The ‘cellular church’

I carried two psychological burdens on the promotional tour for my book earlier this year. One was the knowledge that a competitor is published every thirty seconds; every day I was on the road, the ranks of new titles swelled by 2,880. My second burden was awareness that Rick Warren’s ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ sold 500,000 copies a month during its first two years, and is projected to reach 100 million. I found it hard to accept that my own book might not sell quite so well. Now I at least know how Rick does it: He has built a ‘Cellular Church’ that is based on small groups for whom his book is a kind of primer. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in this week’s New Yorker (12 September) Rick’s small groups ‘focus on practical applications of spirituality…not on abstract knowledge, or even on ideas for the sake of ideas themselves’.

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How to rebuild, or how to be?

The papers today say that rebuilding after Katrina will cost the same as the war in Iraq. In the unlikely event that so much money is forthcoming, what will it be spent on? Are new freeways and malls the wisest way to rebuild? Before firms like Halliburton start pouring concrete, a moment’s pause is in order. One interesting vantage point from which to consider alternatives to business-as-usual rebuilding is the New Economics Foundation’s Well-being manifesto.

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Trans-Siberian mobicast

If mobility is a new place, then this event is the place to be.

Capturing the Moving Mind is a conference on board the Trans-Siberian train. It’s about new forms of movement and control, war and economy, in the current situation. An opening discussion of the blurring borderlines between art, economy and politics takes place at Kurvi tomorrow. After that, m-cult and Kiasma have organised web documentation of the event as it moves from Helsinki through Moscow and Novosibirsk to its destination in Beijing. 50 international researchers, artists and activists participating in the mobile conference will form a mobile production unit aboard the train. For the audiovisual streams, Adam Hyde and Luka Princic have developed a ‘mobicasting’ platform which enables mobile transmission of material on the web from tomorrow (September 7).There will also be a moving radio station on the train

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The Internet of Oz

What might the Internet be like in 2010? Darren Sharp, whom some of you met at Doors 8 in Delhi, is co-author of a hefty new Australian report called Smart Internet 2010. An executive summary is here. The 2010 Report provides, in narrative form, a range of expert opinion on future possibilities for Australia in Open Source and social network technologies, e-health, digital games, voice applications and mobiles. Old-paradigm language – lots of ‘end users’ and ‘consumers’ – permeates the introductory remarks of Senator Coonan; but she would not be the first politician to pay for a report and yet not read it. For the report itself draws on sound advice from wise souls such as Cory Doctorow and Howard Rheingold. It concludes that ‘the Smart Internet of 2010 is likely to become the platform for personal connectedness’. My own take is that culture and institutions change far more slowly than most futurists would have us believe; the best way to find out what things will be like in 2010 is by going out the door and seeing what they’re like now.

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Infra is also social

Two of the most striking images from New Orleans feature helicopters. In one shot, a helicopter is dropping 15,000 bags of sand onto rushing waters that will obviously wash them away. In the second, the president projects a concerned gaze onto the diaster from a similar height. Engineering to control nature needs a social base and political consensus to be effective – and those are missing in New Orleans.
The creation of new land out of water, and keeping it dry, is a several centuries old tradition in the Netherlands. The famous Delta Works, the biggest Dutch public project ever, created giant pumping stations, dikes, and modern tidal protection systems, to keep the water from the sea and the rivers out. Behind these impressive achievements were the engineers and planners of Rijkswaterstaat (Directorate General for Public Works and Water Management). These were the true ‘makers’ of Holland who the writer Den Doolaard called ‘Water Wizards’. But these engineers have only been able to keep Holland dry because the Dutch sense of civic duty, solidarity and the commonweal: the need to take care of the dikes collectively is socially embedded, with the dike-warden as the key figure: he (I think they are all he) can order people to work in the dykes for the greater good of shared protection from the water. Without the tradition of the dike-warden, and his approach to managing the water by marshalling collective social effort, the Dutch ‘polder model’ of shared responsibility, consensus and a degree of skill at living together in a small space, would cease to work. Organisations like Future Water are doing fascinating work on the physical management of water, but the sobering lesson of the last days is that, if the social fabric goes, so too do the physical defences.

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2-D cities

A quck reminder about the conference Urban Screens being organised by Mirjam Struppek in Amsterdam in three weeks from now. Presentations address the growing acreage of large digital moving displays that increasingly pervade our public spaces. Can the mainly commercial use of these screens be broadened to include cultural agendas? A question I hope will also be discussed: Do culture people have any more right than commercial types to fill up the visual landscape with push media? Struppek has collected an interesting array of images and project profiles at the website; if we all add to the collection, it will become a very useful resource.

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Toys for the boys?

A mesmerising shopping list of new ‘research infrastructures’ has been sent to the the European Commission by a committee of top scientists. These new toys – sorry, ‘tools’ – range from an Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) for optical astronomy, to a research icebreaker called Aurora Borealis, and a facility for antiproton and ion research called FAIR. The price tags are fair, too: they range from ‘less than 100 million’ euros, to one billion-plus. Its authors describe the list as ‘well-balanced’ even though just two of its 23 projects concern human beings. Can this have anything to do with the gender profile of European science? Women represent 27 percent of the scientific workforce in EU countries, but the proportion of women in senior research positions is extremely small. In Austria, for example, only 4 percent of full professors are female, compared to a (still not brilliant) 14 percent in the United States.

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Cooperative multiplatform warfare

What exactly is an ‘information society’ and do we want to live in one? The European Commission has published a new plan, called i2010 for ‘the completion of a Single European Information Space’. The Commission proposes an 80% increase in funding for ICT research focused on areas where Europe has recognised strengths: nanoelectronics, embedded systems, communications, and ’emerging areas such as web-services and cognitive systems’. Now you probably knew, but I did not, that Europe is a leader in cognitive systems. To be frank, I had no idea what they are, or do. So I checked them out. They are ‘artificial systems that can interpret data arising from real-world events and processes (mainly in the form of data-streams from sensors of all types and in particular from visual and/or audio sources); acquire situated knowledge of their environment; act, make or suggest decisions and communicate with people on human terms, thereby support them in performing complex tasks’. Sounds straightforward enough. But what might those ‘complex tasks’ be? A helpful collection of examples is to be found at the website of COGIS 06 , a watering hole of the cognitive systems crowd. To judge by the list of special sessions, an ‘information society’ will be a warlike one. The first topic on the list concerns ‘cooperative multiplatform warfare’, a condition that will feature ‘the human control of multiple unmanned aerial vehicles in collaborative missions’. Until, that is, they run amok. The Commission does say that social aspects of ICT are important in delivering public value. But it’s not easy to judge from the budget breakdown how research spending on ‘public value’ compares with that on cooperative multiplatform warfare. Will someone from the Commission enlighten me, and thereby dispel my nagging doubts?

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Urban planners in Fused Space

Can new technology improve the quality of public space? We know that technology changes the ways we use public space, but the most important ways tend not to have been consciously designed – they just happened. The widespread use of text-2-meet, for example, was not anticipated by the people who invented text messaging; and many of the egregious phone services dreamed up by marketing agencies disappeared without trace – in most cases deservedly. In this context, it was a lot of fun to be a juror on last year’s Fused Space design competition. Fused Space was inspired by the question: can artists and designers do a better job than the marketing industry in creating new application for ITC in public space? The 300+ entries satisfied this juror, at least, that the answer is yes. Fused Space has now become an exhibition – confusingly re-named Fused Space Database – at the Stroom arts centre in The Hague. Using a barcode scanner or a database, visitors can follow several trails through the many ideas raised by the competition’s proposals. On 21 September, a meeting will be held for city and regional policymakers to discuss whether the ideas raised in Fused Space might be used in real-world planning and development.

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