Picnic 10

Sketchy notes from Picnic 10 (part 2 of 2)

More minimally edited notes from Picnic 10.

Adam Greenfield prepared a top selection of panelists for his workshop on ‘networked Amsterdam’. As we sat in one of the Picnic yurts (!!) we heard a series of short presentations on Amsterdam as seen through different technological lens.

First up was Usman Haque (Pachube) who spoke broadly about the sensor-Amsterdam. He reminded us that sensors never provide pure information, instead there are always decisions being made – what to count, what not to. Speaking about EEML (extended environments markup language): data has context, descriptive, numerical, changes over time vs raw. EEML describes context and state. Measuring needs to be discrete continuous and incremental.

Tom Coates (ex-FireEagle) was up next looking at Amsterdam through the lens of data. Showing us the many easily publicly accessible data layers already out the on the web – open street map view of Amsterdam, people and transport movements through RFID tracking in the public transport system of Ovi Chipkart, power consumption, social checkins from Foursquare etc, geotagged Flickr photographs generating Flickr shape files as a people centric view of the world/map – concluding with Aaron Straup-Cope’s/Stamen’s Amsterdam PrettyMaps.

Despite this array of different views the map and terrain are still very distinct. The experienced Amsterdam is not the map so what is necessary to get closer to having the map and the territory merge? Does this begin with unique ids for each building is required to link that map and the territory. Can this apply to the world of objects?

Anab Jain (Superflux) was up next looking at Amsterdam through the lived lens of services. Do we have an ‘App-ocalypse’? Where experiencing the city is through the clumsy lens described by Coates – and thus many of the nuances of the city are obscured and invisible?

Jain contrasted with her experience of India. Here she showed how addresses change and thus how the map is never the territory. The importance of the rickshaw wallah both as guide and multi-service provider – the human version of Google Maps and social recommendation services? And of course seeing these urban actors as key urban services introduces the opportunity for ‘deviant services’. So could mobile services connect people to each other rather than people to machines? The idea of the “open generative city” vs (just) information services – post-efficient services? The criticality of serendipity and diversity of experiences.

Matt Cottam spoke about ‘objects’. Here in Amsterdam the remarkable integrated and holistic design for the Ovi Chipkart RFID transport ticketing system was made possible because of the different cultural system here in Amsterdam. A lack of paranoia about centralisation, and an acceptance of the trade off between utility and privacy. (See also the cultural norm to leave curtains open on domestic houses).

So what becomes possible? Could parking meters also be used to sell event tickets or even report problems with the city streets? They already contain the necessary technology – printer, payment acceptance, Internet connection and screen. Cottam then showed a wonderful sculpture garden of old public utility furniture. These were beautifully ‘designed’ objects, not the functional equivalents that now line the streets. They also seemed far more robust.

Is there an emerging trend towards refillable objects – with well designed innards? The Leica digital upgrade programme as an example?

Cottam concluded by showing the BluDot Real Good experiment which was part of a marketing campaign for BluDot. It focusses on how the city already recycles objects and how well designed objects live many lives.

I started Day Three catching Cory Doctorow (Boing Boing). I admire Doctorow’s persistence as an author whose traditional business models have been radically challenged, to experiment and make his own path in the resulting mess. It is a very American persistence. Thus I wanted to like Doctorow but his style carried such a sense of anger and resentment that it greatly diminished his message. Perhaps it was his jet lag or maybe, like me, he had some travel problems. Either way, being hectored about how iTunes is locking down authors rights on ebooks (preventing them from rejecting DRM) is a tough way to start a morning. Nevertheless I did like his emphasis on authors making the most of price discrimination for ebooks – where different ‘levels’ of ‘experience’ are priced differently. I couldn’t help think of how social finance schemes like Kickstarter are really accelerating the normalisation and visibility of price discrimination.

Steven Emmett followed with a fascinating talk about a programming language for genetic manipulation. in simple terms it looked like this language allows the programming of gene splicing and the ‘printing of genetic sequences’ for splicing. I loved the idea that Emmett presented that it was Bell Labs in the late 1940s with the invention of the transistor that made possible the ICT explosion and that we are in the equivalent of the 1940s now for genetic engineering. Exciting, if unimaginable futures?

Next it was over to the third of the sessions that I was involved in organising – ‘new business models of digital culture and heritage’. Charlie Leadbeater started off outlining the key ideas in his recent missive, Cloud Culture (available as a free download). For cultural producers these are difficult times – they are reaching more people but making less money, and in the developed world we are living longer but receiving less in pensions.

Leadbeater outlined four types of organisational response to these changes. Strategy one – same goals, different methods; two – different goals, same means; three – same goals, different mix of means; and four – transformational, different goals, different means. The fourth is the most radical but also potentially the most fruitful. Unfortunately, he pointed out, ‘improving’ can be the enemy of transformation – ‘making things better’ brings down the opportunity to make transformational change. Transformation requires reframing the challenges and opportunities and resources. And in the cultural sector this is likely to be mix of new and old.

Harry Verwayen from Europeana outlined Europeana’s strategies going forward. Not organically birthed, Europeana, Verwayen explained was birthed from a highly political European reaction to Google’s mass book scanning efforts. They have changed tack and are clearly searching for productive ways forward now that ’12 million objects’ are online.

Soenke Zehle explored the ways in which cultural actors, and especially institutions could provide a far more ‘critical’ role in addressing the issues highlighted by Leadbeater, as well as the (global) political economy of digital culture. As he stressed, there are going to be winners and losers here – there is no win-win situation. This happens at every layer – the hardware layer where geopolitical tensions and instability around oil are already shifting to countries with rare metals required for the ‘digital economy’; all the way through to the service layer where content producers are feeling the pinch.

Picnic 10

Sketchy notes from Picnic 10 (part 1 of 2)

Picnic 10 has been very rewarding – Picnic is why I’ve been in Amsterdam delivering two presentations and helping organise three sessions on different issues in cultural heritage.

In the main pavilion in amongst interactive promotions from various major companies and a healthy smattering of startups was a pop up Fab Lab run by the Waag Society and a rather excellent pop up Instructubles Restaurant. In the Fab Lab people were using rapid prototyping tools and 3D printers to build all sorts of little creations whilst the Instructibles Restaurant made entirely from crowdsourced components and cooking up crowdsourced recipes from the Instructibles site. If anything shows the micro-industrial revolution occurring under our noses it is this. (And the food is tasty too!)

In a session on transmedia (games), Dan Hon who was responsible for such things as the We Tell Stories project for Penguin, bemoaned the genre formulas of transmedia productions. He posed whether the present would be radically different if the first transmedia production hadn’t been for Speilberg’s techno thriller A.I. but instead had been for the feelgood film of the same year – Amelie? Dan pushed this further. Is it possible to develop transmedia experiences for mass audiences – not just ‘puzzle geeks’?

These are real challenges for those trying to bring the opportunities of transmedia games to the cultural sector. Puzzle geeks aren’t our natural audiences and we are far more Amelie than A.I.

The next day i managed to catch a brief moment of Jeff Jarvis introducing his ideas of ‘entrepreneurial journalism‘ – an idea that probably has equal implications for the cultural sector. CUNY is now offering a Masters in the topic – where students not only learn journalism but are required to come up with a business model and sustainability strategy for their work. From this have already come several journalism startups’ although none have been ‘traditional journalism’ – instead have been about connecting and amplifying the things that matter to creation niche communities bounded by experience and/or geography.

Then it was off to present to the Hot 100 – 100 hand selected young entrepreneurs and graduates. I probably was a bit outside their usual scope but I hope the lessons around audience/user focus and continual refinement were universal. Also presenting in this session was Anab Jain from Superflux. I hadn’t heard Anab before and her presentation was one of the highlights of Picnic. Anab’s work – initially as an artist and now as a researcher and designer – centres on the cultural and shared social contexts of various technologies. Her early experiment in 2005 – Yellow Chair Stories – saw her sharing her wifi connection in London and striking up conversations with those who used it was wonderful. Similarly her prototype Sketch-A-Move for Mattel was totally inspired.

Anab later was part of the Urban Lenses panel organised by Adam Greenfield where she, again, presented some insightful views on the experience of connectivity in the city, contrasting the role of mobile technologies in Amsterdam with those of people technologies in cities in India.

After a non-existent lunch break, I presented again in our main event – the Beyond Tourism mobile discussion. The premise for this panel was to consider how cultural institutions and cultural content might be best delivered, adapted, and contributed to by a broad citizenry using mobile devices. Up until now, the rapidly expanding mobile space has considered cultural content as fodder for endless variants of tourism apps. Indeed, at Picnic itself, there were more than a few start ups pitching ‘interactive mobile tours’.

Gillian Schrofer opened by showing his QR code incursions around Amsterdam that when scanned, made visible the interiors of private residences that had had their interiors designed by his company. There was more than a little synergy with the kind of work that historic house operators have been considering – as his panoramic interior photos were hyperlinked to information about furniture and fittings.

My own presentation explored some of the failures we’ve been learning from at the Powerhouse – QR codes, URLs on object labels – and, the core problem of incentive (or lack of). My slides don’t make a great deal of sense without audio so I’m not posting them – suffice to say, my big hairy issue, despite seeing promise in a number of augmented reality apps, is that in every example thus far, a piece of physical tourist signage in location would be more effective in terms of reach and communication (just not as nerdy).

More importantly, my other issue with seeing the world as objects is that it diverts us from the core notion of storytelling – which is, in reality the only thing that will make any of these technologies truly compelling for users. In fact museums are rather good at storytelling and we’ve been diverted from our course by the lure of ‘liberating objects’ – which, on their own, are much less than when organised into a narrative.

On the storytelling meme, I also riffed around the need to transform the narrative of the ‘museum visit’ from one that starts at the door and ends at the door, to one that starts well before the visit, and ends well after the visit – each ‘chapter’ being a stage. If conceived of in this way, the ‘museum visit’ narrative is much more able to accommodate the idea of pre- and post- visit interactions. As a result marketing and promoting events and incursions that occur outside the museum itself should become far less difficult to conceptualise and implement.

Mike Edson from the Smithsonian followed me with his pitch for the Smithsonian Commons and what he saw as not being the future of mobile but the future as mobile. Mike and I had a bit of a discussion during Picnic about the potential for the Smithsonian Commons to potentially crowd out other initiatives globally through sheer scale and volume – or as was coined, the idea of ‘data imperialism’.

Jarmo Eskalinen spoke about open data especially at the city level and David Vogt from Mobile Muse spoke eloquently about the mobile web being, potentially, the first media technology to offer a intimate, participatory and social experience of media akin to our shared cultural understandings of the night sky. David’s short talk resonated with my feelings about the as yet untapped potential of mobile. I’ve included one of his slides which illustrates his claim for mobile.

(image from David Vogt’s slidedeck)