People of purpose

Aside from part-time jobs in a games shop and an apple orchard, I’ve always worked in public and community sectors – so in terms of business savvy, I’m what you might call a babe-in-the-woods. In fact, I have a fairly strong aversion to capitalism because by definition it promotes exploitation (of the earth’s resources and people) and injustice.

However… it’s the system we have, and I am in it, so if I want to make a positive contribution to the world I can’t just hang round on the edges. I must endeavour to use the system against itself. Yeah, it would have been better to have recognised that decades ago.

Ever since I adopted a mission to empower people to sense the connection, I’ve struggled with the business side of the venture – logistically but also… philosophically. (Total woods-babe, see?) So when I heard about the inaugural Purpose do, I was keen to go to see if I couldn’t imbibe a business brain – and philosophical appeasement, to boot – from a crowd of care-ful capitalists.

Seven young women on a stage before a crowd of people. The screen says 'Purpose / #purpose2015' and the staging includes mountains, waves and clouds.

The Purpose crew – the army of volunteers being offstage at this time

And it was good! I have a pathologically low stamina for large-scale events but I felt fine almost all the way through this one. (It wasn’t until I was about to leave the after-party that I lost the power of coherent speech.) I’m not sure what made this conference so easy for me to appreciate. It may have been Wildwon‘s superb, detailed planning (beyond the great program):

  • actually beautiful nametags
  • charming and always accessible volunteer staff
  • music to accompany each new speaker’s approach to the stage
  • perpetual coffee (thanks to this right-on bank) in a reusable gift cup-to-keep)
  • frog and bird calls in the bathrooms
purpose-swag

Swag I actually wanted

Or it may have been Matt Wicking‘s creative audience manipulation:

  • a crowdsourced aural rainstorm
  • metaphorical status updates
  • a two-minute dance party

Or perhaps it was the fact that everyone there was present in part because they care about being a decent human.

As well as enjoying the experience it was a great conference for me in terms of affirming and (the best part) challenging my sense of how the world works. Here are eight lessons I shared over Twitter:

  1. Procurement contracts are a great untapped tool for social change.
  2. Crowdfunding works best where the impact of the work is direct, and its success depends on manyMANY hours of effort.
  3. People don’t want to be weighed down with reason.” They want to *feel good*.
  4. Be 100% yourself.” I think it was the sage who said that.
  5. A bonsai cutting will survive in open ground; but if you replant the whole tree it will die.
  6. In the forced stillness of prison, people learn to perceive anew – to innovate. Take that, .
  7. A gem from : radical trust yields a return that is exponential.
  8. Incentives *contaminate* intrinsic motivations.”

Yep, the speakers were consistently excellent as well. In short, the Purpose do was a beautiful and engrossing cradle for me to grow a little bit, both personally and professionally.

Museums and the playful web – a revolution in sensemaking

Below is a 15-minute slides-and-voice version of my presentation to Museums & the Web Asia in Melbourne on 6 October 2105. And here’s the original, longer paper (300kb PDF).

Production notes

Presented:
- in Keynote via Keynote remote, with its nifty drawing-on-screen 
function

Recorded:
- Quicktime (for images)
- Voice Recorder on iPhone (for audio) – and yeah, the audio is
suboptimal; I considered re-recording it so I sounded less laboured
and boomy, but decided to move on. Forgive me...

Compiled into a movie:
- Images and voice merged in iMovie

Published:
- on YouTube because you can upload notes and it automatically 
matches the words to your voice

My DO dialogue

Last week I drove into the gorgeous (if cold!) Victorian high country to attend the inaugural Australian Do Lectures at the very lovely Payne’s Hut.

OMG interesting people! As well as enjoying the official talks, I was plenty inspired by in-between conversations with non-speaking Do-ers. It was an intense connective experience, quite exhausting but since my homecoming I’ve been thinking about it and planning some action.

The diagram below shows some of the frequencies I tuned into while listening to the talks.

My DO dialogue

Obviously it’s ‘sembly’. By identifying themes that multiple speakers addressed, I’m taking a Sembl approach to thinking and talking about my experience of the lectures. It may be a little cryptic (? do I need to explain it further?) but I hope it conveys a substantial sense of DO goodness.

Dear Wellington, let’s make some babies

Ah, Wellington, where a barista serves coffee to a cashless newcomer with “just pay us later”, op shops have natural-fibre clothes to fit women of long length, and an annual conference exemplifies and amplifies goodness.

I was there primarily to attend the National Digital Forum 2012 and – thrill! – to present on Sembl. It was a wonderful new experience to be on stage early in a conference program – and in a plenary session – because in the breaks, conversations had already started. I didn’t need to perform repeated, monologic self-introductions – and nor did my interlocutors; there was space among the already-started conversation to explore where they were coming from too.

I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that. For me, sustaining social openness for the duration of a multi-day event – which is critical, because that interpersonal flow is the source of the magic – feels strenuous. Anything that makes the flow flow more easily is like a full lung of fresh air.

Wonderfully, NDF is in general very conducive to such flow. The organisers do a brilliant job of creating a space in which good things can happen. There’s a lovely collegial vibe, and plenty of social events for folks that don’t know folks. And if you don’t know the way to a venue, Courtney will draw you a map:

directions to Hooch bar, Wellington, New Zealand

From the Comfort Hotel via the bucket fountain to the Hooch bar

So many interesting conversations… fuelled by such passionate and thoughtful presentations:

Chris McDowall presenting on a large screen his clusters of algorithmically-cropped faces of WWI soldiers

Chris McDowall zooming in on his clusters of algorithmically-cropped faces of WWI soldiers

Sarah Barns presenting Italo Calvino's description of the

Sarah Barns’ augmented city projects are great. I liked her quote of Italo Calvino on the city’s “relationships between the measurements of space and the events of its past”.

Nate Solas presenting a large-screen image of the long tail of cat videos

Nate Solas visualising the long tail of cats: the enduring value of cat videos for web visitors to the Walker Art Center

NDF was beautiful and thrilling; so much care, absolutely cynicism-free.

Despite being fairly spent, I trundled myself off the following day to join in the heady fun of THATCamp Wellington. Which was also awesome – thanks, Donelle and Sydney & co. Tim’s workshop was ‘smashing’ 😉 Also very useful was the session on linked open data; it gave me more clarity about the authority, provenance and reciprocity of said links:

notes on the authority, provenance and reciprocity of linked data

Notes from the discussion of linked data: on authority, provenance and reciprocity

(For those that don’t know, I have a special interest in reciprocal linked data.)

In the breaks, there were plenty more compelling conversations to be enjoyed, including a very useful pointer from musicologist, Francis Yapp, to Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor. I can now appreciate the fugue musically as well as mentally!

But I failed, actually, to put as much energy into THATCamp as I’d have liked. I devoted most of my energy to NDF and then limped through the day that was meant to be all about action.

So as a homage to both NDF and THATCamp, and in lieu of completing a THATCamp evaluation form, I wrote a fantasy for a more integrated and even more flow-y NDF-meets-THATCamp experience, where more of the threads dangling tantalisingly at both forums could be tugged, if you so chose, and twisted and woven into a few amazing new things. I offer these thoughts without expectation, and with hope that whether NDF maintains its current, beautiful form or evolves, we can sustain it as it sustains us.

And dear reader, please know that I have co-opted real people into this fantasy without their knowledge or consent. They may not actually want to do these things. You are all, of course, are welcome to respond with your own ideas, adaptations, augmentations, even refutations.

§

Imagine.

The two-day National Digital Forum is extended to a three-day digital festival culminating in a THATCampy makerspace, with an optional extra post-festival morning of relaxation and celebration. NDF has some practical outcomes, and THATCamp has an inspiring lead-in and opportunity to develop some collective vision.

Day 1 is the plenary, and comprises a couple of keynotes, several short plenary presentations and a bunch of ignite talks. So there’s a whole day where everyone can see everything on offer.

Day 2 is for parallel sessions. There are two streams: one is for preplanned, interactive show-and-tell. The other is for action-planning workshops driven by the wishes of the participants and facilitated by the likes of:

  • Chris McDowall, Mitchell Whitelaw and Tim Wray – beautiful visual browsing
  • Tim Sherratt and Michael Lascarides – really simple RDF, aka beautiful data storytelling
  • Sarah Barns – augmented Te Papa?
  • Aaron Straup Cope – some strangely but simply useful tool or other
  • maybe even Walter Logeman – a Semblified, Jungian, group dream analysis

By the end of Day 2, we have some plans for action the following day.

Day 3 is a makerspace, for making as per the plans from the two days prior, and for documenting the making. Huzzah! And/or you can do one or more preplanned workshops with the likes of:

  • Ponoko
  • someone who can make artisinal QR codes
  • a website-builder
  • someone with social media smarts

The final session is the morning of Day 4. It’s for unwinding and reflecting, and awarding *prizes* for the most effective work.

In amongst it all, there are other options for engaging, such as:

  • a kind of digital maker faire or pop-up museum – an assemblage of digital or digitally-augmented or digitally-designed displays showing everything from Tim’s experiment in richly contextualised HTML to Emily’s Little Slide Dress to an array of Ponoko-printed or lasercut physical objects.
  • as a conversation kickstarter, an array of named faces of all the delegates, where each face is a link to a short video of that person introducing themselves and their particular passions for digital work. (The point here is to give any delegate that wants it a voice, including those not on the program to speak. For speakers it could be a channel for an alternative abstract, and for everyone it’s an aide mémoire, a way to name-check those who you really should remember but can’t because your brain is so full right now.)
  • some spare screens anyone can use to load up a site as it emerges in conversation
  • an excursion to a nearby art museum likely to be ‘doing good shit’
  • a game of Sembl – either using Te Papa exhibits or the faces of delegates as nodes

And there is yoga or Shiva dancing or cartwheeling – Jiu-jitsu or otherwise. We need to involve our bodies in our thinking!

As a whole, the experience would be expansive – as it is – but also active, directed by a collective vision, resolute, convergent. Our collective energy could manifest in physical–digital form.

Another way of saying all this might be: let’s make some *babies* with all this love 🙂

Modelling digital work

As patron for the Go Girl expo for girls in Years 8 to 11, Tammy Butow is compiling a video to present at the event. Her plan is to open girls’ minds to the field of possibility of technology-related careers. To that end, she has invited Australian women working in technology to send in a photo of themselves holding a sign with their name and job title.

I had a go at making an off-the-cuff photo at home but the result was underwhelming and contextually wrong. Off-the-cuff is just not my MO. Then I recalled a 10-second video I made recently at the entrance to the National Museum of Australia (my workplace).

Woman at the entrance to the National Museum of Australia

Rather than return to the Museum at the end of the day when the lighting is nice like this, and stand there like a dill holding a sign…

I turned to Photoshop 🙂

Cath Styles at the entrance to the National Museum of Australia, with a sign Photoshopped into her hand

I love how even if you don’t notice that the paper looks weird, you can see from the shadow that the sign is not really there. So there you go, girls – I am modelling digital work in more ways than one 🙂

Create[d] World

A few thoughts from the recent Create World conference of clever, creative people.

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Panel on place and creativity – how does digital alter the way we think?

Architect Richard Kirk made the point that perspective drawing as a tool is only a few hundred years old, so we are yet to reap the full benefits of new additions to our creative lexicon, such as virtual worlds. Performance designer Anna Tregloan commented that some people can quite naturally translate a 2D image to imagine it in 3D space, but for others that will always be more difficult, so the theatre tradition of building a little model of the set may endure. Continuing the theme of how we translate human experiences into digital form, and whether we can learn to think in a hybrid way between digital and physical, creative innovator (?!) Hael Kobayashi described the process of making penguins dance for Happy Feet. Humans danced in a warehouse, each one wired for motion capture. A set of screens displayed the merger of their movements with the digital penguins, so the director and key creatives could see, in real-time, penguins dancing on an iceberg.

Keynotes on photography, animation and the active audience

Tom Ang‘s keynote was an entertaining blend of a romp through the history of photography, some behind-the-lens information about particular shots, and some philosophical observations about value and power in photography’s new world:

  • Photoshop has programmed us!
  • Boundaries of what is shareable have shifted.
  • The concept of the ‘still image’ is now a misnomer: they fade, zoom, slide – and fast. And the more abundant they become, the less we attend to each.
  • Because images are so abundant, there are no longer iconic images of world events. (I’m not convinced of this point. The process by which images become iconic has changed, but I reckon crowd wisdom will choose images over time. Note, for example, the twitter #ows discussion of iconic imagery, and the meme of the cop casually pepper-spraying seated protesters.)

Ian Taylor’s story of the success of Animation Research Ltd – and his team’s down-home methods – was awe-inspiring. But my strongest takeaway from his talk was the importance of taking your time to learn – ergo the immense value of free education. Which we no longer have.

As a longtime advocate for participatory approaches to cultural representations, I was very interested in Ernest Edmonds‘ talk on art and the active audience. My favourite parts:

  • Some early research found that babies less than one week old can learn – by controlling the turn of their head on the pillow – to switch a light on and off, and that once mastered, they become bored with it.
  • Our vocabulary for interaction is developing. For example, there are many different kinds of play: danger, competition, camaraderie, subversion, fantasy, sensation, captivation, difficulty, simulation. And so on!
  • Don’t assume that more is better. Performance and communication might be better with lower bandwidth. This is an intriguing point, and I wanted more from him on this. I wonder if he means, for example, that in some cases audio works better than video,   because it gets inside your head but doesn’t restrict your visual attention. Or that pixelated imagery like in Minecraft, works in part because it’s low-res, so the player can more actively/imaginatively inhabit the scene and the characters. In short, I suspect this point relates to the value of leaving space within a representation, for the audience to fill from their personal creative sources.

An audiovisual meditation on gold

Not your average academic conference, Create World includes a range of clever, creative performances. Of the four, this was my favourite – it’s an audiovisual meditation on the mineral gold, and it made my heart hum. (I recommend: go full-screen and use headphones or big speakers.)

The Solar Angel from abre ojos on Vimeo.

Other prezos

The quality of stream-session presentations was consistently good. I attended those on:

  • a multi-disciplinary creative technologies degree (Judit Klein, Auckland Uni of Technology)
  • iPads for music-making (Jamie Gabriel, Macquarie Uni)
  • an iPad app for assessing teachers of music, art and drama (Julia Wren & Alistair Campbell, Edith Cowan Uni)
  • EEG-mapping of artistic consumption and as artistic work (Jason Zagami, Griffith Uni)
  • a weather-data-generated sonic sculpture in Sydney (Kirsty Beilharz, Uni of Technology, Sydney)
  • kinaesthetic potential of educational gaming (Helen Farley & Adrian Stagg, Uni of Southern Queensland)
  • serious games (Tim Marsh, James Cook Uni)
  • digital research methods, including Wikipedia article-writing (Kerry Kilner, Uni of Queensland)
  • Playtime, an animated movie (Thomas Verbeek, Uni of Otago)
  • Ishq, an audiovisual work commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of its exhibition on Islamic art (Kim Cunio and Louise Harvey, Griffith Uni)

I presented – and have shared on the Museum’s Education blog – Gamifying relatedness: an iPad app-in-progress. Hearty thanks to Paris for his guest appearance.

Sembl praxis: identify sameness, explore difference

As part of his ‘Mining the museum’ installation at Maryland Historical Society in 1992–93, artist Fred Wilson placed a set of shackles in a display case with fine silverware and titled it Metalwork. Pow. United by the metal of their fabrication, the racially-divided, hierarchical histories of these objects dramatically distances them:

Who served the silver? And who could have made the silver objects in apprenticeship situations? And […] whose labour could produce the wealth that produced the silver?

A general principle can be distilled from this. Perhaps: In the very moment we identify a similarity between two objects, we recognise their difference. In other words, the process of drawing two things together creates an equal opposite force that draws attention to their natural distance. So the act of seeking resemblance – consistency, or patterns – simultaneously renders visible the inconsistencies, the structures and textures of our social world. And the greater the conceptual distance between the two likened objects, the more interesting the likening – and the greater the understanding to be found.

This simultaneous pulling together and springing apart of the sociophysical world interests me, and I’ve been thinking about it in relation to Sembl, where the challenge of the game is to identify a way in which a given object is related – surprisingly or humorously or otherwise interestingly – to another object.

What constitutes ‘interesting’ is of course difficult to define and depends to a large degree on the particular players playing. But if the natural conceptual distance between the two related objects is great, the relationship is more likely to be interesting – perhaps because it enables you to think about something in a new way. That’s what made Wilson’s juxtaposition of shackles with silver tableware interesting, and powerful.

Composite image of a branding iron and a breastplate given to an Aboriginal man

In the same vein, the Sembl players who linked the above branding iron to the breastplate – because both are tools for labeling bodies – cast new light on the colonial practice of giving metal breastplates to Aboriginal people.

My (big!) point here is: Hipbone games and Sembl alike can create a safe space for people to explore differences. When identified, similarities form bridges across and clarify difference. Attending to relatedness in this way inspires understanding; and opens a channel toward reconciliation.

Happy camping

THATCamp Canberra was a blast of interestingness, like a triple-shot ideas-espresso. I loved the chaotic opennness of the freeform approach to a gathering of great mind-body-spirits, and found it both inspiring and invigorating. I wrote an account of the session I hosted here. In this post, I wanted to share some procedural ideas for the next Australian THATCamp.

Personally, I think I ran too far with the ‘un’ part of the conference. Ordinarily, at a conference, I would create fairly well-organised notes, for myself but also for potential sharing or reporting. At THATCamp I barely took any notes, and those I did are not labelled with the session name or anything else. My excuse is that I was in a state of technological confusion about how to participate in and record my takeaways from this conference. I had a brand new iPhone – my first, so operating it was a challenge in itself – and a laptop that couldn’t connect to the wireless network (this was a problem common to many campers), but which I could use for digital notetaking. So should I try to bring up a website, tweet, or write myself a note? And in any case, should I use the phone, the laptop or a pen and paper? And what was that that that person just said? In short: tricky!

Beyond confessing to my own private conundrum, and despite the fact that we had some great groundrules, I thought it worth sharing this post about the art of provoking serendipity. The art is presented in four points that could usefully be applied to THATCamp and any other unconference. I list them here (but really, it’s worth reading the whole post for the juice):

  • Gather requisite diversity.
  • Nurture a sharing, evolutionary culture.
  • Weave the network together.
  • Issue a provocation.

At THATCamp Canberra, we had plenty of diversity in terms of the ‘field’ (if I can call it that) of digital humanities, and Tim and all the Bootcamp leaders did a great job of making the less tech-y people feel welcome. There was a wonderful spirit of openness and generosity. And informally I’d say there was plenty of provocation. But as Dan said, the campers were noticeably not representative of the diversity of the population. And certainly, we might have inspired even more awesomeness if we had attended more to the network-weaving part of the process.

With all of the above in mind, I offer these suggestions to unconference organisers, session hosts and participants:

  • If it’s at all possible, arrange a backup internet connection.
  • Support session proposers to plan an effective session. You might not be able to say if their session will occur, but you could let them know as early as possible how long the sessions will be. Invite them to identify an intended outcome, and to consider how best to achieve that. Is it an opening-up-style discussion? Do you want to reach a consensus on something? Is the purpose to trade coding tools, techniques and tricks? To sketch a plan for an application?
  • Session hosts could nominate a scribe and a Googler / laptop driver as appropriate. Encourage everyone to share the responsibility – the facilitator can’t do it all. (And even keen uncon peeps can slip into passivity.) Also consider breaking big groups up for smaller-group discussion so everyone gets a say. And if you are facilitating a session, consciously seek out contributions from quieter people.
  • Participants – be conscious of how we can each help make the event fly. Would the organisers appreciate it if you emptied that overflowing garbage bin? Does this session need a scribe or someone to drive the projected-laptop? Is that person wanting to say something but too shy to claim the space?

Happy camping!