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City magic

The chairman writes:

*Everybody’s got a theory about the Internet-of-Things and its killer applications.

*It reminds me of the days when the Information Superhighway was all about 500-channel television. Nowadays we’ve got five zillion channel television, and it’s scarcely recognized as an existent technical reality. Those historical acts of foresight are so beside the point now that they’re “not even wrong.”

The way to LDN's heart is on a brompton

I got my Brompton six years ago, while I was still reverse-commuting every day from central London to Hampshire. Nokia’s UK design studio was located in glamorous Farnborough at the time, and quite a few of us travelled west from Waterloo for an hour or so, where there was a incredibly-depressing shuttle bus to the anonymous office park where we drank a lot of tea and tried to seduce implacable engineers and product managers with endless flash mockups of what we thought were better UIs than s60.

But that’s a tale for another day.

The train ride you could cope with – competitive crosswording with Matt Brown, Joe McCloud’s stream of consciousness narration of the suburban landscapes we trundled through (think Jonathan Meades meets Bill Hicks), Eddie’s terrible puns – but wait for the shuttle bus and the cramped, smelly bus ride itself were the last straw for many, who opted to bike the last couple of miles to the office every day instead.

There were a few tribes – the fast and furious fixies of Adam and Silas, Tom and Mattias the oak-legged mud-loving MTBers… and then, me… initially on a Strida, with its rubber belt, tiny wheels, pennyfarthing-seating and terrifying twitch-steering.

1st commute

Despite it’s quirks, I loved the Strida – at least compared to the shuttle bus. It was perfect for the train -> work -> train -> pub -> first floor flat daily life I had back then.

Strida Day #1

The lack of gears started to be noticed on even the slight climbs between Farnborough station and Nokia HQ, so after only a few months, in September 2006 I upgraded to my Brompton.

Wheels for yr mind

Up until last year it was my primary bike – until I started cycling my entire route to work rather than folding up and getting on the train. It sat forlorn in the studio, and then my kitchen – until last Saturday when I sold it to welovebromptons.co.uk, from where it will hopefully find a new home.

I loved my brompton as I’ve not loved many of my possessions. Not only for it’s utility and efficency – but also for what it represented: British design, engineering and manufacture.

I was fortunate to be invited to the Brompton factory in 2010.

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 17

I believe that at the time it was (and it still maybe) the only full manufacturing site in London. It was fantastic to see the skill, care and attention to detail that was given to every process.

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 04

Also the integration of design, engineering and manufacture – the continuum of concern that the designers had for the material and human processes at work in the factory.

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 14

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 06

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 07

Design was not an abstract activity, but an integral one – with a tight feedback loop from the shop floor, the testing suites, the customer service.

And the shop floor itself was a treat for a designer – a rainbow of coated metal…

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 08

So, sadly it’s goodbye to all that for now, no longer will I be able to tuck my green machine into the convenient parking bay provided by The Shepherdess…

The Bromptronozord

But I dare say I’ll own one again, one day.

Handsome, handsome machines.

I’m currently reading ‘The nature of technology’ by W.Brian Arthur.

It presents quite the juxtaposition to things like ‘East London Tech City‘ and other recent UK government initiatives.

“Real advanced technology—on-the-edge sophisticated technology—issues not from knowledge but from something I will call deep craft. Deep craft is more than knowledge. It is a set of knowings. Knowing what is likely to work and what not to work. Knowing what methods to use, what principles are likely to succeed, what parameter values to use in a given technique. Knowing whom to talk to down the corridor to get things working, how to fix things that go wrong, what to ignore, what theories to look to. This sort of craft-knowing takes science for granted and mere knowledge for granted. And it derives collectively from a shared culture of beliefs, an unspoken culture of common experience.

Such knowings root themselves in local micro-cultures: in particular firms, in particular buildings, along particular corridors. They become highly concentrated in particular localities.

There’s been some hoo and some haa – about where we work – Shoreditch, Hoxton, near Old St., which my former colleague Matt Biddulph dubbed (as a joke) “Silicon Roundabout“.

The press and politicians seem suprised by the ‘sudden’ growth in technology and design companies in the area, but its been the centre of the London internet ‘industry’ since the mid 1990’s – and been home to artists, designers and printers for decades.

It has also, bizarrely, equated what is going on in the area with providing a large industrial park in Startford full of massive multi-million dollar transnational incumbents e.g. McKinsey, Cisco, Facebook and Google.

In reference to the long-now of place and craft, in ‘The nature of technology’, Arthur quotes Alfred Marshall:

“When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighborhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously.”

Sounds a lot like Old St!

He adds:

Technology proceeds out of deep understandings of phenomena, and these become embedded as a deep set of shared knowings that resides in people and establishes itself locally—and that grows over time. This is why countries that lead in science lead also in technology. And so if a country wants to lead in advanced technology, it needs to do more than invest in industrial parks or vaguely foster “innovation.” It needs to build its basic science without any stated purpose of commercial use”

So – probably better to not cut education, or funding for science – rather than encouraging people to ‘do a logo’.

This stuff takes a long time, and requires patient support not soundbites or 5-step plans.

As Arthur points out (with my emphasis):

“Building a capacity for advanced technology is not like planning production in a socialist economy, but more like growing a rock garden. Planting, watering, and weeding are more appropriate than five-year plans.

Just finished watching Julian Temple’s film about Ray Davies and The Kinks: “Imaginary Man”.

It’s incredibly tender toward it’s subject – which is at once Ray, his music, the band – and London.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

The Turner-esque, painterly imagery alternates with more graphic compositions of Davies’ peregrinations around North London.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

It’s a series of psychographic sketches, punctuated by Kinks songs – in archive footage, in cover versions and most affectingly perhaps, hummed, sung and stumbled through by Davies as he strolls.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

He’s cast by the film as a flawed-heir to Blake – wandering London, inventing his own sung-systems rather than be enslaved by another man’s.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

This blog goes into far more detail and appreciation.

If you can hunt it down online do.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

If only to revel in London as Temple and Davies do.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

My thanks to both of them.

Ray Davies: Imaginary Man

Fun Palace / Golf-Shanty

Pretty near the BERG studio, on the edge of the City of London, is this structure. It’s a golf driving range, with astroturf, a wooden faux-bavarian wurst shack, a bar, a golf store and a few other things I think.

It’s based on some waste ground that I imagine was destined to be redeveloped into shiny-new late-capitalist office accommodation, much like the adjacent glass spires of outer-Broadgate and hinter-Hoxton.

Every time I see it out of the corner of my eye it makes me think of Cedric Price’s “Fun Palace”…

…the seminal scheme for a temporary place/happening where you:

“Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.”

The aesthetic of our Golf Shanty Fun Palace at the edge of the city is more reminiscent of his only (?) built scheme: the aviary at London Zoo…

Snowdon Aviary, London Zoo

…perhaps crossed with The ThunderDome and the million B&Q treated-wood gazebos pressed into service outside Britain’s pubs since the smoking ban.

Of course, it’s far from Price’s high-tech interactive land of do-as-you-please – you get to spoil a good walk without even getting the walk, and then buy a German sausage in a bun.

However I think that Cedric would have maybe approved of this ramshackle, opportunistic, symbiont that’s sprung up on the edge of a dense lode of international capital.

Fore!

Which is a pun headline that will only work for a very few people.

The critical writing that has gathered around my “city as battlesuit” post has gathered something like critical mass – and it’s way more interesting and better written than what I dashed out for io9.

Go read:

As for the ‘testosterone-fuelled technoptimism‘ aspects of my writing, well – it’s a fair cop. In my defense I was writing with limited time in a busy week for a science-fiction site, rather than for my critical theory phd advisor, so y’know.

Which is not to say that phds in critical theory are bad things either.

Gah.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m sorry if using the term ‘battlesuit’ seemed to trivialise war, the military, weaponry etc. all things I have no direct experience of – and hope never to experience.

This was not my intention. I was simply trying to use an attractive metaphor to grab people’s attention on a science fiction site trafficked by people as adolescent as me and get them interested in the critical discourse of clever people, like you.

The most important part of the sentence for me was ‘surviving the future’ – for which I still believe cities are the key.

This is why I stopped blogging, isn’t it.

And this is why Russell ends his posts with “anyway“.

Anyway.

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