we’re physical

The internet is tied inextricably into the physicality that is the earth. Even the network nodes that exist beyond this planets atmosphere have been constructed from the materials pulled from the ground below our feet.

Whilst many will now take their power from the sun, the very fact that they are there and are able to collect, transmit and receive data is dependant on the raw materials that this planet provided.

Roy Batty proclaimed that ‘We’re not computers Sebastien, we’re physical’ what we have done is built the paths and tools for computation onto a physical layer.

Our infinite virtual exists in the imagined space conjured up by this computation and our interaction with it.

At some level, at some point we have to step off the virtual levels of the stack and examine the physical parts that make this machine work and tally the cost of each component and each joule of energy it consumes.

Physical costs but so do bits.


Art and …

I was watching some of the twitter stream from an event last night about #Stacktivism. From the stream it felt like there were a number of people in a room who could not communicate with each other, their disciplines used elements of language differently, expectations varied.

I was not there and I am waiting for the video of the event but from the narrow strand of talk I did pick up on, it reminded me of something else.

A while back I was at a symposium at the National Maritime Museum on Art and Astronomy and I think there was one question from the day that is useful thinking about art and Stacktivism.

One of the artists, Elizabeth Price, who had won the Turner Prize in 2012, had been invited to talk about her work and was asked a question from the audience about the scientific usefulness of her work.

Price had been working at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, on work around their archive of photographs of the Sun.

When asked though about the outcomes of the artistic practice, in relation to the scientists work neither the artist or the scientist could give a straight answer, either a ‘Yes, her work gives us new insight into the data and we have done new research on X’ or ‘No, but the outcomes are pretty.’

Similarly, earlier in the day we had been introduced to the work by Hubble scientists in how they present the images that are released. How they echo the great American landscape artists of the 19th and 20th Century. Again a question had been asked on the ‘scientific usefulness’ of this work.

The question could not get a simple answer, it does not deserve a simple answer even though it was an easy question to ask.

One of the things art can do is take something ‘mundane’ and make it weird and in doing that make you think about the thing again.

Art can use the materials of other areas to make the art, it can inherently discuss the materials and processes or not. It can be considered political (or not). It can help describe, help define or just reflect upon.

The language of art becomes a part of the culture of communication, even subconsciously. The photographs taken by Apollo astronauts reflected an aesthetic of the time, and now the images from Hubble are often framed to recall the great sublime landscape art of the 19th Century, the frontier of American colonisation.

Even though the artist may use the data that was used by scientists and create a new output and that output by itself does not answer any questions the scientists immediately have does not diminish its value.

What is it that lies at the nexus of Art and Infrastructure? I don’t know yet, I don’t think anyone has developed it fully yet, no one is properly weirding that part of the world to make us think about it again.

A thin strand of the new digital infrastructural layers are starting to be reflected, presented back and made visible to us, but there are vast stacks behind all this that remain a dark matter to be explored and re-exposed.

Looking back at the history of art, could I just make a small suggestion, Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII could be an interesting node to start looking at this nexus, but then, so could Turner.

To take someone else’s rallying call ‘Be The Change!’

To say that the existing political system feels even more out of touch, potentially dangerous and most definitely out to protect its own over the last few days is probably an understatement. Part of the problem is the more it is like that, the easier it is to try and ignore, to decide that there is nothing you can do so why bother.
Turnout at election time is low, in the reviews of the day there are discussions about what could have happened if a greater number of people turned up but its a no win scenario. People won’t vote when they don’t see the potential for change, can’t see how they can make a difference.

Change is a good thing, though it can be both scary and difficult. So I want to ask you all to imagine something simple.

What if we could persuade at least one person to stand as an independent in each constituency in the coming general election. Someone who lived locally in the constituency, someone who was interested enough in politics to make a go at it, but also realised that this is not a career move. With an aim not to be in the Westminster Circle for the rest of their life but to help make their constituency, the country (and impact the rest of the world) for the better of everyone.

They would have to be able to listen to argument, to compromise, to speak up at times, to be willing to return to the constituency to listen to the thoughts of the voters they represent, to work across scales. Most importantly they must be willing to be transparent about their political life, and we should be respectful of the transparency on that life and respect a private family life.

I very much doubt it would be an easy job, if you stand as a part of a party you have a grander support structure but a structure that is becoming obsolescent in the modern networked world.

The #UnParty can be a new kind of support structure. By standing as an independent you declare that you are not subject to a Party mandate, your manifesto can be drawn from the best ideas, not driven purely by ideology. If the #UnParty can be a support network for independents, a place for those wanting to stand to discuss issues, problems and ideas without conflict, a place where volunteers can help independents stand and when elected do their job then I believe we can affect change to the system overall.

To stand for election is incredibly easy, at the moment there is no register, no one you have to tell, you can just wake up one morning and decide to do it. Then you can tell as many people as you like. Later on some paper work does come into play, and by the election you will need to have found the following:

* 10 people in the constituency that you want to stand in willing to sign your nomination paper.
* A deposit of £500. You get this back if you get 5% or more of the vote, otherwise you loose it.

That is pretty much the basics, yes there is a lot of communication, a lot of talking to people but that is not a bad thing. If that is not something you can do then maybe don’t stand yourself but help someone else.

If you decide to stand then read this article over at the Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/may/22/how-to-become-an-mp which has some more basic tips on getting started.

Also go to the Electoral Commission website where there is a lot of information. You can call them as well and they are really helpful.

Finally, James Smith, who has been running the OpenPolitics Manifesto has decided to do just this, he is blogging and writing his experiences to share with everyone.

If you decide to stand or help persuade someone to stand then let us know and we will build out the #UnParty network to support them.


[[This was sent out as a TinyLetter, subscribed to via the Unparty Politics Website and was the first one.]]

Quantified Value

In thinking about the Elegant Cyborg one has to start asking the value in the data, that which we measure must have a value somewhere, somehow, mustn’t it?

That value does not have to be financial though, which of course makes the quantification of the perceived value difficult.

From the first sketches of the cyborg I can see the points of basic data flow from the individual and their activity, through the devices and onwards towards the stacks. To me, this does ask an initial question.

‘How useful is the data captured by devices such as Nike+, or Jawbone UP to me?’

From this initial question, I can add some further questions, to try and get more detail on this:

Does seeing the number of steps I take and/or data such as the calories burnt (estimated?) actually allow me to improve my health? Am I equipped with the right information to understand and analyse this kind of information properly?

I also have another question,

‘what is the value of this data to the Stack?’

Either on an individual basis, or in aggregation? How can they use the data to sell? (which is the primary use of data by the stacks).

In thinking about this at one stage I did wonder, does any of this information really have any value to the stacks? especially in aggregation? Or in fact is it really of use in creating a platform with share options, which basically leads to other sales of the devices (and a possible update path for existing users)? Basically is the real value in selling the device and general information on users sharing on the platform or is there any value in the quantified activity data from the users?

[I know, lots of questions and as yet no answers]

Art, Archive and Help

I need your help!

I need people who are willing to be recorded answering the three questions on the ‘What does privacy mean?‘ project.

Those questions again are:

  • What does privacy mean to you?
  • What does protection mean to you?
  • What does security mean to you?

I will be using the audio in a piece called The Numbers Station, which is designed to be an audio installation both physically located and occasionally broadcast over radio waves (a la numbers stations).

The audio will also be released with a creativecommons licence as a part of the archive for ‘What does privacy mean?’ (which will include written responses to these questions as well as submissions submitted via a web form).

The aim of the archive is just to record the feelings of people on those three questions. If your opinion changes you can do it again, there is no right or wrong answer and I fully support the idea that you have the right to change your mind about anything.

If you would like to take part in the audio part of the project then please either email me at mark@geekyoto.com or ping me on twitter @marksimpkins and we can arrange either meeting to record or you sending an audio file.

Please do share this request with anyone who you think might be interested in taking part. When the audio is released it will not have any information pertaining to who you are.

If you have any questions as well then please email me as well.

Thanks and I hope to hear a lot of your answers soon.

[By the way: I am geocontrol On Audioboo and on Soundcloud if that helps to get your recording to me.]

Materials Literacy

I have not mentioned it here before but part of my time at the moment is taken being Product (and Project) Manager for I Can Make. An amazing new start-up founded by Chris Thorpe, Becky Fishman and Dean Vipond (and myself), I Can Make is creating fun, educational content for your and your child’s 3D printer.

We are developing the educational support for the product and during the talk, the obvious point of ‘putting more stuff out into the world’ came up. In trying to form a response to this in I came up with the concept of ‘Materials Literacy’. Throwaway at the time, a short hand for a whole area of knowledge to be communicated and imparted. Below I try to develop what we could mean by ‘Materials Literacy’.

As 3D printing and other home manufacturing processes become more available people using these tools will need to have a level of understanding of the materials that are in use.

Not to the same depth of understanding as a professional designer, whose knowledge of materials and their properties is rich, in a similar way that an architect and construction engineer should understand how the materials they or the client wants work under the stresses and strains of construction and being in a building.

Just as we do not all need to be graphic designers or typographers to make use of the printer in our home, we don’t need to be a product designer to take advantage of the 3d printer.

What we do need to understand are some of the core properties of the material that we are using. At least with the laser printer we were using paper which most of us already had familiarity with. We knew enough about its properties to be able to make use of it easily without in depth domain knowledge, but remember, in school were you taught how paper was made? And for the most part what material was used to record and communicate your learning on?

We are and we’re already very comfortable with the material of paper. The inks, toners and processes were the new materials, that and the possibilities of what could be printed opened up new possibilities of learning and understanding how to communicate with print.

With home manufacture we need to know appropriate materials for appropriate tasks, it’s no good using a non heat resistant plastic to make a part that is going to be subjected to high heat, for example. Equally though, we should be able to understand the life cycle of the material being used and following on from that, the life cycle of the objects that we make with that material. How recyclable is the material (is it compostable, or does it require other processes to recycle it) and could that recycling be done in the home?

We also need to be aware of materials and how the interact with the human body, printing children’s toys with a material that might be toxic could create a similar situation to the ‘lead paint’ situation. [[Matt Malpass, who co-directs the MA industrial design course at CSM mentioned this during an initial discussion about materials literacy]].

Similarly, unless there is an understanding about the materials and how to reuse them, in a couple of years, Ben Hammersly predicts a news article on ‘the amount of plastic rubbish that is being churned out by the home printer industry’ [my paraphrasing].

Consumers need to understand the costs of the material that they use and be able to calculate the cost of printing versus mass manufacture.

If 3D printing and other new personal manufacturing tools and processes do change our relationship to objects, in that we can have what we need, when we need it, for as long as we need it and not necessarily any longer then part of the tool chain to deliver this change has not been delivered. Also, importantly a large part of the education and information on materials and how we use them and can re-use them has yet to be developed.

It is this space that I believe should be covered by ‘Materials Literacy’.

Mapping the Cyborg

I have been thinking about the cyborg and our instrumentation of the self. The Elegant Cyborg project is encompassing of a number of strands of investigation but initially I have been thinking about activity trackers, the data that they generate and the Stacks.

To get started on this I have started scribbling a few maps. Initially, in my notebook I drew this:

Its me trying to frame what I want to examine by cyborg. There is already a lot of research and writing on this and I am fully aware of the fact that we can create a definition of cyborg that encompasses all of modern human beings, in that they enhance their physical interaction with the word through technology. This can be corrective technologies and interventions such as medical intervention through drugs, or artificial limbs or even glasses or it could be self prescribed tools to enhance ones self, a smart phone to act as a reminder / memory and location finder or something like an activity tracker to specifically tally some activity data about oneself with a specific aim in mind. This aim is probably around fitness.

With Google announcing their Fitness data system at I/O the other day and Apple already having announced their HealthKit as a part of the forthcoming iOS 8 it is appropriate to look at this last element of cyborgification in more detail.

This map has a lot from the previous map, at the moment it does miss off genetic technology, 23andMe for example. It does show the Stacks over on the right. What it does not show is the place existing Pharma and medical technology companies play in this.

What are the questions to be investigated here? I think some of the following are worth looking into:

  • How do the different activity / health apps/devices compare?
  • Is the actual data useful to an individual (and/or how to make it useful)?
  • How is the data useful to the company offering the system?
  • Are there problems with the sharing of this data?
  • Are there ways of mitigating any such potential problems with this sharing?

On the second map sits Google Glass. Around the corner from my office at Central Saint Martins is the new Glass Basecamp. I don’t think glass counts as an activity/health device yet, but it is there in the cyborg enhancements. Its the bridge to the projects on privacy. Its the poster device for a reaction against the cyborg as an extension of a corporate entity (Wear Glass be a Stack Node?) but is that justified? Are all our interactions with an entity such as Google a cyborgification of our selves and do we need new tools and language to understand what that means to us and to it and how do we (if deemed necessary) change that so that the technology is still useful to us as humans not us humans being useful to the Stack.

[[I am currently trying to find funding for this project so if anyone has any suggestions for routes for such funding please let me know.]]

Elegant Cyborg

The #elegantcyborg project is a multipart investigation into the instrumenting and augmentation of ourselves via technology delivered by the Stacks (see Stacktivism).

The first stages of the project is the development of a set of maps and visualisations to show the connection of cyborg technology, the individual and the corporate owners of the technology.

Also the creation of a questionnaire for people who use activity/health trackers (apps and devices) to try and get an idea on the landscape of usage.

Below are our first set of proposed questions:

* Why did you decide to get/use a health/activity tracker (app or device)?
** Was it a gift?
** Was it a personal decision?
** Was there any medical/professional intervention (e.g. A doctor suggested more physical activity).
*** If so, did they suggest using an app or device and if they did was it the one you use?

* What factors affected your decision as to which app or device to use?
* How long have you had it?
* Is this the first one you have had or used or have you tried other apps or devices?
** If so, would you write some more about your experience with the other apps or devices? What was it like, why do you no longer use it?

* Did you read the EULA fully, especially where pertaining to data?
* Did you understand the EULA?
* Do you understand or know about the privacy options and settings for your app or device?

(Where app or device can be any combination of the two. You may use the device in conjunction with a number of other devices, such as base stations and mobile phones.)

* Do you share your activity data online with the app device service?
* Do you make this available publicly or do you keep it private?
* Have you shared, commented or discussed anyone else’s activity / health data that you have public access too?

If you think there are any other questions that should be posed here, or any of the above reworded then please let me know in the comments.

What Does Privacy Mean?

I am starting a new project on the topic of privacy and firstly want to examine what does the term privacy mean to people.

To this end I have come up with three simple questions which I would love for people to answer:

  • What does the word privacy mean to you?
  • What does the word protection mean to you?
  • What does the word security mean to you?

A website will go live where you can submit your answers online shortly and again I have made a simple bookleteer publication which you can use to write your answers in and submit.

I would also like to record as many of you answering the questions as possible. The recordings would form the basis of an installation that I am developing around the concept of Numbers Stations.

If you would like to be recorded answering these questions or holding forth on the topic of privacy for as long as you like (the questions are just prompts, if you have some other way of framing the response then you are free to do that). Then please let me know and we will arrange a meeting to record your answers.

Email me at mark@geekyoto.com

imagining preferable futures