In this new digital age, the future is analogue

How can an 80-year-old institution persistently drive cultural innovation? It’s an interesting question, and one that Glenn Lowry, longtime director of the Museum of Modern Art, addressed in his recent lecture at the National Gallery of Australia. I don’t claim to have a solution, but I do want to draw attention to what I regard as an error, or oversight, in Lowry’s (and others’!) thinking – which I believe could clarify the problem, at least for the foreseeable future.

Lowry impressed the audience – myself included – with his enthusiastic embrace of technology for maintaining MoMA’s edginess.

Glenn Lowry in front of a screen illustrating the ways in which MoMA is 'doing digital'

And he secured my full attention with this next slide, on principles for working in the context of an increasingly complex and unpredictable world.

Glenn Lowry in front of a screen displaying a set of principles for the network age

The principles are borrowed from a presentation by Joi Ito, MIT Media Lab director. They are inspired by the fact that the modern industrial way of being in the world no longer works. Now that the means of production and distribution are accessible to almost anyone, the process – of business, culture and so on – is much more complex and difficult to control. How to adapt to these new circumstances is not yet clear but we do know that our survival depends on radical adaptation.

So we’re starting to revise our mental models of how the world works. Lowry talked about this shift with reference to two diagrams of the genealogy of modern art. First, he presented this 1936 diagram of cubism and abstract art, made by MoMA’s first director, Alfred Barr:

Glenn Lowry showing a slide on cubism and abstract art

He contrasted that with a diagram produced for MoMA’s 2012 exhibition, Inventing Abstraction:

Glenn Lowry presenting a slide showing the network diagram MoMA  made for its 2012 exhibition, Inventing Abstraction

In 1936, the mental model was was a linear and hierarchical genealogy; by 2012, it had become a dynamic, interconnected network. And the network model is useful because it accommodates complexity and cultivates lateral thinking.

It’s not that networks are new – the map is not the territory, right? The same artists were the subject of both diagrams; ecosystems and social systems have always operated through complex clouds of relationships; and – this is an obvious but critical point – there have always been peoples for whom the modern western scientific industrial model of the world is foreign and highly fraught (to say the least).

So what’s going on now is not an update of our mental models to fit a new world order. Rather, we’re having to let go of aspects of our customary (modern western) thinking in order to recognise the eternal fact of our network-connected reality. In this sense what’s happening now is a reversion to a pre-industrial epistemology, to a mental model that preceded and will supersede – at least in part – logical, binary oppositional thinking.

The troubling part – and this is the point to which I objected in Lowry’s talk – is that we conflate digital technologies with network thinking, and misidentify the outmoded model as analogical.

Wrong, wrong, wrong! Computers are built on binary logic; they are the quintessentially logical outcome of reductive, logical, binary oppositional, linear, hierarchical, mechanistic, modernist thought. Yes, they have levelled up, lately, so that our interfaces to them can now show an interactive web of connections; they have become adept at mapping networks. But in this, they are serving our aspiration for technology to transcend digital, to return us to our natural analogical milieux.

The excitement of 3D printing and the thriving maker movement are testament to this yearning for a futuristic analogue, but it’s more than that. Another clue is in the fact that for Lowry and for the thousands of New Yorkers who flocked to it, a standout MoMA exhibition was Marina Abramović’s The artist is present, where every day for the duration of the exhibition, anyone could go and sit with her, in silence. Abramović’s work is about the space between herself and the visitor, the dynamic, continuous gradient, the common ground, the humanity – it is precisely, I would argue, about the analogue.

We don’t need to learn to think digitally; we need to find ways to harness digital technologies in the service of enriching our analogical (interconnected, poetic, holistic, three-dimensional) experience of the world. That’s one way to describe my mission in making this game of analogy. And it seems like an ample agenda for any modern art museum keen to stay edgy in the next century.


Here’s how I tried to express these ideas right after the lecture, in two tweets.

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.

Augmented reality for teaching and learning

I brought home a few thought-thread treasures from today’s ARcamp on augmented reality and education. So, I’m sharing. But first, a photo of the AR frenzy that marked the beginning of the event.

Group of people with phones and tablets poised to access AR content from printed images

Each image on the wall has a micro video story attached to it

1. Magic / technology
From the ever-compelling Rob Manson, I learned that this idea can be attributed to Arthur C. Clarke, and is in fact known as his third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

2. Unconventional unease
In various discussions with campers, it became clear that one of the things currently hampering the creation of and access to augmented reality media is that as yet we lack a lexicon and conventions for user interfaces. Channels, auras, triggers, markers – the words are intelligible but what they mean in this context is far less so. And the interfaces… let’s just say that they demand much persistence and forgiveness on the part of the user.

3. How can AR be dialogic?
One recurring theme throughout the whole-group discussion was the idea that the greatest challenge for educators is figuring out how to make AR media that is not monologic or reductive but which is open-ended, dialogic, generative. Yes!

I got to thinking about this challenge in terms of a continuum from broadcast to generative media – and then put that idea with the real–virtual continuum (also shared by Rob) and came up with this map-thing:

map of augmented reality media on a twelve-part grid

A map of media with ideas about what’s in each sector

It deploys the two continua (what a great word that is!) as perpendicular axes to form a twelve-part grid. In each of the spaces they create, I’ve put some initial ideas about what happens there. They are subject to evolution. Ideas welcome 🙂

Augmented reality is the two horizontal strips in the middle. Currently, most AR media would fit in the two central sectors. To the right of that are where good educators want their teaching materials to be.

4. Things we could do!
In discussion with Stephen Barrass, two cracker ideas for AR projects at or with the Museum emerged. The first one is even generative.

  • sound augmentation to pages of Oscar’s sketchbook. We have some replicas of the sketchbook for using in programs for visiting students, and they are wonderful. Stephen’s sound design students could create some creative responses in association with the Ngunnawal Centre. Given that Queensland state government bought a few copies of the replica as well – for their work with young Indigenous students – this idea holds much collaborative promise.
  • an AR trail of the highest-rated resemblances created as part of the Museum’s iPad game, Sembl. In the game, players take photographs of objects on display in order to create a resemblance to another object (or objects) already on the gameboard. It would be simple to create a trail to display the game-generated resemblance to visitors as they approached one of the resembled objects. It would be an interesting way to browse the Museum and / or to kickstart some Sembl thinking.

Thanks so much to the INSPIRE gang for hosting the event and may the morrow be productive and fun.

Map of education innovation

In his TED talk on education innovation, Charles Leadbeater introduces a map of the territory based on two axes: sustaining/disruptive and formal/informal. He argues that most of our resources are concentrated in the first quadrant, but that globally, we need to invest energy in the fourth.

I liked the organising principles – it might be a very useful way to think about future projects. So I redrew it:

Diagram showing four quadrants of education innovation according to two axes: sustaining/disruptive and formal/informalIf you want, download a nice, scalable, printable PDF version (100kb).

Generative iris fibres

I made the above in a collaborative project with Jonathan McCabe. If you check his Flickr stream you can probably tell that he’s an awesome coder with ideas-aplenty.

The project was to build a generative system to model something from nature. We chose the human iris, and in particular the radial fibres that in some people split and clump to form these circular openings.

In case you’ve never noticed these fibrous openings before, see the image on the right. It comes from a book on the Rayid model of iris interpretation (not the same thing as iridology).

What the federal government does – first steps

At Govhack a small team of folks started working on the idea of visualising all the activities of the (Australian) federal government, so that as citizens we are better positioned to identify where we’d like to intervene in government processes. This post documents the progress we made.

Our work focussed on a single data file from this National Archives set – agencies.xml, which lists all the Commonwealth Agencies ever to have existed (around 7000, with around 2000 extant), along with 212 functions that they perform.

Rob Manson did some invaluable work in converting the data into more usable forms – taking out the sizeable – but sometimes empty – NOTES field, and producing various json (and plain text) files that included different combinations of data.

Here is my tagcloud of functions of the Australian government made using ManyEyes:

Tagcloud of Australian government functions

It’s an interesting array but its meaningfulness is questionable. Text is sized according to its occurrence in the data, which could mean that multiple agencies are responsible for that function, or that it has been passed around a lot from agency to agency, or simply that it has been around since Federation or before (eg, telecommunications, taxation). A smaller font could also indicate a relatively new function (eg, criminology), or one subject to terminological shifts (eg, foreign policy has become international relations). Then there are perplexing aspects of the data, such as that quarantine started in 1832 but ended in 1993 even though it remains a preferred level-two term in AGIFT – under primary industries. Hm, there are plenty of issues here.

Officially (ie, according to the Functions Thesaurus) there are only 25 top-level functions – the rest are either sub-functions or non-preferred terms. But clearly there are discrepancies between the official terminology and the actual descriptive data. Ultimately, for this project to succeed as a public map, we will need to also enable people to use other, unofficial, vernacular, folksonomic terminology as well. Has anyone ever tried tagging terms? Tag tagging – hm, there’s a concept.

Another aspect of this project is that people might identify functions that the government should be performing but is apparently not.

Rob also produced some great images, focusing on a single function and showing the complex array of agencies that perform that function. For example, here are some of the current agencies doing SCIENCE – click for the full graphic:

Commonwealth Agencies doing SCIENCE

One lesson here is obvious: Commonwealth government is amazingly complex! See also the mess of agencies performing these other functions: INDIGENOUS | EMPLOYMENT | TRANSPORT | COMMUNITY.

Finally, Brenda Moon made significant progress on her path to use Processing to visualise the agencies and functions in a spectacular array based on NYTimes 365/360 by Jer Thorp – again, click to download the full PDF:

Detail of Commonwealth Agencies array

What now?

These are all first steps, but we had fun exploring, and we’ve raised many questions and issues. As well as how to show – and enable interaction with – the dynamic relationships between agencies and their functions, incorporating date ranges, locations, and vernacular terminology, there is no doubt much else to consider.

I’m thinking, for example, about how functions themselves could be structured so that the array is more visually readable. Would it work to plot or colour them according to two axes – whether the object of the function is individual or collective, tangible or intangible? (Eg, some more individual-oriented functions include health, employment and immigration, where communications, civic infrastructure and environment are more collective. Environment and civic infrastructure are also more tangible, along with primary industries, in comparison to governance, business support and regulation, and justice administration, each of which has fairly intangible processes and products.

I’m also wondering whether the agencies.xml file is more problematic than useful as a source of functions data. Other sources of similar information might work better. AGLS is a contender, although it has not been consistently implemented across government. Maybe the AAOs that I used to make this other tagcloud are a more reliable source. At least there the frequency/size of the term corresponds to the amount of legislation passed to manage it. Or perhaps we should look at this issue another way. For example, in talking to Gordon Grace, from AGIMO, it might be possible to obtain some bulk data on what people are searching for at Possibly, whatever data forms the foundation of the array of government activities, the rest will need to be crowdsourced.

One more point to note: once the initial interface was populated and making sense, it would be good to direct users to several destinations:

  • current online material about each activity
  • contact details for the Minister currently responsible
  • historical records

So, this project seems to be growing some legs ! and I’m looking forward to continuing the discussion with all interested parties.

Going to the govhack fest

With some trepidation due to my lack of geek credentials, I have registered to attend Govhack. Keen to find out how I can contribute.

I’ve also added a project idea to the wiki, based on this idea. As a conceptual taster for how useful it might be to have a browseable overview of government activities (which you can control / explore and then use to find a pathway to web-based material that interests you) I made this Wordle tagcloud using the latest Administrative Arrangements Orders:

Tagcloud of Australian Government activitiesEven a static bundle of words gives you a sense of the range of activities the government is involved in.

Whether or not this idea takes off, I’m excited about being involved in this event. Hope to meet you there!