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“Real artists ship”

It’s been a big week hereabouts. In particular, two pieces of Do projects news to share with you:

– As you probably know, Nurri and I have been running Systems/Layers “walkshops” under the Do aegis for the last year or so, in cities from 65°N to 41°S.

As we define it, anyway, a walkshop is an activity in which anywhere up to about twenty people take a slow and considered walk through the city together, carefully examining the urban fabric and the things embedded in it, and then sharing their insights with one another and the wider world. (Obviously, you could do a walkshop on any particular urbanist topic that interested you, but we’ve focused ours on looking at the ways in which networked information-processing systems increasingly condition the mretropolitan experience.)

We’ve gotten a huge kick out of doing the Systems/Layers walks, but the simple truth is that there are so many competing claims on our time and energy that we can’t dedicate ourselves to running them full-time. We’ve also been encouraged by the result of our first experiment in open-sourcing the idea, the Systems/Layers event Mayo Nissen held in Copenhagen last June.

So when Giles Lane at Proboscis asked us if we’d consider contributing to his Transformations series, we knew right away just what we’d do. We decided to put together a quick guide to DIY walkshops, something to cover the basics of organizing, promoting and executing an event.

Last Monday, with Giles’s patient support, this idea came to fruition in the launch of Do 1101, Systems/Layers: How to run a walkshop on networked urbanism as a Diffusion eBook pamphlet. As with most things we offer, the pamphlet is released to you under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license, so we expect that some of you will want to get in there and repurpose the content in other contexts.

We’ll most likely be rereleasing the Systems/Layers material our ownselves in the near future, in an extended dance mix that includes more detail, more structure, and more of Nurri’s pictures. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the pamphlet, and let us know about the uses to which you put it.

– This week also saw the release of Do 1102, Nurri’s Safety Maps, a project which would have been unimaginable without the expert guidance and hard work of Tom Carden and Mike Migurski.

Safety Maps is a free online tool that helps you plan for emergency situations. You can use it to choose a safe meeting place, print a customized map that specifies where it is, and share this map with your loved ones. (As it says on the site, the best way to understand how it works is simply to get started making a Safety Map of your own.)

It’s been a delicate thing to build. Given the entire framing of the site, it and the maps it produces absolutely have to work in their stated role: coordinating the action of couples, households and other small groups under the most trying of circumstances, when communications and other infrastructures may simply be unavailable. They have to do so without implying that a particular location is in fact safer than any other under a given set of conditions, or would remain accessible in the event of disaster. And they have to do so legibly, clearly, and straightforwardly.

These are utilitarian preparedness/resilience considerations, and they’re eminently appropriate. But in the end, the site springs from a different set of concerns: in Nurri’s original conception, the primary purpose of these artifacts is to prompt us to think about the people we love and the utter and harrowing contingency of the circumstances that allow us to be together. We obviously hope people find Safety Maps useful in challenging moments, but we imagine that we’d hear about this either way — whereas it’s difficult, if not impossible, for us to ever know if the site works in the way she intended it to.

Even though it was an accident of timing, Nurri also had some questions about releasing Safety Maps so soon on the heels of the Sendai earthquake/tsunami; she didn’t want us to appear to be opportunists reaping ghoulish benefit from the suffering of others. I think it was the right decision, though: sadly, there are in truth precious few windows between natural or manmade catastrophes of one sort or another. And there may be no more productive time for a tool like this than a moment in which disaster is in the news and fresh on a lot of people’s minds.

From my perspective, there’s been one other notable feature of the journey Safety Maps has taken from conception to release: but for an inversion of name, emphasis and colorway (from “Emergency Maps” in red to what you see at present), the site looks, feels and works almost identically to the vision Nurri described to me in Helsinki in October of 2009. In my experience, this almost never happens in the development of a website, and it’s a tribute both to the clarity and comprehensiveness of her original idea, and to Tom and Mike’s resourcefulness and craftsmanship.

I’m also quite fond of the thoughtful little details they’ve built into every layer of the experience, right down to the animated GIFs on the mail you get when you send someone a map. It’s just a lovely thing, and I’m terribly proud to have had even a tiny role in helping Nurri, Tom and Mike build it. Our thanks, also, to Cloudmade and the entire community of Open Street Map contributors, without whom Safety Maps would have remained nothing more than a notion.

Flowers for cyberpunk

A few years ago, when I was speaking at my first gig in France, a friend introduced me as “a genuine cyberpunk.” I don’t mind telling you I was a little taken aback: (a), Chairman Bruce deserves the tag more than I ever will, or could, and (b) I’ve always thought of that word as a descriptor of literary genre, not of people. Maybe it’s different in Europe.

What I will not deny, though, is that the genre which appropriately does bear that name was probably the major formative influence of my adolescence, and my discovery of it while it yet hovered more or less on the margins of popular culture one of only two junctures in my life that I truly felt myself to be close to the epicenter of a Moment. Finding stories like “New Rose Hotel” in my sister’s copies of Omni — devouring them with by flashlight, under my bed, as if they were some species of pornography — then stumbling onto that first Ace Special Edition of Neuromancer at sixteen: these were inflections I experienced physically.

I mean it. Reading these stories consistently and reliably generated in me a precise somatic sensation. It felt like this: like someone had clamped strong hands on my shoulders, forcefully pivoted me forty-five degrees to the left, then planted a solid kick in my ass. My heart would start to hammer. I’d have to get up, go out and do something, anything, just to burn off energy and ease my way down from maximum jouissance. Every new, outré detail — the assassin with a monomolecular whip secreted in a false thumbtip, the smackhead dolphin abandoned by the government that had recruited him, the death-by-pheromoned-cloud-of-smothering-butterflies — set off a fresh detonation of glee.

There were more intellectual pleasures, too. One of the things cyberpunk was relatively good at was suggesting the political economy of the future, the institutional structure that would characterize the way we lived there. Genre authors delighted in attending to details like “Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority” and the “Mare Tranquillitatis People’s Circumlunar Zaibatsu,” and I as a reader delighted in their cleverness and perspicacity. My imagination could churn all day on everything so densely implied by a line like: “His right bicep was tattooed with a geodesic balloon above crossed lightning bolts and bore the legend SUNSPARK 15, UTAH.”

It worked (and I’m only something like the eighteen millionth person to have pointed this out) because it was still recognizably an exaggeration for effect, the Reagan/Thatcher/Nakasone Eighties in a funhouse mirror. No wonder contemporary sf, by contrast, tends to leave me so cold: it’s hard to top the details of a world that’s seen all of this come to pass.

I thought of this the other day when I passed an artifact that seemed to sum up most of cyberpunk’s formal concerns. It was nothing more than a graffiti’d shipping container piled in a maintenance yard, but it:

– represented the fruit of a deeply digitized military-logistic material culture;
– still bore the marks of its native China;
– and, layered atop them, bore the blazons of street identity.

It struck me as occupying an amazing position in material-semantic possibility space, the polemical-made-real. Running past it was something like listening to a digital file of Brazilian speedmetal, or having a woman you meet at a party nonchalantly introducing you to her wife, in that everyday life seemed to have more or less effortlessly remolded itself around tropes which once, and not so very long ago, dripped with futurity.

And a world filled with such objects is in some way almost beyond commentary, or critique. Maybe this is why William Gibson’s own last few books, delightful as they remain — the brand-new Zero History being the most recent case in point — read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know, capering through places, scenes and contexts we know all too well. It’s competently constructed entertainment, resonant enough of our moment, and is amusing as something to play the roman-à-clef game with. But it’s not (and cannot be?) revelatory. I’m having a hard time imagining anyone having their ass kicked by Zero History the way mine was by Neuromancer.

As for the earlier work, I can’t for the life of me imagine what a contemporary reader confronting it for the first time would make of it. Any possibility of getting a frisson or lift off of that material would seem to be undermined by the fact that so much of it was first rendered into genre cliché, in the hands of much less capable writers, and then had the bad manners to come true. (Believe me, there was not a single hip thing about the Giger-themed bar in Shirokanedai, even before it went out of business.)

More broadly, I’m having trouble even coming up with any cultural artifact capable of generating that kind of shock’n’awe rewrite of the world. For me, for anyone. And that’s too bad.

Learning by Doing, redux

Sasha Huber with Do 0901, "Tokyo Blues"

I know I posted a brief piece about it when we first launched, but I’ve been meaning to get back to a fuller account of my work with Nurri on Do projects — what it is, what we want to achieve with it, where we want to take it, and what’s in it for you.

We first conceived of Do as a publishing platform, an attempt to reckon with what passionate-amateur production of visual and textual materials looks like in an age when such amateurs have access to professional-grade tools and distribution networks. Our desire to get our hands dirty grows out two parallel sets of frustrations: Nurri’s with the art world, and my own with publishing.

Hers is rooted in a fundamental problem with the notion of art object (and aesthetic experience) as commodity, and her longstanding desire to do something about the practical and social barriers that keep art an elite activity. There’s more to it than that, but I don’t want to put words in her mouth.

Mine has to do with my utter (and perhaps somewhat naïve) shock at how little my former publishers New Riders cared about my book as an object, from typography and graphic design to paper stock, and how little effort they were prepared to dedicate to marketing the book once published.

I’ve told this story before, of course. But even that piece doesn’t express fully how galling it was for me to give up control of the thing I’d created to an organization less competent, in the final analysis, than I was my untrained self. That Nurri and I, in our own clumsy and untutored way, could come up with something more appealing than the design I was essentially paying my publisher to execute on my behalf was a real wake-up call.

And that got us thinking about the space between. We’d seen what commercial publication all too often resulted in. At the other end of the spectrum, we knew people like Meejin Yoon and Craig Mod: genuinely talented, possessed of the right kind of eye, confident with materials and capable of producing gorgeous printed objects. We were acutely aware that we lacked these qualities, but we also had a certain faith that even our own limited talents could result in worthwhile results — and never once doubted that the content we were thinking of deserved aesthetically pleasant physical instantiation. Was there room for maneuver in between these two poles?

Do is how we intend to find out. As we explained it when we launched in December, some of our ambitions are to:

– develop words and images that make the people who encounter them re-see themselves and the world around them;
– find the most appropriate containers for our ideas;
– craft the kind of books that please their readers in the details of their conception, design and construction as much as in the things they say;
– and figure out what “do-it-yourself” might mean in an age when new production technologies, informational and logistical networks give the independent amateur producer unprecedented power to reach out and make things happen.

With Tokyo Blues, our very first release, we feel like we’ve already travelled some way toward answering those questions; true to our beliefs (and as will be the case with every Do project), in addition to offering the physical book for sale, we’ve made a full PDF version available for free download. As I’ve said before, you buy the book if you want the object; the ideas are free.

And that book itself? It’s as good as we currently know how to make it, the best quality we could practically achieve while still offering it at a reasonable, accessible price. The unexpected gift is that we’ve been able to use the momentum built up in seeing Tokyo Blues through from concept to shipped product to drive other efforts. As I’ve frequently had cause to say these last few months, there’s a reason they call it “fulfillment.”

We’re also beginning to feel our way toward using Do as a platform for other things, a vehicle for collective efforts beyond publishing. Some of these things will be events, like the Systems/Layers “walkshops” we kicked off in Wellington, and had such a blast doing; others may involve the creation of objects or spaces.

Whatever we wind up creating, though, will be inherently networked, in a deep sense of that word. Organizationally and practically, we’ve tried to imagine Do as a weave tight enough to enable effective execution, yet open enough to capture unexpected influences and energies beyond those we generate ourselves. There’s a block of copy we’ve been using in the datasheet we include with every release that speaks to this: “For the realization of this project, Do consisted of…”. Another way of saying this is that beyond the core of Nurri and I, the organization itself grows and shrinks with every new project, trying to find the size and shape most appropriate to the challenge presented by each particular undertaking.

And that means that as we imagine it, anyone reading this is a potential Do member/co-conspirator. We have a roster of things already planned for the balance of 2010 — a project called Emergency Maps, my own long-delayed book — but beyond that we want to hear from our friends as to what kinds of things they’d like to see us doing, including your own project proposals. At the heart of our conception of Do is the idea that the “company” exists to facilitate extension, inspiration and execution, and gets more capable as it makes new connections. Think of it as something to plug into, and let’s see what we can do together.

On Immaterials

I’m assuming you’ve already seen Immaterials: The ghost in the field – the magnificent new film from Timo Arnall and BERG’s Jack Schulze, in which they make visible the ordinarily imperceptible fields around RFID devices. (If you haven’t, click this link immediately; I’ll wait for you to get back.)

Anyway, Timo and Jack are putting together a Newspaper Club publication around the film, and asked me to contribute a “brief” essay. As usual, I’m afraid I’ve gone on a bit long, but I hope they’ll be able to use this anyway. And for whatever it’s worth, you get to read it…right now.

Since its 2006 publication, I’ve given perhaps a hundred talks in various places around the world expanding on the themes of my book Everyware, talks dedicated to exploring the quality of everyday life in a world of ubiquitous computing. As I see it, the essence of what we can expect from this set of circumstances is a way of interacting with the technology around us I describe as “information processing dissolving in behavior.”

In my talks, to illustrate this rather arcane idea, I very often tell the story of something I saw in Hong Kong almost ten years ago now: young women moving briskly through the turnstiles of the MTR subway system, swinging their handbags in the air with an all-but-balletic grace as they did so.

What were they doing? They were using Hong Kong’s RFID-equipped Octopus farecards brilliantly and intuitively, but in a way that system’s architects had never foreseen.

The designers of the Octopus system most likely imagined that people would use their cards in the conventional manner – by tapping the card neatly against a turnstile-mounted reader. At some point soon after the system’s introduction, however, one or another canny passenger obviously figured out that they didn’t have to do this: because the reader was powerful enough to acquire and read an antenna tens of centimeters away, even through layers of fabric, they could leave the card wherever it was most convenient for them, and never have to fish it out at all.

The result wasn’t merely the elegant gesture I’d seen enacted time and again. Because the elaborate interaction between card and turnstile, turnstile and database, database and barrier had been compressed into the third of a second it might take someone to swing their handbag through a reader field, each one of the women I’d seen was able to move through the process of fare collection and into the subway without breaking her normal walking pace. And this, in turn, markedly improved the number of passengers the station could accommodate in a given period of time, what traffic-analysis engineers call “throughput.”

Things got even more interesting when I gave this talk in Tokyo a year or so later. During the Q&A, someone in the audience pointed out that one of that city’s major public transit systems, JR East, also offered its customers an RFID-based smartcard, called Suica…and yet he’d never seen women in Tokyo making the handbag gesture I’d described. And he asked the obvious question: Why not?

I had to confess that I didn’t know. As it turned out, though, someone in the audience that day did. As she explained it, the designers of the Suica system, acting out of concern over the long-term health implications of radio-frequency fields for human users, had deliberately lowered the power of their readers, and therefore abbreviated their system’s range. No range, no handbag ballet, no enhanced station throughput.

And here we get to the crux of the issue: in both Hong Kong and Tokyo, the consequences of decisions made by engineers about the properties of a technical system cascaded upward not merely to the level at which they could afford or constrain individual behavior, but that at which they affected the macro-level performance of the entire subway system…and maybe even the community’s long-term well-being.

The primary trouble with this, from my point of view, is that in both cases, the tradeoffs involved remained opaque to by far the vast majority of the people implicated by them. Perhaps Hong Kong’s subway riders would have had similarly pressing concerns about health and safety; perhaps Tokyo’s would have been willing to accept some level of risk in exchange for more efficient commutes.

The point is, we’ll never know. Unless you understand a little bit about what RFID is and how it works, you have no way of assessing how a system built on the technology is designed, and whether you wish to accept or reject the propositions embedded in it. And this is just as true for all of the other imperceptible technologies we are increasingly exposed to.

This is why I believe the work that Timo Arnall and Jack Schulze and their colleagues are doing is so very important. By depicting the ghostly traces of invisible radio fields so elegantly, they help engineers, designers and system architects to understand the particularity of their materials, even as they help us ordinary users grasp just what’s going on in these magical-seeming transactions.

Among other things, what this means is that design is finally able to take these devices seriously, phenomenologically. Rather than asserting “an RFID” as some eternal given, something that will produce the same linear, determinate effect each and every time it is deployed, Immaterials reminds us that the choice of material, shape, size, direction, orientation and power rating of the components involved have distinct consequences for the uses to which those components can be put. And as we’ve seen, these choices can produce effects on levels seemingly entirely removed from the interaction itself.

In a recent piece for Wired UK, I argued that the pre-eminent need in the networked city would be for translators: “people capable of opening these occult systems up, demystifying them, explaining their implications to the people whose neighborhoods and choices and very lives are increasingly conditioned by them.” Timo and Jack are among the very first to take up this challenge, and that they’ve done so so artfully and with such sensitivity sets a very high standard for all those who would follow.

New nurri.com/Feeder opening on October 8th

Briefest of notes to put out the word that Nurri’s updated her website to feature recent work, including a very partial selection of pieces from her mammoth Feeder project. This is also the perfect excuse to mention her solo show of Feeder at Helsinki’s Hippolyte gallery, running October 9th through November 1st.

There’ll be an opening at Hippolyte on October 8th, 2009, from 17.00-19.00, featuring the usual cheap chablis in plastic cups and little cubes of cheddar cheese on toothpicks. I wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world, and I sure hope to see you there. (One or two lucky attendees might even get selected to be the next recipients of the Feeder lunch boxes!)

Elastic Mind: Here’s A Bunch Of Really Cool Stuff

Last week was without question the week of Design and the Elastic Mind in my personal universe. With not merely multiple friends but multiple sets of friends and co-conspirators represented in it, a constellation of related events dominated my social life every bit as much as the content of the show occupied my thoughts.

It’s that content that I want to say a few words about, now that I’ve had a few days to digest it. I will certainly need to go back and see the show at some quieter time, or times, in order to render a fairer and more lasting judgment, but I did want to get these thoughts out before that initial impression fades.

Here’s the thing: curatorially, “Design” is a mess. Overly ambitious, overreaching, it tries to shoehorn too many entirely unrelated phenomena into one proposition, while at the same time failing to draw at least some of the really interesting connections that should have been made. (This is me all over the place, so YMM certainly V, but I was particularly disappointed that the show didn’t connect the dots between Aranda/Lasch’s awesome generative-algorithm piece Rules of Six and Tomás Gabzdil Libertiny’s equally beautiful, made-entirely-by-bees Honeycomb Vase.)

Many of the more conceptual pieces – and here I’m thinking particularly of Noam Toran’s and Dunne & Raby’s – need a good deal more explication, at least if visitors outside the particular social/intellectual fold in which these artifacts were produced are not to take them at face value, which is something I overheard happening. The show’s Web site is all but useless, and the attempt at information-design graphics bizarre and ineffectual. (What was up with all those weird little illegible “scale” icons?) Honestly, I would have had much, much more respect for Paola Antonelli and MoMA had they merely called their show “Here’s A Bunch Of Really Cool Stuff,” and left it at that.

However. All that said, it’s a great show. It’s great because these are exactly the ideas and materials and practices and strategies that I’d want an authoritative institution like MoMA presenting to its audience at this point in history. It’s great because it doesn’t need to be coherent to be important. It’s great because you can never say “selective laser sintering” too many times. Never least, it’s great because of the sheer and considerable beauty of so many of the artifacts on view.

I mean, of course I’m biased, but Stamen’s Cabspotting in the new, bespoke colorway produced for the show? Stunning – but not more stunning than Joris Laarman’s Bone Chair, Rules of Six, or Brad Paley’s TextArc.

So, if you can unpack the actual projects on display from the relatively unconvincing rhetoric surrounding them – and fortunately, this is not difficult – you will have a wonderful time at “Design and the Elastic Mind.” You will definitely see minds being blown and fun being had, simultaneously, which is a neat trick for any cultural institution to pull off, and especially one so set in its tracks as MoMA. There is of course always abundant reason to be depressed about the state of the world, but in some of the specific strategies, philosophies and processes on view here there’s also just enough support for reasoned hope. Experienced in the presence of others’ (occasionally perplexed, but genuine) delight, if the prospect of that hope doesn’t get you out to MoMA to check this show out, then nothing will.

Elastic in February

Do yourself a favor and get on over to MoMA for their new show, “Design and the Elastic Mind,” featuring our friends Anab Jain and Stamen. It sounds and looks like a damn good time, though having missed our first window to see it before the crowds descend, we won’t be able to verify in field for another day yet.

At any rate, Ouroussoff raves like he’s possessed by the shade of Herbert M. So clearly there’s something going on over there. See you on 53rd.

Reminder: Newcity, New Museum, Friday

Please do come join us for Nextcity: The Art of the Possible, the evening of discussion and exploration I’m putting together at the New Museum this Friday.

We’re kicking off at nineteen-hundred, and it’ll be history by 21.00 – short sharp and sweet. Drinks after at a location TBD. See you soon!

Renzo, Renzo, Renzo…

I’m just back from a visit with Michael Young’s superbright R&D team over at the New York Times, and it was a total treat.

Michael and Nick Bilton demo’d Shifd for me, the application which took top honors at the London Hack Day that Mr. Coates organized (/”organised”). Shifd is one of those ideas so transcendently clever you immediately see how it would fit into your life: it basically allows you to transfer content from your desktop machine to your mobile device and back again, delivering it via the most appropriate channel. It’s actually easier to use than it is to explain, and I have to tell you, I could have used it today. Among all the other cool things they’re working on, this is one project I definitely hope they get the budget to scale up properly.

It was a thoroughgoing pleasure meeting Michael and Nick and their teammates Alexis Lloyd and Amy Hyde, but you just know I was geeking out about the building, too – about its birch-tree-and-moss atrium, about the hushed and almost reverential four-storey newsroom, about its much-hyped adaptive environmental-management systems, and especially about Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin’s brilliant installation Moveable Type.

Hansen and Rubin’s piece is really quite, quite good. It uses a loop of cleverly-posed algorithms to pull snippets of content from the enormous Times database, then displays them one-by-one on a corridor of old-fashioned monitor screens. Sometimes the rule specifies content including numbers, so you get a wash of factoids and statistics, most of them vaguely but perhaps unsurprisingly bleak; at others, the piece will cull its texts from sentences starting with “I” or “You,” or even letters to the editor.

Now, there are a lot of pieces like this one, generically. You’ll find something along similar lines just about anywhere a news, search or intelligence organization has a high-profile, public-facing lobby. But Moveable Type succeeds where every installation of its ilk I’ve encountered fails: it got me thinking about just what “news” is, about what kinds of symbols we use to quantify, represent and understand the world we’re immersed in, about how truly rare is the “difference that makes a difference.” Your first reaction to Moveable Type is glee, but it gets pretty heady if you pause to think about it for even a moment or two – and it’s worth pointing out that a lot of this power seems to derive from note-perfect interaction design, especially in the registers of sound design and typography.

Y’all New Yorkers and sundry visitors should go see it now, though, because something tells me that the whole area may be cordoned off before too long: Renzo Piano’s vaunted building, it turns out, sheds ice like a five-star mofo. We sat in the comfortable cafeteria, watching chunks of ice half the size of plateglass windows sail down to their shardy doom on the street below, and all that kept running through my head was the single word liability.

Apparently, the entire block surrounding had to be shut this morning. You just can’t do that in that part of town whenever it snows – for chrissakes, that’s Port Authority! I predict lawsuits, recriminations, heartbreaking spin-off effects (like real-estate developers and their pet architects retreating still further into conservatism), but most of all, stopgap buffer zones being thrown up around the shaft anytime the temperature drops below 35.

At any rate: thanks to Michael for the invitation, double thanks to Younghee for the introduction, congratulations to the Shifd team on your Hack Day victory and to Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen on your lovely intervention…and Renzo, give me a call if you need a good lawyer.

Reminder: The Living City at Van Alen, tonight

That headline just ’bout says it all, but just in case further clarification is needed:

Come see David Benjamin and Soo-In Yang of The Living demonstrate their Living City project, tonight from 18.30 at the Van Alen Institute, 30 W 22nd betw. 5th & 6th.

Living City is, of course, featured in my and Mark Shepard’s Situated Technologies pamphlet Urban Computing and its Discontents, and I think Soo-In and David are among the clearest-thinking people I know. I look forward to seeing you at this evening’s event.