March 16, 2008

From MySpace to fakespace: How close are we to travel without moving?


This is my talk from yesterday in Helsinki at Pixelache University. There are pix here

Could the biosphere be saved by six glass lamps, six speakers, 36 ultra bright leds, six diy mono amplifiers, a diy arduino-based six channel led dimmer, a six channel soundcard, a midi controller, a midi interface,one computer, and a max-msp application ?

It all depends on how radical and open-minded we are prepared to be in the search for alternatives to physical travel.

Traveling without moving has become an economic and environmental imperative. Matter is more expensive than energy; energy is more expensive than information; it is cheaper to move information, than people or things. So what is to stop us moving less, and and tele-communicating more?

Telecommunications companies have invested heavily for years in telepresence systems with the aim of reproducing as closely as possible the sensation of 'being there'. Hewlett Packard describe their system, Halo as "the ultimate collaborative environment... a telepresence solution that brings meeting attendees from around the globe into an environment that feels as if they are in the same room".

The entertainment industry has also been busy - motivated by the fact that people will pay theme park operators a dollar a minute to experience sophisticated simulations. The small-screen computer games industry is already bigger than Hollywood; social website proprietors are also keen to add functionality; so big money is at stake.

Presence researchers are testing myriad ways for us to interact with virtual worlds in this 'fakespace' race: Computerized clothing that recognizes physical gestures; accelerometers that track movements of the body; sensors that track eye movements (first developed by shop designers); joysticks that allow interaction with 3-D magic wands; feedback systems that measure force, pressure, or vibration; remote operation systems that translate human movements into the control of machinery.

With so-called haptic interface devices, you feel the motion, shape, resistance, and surface texture of simulated objects.Telerobotic manipulators, that incorporate actuation, sensor, and control technologies, permit us to achieve dexterous manipulation of virtual objects.

Sound is also being designed for "acoustigraphic" environments in which 3-D sound is combined with stereoscopic vision to help you hear the sounds of traffic in the distance and wind rustling the leaves of nearby trees. A Displaced Temperature Sensing System enables you to feel the temperature of a remote location - real or unreal - as if you were there.

Down the line, technology developers that tiny micro-lasers will scan pictures directly onto the retina of the eye - an effect already experienced by military pilots. A company called Cyberware has developed 3d whole-body scanners which create representations of people - avatars - that can act for corporeal people in "inhabited information spaces". The business plan is that you'll be scanned in AvatarBooths - as happens now with passport photographs in railway stations. Having digitised your body, you'll send it out into cyberspace where it will meet and hang out with other avatars. (The project was was nicknamed Immortality R Us by fellow researchers).

Other developers dream of scaling up such effects to create virtual electronic crowds. A project in Europe called eRENA focussed on information spaces inhabited jointly by audience members, performers, and artists: they would explore, interact, communicate with one another and participate in staged events.

Remote sensing may also be used to create immersive representations of otherwise inaccessible places. Real-time sonar and acoustic tomography data could become a display of undersea terrain and objects. An acoustigraphics library would stream the noises made by fish into the mix.



Evelina Domnitch (who is here at Pixelache) and Dmitry Gelfand directly convert sound into lightwaves by employing a phenomenon called sonoluminescence. They create sensory immersion environments that merge physics, chemistry and computer science with uncanny philosophical practices.

The problem with these intriguing ideas is that it would never occur to telcos to develp them. Despite five decades of effort, the promise of virtual presence ushered in by the of the videophone, which was launched with much kerfuffle by IBM at the 1964 New York World's Fair, has not been met. Huge investments in virtual environments, mobile communication and biosensors have delivered modest results at best. Tele-presence communication has not matured as an experience, nor as a market.

Even its advocates remain unimpressed: The head of videoconferencing of a large British TelCo told me that he and his colleagues avoided used their own system if they possibly could.

A reality check for technology optimists: whilst high bandwidth videoconferencing has strugggled, simpler forms of remote communication have boomed - POTS they call it in the telecoms trade, or "Plain Old Telephone Service". Two billion people now have handsets because they want POTS - not because they want virtualty. The lowest bandwidth communication, texting, enjoys the highest volume by far.

TelCos are needlessly obsessed with Being There-ness in a literal sense. As MediaLab rsearcher Skip Ishii points out, the human eye has something like 40 million receptors in it. Many millions more receptors are to be found in our ears, up out noses, in our skin and on our tongues. (There are dense clusters of receptors elsewhere on the body, too - but this is a family readership, so I will not dwell on those).

Even if you could capture the smells, sounds, tastes, and feel of a place, digitise them, and send them down a wire - you'd still never get near the sensation of Being There. Why? We'd just know, that's why. Our minds and our bodies are one intelligence.

Subliminal perception, perception that occurs without conscious awareness, is not an anomaly, but the norm. As Tor Norretranders has explained, most of what we perceive in the world comes not from conscious observation but from a continuous process of unconscious scanning. During any given second, we consciously process only sixteen of the eleven million bits of information that our senses pass on to our brains. The conscious part of us receives much less information than the unconscious part of us.

This is why technology simply cannot and will not recreate what it is like to be in a meeting with people somewhere else. People, who have bodies, cannot inhabit virtual space. Hubert Dreyfus, a philosophy professor, puts it more poetically: "Tele-hugs won't do it."

The fact that we inhabit bodies, and not networks, frustrates games designers. They complain about the "uncanny valley" dilemma. Game designers once hoped that crisper 3-D graphics and faster response-times would deliver a more realistic experience. In the event, higher bandwidth and faster speeds does nothing to increase our sense of an environment being 'real'.

The uncanny valley effect was explained by a robotics engineer, Masahiro Mori, to explain why almost-human-looking robots scare people more than mechanical-looking robots. The uncanny valley of Mori’s thesis is the point at which a person observing the creature or object in question sees something that is nearly human, but just enough off-kilter to seem eerie or disquieting.

Cognitive pyschologist Andy Clarke, author of Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again adds that the biological brain is populated by a vast number of what he calls hidden 'zombie processes.' These underpin the skills and capacities in which successful behaviour depends.

"Being embodied is our nature as earth-born creatures” says the English philosopher, John Gray. But our infantile enchantment with digital communication blinds us to this fact. Our tendency to undervalue embodied knowledge is one of the root causes of the sustainability crisis.


Telepresence sucks. It's an insult that telcos should expect us to meet in hideous sterile rooms in front of huge screens.

But sustainabiity demands that we compromise; the biosphere cannot support the perpetually growing movement of goods and bodies around the world. We have to make the best we can of mediated presence.

So we have to keep on trying. But there are more interesting tasks for design than the use of brute bandwidth to achieve 'Being There' verisimilitude. The communication quality of cyberspace can be enhanced by artful and indirect means.

A first task is to escape from our disciplinary silos. Engineers try to coax more bandwidth out of pipes. Psychologists study communication behaviours. Philosophers talk about embodiment. Artists make beautiful interfaces. But they barely know that each other exists - let alone pool their knowledge and resources.

Some designers have tried out a more poetic and multi-dimensional approach. Twelve years back, in The Poetics of Telepresence, Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby looked at the potential of fusing physical and telematic space. They asked, why should videoconferencing always be face to face? why limit contact to speech, or sight? They proceeded to use radio to trigger heat devices remotely, and proposed other techniques to evoke, and not just replicate, the shared experience of the remote body.

Half a decade ago in Italy, design researchers in a project called Faraway also looked at long distance communication between loved ones who are physically distant, but emotionally close. The team explored what happens when gesture, expressions, heartbeat, breathing, alpha- and beta-rythm informnation are incorporated into long-distance communication. The idea was to increase the sense of presence of a loved person over distance - but indirectly.

Replicating heartbeats is not the only way to go. Seventy years ago, Walter Benjamin marveled at the capacity of the aura of an original art work to spur our imaginative engagement wth a situation. Or think how much the religions achieve with the use of icons as aids to devotion; if lumps of bronze help millons of people commune with a deity, surely we can enhance telepresence using other kinds of objects.

Think of photographs. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about kissing the picture of one's beloved. "When we kiss a photograph, we do not expect to conjour up a spectacular manifestation of the person in the picture represents - but the action is nonetheless satisfying".

Evolutionary psychologists believe that magical ways of thinking may be hardwired into us, and cite as evidence the human capacity to invest inanimate objects with meaning...souvenirs, heirlooms, chldhood toys, objets d'art, dolls, totems, talsmans, and charms.

It's probably a matter of timing. Here we are at Pixelache, and the world needs artful telepresence more urgently than before. Can we please get on with it? Now!

Posted by John Thackara at 05:22 AM | Comments (0)

March 11, 2008

Traveling without moving using zombie processes

I'm running ths story again because the > Pixelache Uni final programme has just been publshed.

* * *

OK, so you know and I know that air travel is simply not sustainable. But we do it anyway because we are hypocrites (I took 78 flights last year) and also because substitutes for mobility, such as videoconferencing, simply don't afford the same quality of interaction. Despite decades of development (the first videophone was launched by IBM in 1964) tele-hugs are simply not the same as the real thing.

But what happens if people like me stop being hypocrites and/or, during some near-future eco-political paroxysm, which I'm sure will come, air travel is banned or curtailed? In that case, we'll have to make to do with mobility substitutes - and find ways to improve the experience.

The reasons why channels such as videoconferencing are so dissatisfying are complex - but the issues are not new. Philosophers have been perplexed by the relationship between body and experience for 2,000 years, and Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote a whole essay about "kissing the picture of one's beloved". Latterly, cognitive scientists such as Andy Clark have explained in some detail the ways that our brain, body, and world "are united in a complex dance of circular causation and extended computational activity. The biological brain is populated by a vast number of hidden 'zombie processes' that underpin the skills and capacities in which successful behaviour depends". These unknown, and possible unknowable aspects of consciousness are also why game designers talk about the "Uncanny Valley" that a player enters, no matter how high the resolution of the interface being used, when starting a game.

Zombie processes will feature in an event we are helping to organise at Pixelache University in March. Our host is Pixelache's Rektor Juha Huuskonen . I am preparing a paper for the event called "The Face to Face Meeting in The Age of Digital Reproduction". (It's 70 years since Walter Benjamin wrote 'The Work Of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproducton' and I will ask whether we might design virtual encounters more effectively if we were look more to iconography, ritual, and the poetic imagination - and less to brute bandwidth). Joining us will be media artist Daniel Peltz, and the son of a pilot and an air stewardess, now design entrepreneur Andreas Zachariah.

Before you start barfing, yes I will fly there. But I'm committed to reduce my flights by 90% within ten years - so for me this subject is serious and practical. Saturday 15 March, Kiasma Theatre, Helsinki. You need to register here.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:24 AM | Comments (8)

July 24, 2007

How to counter greenwash: measure what matters - and make it visible

The term greenwashing applies when companies (or governments) spend more money or time advertising being green, than on investing in environmentally sound practices.

In business, greenwashing often means changing the name and/or label. Early warning signs that a product is probably toxic include images of trees, birds, or dew drops. If all three are on the box, the product will probably make your skin peel off in seconds.

London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, complained recently that government rather than commerce is holding up progress on climate change. He described the UK energy review as "dishonest spin" and the latest G8 meeting as a "carnival of debate".

But the UK government is also taking important steps that, in the medium term, will be a powerful deterrent against greenwash.

The Carbon Trust and UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have announced that they will work with BSI British Standards to co-sponsor the development of a Publicly Available Specification (PAS). This will be a standard method for measuring the embodied green house gas (GHG) emissions in products and services across a wide range of product and service categories and their supply chains. The aim is to enable companies to measure the GHG related impacts of their products, understand the life-cycle climate change impacts of their products, and highlight significant emissions reduction opportunities. The intention is that this is the first step in moving towards an internationally agreed standard for measuring embodied GHG emissions.

Also this week in the UK, it was announced that a new offsetting code will be launched by the Government later this year. Offsetting is a complex subject (well explained here) and George Monbiot, in a celebrated text, described offsetting as an excuse for business as usual. There are indeed cowboy firms out there, but the whole industry has suffered because there is no way reliably to measure the claims of those offering to offset carbon emissions.

Some will complain that both the PAS and the offsetting code will be voluntary. Companies will be able to choose whether or not to seek accreditation for some or all of their products and services. The PAS scheme, in particular, is aimed explicitly at companies, and is not designed to empower citizens to make critical purchasing decisions.

But these are early days. As governments and international institutions, responding to political pressure, impose order on environmental reporting systems, we designers can reveal and repurpose the data in creative ways.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:41 AM | Comments (0)

October 10, 2006

Design us a Stuff-O-Meter

The amount of matter and energy wasted during the manufacture of a single laptop computer (like the one your're using now, perhaps) is close to a thousand times its weight on your lap. But this vast ecological rucksack remains invisible - out of sight and out of mind. Designs of the time (Dott07) has teamed up with Design and Art Direction (D&AD) in a challenge to design students to come up with a stuff-o-meter that would lift the veil on the hidden history of the everyday products we take for granted.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:30 AM | Comments (0)

October 05, 2006


Yesterday's Doors of Perception Report pointed you to an out-of-date url. The Call for the D&AD stuff-o-metre competition is here

Posted by John Thackara at 12:34 PM | Comments (0)

August 22, 2006

War as a brand

I found it weird (in the story below) that brand marketing should be proposed as an appropriate response to climate change. Now I read in Mute that Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi, last year advised the US Department of Defence on rebranding war. In a speech to the military reported in Brandweek he says: "I’m going to show you how we create emotional connections with consumers, and how we inspire Loyalty Beyond Reason". Roberts argues that ‘Brand America” should call its struggle, the "Fight for a Better World". Roberts find this to be "more inclusive, more optimistic and more engaging". He goes on to advise the military "not to abandon the mass market, but to transform it with multiple emotional connections," and concludes: "Deploy Mystery, Sensuality and Intimacy to create America as a Lovemark".

I didn't make this up. If someone else did, I apologise to Mr Roberts for suggesting that it's time he emigrated from La La Land.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:02 AM | Comments (3)

August 11, 2006

Seven 9/11s a year in Europe

Apropos the security situation in London: "Loss of life might have surpassed the 2,700 killed in the attack on the twin towers in New York five years ago. "This was our 9/11," a British security source said.

It's a good thing that a lot of people were not blown up yesterday. Sadly, our security services were unable to prevent the deaths of 20,000 people last year on Europe's roads. That's seven 9/11s in a single year. As I wrote here yesterday the death toll from the Madrid bombings represented twelve days of death on Spanish roads.

Yesterday's plotters, say 'unnamed sources', planned to carry liquid explosives onto planes disguised as Coca Cola bottles. This danger, too, is not new. As I reported here a year ago, 67,000 people are injured each year, in the UK alone, trying to open a ring-pull can or peel the cellophane off a packet of sandwiches.

Quoting statistics may sound like a flippant response to a serious situation in which peoples lives are at stake. But what's the alternative? My proposal in Designers and the Age of Fear was that designers can use their communication skills to help people judge risk in a rational way.

I will publish here - and pass on to some newspaper friends - the best visualizations you can come up with to put different kinds of risk in perspective.

Meanwhile, one or two designers are doing well out of the fear business. Googling "design" and "homeland security" yielded 600,000 hits in August 2004. The score last year was 3,220,000. Its score today? 24,900,000.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:48 AM | Comments (1)

July 03, 2006

Media war

Apropos doing it, vs making media about it: Yesterday's Sunday Times in London contained an extraordinary account of fighting and near-death encounters in Afghanistan. The narrative concludes with the following surreal event: “Tribal elders are shown into a room where a projector has been set up. Someone in London has come up with the idea of making a film to show locals. It comprises five minutes of the underwater BBC series, Blue Planet, followed by a message from the Governor of Helmand, followed by five more minutes of Blue Planet. The tribal leaders sit in utter bafflement as images of whales and dolphins are projected on the wall”. (Sunday Times, 2 July 2006 page 4).

Posted by John Thackara at 08:41 AM | Comments (0)

June 02, 2006

What's in a name?

Do ethnographers need exotic names to do well in business? A story in Business Week features two guys called "J. Wilton L. Agatstein Jr" (who runs Intel's new emerging-markets unit) and "Timothy deWaal Malefyt" (an anthropologist who runs 'cultural discovery' at ad firm BBDO Worldwide). The readers of Business Week seem to be sceptical about the subject as a whole. A reader called Don complains - of the ethnographically-researched product that opens the story - that "the S50 is not a good design. It lacks the ability to resume playback on power-up from where it left off".

Posted by John Thackara at 06:32 AM | Comments (0)

March 17, 2006

Utopia by design? Creative communities in Europe

An international seminar on design, welfare and local development takes place in Milan on 28 March. The event concludes the two year Emude project (in which Doors is a partner) that explored social innovation in 10 European countries. Emude is a Europe-wide investigation into the phenomenon of people who, in a wide range of contexts, invent new ways of carrying out daily life activities. This botom-up innovation by creative communities is found throughout Europe's knowledge-based societies.This phenomenon of diffused creativity has the potential, we believe, to drive the major social and economic changes that will be needed during the transition to sustainability. Emude investigated these creative communities with from a design perspective. That is to say, we observed their ideas and practices with an eye to the design and deployment of enabling platforms. Enabling platforms would enable creative communities to be innovative more effectively - and to multiply. They are infrastructure systems based on products, services, communication and governance tools. These platforms, we surmise, would enable larger numbers of people to solve daily life problems in an active way. Sometimes these activities will generate shared or common goods, and a new sense of citizenship.
In summary, the key results of Emude, which will be dioscussed at the seminar, are:
a) the identification of creative communites - and descriptions of their role in a knowledge based society as key actors in the transition towards sustainability
b) definition of the notion of diffused social enterprise and discussion of its potential role in the fields of active welfare and sustainable local development
c) an initial description of the enabling platforms that could enhance the effectivenesss of the diffused social enterprise
d) proposal of an policy agenda for bottom-up initiatives - a list of actions to be taken to create a better environment for creative communities to arise, and to evolve as strong, scalable, social enterprises. (An online book about the 56 cases at the centre of Emude will be published in April).
Milan, 28 March, 09.30-13.00h. Politecnico di Milano, Campus Bovisa, Via Durando 10, Aula CT46.Carla Cipolla

Posted by John Thackara at 06:28 AM | Comments (0)

March 01, 2006

The first critic of "creative industries"

The Situationists were early critics of the creative industries. They rejected the idea that art is a specialized profession, or that its task is to produce spectacles for consumption. The only time their leaders came to London (in 1961), one of them, Guy Debord, was to speak at the Institute of Creative Arts - a place that is awash in creatives to this day. In the absence of a platform speech, an audience member stood up to ask: "What is Situationism about?". Upon which Debord replied: "We're not here to answer cuntish questions" - and the Situationists walked out. I love this childish story, but repeat it here by way of a public service announcement that a retrospective, in New York, of all of Debord’s six films is to take place on Sunday 5 March 5 at Chashama.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:00 AM | Comments (0)

February 23, 2006

In search of fuzzy time

The Guardian is flogging an absurdly over-the-top watch on its website. Because the watch is radio-controlled, accuracy is guaranteed to "within one second in a million years". The watch also boasts five daily alarms, a 1/100 second stopwatch, and world time. The Guardian promises that "you should never be late for a meeting or over-run on your parking meter ever again". Wisely, the paper does not promise that you will stop being a sad person.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:53 AM | Comments (0)

January 22, 2006

Risk assessment as a design issue

I've been called priggish for insisting that some issues deserve more design attention than others. The trouble is that we are not good at judging risk - especially long-term ones - as a society, and when big issues get overlooked at the expense of insignificant ones, we end up mis-spending our creative energies. An example of skewed risk assessment from last week: British newspapers - and television followed meekly along - have been filled with terrifying stories about the danger to children of pedophile teachers in schools. Now I have a teenage daughter in an English school, and even one molestation of a child is a crime too many. But this lurid coverage is clearly motivated less by concern for child safety than by the urge to sell newspapers. Fact: according to government statistics, the number of cautions or convictions for sexual offences against children has been declining steadily in recent years - and of the sexual crimes against children that do take place, a third are carried out by adolescents, and 80 per cent take place in the child’s home, or in the home of the perpetrator. Now, compare the danger posed to children by "pedo teachers" to the fact that 4,863 children under 16 were killed or seriously injured in road accidents or as pedestrians last year. Do the papers denounce cars as a present threat to children? No, they don't: They run endless stories and ads promoting cars. And the number of children killed and maimed by cars is itself insignificant compared to the environmental degredation billions of children will inherit as a result of design actions taken by all of us today. I know, I know: I'm being moralistic again - and tedious bad-news eco-stories don't sell papers. But I don't have to like it.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:57 PM | Comments (0)

January 16, 2006

BT's tinpot dictator

"Enjoy the future" raves British Telecom, in its Technology Timeline for 2006-2050. BT spoils the effect by warning of wildcards, that "may happen at any time", that include "international financial collapse" and "the possible rise of a machine dictator". I'm sanguine about the second of these problems: the rise of a cyber-Stalin will be welcome after the totalitarian regime of Wanadon't that persecutes us today.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:19 PM | Comments (1)

December 14, 2005

Semiotic pollution

My attention was drawn by offbrand to an article by Owen Gibson in The Guardian entitled ‘Shoppers eye view of ads that pass us by’. Owen used a recently developed set of spectacles, connected to a video camera and recording device, to monitor the quantity of marketing messages to which the modern consumer is exposed. "To cut to the chase" says offbrand, "Owen saw 250 adverts during a 90 minute journey through central London - for more than 100 brands in over 70 different media - and this is before you factor in any spam texts or emails that might have fallen into his inbox during this period. And the number of adverts he could recall, unprompted? One". This is excellent ammo for my periodic rants about the semiotic pollution (a term coined by Ezio Manzini) perpetrated by the morons of adland. Until now, I've been quoting a rather old study by Absolut Vodka, in NYC, which discovered that Manhattanites are exposed to 250 messages in a morning.
What I also want to know is this: what are the physiological consequences of the large, high intensity LED screens of the kind that gave me a headache in Kings Cross Station in London this morning? I'm collecting evidence that push media in public spaces are bad for our bodies as well as what's left of our minds.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:55 AM | Comments (2)

October 07, 2005

Hypocritical, moi?

The latest edition of the Dutch architecture magazine Archis is on the theme "doing almost nothing". The new Archis (which is now published jointly with AMO, the research arm of Rem Koolhaas's design office) includes a diatribe against people who "travel to conferences around the world to talk about global warming, design and sustainability". I do not deny my own membership of this club - indeed, it cannot have many other members - so I take seriously a challenge by Archis to "ponder on the critical question: whether you are an environmentalist, an ecologist, or a hypocrite". It's a fair question: every time I fly, I contribute my share to the 600 million tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year by air travel. I started mentally to prepare an answer for my debate next week with Rem Koolhaas, Archis' main backer. But Koolhaas has just cancelled: he has to fly to China to attend to a Big Project. Don't cancel your trip to London: the debate goes ahead. We'll just have to discuss hypocrisy in design among ourselves. 14 October (14h-16h) Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (

Posted by John Thackara at 06:02 PM | Comments (1)

September 13, 2005

Yell when you hear a whistle

I'm running a workshop at Experimenta in Lisbon this Friday on 'designers in the age of fear'. The design research economy is being massively distorted by our inability to make sound judgements about risk and priorities. For example, Googling "design" and "homeland security" today yields a score of 10,900,000. Enormous research resources have been flowing towards homeland security (HS) and its European equivalents since 9/11. Estimates are that total HS outlays—by federal, state, local, and private entities in the United States—grew from $5 billion in 2000 to $85 billion in 2004, with a forecast that they will grow to $130 billion—and possibly as high as $210 billion by 2010. Yes, three thousand people died horribly on 9/11 - but that same number perish every single day as a result of road traffic injuries - and if you Google "design" and "road traffic injuries" the score is a pitiful 12,600. And guess what: these massive HS outlays on design are often ineffective. For example, I learned today that safety symbols designed to instruct American citizens how to react if terrorists strike may confuse them. According to an article in Ergonomics in Design, the HS symbol meaning 'Use a whistle if one is available. Shout only as a last resort' was interpreted to mean, 'Yell when you hear a whistle.' Based on published safety standards, the journal authors conclude, up to 79 percent of HS safety symbols are 'unacceptable for communicating hazard-related information.' I suppose a few billion more will be now spent to fix that problem and then, when the next disaster strikes, millions of Americans will be instructed to....whistle. (I write about this topic at greater length in the November edition of Interactions).

Posted by John Thackara at 07:19 AM | Comments (0)

August 25, 2005

Carbon neutral art

What would it mean to organise live art events that did not require large concrete museums or that people travel long distances to particpate? In early 1980s Moscow, private apartments were turned into collective immersive experiences during a project called APTART. I learned about APTART, (which someone should revive) thanks to the fascinating East Art Map. EAM documents previously overlooked moments in Eastern Europe contemporary art between 1945 and the present. An East Art Map Newsletter is supposed to have been published from October 2004, but I can't find it. Has anyone seen it?

Posted by John Thackara at 07:24 AM | Comments (0)

August 03, 2005

What you don't know with a mobile phone

It was thanks to the new blog for Wikimania - the first international wikimedia conference which starts tomorrow in Frankfurt - that I learned about the latest exaggerated claim about contribution of mobile phones to knowledge.Cellphedia is billed as 'the 1st Ubiquitous Social Encyclopedia...(it) creates the ability to carry all the knowledge of the world in your pocket'. All? Or some? Or a tiny bit? I'd buy into Cellphedia like a shot if only the word 'written' were to be inserted before the word knowledge. A lot of what we know, we know by virtue of having bodies - and cellphone displays do not lend themselves to the transfer of that kind of knowledge. Some philosophers argue that the knowledge we take in by reading is about one millionth of the total quantity of sensations we experience through our bodies. It sounds to me as if Cellphedia's designer, Limor Garcia, would enjoy meeting with Paul Dourish: he wrote an excellent book about the design implications of the proposition that knowledge is embodied.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:50 AM | Comments (0)

July 22, 2005

Vital signs

Half of all the energy consumed by human beings is used in or by buildings - but for the most part invisibly. Worldchanging has profiled a neat monitoring system by David Vogt at Kondra Systems that sets out to answer the questions: ‘how much power does that microwave take to pop that bag of popcorn? What about your toaster or coffee maker? How much power does that 'energy efficient' refrigerator actually use? And does it really make a difference if you turn all those lights off all the time?’ Vogt's project answers these questions elegantly - only to raise a new one: having made the invisible visible, how might the users of buildings respond meaningfully to the information it reveals? I recently abandoned a half-finished book about knowledge maps because of this dilemma. I discovered that thousands of affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times including many to do with buildings. Physicists have illustrated quarks. Biologists have mapped the genome. Doctors have found ways to represent immune systems in the body. Network designers have mapped communication flows in buildings. Managers have charted the locations of expertise in their organizations. Our world is filling up fast with representations of invisible or complex phenomena. But most of them are made and used by specialists as objects of research. The design challenge is not just how to design them, but also how to deploy these representations in such a way that they change behaviour. A brilliant book by Luis Fernández-Galiano called Fire and Memory: On Architecture and Energy puts this second challenge into historical context: visualizations of complex phenomena can attract attention—but the development of a shared vision of where we want to be is the harder part. (My book on knowledge maps morphed into a chapter on systems literacy in my new book. An extract is online).

Posted by John Thackara at 07:38 AM | Comments (0)

July 13, 2005

Watching the watchers

“The anthropologist starts by observing everyday life, with all its odd little patterns, and tries to work out how computers might fit into that”. (That was Gillian Tett in the FT). It sounds innocuous if you believe the insertion of computing into a daily life activity to be an ethically neutral act - but is it? In one of the livelier debates at Doors 8 in Delhi, some people found innovation enabled by anthropology to be neutral, others did not. I later ranted about amoral practices in adland. An opportunity to continue this debate is the first Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) which takes place in Redmond (hosted by Microsoft Research) in November. (The deadline for papers is 17 June, so don't delay if you want to contribute). The Epic website states that the conference will "promote the use of ethnographic corporate settings" - and I found a picture of anthropology students at work in a particularly grim corporate setting in this paper. But the experience of our colleagues in South Asia at the Centre for Knowledge Societies (CKS) seems to be different. Their business clients usually ask them to look at 'ordinary' people on the street, or at home - not, per se, in offices.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:13 PM | Comments (0)

June 21, 2005

On the map, off the wall

Is this happening a lot? I've been sent a map,"The Creative Map of Arnhem and Gelderland". (It's a pleasant area in the west of the Netherlands). The map plots the street address of every member of the creative class. It informs me that a fine artist named Stolker lives in Koningstraat, as does a graphic designer named Beltman; he (or she) lives just round the corner from a dancer named De Zeeuw. And so on; the map includes 4,386 names. The map is not the work of a lone crank; it is well-executed, and has been sponsored by the chamber of commerce, several local art schools, and by two national design organisations. Its blurb says the map aims to improve the visibility and accessibility of the creative sector - although to judge by the density of names they (it) are pretty hard to miss. If you think that I am whingeing endlessly, then do say so. Perhaps these mapping exercises are a modern form of trainspotting: pointless, but harmless. If that's your opinion, you'll probably enjoy the the map's festive opening party on Saturday. Curiously, I have not been invited.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:21 AM | Comments (0)

June 08, 2005

Ethnography and service design (cont.)

Understanding context - especially if the context is New York City - is easier said than done.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:40 AM | Comments (0)

May 21, 2005

How design evolves

Every year the Institute For The Future publishes a map of the decade (ahead). The 2005 version is not yet online, but I was delighted to learn, during my visit to Palo Alto this week, that Jason Tester, an alumnus of Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, is helping IFTF enhance its maps by the development of 'artefacts from the future'. At Ivrea, the design of enticing representations of imagined futures was regarded as a core process, and a technique was introduced there by the English service designers Live|Work. Live|Work called their technique evidencing. One of the roots of evidencing, in turn, was the development by Tony Dunne and Bill Gaver of "cultural probes" at the Royal College of Art during the late 1990s (where the Live|Work guys studied interaction design). I don't suggest that a linear history is playing out here - but every now and again in the chaotic blizzard of life one briefly glimpses tracks in the snow.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:38 PM | Comments (2)

May 11, 2005

Collective intelligence

The notion of collective intelligence, a term coined by the French philosopher Pierre Levy, continues to engage original thinkers. In France, Jean-François Noubel has published a paper called Collective Intelligence: The Invisible Revolution . And Michel BauwensI has sent me the draft of an essay on Peer to peer as the premise of a new mode of civilization . I'm on the road right now so act only, on this occasion, as a signpost.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:56 PM | Comments (1)

March 29, 2005

Acoustic interlude

Ten days offline, but not in silence. From my New Delhi lodging house in Defence Colony I heard no airconditioning roar or traffic. What I did hear was: Pigeons fidgeting in the metal box above my window that used to contain the airconditioning unit. The long moans of freight train horns as they slowly cross the city. Dogs fighting. Monkeys monkeying. Birds, I think cranes, that miaaow like cats while swooping overhead. Countless insects that shout loudly at each other. People sweeping leaves off their drive. Other people saying “ssshhhh” in an effort to persuade cows to move out of the way. Sometimes they do. There are also the cries of street traders on a variety of bikes: the man with eggs; the man with the pink and red fruit; the knife sharpener man; the man with brightly coloured brushes and feather dusters who looks like a huge electrocuted parrot as he moves with his wares up the street. Later I hear there is a mattress rumpling man, but I had no need of his services.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:02 AM | Comments (0)

March 02, 2005

Have we unleashed a monster?

A full-page story in yesterday’s Financial Times (March 1, page 9) waxes lyrical about ‘reality tv for the boardroom’ – and goes on to describe the use of video footage to ‘reduce the growing distance between the corporate elite and consumers’. Executives in multinational companies, understates the FT, ‘often find themselves doing business in places they know little about’ (but) ‘corporate reality tv enables highly paid executives to cross the class divide and get a glimpse into the lives of regular people – that is, their consumers’. In one example cited, Singapore-based Ogilvy RedCard videos ‘the secret lives of consumers’ – for example, by following young Japanese women into bathrooms at discos, where they are seen to reapply makeup a lot. ‘Video research has struck a particular chord with executives at pharma companies’ the story concludes; ‘they are intrigued with witnessing suffering’.The thought of corporate leaders ‘crossing the class divide’ by watching videos of sick people in distant lands is not a pleasant one – but do we share some responsibiity for this grotesque outcome? At Doors events over recent years, we’ve showcased what designers call ‘video ethnography’ as a promising but uncontroversial tool for interaction designers. Indeed, we’re running a workshop on the subject in Delhi as part of Doors 8. The FT story is a wake-up call: video ethnography is not a neutral activity: we must be much more critical about the way it’s used, and by whom.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:40 PM | Comments (0)

December 21, 2004


The threatened flood of post-election refugees from the US to Europe did not materialise - but many of our US friends do still sound nervous. So we found the perfect Christmas gift: a high-level security system designed for maximum protection in various hostile environments. "With this unit you don't have to run to a Safe Room, you're already in it" promises the blurb.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:12 PM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2004

Do surveys make you blind?

The world is awash in reports, from think tanks and research companies, telling us what the next social or tech trend is going to be. Europe's research policy makers had a good idea: aggregate the best of these, and see what picture emerges. They created the Fistera network to bring together national foresight exercises on information society issues in the Enlarged Europe. Fistera recently asked 505 experts to prioritise research issues for 2010. The resulting report contains dozens of bar charts but, at the end of the day, it's like reading 50 blogs that all link to each other: the gamekeeper/fox conclusion that emerged was that the number one priority is "establishing more user-friendly systems". It's a great business model: first, you fill the world full of clunky systems that don't work properly, and stress out the citizenry - then you demand a ton of money to make them "usable".

Posted by John Thackara at 06:28 PM | Comments (0)

What don't I get?

I found some amazing new numbers in a 2004 survey of attitudes to consumption in the United States. More than eight out of ten Americans believe that society's priorities are "out of whack" and 93 percent agree that Americans are too focused on working and making money and not enough on family and community. More than 8 in 10 say they would be more satisfied with life if they just had less stress. 40 percent of Americans have made conscious decisions to buy less. since 9/11. 95 percent agree that today's youth are too focused on buying and consuming. 83 percent agree that the way we live consumes too many resources. 81 percent agree that protecting the environment will require most of us to make major changes in the way we live. 71 percent of respondents say that our dependence on oil leads to conflicts and wars with other countries. And so on and so on. So what I don't get is this: why are the markets not nosediving?

Posted by John Thackara at 06:03 PM | Comments (0)

December 09, 2004

Market density

The picture shows the number of fairs and markets per year, in 1732, in the Occitania region in the south of France (where I live). The small blobs denote three fairs per year, the biggest one, 13. I've decided to perceive the picture as a visualization of two things: street life intensity, and infrastructure for small-area food distribution. Please send me your nominations for social infrastructure graphic of the year (which we'll show in Delhi).
Source: Pierre-Albert Clement. 'Foires et Marches d'Occitanie.: de l'antiquite a l'an 2000'. Montpellier, Les Presses du Languedoc, 1999.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:47 AM | Comments (0)

November 08, 2004

Crash test dummies

For many veterans of early Doors of Perception conferences, Rick Prelinger's talks were a highlight. Illustrated by American movie and advertising ephemera, Rick's presentations featured American children, animals, farmers, industrial workers, superheroes, pioneers heading West, crash test dummies, and many others. Now Rick works at the Internet Archive and has made a

Posted by John Thackara at 02:58 PM | Comments (0)

October 31, 2004

Flying Blind With Unisys

Last week I commented on the puerile computer game imagery being used in corporate advertising by firms like BT. Its now Unisys' turn to insult our intelligence with its "3D Visible Enterprise" campaign. Every sentence is sententious. "It’s more predictable because it’s visible". "Imagine any change, and know how it will affect every layer and process of your organization". "You can see cause-effect relationships that were hidden". "A highly predictive tool that allows you to see the results of your decisions before you make them". This laughable guff flies in the face of 2,000 years of philosophical enquiry - not to mention more recent insights into the hard-to-preduct behaviour of complex systems. Dear Unisys: cancel this absurd campaign and give Doors of perception ten percent of the un-spent budget: it will save you from ridicule, and make you a smarter company.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:06 PM | Comments (0)

October 29, 2004

Miffed Missive From Massive

Bruce Mau has written to say he is "surprised" by the tone and content of my email newsletter piece last week about his new exhibiton, Massive Change.

What I said originally was:
"We will build a global mind. We will design evolution. We will eradicate poverty". No ifs and no buts are discernable in Bruce Mau's new exhibition, Massive Change, which has opened in Vancouver. The website boasts that "few things remain beyond the reach of our fantastically augmented vision" - but it's nonetheless hard to see from a distance whether such proclamations are meant ironically. The masculine, can-do, rhetorical style of Massive Change seems on first encounter to be a conversation stopper rather than starter. That said, the book promises a "cautious look at our limitations" as well. To January 3 2005, Vancouver Art Gallery.

I did not mean to sound cynical - and if that's what came across, I regret that. I spend much of my time telling non-design people that, although many of our problems are the result of poor design decisions, designers, as a group, should not be blamed. But a real backlash is brewing against the perceived notion that designers are arrogant and pay far too little attention to the possible downsides of their actions. Harry Kunzru's new book Transmission, for example, (it's about Bollywood movies and computer viruses) includes a pretty sharp attack on "Design". Design is bound to get hammered by a NoLogo type of book in the near future.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:21 PM | Comments (1)

October 16, 2004

Care and time

Britain's National Health Service has identified five "key dimensions of patient experience" - and time and speed issues dominate. The top two issues are first, waiting times for appointments, and access to services; and second, time given to discuss health/medical problems face-to-face with health care professionals. A third priority, "safe, high quality, co-ordinated care", included a need for out of hours calls as a major determinant of satisfaction. Read the whole story:

Posted by John Thackara at 02:16 PM | Comments (0)

October 05, 2004


Has anyone else noticed how the tv ads of tech companies are becoming indistinguishable from computer games? IBM, British Telecom and Hewlett Packard have all released TV commercials and print ads that feature young professionals floating, gravity-free, in abstract urban spaces. High altitude, low-bandwidth thinking in action.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:21 PM | Comments (0)