Tag Archive | Technology

Information’s Future

Presenting a paper at Sheffield University’s inaugural iFutures conference, Thursday saw me taking my first trip to the Steel City. Having been a student again for 2 years now, the 5am start was a bit of a shock to the system, so I was very happy to find a lovely little on-campus cafe selling amazingly fluffy two-egg omelettes and a decent Fairtrade coffee (extra strong, naturally). Wolfing these down and wondering why, in 30 years, I’d never before heard of Yorkshire’s “famous” Henderson’s Relish (have you?) I perused the day’s programme and gave my slides a final once-over. The conference – tagline: “the next 50 years”, since Sheffield’s iSchool is currently celebrating its 50th birthday – was run entirely by Postgrads and aimed to provide a “forum for students to present forward-thinking and challenging research” in an “encouraging environment”. The organisers had accordingly “blocked” (in tongue-in-cheek fashion) their iSchool seniors from attending, focussing instead on attracting an audience of young/early-career academics. This worked out well; the event was no less intellectual, stimulating or professional, but for the students presenting, the day was made less intimidating in that ideas could be exchanged and space carved out more freely without fear of overtly supervisory objections.

Topics included the impact of ICTs on informal scientific communication, Institutional Repositories in Thailand, Chemoinformatics, telehealth project management, the ways in which public libraries can pro-actively support and respond to their communities, and a “radical” new approach to the analysis of classification schemes. A post-lunch Pecha Kucha session saw us voting via an “audience participation device” for the best and most engaging presenter. Pecha Kucha, if you haven’t come across it, is a trendy but very fun method of rapid-fire presentation – 20 slides are pre-programmed to be on screen for only 20 seconds each, meaning that the presenter ends up “pitching” a vision as much as opening up a debate and therefore has to be more creative. Facing stiff competition, Simon Wakeling’s take on the Future of the Filter Bubble was decided most worthy of a prize. My own full-length paper, which was also well received, was more traditional, describing a methodology for assessing academics’ attitudes toward new media and why that matters.

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So what is the future of our field, which might broadly be called “Information Science”? Predicting the future is a dubious enterprise, and in an age of almost maniacal technological development, it becomes even harder to know what is scientifically probable and what is just science-fiction. Still, disclaimers aside, we can make some informed speculations based on current socio-technical trends. Two impressive keynote speakers – Professor Diane Sonnenwald (University College Dublin and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and Vanessa Murdock (Principal Applied Researcher at Microsoft Research) – were on hand to share their views. Coming from quite different perspectives, both shared thoughts about where information science should, or might, concentrate its energies. As a group, we possess much expertise that could help solve pressing social and environmental problems; failing health, climate change, inequality, global insecurity. While remedies for these might be figured out by analysts of the “big data” coming from scientific sensors and digitally mediated environments, disaster prevention initiatives and “crisis informatics” will only be successful if those creating systems, strategies and technologies are supported by experts able to assess their impacts on work patterns, task performance, and their wider (often unconsidered) socio-cultural effects.

Describing her own research into 3D medical Telepresence devices, Professor Sonnenwald emphasised that information professionals must make sure we are “at the table” when research projects and funding priorities are discussed institutionally and internationally. The kind of analyses that we undertake may lead to short-term headaches for those developing products – for example, one of her studies showed a particular device to be more flawed than its initial backers supposed – however in the long run, this is a good thing not just for them but for all of us. It’s cheaper to address design issues pre- rather than post-production, and, economics aside, we must make sure that the groups whose problems we try to solve are not inadvertently given more of them by shimmering but naively designed solutions. In an age of algorithms and automation, information science is far from redundant.

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Vanessa Murdock focussed on how we can map the world and its preoccupations through the harvesting and analysis of social media data. Location-aware and location-based services on smartphones and web-browsers are one obvious example; Microsoft and others are working hard to build the “hyper local” as well as the personalised into their products. If you’re in Oslo and you fancy a pizza, wouldn’t it be nice to see at a click which restaurant near you has a menu to match your dietary requirements, what other customers thought about it, and where, based on your tastes, you might go afterwards? Less trivially, it would be valuable for sociologists, political economists and others to discover with reliability precisely where most tweets about Revolution X are coming from in order to ascertain the demographics of those tweeting them and what percentage of the population they actually represent. Naturally such applications are not without their issues. We need to think deeply about privacy, data protection, regulation and – at a technical level – the reliability of services based on data which are often difficult to interpret syntactically and semantically. Further, aren’t companies really just servicing the “Technorati”, treating them as typical of the needs and preferences of humanity when in fact, they are only a small and (it might be argued, insubstantial) minority? Reminding us of a need to understand the difference between solutions that work on “toy data” or simplified abstract models, and those which work when applied to reality, Murdock also pointed out that while “you should take the noble path and build things which are useful when possible, there is also a role for building things which are cool!”

Sheffield has about 60 PhD Students working in the two main research groups of their Information School, and it seems that the culture there is as lively as it is cutting edge. All of the presenters were really impressive and I’d like to thank the committee for putting together such a fun event. 🙂

Toying with technology

For those of us who don’t often have cause to go into a children’s toyshop, said establishments can become unexpectedly fascinating sites for anthropological research. On a recent trip to Carlisle, I decided to see what I could find in their Early Learning Centre for my two adorable nieces. Considering I was an “early learner” myself when I last visited, I was understandably amazed at how things have changed since then. The ELC do make a concerted effort to offer a range of toys categorised according to area and skill development – problem solving, gross motor skills, hand-to-eye-coordination, thinking skills, learning to read and so on. I’m not sure about the amount of research that has gone into them, but no doubt these guides are appreciated by regular customers. At the same time, toyshops are just that: shops. Profit, not education, is the ultimate bottom line, and that means keeping up-to-date and “on trend”.

As an adult, you can’t fail to notice the sheer number of toys that continue to promote the usual stereotypical gender roles. Although both girls and boys are pictured playing with kitchen sets and tractors, the meta tags for ELCs online Xmas Shop still refer insistently to “top toys for girls” (pink phantasia, styling heads and prams) and “top toys for boys” (greens, browns, yellows, construction kits and cowboy costumes) in terms carefully avoided elsewhere on the site. The arguments that follow from such assumptions are well known and I won’t repeat them all here. Equally interesting is how a new range of toys reflect the technological changes of our own “adult” environments. Hearteningly, the same little girls who are expected to content themselves with fake washing machines, vacuum cleaners and fairytale castles are at least expected to leave the domestic sphere at some point and undertake the kind of labour that requires a multitude of tech gadgets. 😉 To illustrate:

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A lightweight multi-purpose laptop with a “32 page workbook”. For 3-6 year olds? Wow. Is fun time over? Or are the links between creativity, consumption and productivity what is being encoded here as fun? A scale of consumer gradation means that eventually the toys start subtly to assume actual functionality; whether that be for work or entertainment. Try an image search for “Pink laptop” and you’ll probably struggle to differentiate the fakes from the real things. As Bind Apple noted a few years ago:

Since manufacturers decided they should improve the design and the colors of their existing products, the IT market has been flooded by the massive demand of pink products. Why pink? Because, unlike 10 years ago, technology is not for men only. Also, because the feminine target now represents more than 45% of the total consumers of the whole gadget market.

Of course, it all eventually comes full circle when the adult “gadgets” get marketed as though they were toys. The message seems to be that while children need to mimic their parents, their parents really ought to regress back to the colourful non-results-focused world of play. But isn’t that world becoming just a miniature version of what they’re doing anyway? In future, maybe we’ll have a separate queue for children at airport baggage screening areas. At the ELC, they could buy a multi-coloured, personalised tray to deposit their fake laptops, smartphones and tractor keys into. Just to make sure they really understand the implications of all of this sparkly social technology.

More seriously, there are of course clear links between play, games, learning, creativity and skills development, regardless of age group. Most people would agree that play shouldn’t stop the minute we get added to the electoral register. It’s a question though of what kind of play should be encouraged, and of what gets conditioned into us by the lessons embedded in the socio-cultural tools of the toyshop. Where do the chunky, bright buttons of the laptop and the smartphone fit within paradigms of “investigative” or “collaborative” learning? With the development of critical faculties and personality and “problematic” gender identity? Following the logic of the manufacturers, children will arrive at school already primed to be a certain type of consumer. If I were a parent, I might start to worry about the cost of the inevitable upgrades. That said, can I admit that I did find a lot of the toys pretty nifty?

New Media and Academia: Altered Attributes

Getting back to work on my thesis, I thought it might be time to be brave and
share some of my more academic musings with you. I am currently combining preparations for initial data gathering with exploration of the literature and an elucidation of my framework. I’ll not post anything on the data gathering for now. Clearly this brief extract is part of a work in progress; which makes comments especially welcome!1 🙂

To state that there is no such thing as New Media is not the avoidance of an answer: rather, it is a rejoinder which meets the question of definition head-on. It is to suggest (with the hint of a challenge) that if we are to address the subject of “New Media” in significant depth we may first have to place aside our assumptions about what is actual and what is perceived; as well as the place of metaphor. These are the very assumptions around which much of “New Media” revolves, and with which it and its practitioners play. Contrarily, the very fluidity and liminality of these types of digital media, which may be referred to as “new”, “social”, “interactive”, “mobile” or “virtual”, suggests that there are particular thresholds or boundaries within which they exist, hence typical characteristics which might be identified. Nevertheless, it is important to make clear that seizing upon or fixing some particular conception or definition of New Media would in many ways run contrary to the purpose of my thesis. What it is necessary and rather simple to accept is the relative, historically situated, and (in terms of reception and acceptance) contingent character of anything labelled “new” – which partly explains why New Media defies easy classification. Another reason why an in-transition sketch is often the best that can be offered is that “New Media” can be seen differently depending on where, how, why, and by whom, it is being considered. It refers to something constantly being updated and refreshed; continually shifting; and which frequently but unpredictably accommodates ideas, features, and perspectives not previously included. Yet it also builds on tradition and what was prior. For the academic subject or “discourse communities“, whose attitudes towards New Media are the focus of this research, this is also the case – as well as, increasingly, for the disciplines and institutions to which they belong. There, as Nowotny et al observe, “near absolute demarcation criteria have failed”.

“The notion of ‘boundary work’ implies not only that boundaries are not fixed and permanent but that they need to be actively maintained. Moreover, their definition, mapping, and maintenance, often serve a social function. Social contingency and professional expediency influence the choice of ‘stories’ about Science [including Social Sciences]. Defining the sciences, mapping their territory in public space, making and reshaping them in the image tailored for the specific time and the occasion are all part of ‘boundary work’. And scientists, as ‘boundary workers’, are actively engaged in such activities as an integral part of their scientific endeavours” [page 57]. We must first understand the “socio-epistemological meaning of context” before we are able to address and understand the political and institutional characteristics of Science. Both types of context affect knowledge structures within academic disciplines. The current shifts occurring in the “conceptualisation and enactment of Science” are part of a move toward a “Mode II” society where contextualised knowledge moves “into the context of implication” [page 201] – i.e. wider society beyond the University proper, a “social space of transformation” or, what the authors, in a re-imagining of ancient Greece’s public sphere, call “the agora”. This space is typified by, among other things, “socially distributed expertise”, and “changing rules of engagement” whereby social relationships become vertical rather than horizontal and where institutional structures and traditional modes of interaction are “aided” and altered by “the pervasive role of information and communication technologies” [page 105]. Just as time and space have been reconceptualised into the “more capacious category of space-time, so science and society “co-evolve” as an aspect of coalescence [page 49]; the distinction between academics and those who would previously have been deemed “incompetent outsiders” is no longer as meaningful an analytical tool.

Some critics point out that this was always the case; not just for Science, but also for the Arts & Humanities, and that such a perspective or vision of scholarship might be seen to date as far back as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. A utopian novel published in 1697, New Atlantis greatly influenced Enlightenment concepts of Scientific rationalism, even depicting participation in the academy by certain select members of the public (although in Bacon’s narrative, this is tightly-controlled, hierarchical, and revolves around the acceptance of particular customs). Others propose that it was Universities and institutions which parted Science from its original multi-varied and accommodating form. In either case, we may assume that the modern University can be broadly characterised in these terms, in particular the dominance of ICTs. Altered power structures and novel “visibility” regimes are also created by and reflected in new forms of media and communications technology. Divisions between producer/consumer, author/reader, expert/layperson are challenged and blurred; politicised discourses often position it in terms of access to knowledge, power, and a re-structured public sphere. Traditions and novelty converge and collide. Clearly then, there are strong thematic links and properties which typify both “New Media” and Academia in the 21st century. These require much further exploration.

1 I have removed some inline references in support of various arguments to make this entry more blog friendly. For the most part, hyperlinks are provided instead.

Fun and Games

Larkin’ About“, a special event running at Contact Manchester last night, really made me want to find out more about “Pervasive and Social Games”, a fascinating area all about participation and interactivity that isn’t natural territory for me. I don’t think the friends who I was there with will mind too much if I tell you we were all slightly shy for the first wee while, given that running around (or Larkin’ About) inside a building full of strangers isn’t necessarily the easiest thing for a rainy Saturday night. Once you get into the spirit of feeling pretty much like a big kid on an adventure playground, it’s a really great way for you – and your inner puzzle solver – to break from taking things too seriously. There’s also the advantage that not actually being a kid, you can get a few drinks up at the bar to help you on your way. 😉

For “Mixtape”, we had to hunt around the building for 9 hidden cassette tapes, each one of which contained a different tune with an original monologue – on various aspects of being in and out of love – spoken over the top. We then had to decide what our own Track 10 would be and why. This was great; not just because the monologues (by Vee Uye, one of the “Larkin Agents”) were impressive, but also because pressing chunky big buttons and (im)patiently waiting for your tape to rewind while hoping you’ve not confused it about SidesA&B takes you back nostalgically to far less convenient technological days. Aah. As the game’s designer more eloquently writes:

Mixtape is a retro-audio treasure hunt with a soundtrack that takes you around the Contact building and into the puzzle of our hearts. Players navigate the space with analogue personal stereos and augment the narrative with their own memories. For 3 players at a time.

I don’t want to imply that “Larkin’ About” was entirely about silliness and feeling retro though! There were plenty of physically active games with intriguing names and educational as well as dramatic aspects, like “Histronauts” (designed by UniverCity Culture at Manchester University), and “Spy School”. These made use of ultra-modern technology – smart phones, geo-tags, and QR codes for instance – but maybe those are the ones I’ll gear myself up for next time!

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If you’re wondering what’s going on in some of my pictures, Mortal Kombat was repurposed and projected onto a huge screen to become “Moral Kombat”. In this game, people who had committed such cardinal sins as “getting on the bus without paying” and “forgetting my mum’s birthday” could seek forgiveness by pitching a stand-in ninja warrior against the judgemental audience – who were also represented by another would-be assassin. Cue a fight to the entirely simulated and amusingly coded death.

All of Larkin’ About’s work is based on the talents of Manchester theatre practitioners, digital artists,  live artists and, naturally, the game players who all this is for. It’ll be interesting to discover what they have on offer in future.

Dark Matters

The Gallery Entrance

The title of my post is that of a fantastic and pretty unique exhibition that I visited today at the University of Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery. Subtitle: Science Technology Art. Sadly I am unable to post any illustrative pictures of what I spent the day admiring due to copyright restrictions. Yes, even the shadows cast by some of the works are copyrighted!1 So you’ll either have to go and see for yourself (it runs until well into next year) or follow the various links embedded in this post and take it from me that many of the pieces on display are absolutely magical. In that “Is this real ?!” childhood sense of magical that so many of us only dimly remember as we grow up. Still, there is also plenty that it is more solemn and introspective if that sounds like too much fun. 😉

The exhibition is themed around the idea of what happens when mechanical and digital technologies intersect with and give new expression to the “darker” (both literal and metaphorical) regions of our creative imaginations: what we see or imagine in the shadows and in response to changing, shifting patterns of light. The reaction of Maxim Gorky (who knew a thing or two about terror) to one of the first exhibitions of the Lumière brothers’ cinematographic innovations: “Not life, but a shadow of life. It is terrible to see, this movement of shadows…” provides an introductory insight. Other literary connections are provided in the work of Idris Khan. Blown-up, layered digital images of printed texts, which somehow appear like majestic 3D photocopies – including Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny – both merge and separate related elements of form, content, tone, and subtext. These look beautiful up close.

I call this one "Electric Footlights"

Snow Mirror by Daniel Rozin is the piece everyone wants to have a play with. The image of the viewer standing in between ‘projector’ and ‘screen’ is captured and transformed through a combination of computers, lights, and fabric, before being presented back to you slowly as if heralding the creation of a ghostly other “you”. To be more specific: a ghostly other you trapped in a snow blizzard. Kiss by R. Luke DuBois literally sparkles. For this he has visually analysed and mapped with bright points of connected light, specific regions of film depicting famous Hollywood kissing scenes, also tying them to an original, mathematically calculated, soundtrack. DuBois manages to draw your attention to the illusion/fantasy of cinematic emotion at the very same time as he takes it, manipulates it, and makes you feel it anew. Similarly, when I walked into the large room where Brass Art’s “Still Life No. 1” was sitting I was surprised to hear myself say out loud – “wow, this is amazing!” I can’t at all do justice to how magnificent the modern take of these 3 female artists (1 is from Glasgow) on a magic lantern or a Zoetrope (the Wheel of the Devil) is. Huge distorted shadows of the tiny little figurines and plastic shapes they have set up on a cylindrical table are cast dancing around the room. The figures on the table glow in bright white and yellow, appearing from a distance like crystal ornaments. This instantly took me back to the time when, as a kid, my imagination and my dreams started to develop together, spinning across the walls.

Shadows, inside

Light projected

I’m sorry for these rather hesitant and “wooly” descriptions of the works. I am not an expert in how exactly these effects were achieved. I discussed this a little with one of the lovely gallery staff while we stood inside Barnaby Hosking‘s brilliant “Black Flood”. The point is to immerse yourself in the feelings elicited by these works (to react to them emotionally, even viscerally, as Gorky did) rather than to try and unpick how exactly the material and lights are set up and installed. I tried; but in the end, experiencing rather than clinically analysing suits me (and them) best.

Apparently some visitors to the museum find Hosking’s wall-mounted “butterflies” (3 different types and colours of metal, showing light, dark, shade, and very much conveying the fleeting movements of thought) too cheerful or “twee” for an exhibition themed around darkness. This is a really strange point of view! As the Lumières and other craftsmen and women working with photographs and “phantoms” knew better than most, the darkness of cinema or art based on those techniques is not possible without the play of light. Equally, the lightness of a Hollywood “kiss” is best appreciated in the dark.

1I have added a few images that I thought they wouldn’t object to – some of the lights and shadows at the Whitworth that aren’t technically exhibits…

Media City’s Aeolian Cadences

A lovely day for late October and a lovely day to meet with an old friend from Glasgow (well, Northern Ireland actually, but let’s not split hairs). We first met during our long-ago Undergrad days at Glasgow Uni – which suddenly didn’t seem so very long ago after all. Naturally my being new to the city meant a good excuse to go exploring, so we headed away from the city centre into Salford, and down to the Quay to look around the undeniably beautiful Media City UK complex where the BBC, ITV, Salford University, and various start-up media companies (“Media Village”) will make, or are in the midst of making, new homes. Right now, the BBC make a very 21st-century impression while the ITV “quarter” is still a literal building site – meaning that Simon Cowell and Tracy Barlow grin unconvincingly out from their posters as if to distract us from the fact it’s JCBs behind them rather than sweeping, angular glass and metal.

A little bit like Glasgow’s Pacific Quay (where BBC Scotland and the Armadillo sit) in its aspirations to state-of-the-art waterside glamour and a combination of business, creative industry, and apartments, it’s far grander, much more spacious, and infinitely more interesting to photograph. No matter which direction you look in, you are guaranteed to find a good shot.1 Media City may have “installed enough fibre to stretch from Salford to Sydney” to cater to the “bandwidth-hungry requirements of the media industry”, but it really does feel like a public space; especially with the Lowry Arts Centre and the Imperial War Museum North also on its banks. Everyone can wander around and enjoy the landscaped park, the piazza, and the bridges that cross the river. Near the BBC building, a temporary sound sculpture (or, if you like, “an acoustic wind pavilion”) called “Aeolus”  made delicate and almost harmonic sounds in accordance with the movement of gentle winds. The installation captures the music of Salford’s breezes via a combination of strings and amplifying tubes. You can hear it here, at the website of Luke Jarram, the artist who designed it in collaboration with acoustic scientists at Salford University and Southampton University.

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Still, the Media City UK complex has not been without controversies. It has brought about a certain (probably inevitable) amount of “upheaval” and some political wrangling both within the BBC, and with the institution’s favourite sparring partner, Westminster. Some question the justification for moving operations all the way up North from London. There has also been criticism about the pretty exorbitant cost to Salford University of moving its media students there. I guess that over time, we will find out if the “vision” can become part of a successful reality. As one overheard passerby, on his way back from Manchester City’s resounding victory over Man U at Old Trafford, commented to a friend: “Just so long as they [the BBC] keep charging us the same license fee”. Sadly, it’s doubtful that Salford University will be able to charge its students the same tuition fees as previously when they undertake studies on the site.

I can’t find anything to criticise about my experience today of the place in terms of its design and use of space. I had a great time looking around. Hopefully it will remain accessible to everyone and not become upmarket to the point of ultra-exclusivity as business gets properly underway.

Well, I hope you’ll agree! p.s. can’t promise any prizes but let me know in the comments if you appreciate the Beatles reference. 😉

Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI)

Searching around Deansgate in the rain for an interesting place to get lunch and an espresso resulted in a short trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. The building, situated away from the main road so that it has plenty of room to breathe, is beautiful inside and out, making bold use of display screen technology in the “Revolutionary Manchester” gallery that introduces you to the museum’s themes.

Instead of using old-fashioned wooden and cardboard plinths to explain what the exhibits are all about, the museum incorporates (in places) iPads into its displays. Amusing little games can be played at the same time as you discover the history of science and technology via touch-screen interfaces. Even mid-morning and in not so great weather, people of all ages and nationalities wandered around, looking (as if almost to their own surprise) very much impressed. There were examples of early computers (including one recreated by Manchester University’s School of Computer Science) and a Ferranti Mark I logic door. There were also displays on the CERN reactor and nuclear energy.

Proof that people were taking things seriously came from the middle-aged foreign lady explaining eagerly to her friend who Ada Lovelace was: the theme here being women’s contributions to computing science. Apparently half of Ferranti’s programmers were, in 1951, women – chosen for their accuracy and reliability. I wonder by how much that percentage has changed today?

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For the more “old school” museum (and of course aviation) fans out there – and for me, a little reminder of Glasgow’s Transport Museum in the days before it became the Riverside Museum – the Air and Space Hall is really worth a look too. Chock full of planes and one or two motorbikes (air and space?) it’s basically a big shed with a viewing walkway snaking around it from above. Exhibits include a Roe Triplane from 1903 and the Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka Mark II plane for the Kamikaze pilots of WWII. You may know that one by its far more romantic sounding translated name: “Cherry Blossom“. Lovely!

Anyway, there are 5 buildings and 12 whole halls with various themes to explore and today I only had time for a few. Not sure yet if I want to “take a walk through a Victorian sewer” as part of the Underground Manchester theme. But the next visit will definitely take in the Communications (“Connecting Manchester”) Gallery as well as the Power Hall for sure. Watch out for some pictures of retro telephones and cameras! Other pictures in (my) gallery above are of “The Avenue”, a fancy shopping centre (sorry, “luxury shopping quarter“).

Just don’t climb on the letters!