the most important technology executives working in the UK today,” said one panellist. “Yes, but talk about being in the right place at the right time,” said another. “Mark Thompson should be credited with the vision, not him.”

This is a man – bluntly – whose only contact with Web 2.0 that I can find is a pretty humiliating set of pictures on Flickr of him on a private jet and ogling at half-naked dancing girls. (Note: This set of pictures has now been taken down).

So it is, I’m afraid, with a bit of a heavy heart that I can report that the restructuring of the BBC is going to result in a much larger role for Ashley Highfield within the organisation – managing (according to the Guardian, and I’d take this with a pinch of salt) up to 4,000 people throughout the organisation. All the new media functions that have currently been distributed will now it seems be directly under his auspices, and presumably more under his influence than those of the programme makers and pockets of brilliant people around the organisation. I don’t know enough about the nature of the restructuring to know whether it’s a good or a bad thing at a more general level, but it’s pretty bloody clear to me that it’s an ominous move.

Which is what makes me so surprised when people outside the organisation talk about how scared they are of the huge moves that the BBC can make on the internet, because the truth is that for the most part – with a bunch of limited exceptions – these changes just don’t seem to be really happening. The industry should be more furious about the lack of progress at the organisation than the speed of it, because in the meantime their actual competitors – the people that the BBC seems to think it’s a peer with but which it couldn’t catch-up with without moving all of its budget into New Media stuff and going properly international – get larger and faster and more vigorous and more exciting. I want the BBC to succeed. I want it to get stronger – I think it’s a valuable organisation to have in the world and I think it sits perfectly well alongside the mix of start-ups and corporates that’s emerging on the internet. And it’s for precisely this reason that I’m concerned about these moves.

Who’s afraid of Ashley Highfield? I am, and you should be too.

Categories
Design Net Culture Technology

The RCA Summer Show 2006…

Once a year the RCA Summer Show opens its doors – showing over six weeks off all the incredible creative work that its students have created across all their disciplines. The show comes in four main parts, three of which have already come and gone – so if you’re interested in scultpure, fashion and most of the fine arts, then I’m afraid you’ve missed out. But the fourth session – the one that I’m most interested in – just started yesterday and runs until next Sunday. If you’re in London over that time and are even vaguely interested in the future, in design or whatever, then I can’t recommend it enough. It covers a whole bunch of disciplines including animation, architecture, communication art & design, conservation, curating contemporary art, design products, fashion, history of design, industrial design, engineering, interaction design, textiles and vehicle design. I’ve emboldened the disciplines that I got rather over-excited about this year. The Interaction Design course is sort of the equivalent of the ITP course that Clay Shirky is involved with and which gets a lot of play in the US at conferences. The UK crew don’t seem as well connected. Maybe we can change that.

Anyway, I thought I’d write a post in which I talked about some of the things I spotted this year which I thought were the most interesting or exciting. To be honest, I’m mostly interested in things with clear real-world applicability, but every so often something that looks more like an art object gets me excited. If you’re interested in the first batch, there’s a fair amount at the show which could be productised and brought to market pretty quickly, and if you’ve got some spare cash, I’d really recommend throwing it at the people concerned as soon as possible. But before we get ahead of ourselves:

Very disappointing, and I’m afraid to say in a couple of places – normally (but not universally) with the permission of the designer or creative person concerned – I have slightly transgressed. If I couldn’t get permission then for the most part I’ve wandered over to their sites to get imagery and background information or scanned in information that they put out for people to take away. Unfortunately not all of them have good websites full of information, which is where I’ve gone off the rails a bit. A good proportion in fact have nothing but an e-mail address or a registration page on the web – even though the web address is on all of their cards. Quite bad form that. Very disappointing. Case in point – stand up and apologise to the group, Larissa Nowicki who made some very awesome things, none of which I can point to. But I can point to:

Availabot by Jack Schulze: Quick conflict of interest declaration – Jack Schulze is a friend and co-runs Schulze & Webb with Matt Webb, long-time blog-friend and ex-BBC partner. Point being, I may be biased – but this seems really neat to me. Availabot is a tiny representation of one of your friends that spends most of its life flat on its back but stands vigorously to attention when your friends appear on IM. They’ve written a bit about some of the nicest features on their site:

“Availabot stores the IM details of the friend it represents in the puppet itself. That means you can buy a few, load them with your own IM screenname and service, and give them out like business cards to your closest contacts.”

I’m totally loving this, and just wish wifi tech was further along so that you could have them littered unwired all across your home. At the moment they use a USB connection, which is still pretty sweet. I would certainly buy a few, even though they’d be even more awesome if they were able to store a short message in the person’s voice when they activated. You may recognise that the availabot in question here is a representation of Matt Jones:

Jack had another project on display at the event – an appliance that allows you to melt and reform the case of a mobile phone using eutactic metals. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s a beautiful piece of engineering:

Natural Deselection by Tim Simpson: I absolutely loved this idea – three plants compete to reach the light that feeds and nourishes them. The first one to succeed survives. The other two are automatically cut down in their prime:

I wish I could show you something of his other project Subversive Sightseeing which took a kind of augmented reality approach to the most public of tourist traps – the public telescope. He’d taken this coin-operated telescope and replaced the actual view with a digital image. As you panned across in either direction with the telescope, the image changed too – making it appear like your view was uninterrupted. Except that then he animated various fantastic events over the view – like Big Ben erupting into flame – which would draw you out of reality and into fantasy. Glorious bit of art humour. And nothing to show for it online. It’s as if it didn’t happen.

Singing Sock Puppets by Matthew Brown: Absolutely my favourite of the whole event – tiny glove puppets that look a bit gormless that sing in isotonic scales to jazz records, with the user choosing the pitch by how open the mouth is. It sounds dumb, but it’s the most fun I’ve had with a sock and some electronics in years. There’s some great stuff on Irvinebrown.com about this project, including a whole part of his portfolio dedicated to the singing puppet project complete with links to videos of prototypes: Durrel Bishop (1.5mb) and Brigitte Lelievre (2.3mb). He’s already been linked to by We Make Money Not Art, which is probably a good sign. Here’s a picture of Simon looking slightly over-playful with a puppet:

Bonsai Tree by Jennifer Chan: Bloody lovely this – it’s sort of a cube of rapidly manufacturable and easy to craft plastic material that you can take home and massively personalise to your whim. I imagine that some people would produce absolutely beautiful shapes, while others would product crap, but the concept alone is extremely beautiful. There’s more information about this project on jenniferchan.com – although unfortunately it’s all skanky frames so I can’t actually link to the specific project in question. This picture is from that site:

Liquid Orange by Graeme Davies: At the event I saw a whole bunch of videos of the experimental design work that went on around this concept, but I didn’t actually get to see the thing in action. The concept is really simple – something that you stick inside an orange that liquifies it from the inside giving you the freshest of orange juice with limited washing up:

Flying Fish Bowl and Bin Bag Bear by Shay Alkalay: Shay’s another one of the design crew who is poorly represented online, keeping his work hidden from the largest constituency of interested people in the world. And it’s a shame, because meeting him at the event he seemed a little more nervous than some of other designers but actually extrememly talented. The fish bowl was extraordinary and actually mentally challenging – a transparent ring-shaped object like a donut full of water attached to the wall rotates very slowly. It’s only about a third full of water, and industrial buildings cast in white plastic slowly move through the water, blowing bubbles aerating it. One side of the ring swells out a fair amount so that when the water reaches that point, the water level drops, meaning a gap in the inside of the ring that looks like it would cause all the water to pour out, just narrowly clips by without a problem. I found this completely fascinating – you sit there wondering about whether the fish is experiencing this as a pleasant experience and start thinking about cats sticking their paws in. An object that makes you try and contextualise it and think around it.

But it was his other project that I got completely excited about, and wish was in the world. And it’s easiest just to show you than to explain:

Anyway, there’s a bunch of other things I wish I could show you – including the 11 walking sticks that Jonathan Legge created out of random sticks of Hazel found in the forest, to Gen Suzuki’s extraordinarily simple but beautiful ‘oblique’ vases and chairs. Unfortunately none of these people had information on their sites that I could reference or nick. Definitely worth looking out for them though! In the meantime, all of this and more can be seen at the RCA until Sunday – and I’d be fascinated to hear what you lot liked or didn’t like about the event. I can recommend some of the shapes in the automotive design section. They’re extraordinary.

Categories
Advertising Net Culture Personal Publishing Technology

What has been killing my server?

Today I was at work when Barbelith went down. MySQL errors everywhere, the community in uproar, IMs and e-mails. And it wasn’t like I didn’t have enough to do. So I explore in more depth. First step, see what’s actually happening on the server – so I launch Terminal, ssh in to the Barbelith Superserver over at Pair, find the directory with my logs in and type in tail -f access-log. Immediately, I see each request coming into the server in roughly real-time, scrolling down the page like I’m looking at The Matrix. Unix is not my strong-point, so thanks to Simon for that little trick. It’s moving too fast for me visually get a grasp on what’s going on, but I start seeing some recurrent patterns after a minute or so – HTTrack, which I do a quick search for and turns out to be a piece of software that you run on your computer to download complete versions of someone’s website. Given that Barbelith contains nearly six hundred thousand posts across twenty five thousand threads (each paginating ever forty or so posts), this is not a small job. And given that the software is dragging down a bunch of pages each and every second, it’s not really a surprise that the MySQL server was having some trouble.

So I banned the user’s IP for a bit by adding a couple of lines to my .htaccess file and waited for the site to start working again. But no luck. Exploring the database through the PHPMyAdmin interface that Cal set up for me, I note that all the activity has resulted in one table in the database getting corrupted. So I dig around online a little longer, and work out how to login to MySQL directly through the Terminal and run a repair table command and hope for the best. It all seems to work. Everything’s back to normal. Cheers all around. I’m very proud of myself.

Except then half an hour later the site is down again. This time it’s so bad that people can’t even connect to my server at all. Every site that I run off the server is completely inaccessible to the outside world. plasticbag.org and Barbelith stop working obviously, but also other little-known ventures like Everything in Moderation and bought-for-fun-after-seeing-a-Penny Arcade strip-and-maybe-taking-the-joke-a-little-to-excess Cockthirsty.com are out of action. I can’t even ssh in to my server any more. I can’t send urgent support e-mails to my hosts, or receive replies to them. I am, to all intents and purposes, dead in the water.

I ring them up – half a world away – to find out what’s going on. They’re initially mystified – MySQL is running so hot it’s a wonder that the rack-mounts aren’t melting. When they try and login, the server basically falls over completely. A forced restart, and I hold my breath a little. When it comes back, they dig into the logs and it becomes immediately obvious to them what’s going on. Hundreds – thousands – of requests every minute for a file called mt-comments.cgi – the part of Movable Type that deals with incoming comments to my weblog. My entire site has been quite directly, and clearly spammed to death.

So I’ve had to make a short-term choice while I explore my options in more depth, between a site with no comments and no site at all – and I’m afraid the answer is no more comments, at least for the time being. I’d been thinking of looking into Akismet, but there’s simply no point. That still means that MySQL is going to be dealing with all this crap-peddling evil purpetrated by money-grubbing parasites, and that means regular meltdowns. I’ve come to wonder whether the problems I’ve had with MySQL errors on Barbelith over the last couple of years have been more to do with comment spam than anything else, and – while I want to make it clear that in no way do I blame Six Apart or Movable Type or anything and while I’m sure there’s a way out of this situation – it has started to feel like having the mt-comments.cgi script sitting on my server is like having a bullseye painted on my chest. In the meantime, any advice people have on how to deal with this kind of activity would be very much appreciated indeed. Would moving to Typekey authentication only help? Should I be looking into throttling on the server? Can anyone help? The e-mail address (I’m afraid) is tom at the name of this site – or you can write your own post and link to this one and I’ll find you via Technorati.