On Clay Shirky and cognitive surplus

I was a huge fan of Clay Shirky after reading Here Comes Everybody, but after watching his recent cognitive surplus talk at the RSA, I have to say I don’t buy his new theory one bit.

 

 

While his argument sounds nice – people are watching less TV, so they’re creating more, thanks in no small part to the Internet – it doesn’t actually make much sense.

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Kicking it like the Kaiser

Kicking it like the Kaiser

Throughout the history of the Internet - though most notably in recent years - it has been possible to re-characterise one's self. Indeed, it is likely that many of us have conversed with someone online that is actually someone else, an experience that may have ranged from talking to a “character” from an advertising campaign, right up to a group of people – or a separate organisation – developing a full campaign based around a single person, such as a politician. The development of a range of characters is something that Marcus Brown is known for. Working over several years on this range, spanning the godly to the downright evil, Brown – and his audience – has enjoyed using the multitude of outputs that the web now offers. Brown performs many of the characters in real-life stage shows, as well as online, where perhaps his most well-known character is advertising commentator, the Kaiser. This model of rapid creativity is now set to take a new direction, with the launch of the Black Operatives Department, Brown's project to co-create campaigns and projects for the benefit of both the group and the agency. The project is open-access, and is offered under a Creative Commons licence, meaning that the group's work is there for all to see. The background to the Black Operatives Department is two-fold. The first is the story behind its development. Brown's original idea was to create a covert, shadowy group: an “underground creative network”, that could be employed by an agency to undertake a piece of stealth creative work, if they were struggling with a brief. The Black Operatives Department's work would therefore be rapid, highly creative, and highly productive. As one would expect from a shadowy organisation, the members would never disclose themselves, and the group would never disclose its clients. More recently, Brown came to the conclusion that the development of all of his characters, and projects such as the original Black Operatives Department, were all self-created. While this might seem to demonstrate an incessantly imaginative mind in action, it can – of course – also become rather solitary. Brown wanted to co-create: “...to do it with other people, to share the process, for ideas to become better by sharing, and to let people have a look behind the scenes in terms of what I do, so they could benefit from it – and have fun.” These principles gave birth to what is now the Black Operatives Department. All of the members' ideas go onto the blog, which acts as a central hub for group activity and productivity. Core to the development of these ideas is the regular online workshops, which last for a week. Developed with volunteers from the group, the first workshop asks members to think about a particular character, in a particular context. This first character is a commuter, with the members briefed on the workshop objectives and tasks. This is designed to facilitate the creation of concepts, while also creating a highly specific context and framing to drive creative development over the course of the week. According to Brown, a fundamental part of undertaking this kind of creative work is having a character that is on Twitter, interacting with people that he doesn't know, but ends up becoming part of their life. “He's becoming part of their experience.” The sharing of ideas, content, and materials takes place on Friendfeed. This open, inclusive approach means that anyone with a creative mind and something to offer, can join in. All of Brown's characters have led a totally online existence. They have components and specific functions. The Black Operatives Department is at the early stage of character development: play. Members are getting into the mindset of how an online character works – something very different from just writing scripts.

 

 

If Sisyphus would have been alive in 2006, he would have been a blogger. Marcus Brown

Brown's experience with online character development has led to the development of a robust framework, with the selection of online “components” fulfilling a clear, well-defined function. Twitter, for example, is seen in this context as being a facilitator of digital improvisation, in that character tweets cannot really be scripted; the characters are effectively telling stories, and reacting in real time. “You're acting digitally. I perceive all of the things that I've done, and all chars that I've created, to be digital acting.” Further, characters have a finite lifetime, making Brown interested in character “seasons”. Characters will disappear, with their blogs deleted, only to return later.

Multiple personalities

Digital characters, like digital companions, have the potential to add a very clear, human, almost tactile personality – both inside and outside of the Internet itself. Although Brown sees the Internet's growing anthropomorphism as an opportunity for characterisation, humanisation wasn't the original motive. “Breaking things is a huge motivator. When something new comes out, such as Foursquare, I think: 'How can I break it? This is what they are telling me that I can do with it, but what can I really do with it.' I find it fascinating. It's motivational, not malicious." Complimenting this motivational power of “breaking things”, is the power of being sufficiently irritated by people and their actions, to mock. The Twitter mime artist, for example, is a character that “mimes” responses to the views of people in the industry. “He is one of those characters that fade in and out, as and when people piss me off. I am holding up a mirror to self-important people... 'I am talking about you. Doesn't it make you feel a little bit uncomfortable, when I'm sat on the toilet, deconstructing your tweets?'” Cross-referencing the evolution of communications media led Brown to make the observation during the interview: “I think of the Internet as CB radio with pictures.” Shortly after this interview had ended, Brown's rapid get-on-and-do-it attitude swiftly led to Citizen Brand Media – a CB-like Twitter hashtag lookup service, where Twitter users can subscribe to one of four “channels”. “I loved CB, and still think of it – to turn it on, be on air, and you know where people were: which channels. You had the language. Twitter has a similar language – retweet, tweetups... I was always interested in cheap, fun methods of interactive broadcasting." This history led Brown to re-analyse his own view of the web in the latter part of the last decade. “I have been active on the Internet for many years, and fell out of love with it. I came back in 2006, and everything was lovely, and different. I got swept away in the blogosphere scene. Everybody was writing, and linking to other people. There was a huge noise of loveliness. I was looking at this, and writing, and thinking: when will this stop? You blog and you blog. I felt chained to a lifetime of blogging. If Sisyphus would have been alive in 2006, he would have been a blogger.”

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A youth well wasted

A youth well wasted

It’s the Summer of Love, 1991. Ian Brown is hawking a bit more than Fool’s Gold around Manchester’s nightclubs and Liam Howlett was just starting to take De La Soul’s happy hip hop and amp it up into solid advice from Mum’s friend Charly. Raving became a phenomenon that flared up faster than a teenage growth spurt and threatened to destabilise the country if the authorities were to be believed. But just how did so many people come to be sorted for Es and Whiz in a field off the M25? The story is the birth place of a bigger revolution that would take another 20 years to germinate – the social media revolution.

In the early 90s I lived in Oxford. In fairness, life was pretty awful. I’d left home and was living in shared accommodation in one of Oxford’s unfashionable cheap areas, Cowley Road. My house mates included a girl who’d been thrown out of home at 15 because she reminded her mother too much of her now-divorced father, an Ecuadorian immigrant and a large Alsatian left to us whilst his traveller owner was in jail. Of course on the average night there were bodies littered all around the house, yet only a few us were actually residents liable for the rent. Sometime in December the washing machine in the conservatory froze over night, sealing with it most of my clothes. It would be almost March before we could release them. 

There was little food in this house and little cash in the neighbourhood, yet there was an abundance of dealers. Many were simply trying to get a bit of cash to pay for themselves and the student population made that easy. There were plenty of reasons to want to get out of your head and forget it all if you lived in Cowley.

This side of Oxford is not the side Morse fans are familiar with. Most recall it as the the city of dreaming spires; a city of splendid education, fine buildings and intellectual pursuits by riversides. And yet, Oxford bares a second name given to it whilst it was the King’s capital after he was ousted from London during the Civil War. That name which any from Cowley, Blackbird Leys, Barton or any of Oxford’s other sprawling council estates may feel to be all too true of Oxford: the City of Lost Causes. 

Oxford is unusual in that it has a large youth population, due to students. Maybe that’s why it has the fourth highest rate of drug abuse in the country; a statistic far greater than the size of the city would suggest. It is home to some of the biggest council estates in Europe, and home to some of the brightest young minds in the world. One thing connects them – the desire to party.

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In conversation with... Heath Bunting and James Kennard

Heath Bunting and James Kennard are two of the UK's most well-known net artists. Based in Bristol, and with a track record spanning some 20 years in physical and virtual art, their work spans and addresses a range of social, technological, physical, political and cultural issues.

Bunting and Kennard's latest work is currently taking place at Bblackboxx in Basel. Focusing on the role and socio-political perception of the mobile phone in society, they are running a series of urban survival sessions for “mobile phones and their human companions”.

Given the supposed freedom of mobile phones, their piece at Bblackboxx has a focus on migration and the concept of physical borders. It features a scheme for refugees to take photos - with their mobiles - of their originating country, to bring back and show to others. It concludes with the showing of a film of the journey taken by asylum seekers from north Africa.

We spoke with Heath and James just before they set out to Basel. Please introduce the project: how you have developed the idea, and the background to your thinking regarding the use of mobile phones. JK: The Bblackboxx project emerged from a workshop we gave in Rowsley for the Tracing mobility programme. The objective was to take teenagers supposedly caught in a virtual trap, playing computer games compulsively and out of touch with the physical world and re-integrate them, using their own pervasive means to wean them off digital in a controlled manner.

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Connected TV - the death of the channel

Connected TV - the death of the channel

Our remit at Imperica is to cover a range of disciplines. The burgeoning world of "Connected TV" is one of them. Connected TV, delivering the benefits of Internet connectivity with web-like features to a TV screen, is starting to become understood by advertisers and broadcasters, and desired by audiences.

When I met Ian Valentine, Founder and Technical Director of Miniweb, it was in a meeting room at the company's offices, just off the Great West Road. Warm, friendly and highly conversational, Ian proceeded to ask about Imperica, before I asked him about Miniweb.

Formerly part of Sky's technical leadership, Valentine set Miniweb up in 2007. The Miniweb platform is very much in the spirit of connected TV, in that it provides an interface which allows viewers to discover content at programme level, rather than channel level, through content discovery - UI techniques broadly similar to web search. The Miniweb platform alslo allows for a degree of interaction which could appear on the screen in real time. It amplifies the shared experience.

Because the platform allows for this, the first challenge is to consider whether the current, generally-held definition of connected TV, such as MSN Messenger on a TV screen, is correct – and does the term justice. The concept of form following function doesn't naturally lend itself to such services on TV, in Ian's view: "The problem is that people take the paradigms of other connected devices that they use, and think that those functions are going to automatically appear on the TV. Users choose the best device for every function.” The development of connected TV is therefore the development of what we are able to make better, and to continue to align (or re-align) the matching of form with function.

A further definition which requires re-analysis is the concept of “lean back / lean forward”. This is one which has been used for a number of years within both the digital media and broadcasting industries to mean the convergence of both. As Ian explains: "The whole lean back/lean forward concept has been around for a long time - since the beginning of digital. The thing about digital is that it did two things: it produced more content through multiplexing, and to control that content you had to interact, because of the volume of channels. The second was the ability to roll out functionality that you engaged with: the concept of lean-forward. Picking up the remote, and leaning forward.”

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Are we holding the next generation back?

If you've heard of the term “educational technology”, then you probably have a pretty good idea of what it means. A whole industry has been created around it, particularly from the early 1990s, where vendors such as Apple and RM focused on such a market. At the time, such a market – of students using computers both in classrooms and in the home – was in its infancy.

Professor Matthew Allen considers the term to be bogus. Allen is the first Professor of Internet Studies at Australia's Curtin University, with an approach is transforming both the views of students under his wing – covering many different angles of media – and that of the University.

There's no question that Allen is a sharp, passionate operator, with a deep understanding of the pedagogical impact of media, particularly digital media. His views are sharp, observant, and derived from years of personal insight. To first explain what educational technology is, you have to go back over several decades of media evolution – before and including the birth of the Internet itself.

“TV is a pedagogic tool to education the nation. Universities and schools saw it as educational technology. Now, of course, it's not called that. But, more people know more from TV than they would ever have done from university. So, how is something not called educational technology, so educational?

“The Internet was usefully called educational technology for some years, but now, in developed and developing nations, infrastructure is advanced. Therefore, teachers need to stop constraining the term.”

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Alt/1977: Alex Varanese

Alt/1977: Alex Varanese

Reinventing the past is a series which runs through the summer and autumn on Imperica. We will talk with people and groups using creative technology to develop fictional versions and iterations of notable, generally-accepted events in the past.

For the first in this series, we talk with designer Alex Varanese. Based in the Bay Area of California, Alex's clients have included Nike, CBS, and agencies including Publicis and Sapient Nitro. 

His project, Alt/1977, re-imagines four common products as if they were invented in 1977, developing fictitious print advertising campaigns for them. 

Tell me more about the project, and what led you to develop it.

Years ago, while working as a web developer, I passed a restaurant with a particularly 80's-looking sign and was struck by how out of place it looked. That concept of anachronistic design made me wonder what the web, for instance, might look like if we had the technology of today in the 60's or 70's; color LCD monitors running at 1920x1200, broadband internet connections, HTML-based browsers and all that, but combined with those drab, yellow-tinted color schemes, flower power patterns and new-age hippie sensibilities. There was something so wrong about that idea, almost to the point of revulsion, that I never quite got it out of my head.

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Internet companions

Internet companions

Companionship is part of what makes us human. It drives our need to be with and around people; to converse; to share, and to debate.

The digitisation of companionship is a phenomenon that has obviously been increasing in its absorption into everyday life. Two words sum this up for many people: social media. And, with social media, comes the concept of lifestreaming: the sharing of the important and the trivial, the good and bad, onto digital media. It's the status update, the sharing of photos, and the liking of links. It's an increasingly important part of who we are. With the digitisation of companionship comes the possibility of developing technological answers to socio-technological questions: principally, how companionship could be replicated artificially. The concept of automata understanding humans is, of course, wider than companionship itself: it covers Machine Translation, conversational systems, and other areas which have surfaced into everyday life as translation services, chatbots, and so on. Professor Yorick Wilks is an academic within three organisations, a winner of many computer and linguistic awards, and founder of the Institute of Language, Speech and Hearing at the University of Sheffield. His recent work has included the development of two companions, with relevance to two stages in a person's life. The first is the Senior Companion, which provides companionship for elderly people. It can provide comfort through a shared reminiscence of the past, and plays a role that Professor Wilks calls the “furry handbag”: something warm, cosy and dependable. Such companions validate photographs through the Internet, and allows for the labelling of people to provide conversational cross-references: in other words, a more elaborate form of photo-tagging. Dialogue tags the photo with discourse.

 

 

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In conversation with... Scott Gould and Andrew Pickering

In conversation with... Scott Gould and Andrew Pickering

It was a Talking Heads album cover that contained the rhetorical question “Where do good ideas come from?”

Technology, and the increasing socialisation of communications technology, supposedly allows us to create, develop, refine and deliver ideas in ways and speeds that have never been the case before. From niche startups to scientific breakthroughs, the power of the idea is becoming increasingly met by the power of silicon.

For this “In conversation with...”, Imperica visited the beautiful surroundings of Reed Hall, part of the University of Exeter. Talking about ideas and the socio-technological flow of them, are Scott Gould, and Professor Andrew Pickering.

How can the systems and processes that we now have, from a social and technology perspective, help to foster and generate ideas? Is it easier than ever, to take an idea and make it happen?

SG: It's easier to get access to ideas today, that's certainly true. A great example is TED; you watch a talk, and get inspired. It doesn't really matter which one you watch - they're so inspiring that you want to actualise their idea in your life.

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In conversation with... Molly Flatt and Richard Gray

In conversation with... Molly Flatt and Richard Gray

As communications technology becomes increasingly social, it is important for brands to understand the potential of how they can also become more social, and the potential of reframing their perception within society. This “In conversation with...” is about brand anthropomorphism: the current and future potential of human characteristics of brands. In conversation, in a sunny Soho garden, are Molly Flatt and Richard Gray.

How can brands start to adopt more human characteristics? RG: I think that brands have been doing this since the year dot, and do a whole host of things to feel – to become – more human, to their audiences. These range from having icons for their brands, like Marlboro Man and the Churchill Dog, to communicating in a much more human way, such as the Gold Blend couple.

Brands are all about association, so you create an environment which feels more human, and by that, there is an association with the brand. The main point is to create these actual icons that have very human characteristics, or trying to give personality and human attributes to your products.

The classic one recently is Apple, with its advertising of Mac and PC, as human “products”. So, I think that it's very much the territory of brands to create that human association, because we have stronger connections with people and their psychological characteristics, than we do with functional characteristics. While those are important, you have to go beyond that, and create a longer lasting sense of loyalty.

This is very much the heart of what brands do – they create that association. I think that the interesting thing is where brands are creating a more conversational dialogue, as part of demonstrating their human side. MF: We never really confirm what we mean by human, and by “human” we use it as a euphemism to mean lovely, personable, warm... which is all great, but if you're talking about human characteristics, then those aren't necessarily human characteristics.

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