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The evolution of cooperation

RCA Tribes tutorial day

Last year, I took my first, terrifying steps into teaching. Last November I was happily invited back to work with the students on the Design Interactions course at the RCA on another short project.

This time it was all 1st years from the course, and in collaboration with Vodafone, with Ian Curson and others from their User-Experience group helping set the brief and getting involved with workshops set by the students.

The brief was deliberately wide and intended to steer us all from thinking about mobile phones. It was entitled “Tribal Futures”, and asked the group to:

“…focus in on the mundane and the extremes of our behaviour in groups and propose design interventions to support, subvert and celebrate our tribal connections. We encourage you to extrapolate the current trends in mobile, social and other technologies in terms of their failures as well as successes, and examine what technologies intended and unintended consequences might be.”

I quoted Clay Shirky later on in the brief:

“Groups are a run-time effect. You cannot specify in advance what the group will do, and so you can’t substantiate in software everything you expect to have happen”

Clay made time on a trip to London to give a talk to the group and answer their questions, early on in the project. Enormously grateful to him for that!

Clay talking to RCA Design Interactions

It was a short project, just 4 weeks – and the wide brief inspired a wide range of responses, from  Andy Friend’s “Nuisance Machines”: playful devices for creating incidental groups…

…to some that found a theme of flocking and swarming in group dynamics such asHiromi Ozaki’s swarming, archigram-inspired tribal search engine…

And Louise O’Connor’s lovely The Singing Flock which I really hope gets pursued into a larger project.

 

Louise OConnors Singing Flock

 

 

There were projects that encompassed the poetic, the playful and the semi-practical: like Derv Heaney’s “Constructive Hold Space” – part audio-architecture and part social network for those stuck on hold for call centres…

…to the pure poetic-playful –  like Helge Fischer’s Ceremonies for Agnostics

21st Century Festivals

Despite the punishing time-scale of the project, a few of the students managed to get out and do some design research in the field, including Oliver Goodhall’s investigation of Jaywick

…and Alison Thomson’s fantastic Waltz of the Orange Men – she actually got certified as a member of the local council waste disposal crew she spent time with! Dedication!

All of the projects can be found at http://beta.interaction.rca.ac.uk/ft/ and we’ve kept the project blog that the group used for research and work-in-progress live (but with comments closed) at http://beta.interaction.rca.ac.uk/futuretribes/ to show some of the process along the way.

And, talking of which, the Design Interactions course is having it’s annual Work-In-Progress show this week, along with the Animation, Architecture and Industrial Design Engineering courses  (sorry, can’t find a better link), where both the 1st and 2nd years will be showing off their work so far. Looking forward to it.

Now it’s all going to get a bit Kate Winslet.

Many thanks to Anthony Dunne, Onkar Kular, Noam Toran and Nina Pope from Design Interactions for the invitation, the support and the great conversations about the Jason Bourne movies; Ian Curson and his group at Vodafone for all their support, Clay Shirky, Will Davies and Richard Pope for being great speakers to kick-off the project with – and of course, the students for both putting up with me and creating such great work and surprises along the way.

Hopefully I’ll get to do it again…

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Eno vs Shirky, originally uploaded by blackbeltjones.

Shirky vs eno: raw notes, usual disclaimers apply – not a transcript by any means.

ICA

Monday 17th march, 7pm

Eno: Emergence of social communities through networks
1988 : joined the well
Felt like a fulfilment of mcluhan idea of the global village
Persistent on a mixture of honour and shame – which is what keeps small communities together.
93-95 internet had started to grow and it was obvious it wasn?t a 60s social experiment.
Large scale online games: not idealistic global villages -they need different sorts of tools and rules to run successfully. Not anarchistic or simplistic – but nothing like business as usual.
What is the difference between a trad business like ford cars and wikipedia?

Clay: The biggest difference is that large actions generally entail large transaction costs. Scale of decisions pushes you to add some kind of structure. Till recently this was always certainly hierarchically. Internet and social tools reduce coord costs so radically that groups can form and disband easily, but still produce action. Contribution of individuals can be lightweight and distributed.
Most people do almost nothing, and a very few people do an awful lot. Power law. The value of those minimal contributions, can be aggregated to a great effect.
The search for how to structure very large networks that are building value (e.g. Wikipedia, linux) that we are living through is the experimental wing of political philosophy.

Eno: We are poorly informed by our current news media structures (cf. Nick Davies book) PR culture means opinion is careful moulded by power and distributed by a hungry and resource-starved mainstream rolling news media.
Other sources of opinion are needed – the networks.
There?s a phrase of yours I like: ?replacing planning with co-ordination?

Clay: When ever you get a mobile phone you replace plans with co-ordination. What this does for p2p comms is now coming to groups. Great example: HSBC protests on facebook (clay mentioned this on STW)

Eno: a lot of the book is about how a quantitative change becomes a qualitative change. Enabled new situations to catalyse.

Clay: what?s changed is not the tools. Society doesn?t change because of tools, but when attitudes and behaviours change. The tools plus increased social density and comfort – means early adopter techniques have become mainstream social behaviour. The public can now take the sort of actions that they were locked out of just a few years before.

Eno: we?re in England and so we?re pretty cynical compared to people from the west coast. Coming from the most surveilled society in the western world. Can?t believe that governments are going tolerate these changes in power balance that online communities create.
If the co-ordination is mostly through the internet- it?s inconceivable to me that governments are not spending billions on figuring out how to control this. Doesn?t this co-ordination online make us vulnerable?

Clay: Well – I?m not from the west coast I?m from NYC, so my levels of cynicism is somewhere between Mountain View and Brixton.
Yours is a nightmarish scenario, but the thing holding it at bay is that the internet is the first thing that merits the name ?media? because it is genuinely general purpose and flexible. The choice that governments have therefore is connect or disconnect. Too much of what the government is doing is on the same network. The danger is that certain wealthy and controlling regimes will perfect some kind of point control to remove undesirable information from the public sphere before there is casual awareness (cf. The chinese firewall)
(Starts ref: the Leipzig / Minsk ice-cream protest story from ?here comes everybody? – information cascades)

Goes to questions…

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After reading Jane’s post about using time people spend fiddling with Facebook for solving problems with other (gaming) networks, I wondered whether there were other things you could do with all those idle hands.

What about Folding@home or Mechanical Turk tasks, as shown rather sketchily above.

Back in May, referring to Sony’s announcment that the folding@home client would be installed on the PS3, Alice wrote about “Games that do good”

“Are there games or game mechanics that could be used to fund-raise or awareness-raise?”

My quick mock up is not all that enticing or interesting, though touches like sparklines, league-tables and scoring could rapidly turn such things into more of a playful and engaging activity, turning all those idle hands to good causes.

Know of anything like this going on?

The madness that is stepping off a plane into the twitterstorm

…as just discussed with Russell in the Crown and Sceptre,

“World of Warcraft for those who can’t be bothered with all that elf crap and fighting, rendered in Haiku…”, “Part reality-tv, part improv, part microblogging”

It’s decidedly playful – with the constraints of the medium and the unashamed mundanity of most of the content only adding to the fun.

The explicit ‘reporting’ nature of it seems to make it more attractive to me than perhaps some other things that might be similarly classed as ‘self-surveillance infotainment’ like Plazes or Jaiku.
Whilst it’s definitely ‘having a moment’ – it’ll be interesting to see whether it settles into a pattern of the same sustained interest and fun as Flickr, or move into the realms of YAZSNS (Yet Another Zombie Social Network Service) full of tiny 160 character ASCII tumbleweed…

Jason Kottke points to a remarkable post by Kevin Kelly entitled The Big Here, after the Eno-coined-counterpart to the Long Now – which shoots a diamond bullet through my thoughts for the last few months:

At the ultimate level, your home is a cell in an organism called a planet. All these levels interconnect. What do you know about the dynamics of this larger system around you? Most of us are ignorant of this matrix. But it is the biggest interactive game there is. Hacking it is both fun and vital.

In the post it goes on to take you through a quiz which examines your knowledge of your immediate environs, and the linkages it has to the wider ecosystem.

Here are the first three questions:

30 questions to elevate your awareness (and literacy) of the greater place in which you live:

1) Point north.

2) What time is sunset today?

3) Trace the water you drink from rainfall to your tap.

Kelly prefaces this with a positioning of the quiz as one of his “cool tools”:

“The intent of this quiz is to inspire you to answer the questions you can’t initially. I’d like to collect and then post the best step-by-step suggestions about how to answer a particular question. These are not answers to the quiz, but recommended paths on how one might most efficiently answer the question locally. Helpful websites which can provide local answers are wanted. Because of the severe specificity of local answers, the methods provided should be as general as possible. The emerging list of answer-paths will thus become the Cool Tool.”

So far, so good.

Wonderful, even.

My immediate thought though, reading both Jason’s post and Kevin Kelly’s mission is why the hell is this not on a mobile?

So – I over the summer am going to try and knit something together to get it there.

  1. I imagine it will be pretty easy (i.e. within the reach of my terrifyingly-bad coding skills) just to port the text quiz to a mobile using S60 python as a standalone experience.
  2. It might be easy enough then to both launch web resources from the quiz on the mobile device, and perhaps post answers in some easily-aggregated format to back out to the web from whoever takes the quiz.
  3. however might be more tricky…

What I immediately imagined was the extension of this quiz into the fabric of the near-future mobile and it’s sensors – location (GPS, CellID), orientation (accelerometers or other tilt sensors), light (camera), heat (Nokia 5140’s have thermometers…), signal strength, local interactions with other devices (Bluetooth, uPnP, NFC/RFID) and of course, a connection to the net.

The near-future mobile could become a ‘tricorder’ for the Big Here – a daemon that challenges or channels your actions in accordance and harmony to the systems immediately around you and the ripples they raise at larger scales.

It could be possible (but probably with some help from my friends) to rapidly-prototype a Big Here Tricorder using s60 python, a bluetooth GPS module, some of these scripts, some judicious scraping of open GIS data and perhaps a map-service API or two.

One thought that springs to mind would be to simply geotag the results of a quiz (assuming the respondent takes the quiz in-situ!) and upload that to a geowiki, something like Place-O-Pedia.

It might be delightful to see the varying answers from valiant individuals clustered in a location and inspire some collaboration on getting to the ‘right’ answers about their collective bit of the big here or the issues raised by the route there more importantly perhaps.

One open question would be if this ‘Big Here Tricorder’ where realised, would it genuinely raise an individual or community’s awareness of their local ecosystem and it’s connections at other scales? “Every extension is also an amputation” etc.

Well – we won’t know unless we build it.

While we’ve had a couple of year’s noise about Where2.0, I reckon there’s a hell of a lot of mileage and some real good could come of focussing on Here2.0… which gives me a nice little summer project – thanks Kevin, Brian and Jason

Patrick, in comments to my early post about the effects of blackberries and other push e-mail devices, recounts his experience of a meeting where nine out of ten of the people present – well – weren’t:

“They would look up upon hearing a word they find interesting, then went right back into their text-messaging. Then during Q&A, one guy asked three questions in rapid succession (all of which pertained to topics we had already discussed in our presentation), then promptly went back to typing in his SK. After answering his questions in rather lengthy detail, the presenter (our Exec Creative Director) asked him whether or not we’ve addressed his concerns, he replied: “uh, more or less.” never once loosened his grip on his opium pipe.”

Was talking with Foe about this again tonight, and realised that of course, I have done the equivalent of this in meeting rooms that have wifi – checking my email, or attending to some other work, while being copresent, but not really concentrating on the content of the meeting. Is is again the effect of the tools? Having ‘prescence’ in buddy lists means you are available for chat or queries to others. Do we now think that it is enough to be ‘present’ in reality – available, but not concentrating – awaiting a call to participate rather than participating by default? Would we be more productive or creative and less stressed if we opted out of one ‘buddy list’ of prescence – perhaps even sometimes the physical prescence. Just be honest and say – “You know what? I shouldn’t be here if I’m not concentrating on this.”

I know that Joi Ito has written a lot about his thoughts on “m-time and p-time” before now – I really should go back and read it more thoroughly.

All of this thinking about berrybites and the technologies that create constant partial attention put me to mind of the first time I heard the phrase, on Neal Stephenson’s well page – and how much of the communication technology we think essential to productivity is nothing of the sort:

“Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft, has coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe life in the era of e-mail, instant messaging, cellphones, and other distractions. This curious feature of modern life poses a problem for a someone like me. Every productive thing that I do requires ALL my attention.

I cannot put it any better than Donald Knuth, who writes on his website, “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. “

Knuth also provides the following quote from Umberto Eco: “I don’t even have an e-mail address. I have reached an age where my main purpose is not to receive messages.”

One other thought – form factor.

Different form factors set up different spaces of interaction and particpation around them. Handhelds and laptops, while seeming quite different in form-factor – both create ‘private’ spaces for different reasons (size for handhelds, lids for laptops) which have similar impacts on the feeling of the social space around them.

I wonder what meetings feel like if the particpants are still connected but using devices with form-factors that create ‘semi-private/semi-public’ interaction spaces around them, e.g. tablet PCs. Does anyone have first-hand experience?

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