Monthly Archives: August 2002

Hello… Come and try out an experiment we’re running on the BBC News website (probably will make more sense or be more satisfying if you are in the UK).

Dan Gillmor‘s notions of the ‘the former audience’ have inspired us to come up with ‘the remote-control reporter’:

“We asked you to debate which of four ideas BBC News Online should take up for an investigation this summer.

The four subjects are fly tipping, speed cameras, UK-US price differences and support for the mentally ill. Soon we will decide which subject we will tackle. Then we will ask you for your input on how you think the investigation should progress over the next few weeks.

The process will continue until we reach a conclusion. That conclusion, of course, may not be the one you expect. That’s the point of investigation.”

I love this. While it’s not the collaborative media that Dan described in his talk, it’s an encouraging step for the mainstream media and the mainstream of internet users – who are not all as comfortable with posting to mefi, kuro5hin or slashdot as we might like to think.

It’s going to be fascinating to see how it progresses.

» BBC News : Politics: “What should we investigate?”

From a Will Wright interview on in which he talks about his design philosophies and what he’s learnt from building his various Sim-Everythings:

“At some level I want people to have a deep appreciation for how connected things are at all these different scales, not just through space, but through time. And in doing so I had to build kind of a simple little toy universe and say, here, play with this toy for a while.

My expectations when I hand somebody that toy are that they are going to make their own mental model, which isn’t exactly what I’m presenting them with. But whatever it is, their mental model of the world around them, and above them and below them, will expand.

Hopefully, probably in some unpredictable way, and for me that’s fine. And I don’t want to stamp the same mental model on every player. I’d rather think of this as a catalyst.

You know, it’s a catalytic tool for growing your mental model, and I have no idea which direction it’s going to grow it, but I think just kind of sparking that change is worthwhile unto itself.”

This is exactly where my head is right now. Don’t Make Me Think = Don’t Let Me Play. There are a set of emerging technologies and applications which demand that play be part of their existence. That how the individual flows through the experience is not determined by rigid persona-driven design, but by the feedback loops of both their ongoing behaviour within the system and the socially-generated structure created by their peers within the system. They demand that we construct our own understanding: play with the system in order to understand it and extend their understanding of whatever the digital experience is simulating or augmenting in the real world.

Winnowing down tasks to those that a user can follow on trammels, making language and location unambiguous, communication clear and concise – and all the other good stuff we practice every day when making online experiences have their place for the majority of applications, but not for social-software.

Designing the topography for play, the landscape to enable all these possible flows, all these possible experiences; and making it sustainable, enjoyable and viable to build is something that needs attention in the theory and practice of user-experience design. Maybe those in e-learning field as well as the games industry have much for me to learn from?

I’m slap-bang in the middle of this right now – Just started with a team trying to create a very complex suite of ‘social software’ that supports all sorts of complex experiences. I’ll try and report back on the failures and sucesses of designing in this domain as often as I can.

But while I’m at the beginning, does anyone have any wisdom to share?

Sat here in eyebeam, NYC on Jonah Perreti’s iBook; where in about 30 minutes I’m due to give a talk on the curse of warchalking…

It’s a pretty amazing space – a large warehouse in the Chelsea district of New York, with some hip conversion touches, but nothing too invasive. In the main room there is a huge fuzzy fur, fabric and UV paint map of manhattan, with little dots marked all over it representing CCTV cameras. One of the other activities in the “I Love NY” event that my talk is part of was a ‘camspotting’ tour of manhattan.

Hopefully this talk will put the lid on the whole warchalking thing for me personally and pass it into the care of the community that’s formed around it so I can get on with the next thing. The next thing being getting really stuck into exploring “Social Software”.

The legacy of ETCON continues, and is starting to permeate the ‘real world’ of my work at the BBC. Looks like social network analysis and tools will pplay an important part of the next few projects I’m doing, and Jonah’s group at Eyebeam are full of good advice and contacts.


Victor cheers me up:

“Technology advances and, amazingly, becomes less expensive. We figure out new ways to use it. We adapt to it and it to us as a matter of habit. If there’s a reason we don’t want to use it, fine, then we won’t. But if we want to, we’ll find a way to make it workable. Being too hard isn’t a reason to dismiss it.

Invent! Refine! Design!”

Yup. I reckon that’s the right way around.

» Noise Between Stations: ‘Just Keep Trying’

I love density of ideas. I love books like Snowcrash and Distress simply because of the idea-per-page quotient. The IPPQ slingshots you out from the book and into the world that it’s pages happen to cut across. You stop and move away from the narrative and unpack the ideas; and in books with a really high IPPQ you can barely catch mental-breath as even the most throwaway lines unfurl like idea-origami.

No pages as such… but Idea per PANEL quotient in The Spiders is through the roof. The alternate war-against-terrorism as prosecuted by President Gore is mind-blowing. Ecstasy Bombs, non-lethal laser weapons and live chat with Taliban soldiers via tiny remote-operated robot spiders… Incredible stuff.

» E-Sheep : ‘The Spiders’ : Part 3 of 4 [via boingboing]

Matt Patterson has emailed me with a great response to my post on humanising technology, which he’s kindly allowed me post here:


I seem to recall making a couple of ill-prepared parries when we talked briefly about humanising technology. The concept has been bugging me and I’ve finally managed to find time to sketch out an argument. (you should try thinking about design and organising a wedding simultaneously…)

> Got very annoyed at the Design Council the other night. They were
> pitching their series of talks on ‘Humanising Technology”. Strikes me
> as a very odd phrase: ‘humanise technology’…

I think that you hit on a fundamental problem with the way we deal with technology. I’m not convinced by your flint axes thing, more of which later.

> To separate and demonise ‘technology’ seems false. It’s what makes us
> human. It’s our evolutionary distinctiveness.

The separation and making occult of technology is the story of late-modern technological development (commercially exploited, industrial revolution onwards). The separation of technology and making it hidden served the purposes of the possessors of technology – it made them money, and prevented other people from competing with them. Even earlier than late-modern we have the fuss caused by the publishing of Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises – the first howto for printing. It told of printing, and of building printing machinery. The ‘black art’ wasn’t called that for nothing – printing was a skill closely guarded and passed on through apprenticeships, thus keeping the number of competitors down. Conditions imposed on journeymen workers – graduated apprentices – bear this out.

> And anyway what’s so bad about technologising humans?
> Would the cro-magnon Design Council be complaining about the
> distinctly un-apelike flint axes that the crazy stonehacker kids were
> coming up with, and staging talks on ‘simianising technology’???

I think you’re missing the point, as are the Design Council. I think you’re both missing by a whisker. Technology has always been about a certain kind of distance, of abstraction. Axes and spears allowed the abstraction of killing – it didn’t have to be by hand anymore. Neither were the axes about technologising cro-magnons, by which I mean moving society’s centre from family grouping to proto-NRA axe clubs. They were about enabling society’s centre to remain where it was in changing times. There is evidence which suggests that agriculture was developed as a response to changing climate forcing people to invent new technology to remain living as they were.

Having said this it’s also clear that as technology begins to change our interactions with the world those interactions begin to change us. Agriculture allowed sufficient quantities of food to be grown to enable people to survive in their changing climate while the need to tend crops forced nomadic peoples to settle.

> the ‘humanisation’ of technology via graphical user interfaces as the
> creation of a schizm between the technologically-adept and conversent
> Morlock elite and a growing group of Eloi in thrall to the GUI,
> living in a dreamworld they have no control or agency within over
> that allowed by their unseen and incomprehensible Morlock captors.

I think that’s probably a misinterpretation of his position (or at least, it’s a misinterpretation of my interpretation…). Mediated experiences are the problem here, where the mediations are obfuscations, enforcing agendas and denying access. As for the thrall and the schism I think we need look no further than the legacy of the industrial revolution’s occult entreprenurial technological capitalism on the one hand, and the desire for recognition and status among techies which has led to l33t h4x0rs on the other. Schism is good for business, and schism allows an poorly-understood morlock workforce to become insular and dependent on that insularity for status and approbation.

An interesting counter here is the shaman. The shaman was the possessor of occult knowledge, to be sure, but they were are critical part of the life and community of the tribe. I think we can blame western society’s stratification and segregation for the acceptance of the schism.

> What’s the middle ground? Can we make technology, and computers easy
> to use while maintaining the transparancy, freedom and agency of
> command-line culture?

I think we have to remember that Unix was conceived as something of a humanising technology thing. It tried to take all the good bits from everything that had gone before and threw in some new bits which would help make everything work better and me easier to understand. I’m under the distinct impression that Unix gave us hierarchical filing systems.

Perhaps we (by which I mean any of us who speak Command Line) are operating under a similar delusion to the people who use GUIs – that we are controlling our computer entirely, that it works the way we want – with the only difference being a generational one (of use not age).

Perhaps the difference between you or I and George in reception is that we have seen the patterns in what happens and can abstract, generalise, and re-use that information. I cannot write C or assembler – they are too low-level, but I can write Perl, and the patterns I have seen in Perl allow me to talk to and understand people who programme in Assembler.

A way forward could be this: that we (as a society) stop seeing techies as a separate breed, but integrate them back into the normal flow of life and work. This ought to have the benefits of making non-morlocks less like eloi and non-eloi more like morlocks – with everyone meeting in the middle. Along with this runs the thread of understanding what other people do, and thus being able to build systems which work for them, and thus re-establishing a degree of transparency in the way things work.

Other things would begin to taught in such a way that the patterns and abstractions would be recognised and emphasised so that people could talk to each other and understand, in part, what the others were saying. More transparency.

I don’t think we can abandon the idea of separate roles. I learnt to do division on paper in junior school. They don’t do that now, they have calculators all the way. This means that other things can be learnt, and new things can be learnt at the other end. This is how we progress, surely: we build on an established base
of knowledge by using it and not reinventing the wheel. We build up dependencies here: to do maths I need a calculator so I need someone to build me a calculator… The critical part is to maintain a diverse community, so that I
understand that there are dependencies, and that things do not exist in isolation.

In a talk at DIS Tom Moran talked about adaptive design – systems which are built on top of by users, so that the systems become shaped by the way people work and not the other way around. Perhaps a notion of diversity will allow people to move the focus of design from the final whole to the unfinished, evolving, connections. I think that a Lego Technics operating system would allow a degree of transparent abstraction: that my mum could use the system arranged as it came (perhaps a racing car [with moving engine, gears, etc]).

However, the fact that the system is a synthetic construction is obvious, even if Mum can’t quite formulate an entirely new synthesis. She probably will be able to add bits, or take some bits away. Someone else (me, perhaps) will strip the construction back to its constituents and reconstruct, reformulate and make the racing car into a space ship.

With Lego Technics set the thing which allows me to do all this is the fact that connectors are almost entirely universal, so I can recombine bits as I like.




Matt’s site: EmDash is awfully pretty.

Peterme also gave me a good fact-checking and raking over the coals about that post, and I’d recommend you read that too.

Dan Hill has some more Tom-Moran-inspired tangents here.

I haven’t really got a good response to any of this at the moment, and I think I’ll just be content to stay at an unreasonable, sloppily-thought-out, superposition for now…

Lee and Paul, the Jay and Silent Bob of client-side code have been cooking up some excellent stuff.

Paul wrote a plug-in for MoveableType that performs statistical analysis on the words in each blog entry, including measures of readability.

Lee has taken this and now outputs a little bar-graph measure of how readable each post on his blog is. Lovely!

One lazyweb idea:

  • take a RSS blogroll/subscriptions list
  • take all the feeds, run them through a statistical word analysis and apply readbility index.
  • pump out a little graph/blogroll to your site of who is being readable that day.

Other thoughts on this as a feedback mechanism – how will this affect Lee’s writing? How could you marry this readability information with more subjective measures, such as reader-ratings, or frequency of posts (e.g. if you’re liveblogging from a conference, or taking notes live on a PDA as Lee often does, you might want to compensate)