Past and future things: future first. I’m coming to the UK again in April, presenting a paper at CAL 2011 on a framework for analysing mobile learning activities: snappy title is “Topological, Semiotic and Rhetorical Scapes: A Framework for Analysing Mobile Learning Experiences”. Looking forward to seeing Manchester again, it’s been years, and I’ll be stopping off in Bristol and London either side.
And last month I spoke at a couple of events in Beijing, with X|Media|Lab, at the China Science and Technology Museum, where I talked about using narrative and our hardwired cognitive habits to create immersion (with examples from Slingshot and Theatre Sandbox), and at the Beijing Association for Science and Technology, on mobile science games. Beijing is huge, China is exciting, and I’m really interested in seeing what people do with games and learning there.
I mailed Andy with some thoughts about what we could talk about, and I’m going to put them here as well, in case we don’t get round to them: I think some of them are things I’d like to follow up.
So, I’ve been thinking about what history and futures studies have in common, and what makes them different, and it seems to me that in each case there’s a kind of common-sense assumption about the discipline (if that’s not too grand a word for futures studies) and the way it works that might not be how it seems to those who try and practise it.
For example, a common-sense view of history might be: things actually happened a certain way in the past, and the historian’s job is to find out what that was as accurately as possible. But actually, my sense is that historians are very finely attuned to the idea that there as many pasts as there are historians, and each age’s view of what happened before it says as much about the dominant ideas of the time as it says about previous events.
Similarly, a common-sense view of the practice of looking at the future might hold that things will turn out a certain way and no other, and that if we know enough about present circumstances we can say confidently what that might be. But actually, most respectable futures practitioners would say that dominant ideas about the what the future might be say more about the attitudes and assumptions of the age in which they emerged than about the way things might be in the future, and that it’s more useful to consider a range of possible alternative futures.
So there’s something both have in common, perhaps – trying to counter dominant popular ideas about what each discipline is for – and a difference – futures studies might focus more on examining alternatives.
Or perhaps another talking point could be around the way time is represented in each. I don’t know very much about how historians discuss the representation of time, but from the perspective of someone trying to talk usefully about the future it’s been fascinating to see the ways different models of how time works shape conversations about the future (sometimes ‘the future’ is waiting for us, presumably having started at the other end of time’s arrow and travelled backwards to meet us; at others, it never arrives, being perpetually deferred to be invoked as a call to action in the present).
Ethics might be another interesting area of discussion: how far ought we, as people who talk about people who for various reasons are not with us at the present moment, whether because they’re dead or not yet born, to extend the respect we show living people to people of the past or the future? If rights to privacy, respect, understanding and so on are universal, shouldn’t they be extended through time? But is there a difference in the degree to which they’re entitled to such rights between people who have lived and people have yet to live?
Another useful area to think about might be to consider what each discipline offers to society: what use is it to talk about the past or the future? Are there different arguments for each, or are there general arguments to do with enlarging our understanding of the way in which people and societies work that support both?
We could move from that into thinking about the ways each act as a force of authority within society: the weight carried by ‘tradition’, the effect of ‘government forecasts’, the self-fulfilling prophecies of science-fiction and the ways historical dramas rewrite and refine national identities.
There’s maybe something to be said about the balance between detail and timescale, the ways in which it’s harder perhaps to be detailed the further one moves from the present (until you get far enough away to say what you like). Or a discussion about the way each generation thinks it’s the first to have ever lived in the present (those beforehand must have known they lived in history, and the ones after us must surely know that they live in the future). Or maybe just a recognition that both of them are attempts to answer questions that lie at the heart of trying to understand our place in the world: asking “what happened? What will happen?” is a fundamentally human thing to do.
Let me know how appealing any of these conversations are, or what alternatives we could consider. We could do worse, I suppose, by just telling each other what we do all day. I’d love to know more about your
So there we are – that’s what we’ll talking about, I hope, for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon. Come along!
Right now I’ve just booked a place in the airport car park (am off to the coast near Málaga for a few days) and I’m transferring Tito Paris to my phone for the flight. One bid for something interesting to get off in the morning, and I’m done for this week. And when I get back I should talk about some of these things in a bit more detail.
I’ll probably start with the Ghosts of Birthdays Present, though. If you’re in Bristol over the next couple of weeks and fancy helping out some of those marooned in the hereafter, let me know in the comments.
On Sunday I got myself down to the Arnolfini for Interesting Sounds, an event that grew out of Russell Davies’Interesting events. I couldn’t stay for the whole day, unfortunately, but what I saw was fantastic. Adam Harding showed us his reconfigured guitar, moving the essential parts into a rectangular board that can be played like a dulcimer: the distancing effect of changing the relationship between player and instrument suited his delicate abstractions. Jon Pigott showed us the Sonic Marble Run (see video below).
Grace showed us a video of the Dynion Dance Group dancing on Swansea’s Sail Bridge, choreographed by Paul Granjon. Matthew Olden demoed the latest version of Jungulator. Allen Argent showed us more MaxMSP madness, with a set of patches enabling collaboration and control across networks (my favourite was Netverb, which added reverberation effects computed from the shape of the network: echoes from a virtual room whose walls are made out of TCP/IP packets). We saw John Wild’s Sounds from the Perimeter Fence, recontextualising the site of the Olympics: gorgeous, bleak sounds, as you can see below.
I talked a little bit about an idea I had for making it nicer to be outside in cities:
- it’s all a bit jumbled at the moment, but I’d like to try making an antibeep and see if it works. I tried to make one using two Buddha machines, but it didn’t really work.
And then I just had time to see David Hanford’s Sound Chair (a thirties chair with speakers in the back and base and controls on the arm like a supervillain, intended for the subsonics produced from the beats of two analogue oscillators) and Tom Bugs demoing his analogue intricacies, it was lunchtime and time for me to go home.
Spent most of yesterday in Bloomsbury at Africa Gathering, an event that brought together a bunch of technologists and people interested in development issues for a talk about useful tools for supporting grassroots development in Africa. It’s not a field I know anything about, and it was refreshing to encounter the “ICT4D community” and their agenda. There were a lot of political and cultural undercurrents, as you might expect, giving rise to excessive efforts on the part of some to distance themselves from any taint of colonialist thinking, and being missed completely by others who seemed less alive to the complexities that were constantly on the edge of the discussion than they might have been. Colour, age, gender, class: none of these were present in the ways I might have expected them to be, though all of them seemed to shape everything I heard.
But maybe I’ve been spending too much time with social scientists. Most people on stage were technologists to varying degrees, making a nice change from the events I’ve been to recently. I can’t possibly hope to capture everything I heard, but here comes a short rundown of who I heard speak
Tim Unwin opened the day as a well-recognised figure within the ICT4D community there, and certainly gave the day an appropriately gravitas-filled thumbs-up. “Africa can’t afford for us to make any more mistakes” and “Exciting things happen at the edges” were two ideas that permeated the rest of the day. Tim was followed by David Hollow, giving an overview of his time spent introducing XO laptops to schools in Ethiopa for the Ethiopian Engineering Capacity Building Programme as part of the OLPC project. It was fascinating and a great contribution to the day, though I was most struck by the fact that the problems he described were the same you might find with a similar project and attitude in the UK. That’s not a criticism. It’s encouraging that there are lessons we’ve learned within the UK around ICT and education that we could share with him and similar projects.
Nkeiru Joe from the International Law Department at the Virije Universiteiit in Brussels underlined the place of the sea in cross-border relations and the crucial role played by international agreements in regulating its use (not least in ensuring the security of telecommunications infrastructure): the relationship between the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the use of ICTs in suppporting develoment was a wonderfully lateral step for most people there I think: certainly for me. Ken Banks gave an inspiring overview of Frontline SMS, free software that turns a laptop and a mobile phone into a communications hub: his talk was pretty much just a list of fantastic stories of the huge, life-saving difference access to simple comunications technology can make through gathering and sharing data and information in remote communities. When you’ve got something like that to share there’s no need for anything fancy (though being as engaging and funny as Ken can’t hurt) and I found the whole thing quite moving, to be honest.
Nigel Waller from Movirtu talked us through the challenges involved trying to give mobile access to the 3.5 billion who earn less than $2 a day.That’s not enough to be able to afford a SIM or handset, or to access all of the mobile services that might help raise their standard of living. In an inspired move, he and his partners have managed to find a way to give people a phone number – an identity – without their needing their own handset or SIM: people buy an M-KADI card with a number and a PIN, which they can use on other phones. Put like that it sounds quite straightforward, but of course there’s a lot of technical heavy lifting going on behind the scenes.
Sian Townsend from Google gave us an overview of user-experience research and described their general work in East Africa (specifics were blocked by their PR department, which went down badly but really I think is just another example of how hard it is for large organisations to move as quickly as smaller networks). Searching by voice and SMS seemed to find a ready stream of people trusting Google (or the mobile operator Google partnered with) with their questions on health and relationships. She mentioned google.org, which seemed to be news for a lot of people there, surprisingly.
Nick Short, of VetAid, rejected the “new colonialism” of Western-focussed helpful ideas in favour of understanding realities on the ground: his team hoped to understand these better through GPS-enabled phones provding contextualised data on diseases, climate conditions and other crucial aspects of life in Tanzania. I was grateful to him for making the connection between the health of people there and their cattle: considering people within an ecological perspective seems obvious now, but I have to admit to an “of course!” moment when he started talking about the principle of “one health”. He took us from Blomsbury to Tanzania on Google Earth at the start of his talk, which I’d have loved to have seen everyone do. For people like me who haven’t been further south than Morocco it’s easy to slip into thinking of “Africa” as nowhere near the UK: this really helped to counter that. The video of a cat castration on an iPhone was less helpful, to be honest, though I can see how it would be useful in some circumstances.
Lunch was a welcome chance to take a break from absorbing information. I went to the brand-new Planet Organic, where I paid a fortune for a seaweed wrap that was too big to eat without most of it going to the pigeons. After a nice sit-down in a square in the sun, I joined everyone else for the next session, which began with Niall Winters and Kevin Walker from LKL presenting their work with the Village e-Science for Life project, improving agriculture practice and literacy through participatory design.
Alex Petroff left me open-jawed. I must have missed the part where he said who he worked for, or perhaps he was too self-deprecating to put himself forward any more than he had to, but I think he founded Working Villages International. If I’d read that page without seeing him speak I would have written it off as naive and idealistic: having seen him talk and seen the photographs I think the site is probably selling the project a little short. It’s a straightforward story of everyday farming folk in a part of the world devastated by war with no social or economic capital to speak of, who turn things around with the help of a clear-eyed economist with a plan and a calendar, and who now produce biogas from their oxen, mitigate deforestation with solar-powered ovens and grow cabbages the size of small moons. He is an exceptional man, and without his humour and modesty, his clarity of purpose and ability to motivate entire villages to change their way of life would be absolutely terrifying.
Alex was followed by Simon Berry, who shared with us the story behind his Colalife campaign. Realising that Coca-cola could get their drink to places where medicines often didn’t make it that far, he had the astoundingly brilliant idea of using their crates to carry oral rehydration salts and information on preventing deaths from diarrhoea. I just noticed that Coca-Cola confirmed they’ll support trials, which has been a 20-year battle. Go to the site and read his story: it’s a wonderful story.
Martin Konzett from ict4d.at showed us this video. It’s fantastic:
Have a look at their work at wiki.ict4d.at/projects. Martin was followed by Dave Mason, from IntraHealth, who gave us a powerful set of arguments for keeping development work open and for NGOs using open source tools (apparently not common, which surprised me). He’s illustrating the principles behind open source with a remix competition: more details at http://www.intrahealth.org/open/. Go and download something, remix, post it to them and make a donation while you’re there.
And that was all I had time for before my train back to Bristol. It was a fantastic day, thanks to Edward Scotcher, Mark Simpkins and the rest of the (shamefully anonymous) Africa Gathering team. And the contributors, of course, and the audience: the whole day seemed to be a genuine exchange of ideas, passion and practical experience, and I came home inspired with a huge amount to think about. Thank you!