Conferences and event reports

Optimism & dystopia – Future Everything & Museums and the Web 2014

I’m not so sure it was such a good idea to go to the Future Everything (Manchester) just before Museums and the Web (Baltimore). The speculative futurism of Future Everything really brought into sharp relief a narrowing of concern at MW.

I’ll get to that in a moment.

But first, Future Everything – an annual citywide festival of forward-looking art, music and design in a wealth of different venues.

Here I was, back in Manchester, a city I only briefly visited way back in 1998 (then for mainly musical reasons, before I was involved with museums). A lot had changed. Most startlingly I was far more aware of the near universal presence of public smoking. And big elaborate donut bun hair.


At Future Everything, the City Fictions art program took over the NOMA district for the weekend creating a ‘speculative city’ exploring some of the ways that life might change in the near future. The inclusion of a fictional newspaper (PDF) from 2018 included in the Manchester Evening News likely diversified the audience mix bringing in inquisitive families and onlookers alongside media artists and other more usual types at this sort of event.

There was Adam Harvey’s anti-surveillance/anti-computer vision ‘makeovers’, Hello Lamp Post’s infrastructural conversations, Adrian Hon’s (excellent) book History of the Future in 100 Objects turned into a mini-exhibition, ‘critical 3D printing’ with Golan Levin, a BBC’s R&D hackathon, a bio-tech kitchen and stacks more.


Over at the National Football Museum there was an exhibition curated by John O’Shea in conjunction with Near Future Laboratory and the CCCB, time warped back from 2018, too, giving bemused football fans a series of speculative looks into a future of their beloved game where current broadcast, coaching, and biometric technologies had been extended just a little bit further. The sports newspaper (PDF) produced for the exhibition was a great provocation.


John and Scott Smith let me play in their future of football workshop – a design fiction sprint that challenged teams to come up with different ways in which technology would change sport from the perspectives of fans, players, coaches, broadcasters, and others.

There’s a nice piece on BBC World Service that spoke to a lot of the people at City Fictions.

By the time the formal conference kicked off, I’d been thoroughly exhausted by all the great conversations! I spoke about ‘museums and collecting the present’ on a sessions with Alex Fleetwood (ex-Hide & Seek) who spoke about his proposition for a new type of institution able to support, commission, distribute, and collect/archive UK games; and Ben Vickers who spoke about UnMonastery, a live-in ‘born digital’ (but physical) institution in Italy. Our three perspectives neatly explored the different affordances of institutional types and the different battles each faces. Alex’s proposal for videogames riffed off the Channel4 model and seems eminently sensible and made us all consider what a ‘public service Steam’ might be like and how it might invest in and develop games that fall in the cracks between the indie scene and AAA market-driven titles.

Keep an eye out for the videos once they go live – Anab Jain‘s keynote was particularly fantastic, although I missed most of the second day travelling.

Then I jumped on a plane back to the US and on to Museums and the Web.

Museums and the Web is still one of the best museum technology conferences because of its wide draw from around the globe and varying levels of seniority of attendees. There have been plenty of other reports on the event (Ed Rodley’s are a good read 1 | 2) but this year it felt different. Gone were the discussions of previous years of the potential of the web in bringing museums together, instead replaced by a slightly inward-looking retreat from scale. Most of what I heard was about singular institutions dealing with their own issues, rather than discussing and confronting sector-wide challenges (of which there are still many). Perhaps this is a result of deepening funding cuts and more uncertain times, or the ongoing Balkanisation of the web in general. Whatever it was, it felt like the big ideas had been re-calibrated to institutional scale.

Aaron Cope and I presented talked around our joint paper “Collecting the present: digital code and collections“. Rather than stick to our paper, the slides we ended up using were an extended remix of the ones I’d presented a few days earlier at Future Everything. Despite that we were up early in the conference, following an interesting opening keynote from one of the folks from Disney’s R&D labs, so we decided to take it further ‘off road’.

In the paper we talk about collecting the iOS app, Planetary, for the Cooper Hewitt collection as an example of interaction design and use the affordances of being a ‘design museum’ rather than an ‘art museum’ to focus on ‘the idea and process’ not the ‘instance and object’. Aaron expanded the discussion of equivalents in videogames to talk about Glitch and the boiled-down ‘de-make’/resurrection of it by building an HTML version of its environments and chat functionality ignoring the missions and trading elements. Much like the way in which Cooper Hewitt collected and released the ‘versioned’ codebase of Planetary, the developers behind the popular Threes – motivated by the cloning of their game – released publicly three years of email discussions between the development team in a vain attempt to ‘prove’ their game was conceptually superior to the clones.

We could have gone on for much longer.

Micah Walter from my team presented a paper at the end of the event on downgrading the Cooper Hewitt website from Drupal to WordPress ( – something that is ongoing. It is a useful reminder that the content creators on your website are a very important user group, without whom you either have a lot of work to do yourself as a webmaster, or you don’t have a website – so it is worth spending the effort on making editing interfaces easier and simpler.

Hopefully next year in Chicago there is a return of some of the bigger ideas of previous years.

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