Tag Archives: lectures

“Why We Play”…

Pat Kane gathered an interesting panel for Edinburgh International Science Festival to discuss “Why We Play”: a biologist, a social scientist – and a games creator.

It was a fascinating discussion, raising lots of questions – perhaps most importantly, “what is play?” Not fully answered, if only because once you define it, it stops being play! – and giving many answers to the implicit question of why, but that’s fine – it was thought-provoking, and for me that was the point.

There are of course problems. Defining “play” seems difficult – it is one of those behaviours that we all recognise and understand the meaning of, but can’t really define. Patrick Bateson (a biologist, and hence something of a taxonomist too) laid out five characteristics of play:

  • it is intrinsically motivated – there is no or limited external reward
  • it has no immediate benefit
  • it is sensitive to wellbeing (to the extent, Bateson felt, of being an indicator of it)
  • it most common, but not exclusively so, among the young

But these don’t seem exclusive behaviours – unless one includes activities like reading and artistic endeavours in the definition (perfectly plausible – the discussion went on to discuss creativity, so maybe art is just another, “creative” form of play?). Maybe it is best not to get lost in semantics, though as Bateson pointed out, scientists (and, presumably, other academics) need to be able to define something to study it.

Mammals play (cats, anyone? Chimps, dolphins, you name it…); birds play (and learn from it); humans play. In mammals – including us – play can be social or directed at objects, as we (and other animals) learn to manipulate the world around us.

Obligatory cat photo: cats do it…

Bateson also highlighted that “play” is a homonym: as well as play itself, we play sports, playmusic and play in the theatre. We even play with data…

He also pointed out a difference – which I am not sure I really get – between rule-based play and “playful play”. Many games are structured – particularly in competitive play and sports – and the structure brings meaning to the game. Playing chess, for instance, relies on a very complex rule structure. If one could improvise chess moves, it wouldn’t be much of a game. But “playful play”, outside the strictures of games, is apparently linked with imagination and creativity.

Alex Fleetwood, a games designer who I saw speak a couple of years ago at TEDxOrenda, discussed how it is possible to use games – and play – to generate new ideas. People can use games to help them interpret and make sense of the world, and as new technologies come along – be it clocks, printing, or virtual reality – new games have come along to help us understand the technology; in turn, games can change the way we integrate this information and the way our brains work. (I couldn’t find any references for that contention!) Interestingly, many of the games Alex’s company, Hide and Seek, develop seem to use old technologies in novel ways to make us think differently about the world and explore new behaviours.

Wendy Russell took a rather more academic approach, though focussing on games and society. There are, she said, four kinds of games and play (with what I guess are Greek names…):

  • agoncompetitive games and sport
  • alea – games of chance
  • mimesismimicry, make-believe and play-acting (and, perhaps, even theatre?)
  • ilinx – dizzy play and disequilibrium

These form a continuum, she reckoned, from rigid, rule-bound games to turbulent, improvised anarchy – from order to disorder.

She pointed out that on of the things about play was its pointlessness; and if you try to impose a point, it threatens to become serious and – well, not fun. (Just think about how seriously people can take football matches!) All those people looking to “gamify” their processes, take note…

Those in power and in institutions like order and structure; those at the bottom of the pile like disorder, as a way to get away from their everyday lives. Society allows disorderly games, sometimes in a managed environment, so that people can let off steam: funfairs, carnivals, mardi gras, April Fool’s Day – all allow people to relax the usual conventions and escape for a while. The role of the fool and the jester do the same: the normal hierarchy is temporarily suspended.

British society is changing (or has changed!) the way we, and children, play. Parents seem to manage their children’s time much more closely, and seem scared to let children play outdoors, unattended; both adults and children can play more easily indoors, using modern technology, than outdoors, albeit socially. Russell said that architects are now trying to design space for play into new structures – perhaps just as interior designers are trying to build play-areas in workspaces.

The role of play in creativity was touched on by each of the speakers, but it seems hard to put a finger on it. Some creative processes tend towrds the anarchic – brainstorming sessions, for instance, where all ideas are equally valid and anyone can contribute. The burgeoning unconference movement (of which I am a strong advocate!) might also be seen as disorderly play, beyond the usual bound business strictures. Everyone felt that play – or a sense of play – is crucial to promoting creativity – without specifying how.

Hans Rosling on “The Big Picture”

My first event in this year’s Edinburgh International Science Festival was to hear Hans Rosling give a statistics lecture.

This wasn’t the typical kind of statistics lecture; I reckon I have had at least four stats courses over the years, and whilst I know enough to know what to do (or where to find out what to do), I think it is fair to say that I don’t really get statistics. I can do it, but it never really makes sense. And all those stats lectures were dull, dull, dull, and dry.

This one was different. Not talking so much about stats as our ignorance of stats, and largely based on data rather significance tests, Rosling was as much entertainer as statitician. (I think on of his slides described him as “edutainer”.)

He was talking about how numbers can be used to describe the world – not to the exclusion of other inputs, but to produce a rounded picture.

The bulk of his talk was about population growth and world poverty, and the causes of change in these global phenomena – largely economics. In between, he told stories of his life amongst the numbers, when to trust them and when not. (“Not” seemed to be mostly when you don’t actually have the data – he highlighted how wrong our assumptions about the world can be.)

Rather than try to reproduce what he said (without the laughs), here are some of his TEDtalks covering similar issues…

…on stats

…on poverty

…on population growth

All the data and the manipulations he used can be viewed on Gapminder, where one can play around with the data and visualisation. A great way to while away the Easter break…

This Happened Edinburgh and Creative Edinburgh

Four years ago, I spent an evening at the first This Happened Edinburgh – an interesting, collaborative event where technical and creative people discussed some of their innovative projects. (I thought I had blogged about it at the time, but clearly I failed to do so!)

After a four year gap (whilst I was down in London – where there is also a regular “This Happened” but where I found it impossible to get a ticket, such was demand!), I went to This Happened Edinburgh #9 last week.

This Happened Edinburgh #1 was the first event like that I had been to: four creators discussing their projects; this time, I knew what to expect. First time around, it was in a crowded upstairs room of a pub; now it was in the much more salubrious surroundings of Edinburgh University’s Inspace gallery, a white space which may well have been designed for events such as this. Much techier, much smoother, much cooler – but much less “funky”, too, and more deliberate and knowing.

The four projects were as interesting as those four years ago – I was particularly taken with Shenando Stals examination of the emotional geography of walkers’ Edinburgh – how our emotional sense of a city is created and alters our everyday experience of place – and Gianluca Zaffiro’s description of a project involving the users of social networks managing their own data (rather than the firms running the social networks).

The mantle for the funkier side of things has been taken up by Creative Edinburgh who, amongst the other things they do, have been organising a series of irregular events called “Glug” (part of a broader programme of Glug around the UK – I do like the subtitle “Notworking”: for all the self-unemployed out there…) where entrepreneurs and artists give short talks about their projects. Loosely curated around a theme – the first one I went to was on “collectives” (from I learned that collectives come in all shapes, sizes and ideologies – and it is the people not the idea that make it work! And I meant, and failed, to write about that at the time, too); the last one, in December, was on “materials matter“, though I’m not sure the case was proven: it was the creativity and the ideas that came through for me, the materials just being the medium.

Creative Edinburgh’s Glug evenings are more entrepreneurial and less academic than This Happened; maybe a bit more social, too. Not necessarily better – just a different focus. Both present a series of fascinating, engaging talks, and I look forward to more.

Trends About Trends

William Nelson and Richard Hepburn explored some long term trends in the UK – reassessing them and exploring new qualititative techniques such as crowd sourcing. Such trends have an impact on economics and government policy, as well as fundamentally affecting the way we live our lives (ten years ago I would never have guessed the impact carrying a mobile phone would have on my behaviour!).

The themes they identified were

  • changing structure of households (what Nelson called “home-alone v ‘all together now'”): there have been increases in young people staying at home, people living by themselves, couples cohabiting, and young people sharing till later in their lives.The current state of the economy and the jobs market is driving a lot of this as young people stay at home or have to because they can’t afford a place of their own (apparently leading to an increase in squatting in London and some novel approaches to communal living and working elsewhere), but of course it also has economic impacts. Immigration and demographics (which Nelson also covered) will have an effect, too.(
  • “smart v connected”: drawing on “the internet of things” – the ability to give any object its own internet identifier – Nelson argued against the need for “smart objects” (all those food-ordering fridges PR-savvy white goods manufacturers say we’ll be buying) but reckoned our homes would become more connected – but under our control. He foresees us using our mobile phones as universal controllers, switching on heating, lights and cookers remotely. As technology converged, he also believed that it would be gas or electricity companies who would own the interface, not the telecoms or media companies that currently own our broadband connections, prompting competition for control of our homes: remote controlled central heating might be the killer app. (Maybe Sky will buy British Gas?)
  • social networking to networked socialising: we’ve been living in a technology-mediated networked society since the advent of the telephone in the early 20th century, but we’re increasingly connected. The ability to carry the internet in our pockets has changed the way we behave. Whilst our lives might be more and more busy, we’re also procrastinating more: we might arrange to meet people, but the details – where, when, what – are more flexible and subject to change: we are less willing to commit to a fixed schedule, with frequent and repeat rescheduling. People are more willing to take the best offer that comes along (apparently 40,000 people are stood up every day!). A lot of this happens on mobiles – people are checking what’s on and booking more last minute tickets, which effects artists’ and venues’ planning and pricing strategies.Their is also an increase in “leisure as performance” – people tweeting or Facebooking (is that a verb? I guess so…) photos of themselves at events – the ease of one-to-many communications is turning us into a nation of show-offs – and sharing information about our plans to go to events becomes a currency. Interestingly, one doesn’t actually need to go to the event – you can share the information that, for instance, you’ve got a ticket for the Olympics (posting the details and a photo of the ticket, perhaps) before selling it on. Data about the event can be more valuable than the event itself.

    (It also means we are under self-imposed scrutiny: the more we share online, the more we are building the panopticon… And I am shocked that there is a data analysis firm called Panopticon. Maybe we get the future we deserve.)

  • the gender revolution finally happens: decades after the 1960s, Nelson reckoned that changes in gender relations have now become so normal as to cease to be newsworthy – and when things get boring, change has happened. (I know many feminists who may disagree with this; please don’t blame me for sharing his views with you!) There are now more female graduates than male, and they get better degrees; they’re also better at getting jobs than male graduates. Nelson said that women aged 20-29 now have higher hourly wages than men (I have searched the ONS website, which is full of fascinating data, but I can’t figures split by gender and age, so I’ll just have to take his word for it!).As women become more equal to men, they are becoming less equal to each other: there are growing disparities between women. And whilst pay hourly pay might have moved in their favour, women still spend more time on housework (in the US) and are the prime provider of childcare. It’ll be interesting to see if those roles change with women having the higher earning potential.

    There may also be pressure on employers to change their models of employment (strongly rooted in the early 20th century?) to cope with highly qualified, high earning women who want to fit in childcare and their home life, too: this might add pressure to develop more flexible models of employment.

  • ageing population: the “demographic timebomb” has almost become a cliche, but it remains important, affecting policy and opinions for decades. 2012 sees a spike of people reaching 65 – the results of a mini baby boom in 1946 and 1947 as soldiers returned from the war. Since Britain didn’t really recover economically for another decade or so – it was in 1957 that MacMillan asserted “you’ve never had it so good” – it won’t be until the 2020s that the wave of over-65s resulting from the 1950s baby boom reach 65.The ONS predicts that the proportion of over-60s will continue to grow whilst the proportion of under-14s is static and the proportion of those aged 15-59 decreases – hence worries of a decreasing working population having to support an increasing number of the old.

    None of this is news – the “demographic timebomb” has been written about for decades. But by looking at the detail, we can plan and change – both public policy and our personal choices. For instance, Willie pointed out the market for Saga will grow by 7% pa (I think – I didn’t write the figure down!), without the company doing anything at all. The effect of demographics on policy – the provision of health care, pensions and social care for the elderly, for instance, as well as indirectly affecting, say, transport, housing and industrial policies – and of course the economy

  • “the youth of today”
    It was in his discussion of youth that Nelson really challenged our assumptions. The young are not hoodie-wearing rioters drunkenly threatening passers-by: Nelson gave figures from the UK for reducing youth crime, decreasing youth drug and alcohol use and a decreasing teenage pregnancy rates – not the stuff of tabloid headlines.At the same time, parents are being more protective of their children – driving them to school and managing their leisure time (back to the panopticon there…) – in part driven by a culture of fear: children are taught about “stranger danger” when other risks may be more relevant. What effect will “paranoid parenting” have on future generations? Will they learn to assess risk if protected during childhood – surely a key part of growing up? And what will such cosseting have on our children’s future health?

These are just some of the trends that Nelson has worked on; perhaps most interesting is where they intersect: for instance, the effect of the changing nature of networked socialising as the population ages; or the changing form of households when examined through the lens of changing, less rebellious youth; or the impact of changing economic power of (some) women on household structures and the balance between generations.

Matthew Flinders In Defence of Politics

In a week of strange political events – imaginary petrol shortages created by politicians, pasty-gate, and the surprise by-election landslide by an outside candidate – it was interesting to hear Matthew Flinders talking about his new book “Defending Democracy: why politics matters” at the RSA, and a fascinating and provocative talk it was. Flinders was experimenting with what he called 20/20 – twenty slides in 20 minutes; it wasn’t quite pecha kucha (not least because Flinders controlled the slides, and because he had three times as long for each slide), but it was close.

Given its apparently earnest topic, it was a very entertaining talk, which reinforced Flinders’ desire to get away from dry academia and engage people: he wanted to provoke. He was critical of political scientists who reckon if ordinary people can understand their work, they can’t be doing it properly. Instead, he subscribes to the views of Bernard Crick, who himself adhered to guidelines on writing laid down by George Orwell. (I clearly don’t: Orwell would have written “stuck to” instead of “adhered to”…)

In In Defence of Politics, Crick looked at various threats he saw to politics in the middle of the last centiry – ideology, democracy, nationalism, technology, and “false friends”. Flinders has examined the threats he sees today, using Cricks’ book as a model: he examines the threat to politics of itself, the market, denial, crises, and the media. Where the 20th century was, he said, the century of democracy, the 21st century has seen a divergence: as much of the world cries out for democracy, the advanced western democracies have become distrustful of politics and politicians: we have a view – what Flinders called “the bad faith model of politics” – in which politicians are seen as venal, inept and corrupt: a view Flinders was keen to challenge our knowing cynicism.

He believed that democratic politics delivers more than most of the electorate understand – essentially that we take hard-fought for rights for granted. (It is less than 100 years since women were granted the right to vote in the UK and the franchise was extended to most adult men.) Politicians are people just like us – and those who stand for office apparently do so because they want to change society for the better. It has to be said, though, the thought that politicians are just like us makes me think that maybe we get the politicians we deserve.

Flinders made what he saw as five key points:

  • healthy scepticism has given way to a corrosive cynicism, an assumption that politicians are wrong and corrupt
  • in modern society, there are no simple solutions to complex problems: and yet people want – and expect, even demand – simple solutions
  • we have become democratically decadent: we look to our rights, as if we were consumers of democracy, rather than our responsibilities (and I would say politicians were complicit in this: the Thatcherite revolution in service delivery at all levels made people think as consumers rather than citizens): politics is about voice rather than choice
  • there is a deficit in the public understanding of politics: the public are not educated to be politically aware, and Flinders puts the blame for this on the media and political scientists like himself (the corrosive cynicism I am suffering from today can’t help adding politicians to that list – surely it benefits them to keep people in the dark?). We may be media-literate, but we are not politically-literate
  • politics is not a spectator sport: it is all very well shouting at politicians on BBC’s “Question Time“, but we need to be more involved than that: Flinders believes we should move to a politics of optimism and actually get engaged with politics

What he thinks this comes down to is public expectations, which will shape the politics of the 21st century. We have high expectations – we want all those simple solutions – which can’t be delivered. We want more – of everything – for less (mostly money). Politicians are trapped – and they make promises which can’t be kept, or try to manipulate our expectations (let’s call that “spin”). It is easier to get into power than it is to govern. Politicians will outbid each other in their promises in order to get into power, increasing public expectations as they do so. (This is Flinders’ need to defend politics from itself – perhaps better phrased as defending politics from politicians.) Politicians work in the short or medium term, but most of the big problems are long term: and so they disappoint.

The media clearly has a role in this as well – another of Flinders’ targets for defense. Only bad news sells. The media like clear cut black-or-white stories – but it is always more complicated than that. By focussing on adversarial “attack politics”, the media contribute to the bad faith surrounding politics. They too want simple answers – and so politicians give simple answers that can be reported. (Some might say that in doing so, they lie.) The media like to make mountains from molehills (pasties make good headlines). Whether this changes in a post-Leveson world remains open.

I think the adversarial nature of party politics in the UK is a central issue. The complex problems we face in the 21st century need a bi-partisan approach – collaboration rather than confrontation. The Liberal Democrats are finding out how hard it is to collaborate: by being in coalition government with the Conservative party, they are seen as sleeping with the enemy. But as Flinders contends, politics is about compromise: no one party has all the answers.

Flinders said that people need to force parties to change: but to change political parties requires working within political parties, which many people aren’t willing to do. Instead, people are focussing on those issues most important to them: the rise of single-issue politics. As party membership falls, and if coalitions become more common, parties may need to change themselves just to survive. People rarely vote for candidates over the party, however good the candidate. Perhaps party allegiance runs too deep.

“Whatever Happened to the Fourth Estate?”

Few weeks ago I heard Louis Blom-Cooper give a talk entitled “Whatever Happened to the Fourth Estate?” I was reminded of this by the ongoing (and frankly surreal testimony from the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics. Blom-Cooper was chair of the Press Council, the forerunner to the Press Complaints Commission.

He didn’t really answer his own question: instead, this was a kicking off point for a discussion about the press and society – and which feeds which.

The fourth estate – which Blom-Cooper said Fielding originally applied to “the mob”, and only later became attached to the press by Carlyle – demonstrated power without responsibility; but whilst irresponsible, they were not too irresponsible. (Milly Dowler’s parents and the McCanns, together with more celebrated witness to Leveson, may disagree.)

He discussed the problem of regulating the press in the age of electronic media. Broadcasters are regulated by OfCom; the press by the PCC (regarded by many as toothless); the internet not at all. Perhaps, Blom-Cooper suggested, a single media regulator was needed. (It wasn’t clear that Blom-Cooper fully understood new media such as blogs, let alone Twitter, and how these interact with more traditional media.)

For Blom-Cooper, it wasn’t news-gathering and reporters apparently errant methods, but publication that was the real issue: breach of privacy, he felt, came with publication. I think he is wrong on this: in phone-hacking (albeit an extreme example), the breach of privacy surely came with the intrusion? Blom-Cooper’s point was that it was papers’ editors who were responsible, not reporters, and editors who needed a code of ethics – and to manage their reporters. (Paul McMullan’s claim that editors at News of the World knew that voicemails were being intercepted puts a different light on this: clearly they were responsible, and didn’t act.) For Blom-Cooper, what isn’t reported – the information and knowledge that the press “sit on” and withhold – is as important as what is.

He expressed the view that “journalism is the best medicine for the truth” – that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, perhaps: a free press is needed within society to hold others – those with power – to account. Knowledge that wrong-doing may become public leads to self-censorship of action. (This again leaves press “stings” like those carried out by the “fake sheikh”, including those that are clearly designed to expose wrong-doing like corruption in sport in a hard-to-justify swamp.)

The difficulty with the PCC is that it can only act after the event – the Press Complaints Commission needs a complaint to act. A code of conduct would be better than statutory regulation, he thought, but clearly it would need to have teeth. A widespread change in the culture of the press – its ethics, perhaps – would also be needed for editors to comply with a code of conduct.

With the development of electronic media and the internet, the fourth estate is returning to the mob: anyone can become a citizen-journalist and, despite the concentration of media in few hands (and, Blom-Cooper pointed out, this concentration is not new – Murdoch and Desmond today were more than matched by Beaverbrook and Rothermere, thought little of flexing their power to influence governments), anyone can now become a publisher, too. The role of the press in a civil society requires the freedom criticise society – but also the freedom to criticise the press. Educating readers into the ways of the press may be as important as educating the press itself – its editors and reporters.

I think the exposure – the disinfectant of sunlight – press methods have received in the Leveson inquiry is probably a good start.

Anthony Giddens on the Politics of Climate Change

I have been trying to work out quite why I found Dame Ellen MacArthur’s vision of a circular economy so compelling.

I think it is at least in part due to some recent visits to a council tip. I had been helping a friend clear his late mother’s flat; my job was to drive the car, full of unwanted things, to the tip. The feeling of waste was palpable: huge mounds of waste and junk, most of it destined for landfill. We recycled what we could, separating paper, wood, metals, glass and paper, but we could see council workers laying into the piles with forklift trucks. Perhaps some of the disused (and for all I know unusable) electrical goods would be stripped down and the metals and rare elements they contain recycled, but it seemed unlikely. (Interestingly, the council’s rules forbid anyone removing items from the tip – so even if I saw something I might have had a use for, I couldn’t have taken it. That said, it looked like a few people were on the look out for something the might scavenge.)

This came to mind when, again at the RSA, I saw Anthony Giddens talk about the politics of climate change. Where MacArthur was upbeat, Giddens felt very downbeat; indeed, with politicians so unable to cope with climate change, civilisation felt beaten down.

Giddens identified many difficulties for politicians in dealing with climate change. Solving the issues with ameliorating or even reversing climate change requires long term action across national boundaries, when politicians are elected (or appointed) with local or national responsibility over a short time span: ours have four or five years between elections, so getting them to worry about expensive action to be taken over twenty to fifty years which may not benefit their electorate (since many of us will be dead by then) seems an impossibility.

Giddens made two powerful points which felt prescient. The first was his strong view that we shouldn’t assume technological solutions will come to our rescue. The belief that it might may act as a counter to more concrete action – we might just shit around waiting for technology to save us until it is too late for anything else. (That said, recent developments in carbon capture and storage may give us hope, and Giddens said that we must search for ground breaking technological initiatives which may help.)

The second was that many believe we are past the tipping point – a long way past.

The political will to solve these problems seems lacking. Obama has been disappointing, failing to take radical action, in part since his hands are tied by a Republican congress – Giddens was critical how the debate on climate change is largely polarised along political lines when it is such a big issue that it should be beyond politics. In the UK, David Cameron’s desire for this government to be the greenest ever seems empty rhetoric.

Giddens identified four areas that needed progress if we are to avoid the worst ravages of climate change:

  • bilateral and regional agreements in place of “legally binding” worldwide agreements which have failed to deliver
  • searching for ground breaking technological, social and political initiatives
  • in-depth intellectual and policy work to underpin our understanding of the impact of climate change – what will climate change and its amelioration mean for us in terms of employment, prosperity, growth and so on; this is needed he said at a very basic level – how will we need to change the way we think about our lives in a truly sustainable environment?
  • transforming the way we live our lives: actually putting these things in to action – for instance, if industrial society has run its course, how can we live our lives at a very basic level

Giddens said that this was a message of hope, not despair; I’m not sure the audience agreed with him.

After the talk, Matthew Taylor asked for a show of hands: who in the audience felt the solution to the problem of climate change lay in the hands of either governments and politicians, individuals changing their lifestyles, or market forces. Hardly anyone believed the answer lay with governments, with lifestyles and markets split roughly equally.

Clearly, these aren’t either/or questions: the answer must be “yes” to all three mechanisms of change: governments must develop policies to motivate markets and individuals to do what they can.

But looking at the mountains of waste at the council tip which our lifestyles contribute to, throwing things out rather than fixing and reusing, I don’t feel hopeful.

An evening with TEDxOrenda…

Last week, I went to TEDxOrdenda – an evening of talks sanctioned (but not organised) by TED. I’ve been to a couple of TEDx events before, and I’ve watched lots of TEDtalks. TEDxOrenda was organised by Drew Buddie (Digital Maverick on Twitter), who did a sterling job; it was associated with BETT – “the biggest UK trade show of educational technology” – and so had an education focus, though that felt co-incident rather than necessity. (Drew explained that “orenda” was a Huron native American word which means the opposite of “kismet” – that is, rather than fate, the future lies is our own hands – it is down to us and our choices.)

It was a very interesting, mixed evening; some of the speakers stayed close to a motivational model, others had more content to share. Despite the pleasure I take from TED, their model is very much about content delivery: it is people standing up on a stage, talking to others in an auditorium. I understand it explicitly excludes debate and discussion (I might be wrong!), and speakers rarely take questions. Despite the varied programme Drew put together, I think I would have benefited from an opportunity to engage more – either with the speakers through questions or with those around me through discussion of the ideas raised.

There were five speakers I really appreciated. First of these was Vinay Gupta, who raised some important and challenging questions about the way our society uses its resources and our place in the world. What does poverty look like? Despite downturn and recession, for most people in the world Vinay asserts that it is whether one can access water without fear of disease: lack of simple infrastructure kills 20m people a year. Our “failure of governance is killing the planet”, despite the availability of solutions to many of the world’s problems. (For instance, Vinay described how a bucket filled with alternating layers of sand and grit – I think! – can be used to purify water.) Vinay can be confrontational, but we probably need to be confronted by these issues; the thing is, how do we actually bring about change as a result? And – more fundamentally – how much do we – I – want to change?

Sydney Padua covered lots of geek bases in her discussion of her online comic, 2dgoggles, featuring the crime fighting due of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. In an alternate universe, naturally. All the ideas in her comic are based on ideas and beliefs that Lovelace and Babbage held or that were extant in their 19th century mileu – just abstracted and warped slightly…

Building on the “fun” aspect of Lovelace and Babbage, Alex Fleetwood of Hide & Seek described the role of novel games in learning. When people talk about games in education, I tend to think of complex eLearning environments – a World-of-Warcraft for learning. All the games that Alex described were shocking in their simplicity. Tate Trumps sounded like the most technological, a way to create interaction with the pictures at Tate Modern. The others were based more accessible technologies – a board, a playground, a piece of paper – and engaged users to think about the issues (such as what a Norman battlefield was actually like).

Simon Raymonde of Bella Union Records (and late of the Cocteau Twins) talked about his philosophy around running a record label – kind of how he got here. It was an interesting story. Simon invited questions after his talk – the only speaker to do so (and presumably moving off the TED script!), leading to a discussion of the role of a music industry in the digital age. (Simon was pro (free-)downloading, reckoning that it created demand for paid for music.)

Last up was Lloyd Davis, discussing various aspects his role as “social artist” and serenading us with his ukulele and singing. I’ve worked with Lloyd and he’s cropped up a fair few times on this blog. He’s preparing to cross America in the hands of his social media network. An interesting prospect – more kismet than orenda, perhaps!

Conversing with Like Minds

I spent two days – and two nights – in Exeter last week, at Like Minds. I had heard a lot of good things about the last event held in Exeter, and followed their Finnish summertime adventure on Twitter, so when this one came around, I took the opportunity to participate.

Like Minds fell somewhere between an unconference and a more formal affair. There were set “keynote” speakers, but there were several more freeform sessions. Some of it worked really well, some bits less so.

There were three (or four, depending on your definitions…) different components to the days. First up in the morning were immersives, in-depth discussions around various topics; then there were lunch-time sessions, debating different issues; and lastly in the afternoon were the keynote sessions, more formal conference-like elements. Between each keynote, however, was time for small-scale conversations, ostensibly to discuss the keynote but more practically to talk about anything one wanted with the people sitting nearby (or anyone else!).

This meant that there were lots of different ways to interact, to discuss and learn from each other. I loved the idea of the lunchtime sessions – gathering at local cafes and restaurants to debate a variety of fascinating topics – but the actuality of trying to take part in a fascinating discussion at the end of a long table proved frustrating. The lunch moderators were great, but it was hard to talk against the background noise of a bustling restaurant playing loud music. This meant that the debate broke up into conversation with one’s immediate neighbours.

The first lunch session I went to was on crowdsourcing and creativity (Ann Holman wrote about the discussion). The second was on making innovation happen. The discussion in each was lively – agreement and disagreement fuelling the conversation. Both dealt with intangibles to a degree – we argued about definitions of crowdsourcing, creativity and innovation; there was a fair bit of challenge.

The immersives were good, too. The first, led by Andrew Davies, focused on social media and publishing – interpreted as the legacy business of publishing. The general view was that the old business model was dead – nothing new about that – but there were diverging views about whether this mattered and what could replace it. In part, the stance taken depended on how “old media” the speaker was: those that had most to lose from the push online seemed to care most, which I doubt would surprise anyone. There was a lot of discussion about the difference between creation and curation: someone said that “curation is providing the context” – fitting creation into the narrative, perhaps. I think creation and curation overlap to a fair degree (a topic picked up by Andrew Dubber’s keynote the next day). With social media, we can all become curators: sharing links on Twitter, for instance. This has always been done to a certain extent – think of friends sharing articles from a magazine or newspaper – but social media have allowed users to do this more consciously, and to broadcast the result. Think of paper.li, for instance. (Curiously, today someone mentioned Newspaper Club to me today – a way of creating one’s own hard-copy newspaper using online tools and, I assume, materials.)

In the other immersive, Joanne Jacobs led a discussion on using social media for small, local businesses. This was full of great stories and pragmatic advice, and will get me to start using social bookmarking tools (another form of social media curation!). Alastair Walker has a rather more in depth overview!

The several keynotes were more of a mixed bag. On each day, there was one keynote I really didn’t enjoy; I won’t dwell on these, but it was only at these times that I drifted and started playing on Twitter. There were several interesting keynotes from the not-for-profit sector – I really liked Sim Stewart’s presentation on Cofacio, an online tool to engage with helping others.

I would have liked the chance to question the keynote speakers, though; for many, this happened in the bar later on, but I wanted to take Robyn Brown who discussed the work of the National Trust to task: she felt that there were relatively few members of the NT present, and she hoped next year there’d be more; but actually the NT has 3.7 millions members – say, 7% of the adult population – and perhaps 20% of the audience said they were members: over-represented, then. (Frankly, much as I respect the NT, I think it frightening that it has nearly eight times as many members as the three main political parties in England put together (476,000, according to this House of Commons paper.)

I think Steve Moore’s talk on “the Big Society” would really have benefitted from a broader discussion. Over the last year, we’ve heard a lot about the big society, but it is one of those concepts that seems to mean all things to all men – especially our politicians who seem to badge anything they can as being part of the big society. Steve has contributed to the thinking behind the big society, and is clearly knowledgeable about it, but I didn’t really have a firmer idea about what the big society actually is.

I really valued the various conversations in between the keynotes – it really was all about the conversation.

There were two stand-out keynote sessions for me, one on each day. The first of these was Benjamin Ellis on thinking in a different way in the digital age. His self-depreciating manner and knowledgeable but low key style were a panacea for the mind-weary. Benjamin described how the “We Generation” think differently from the “Me Generation”, mediated by social media and freely available data: technology has facilitated a move from tightly controlled behaviour to “barely-planned behaviour”, where small decisions can be networked to have a big impact. There are lots of issues here – especially for those of the “Me Generation” (like me…): our structures and institutions rely on hierarchy and governance, which social media and new conventions can sweep aside. Firms and organisations will be changed by this – as an example, Google means that anyone can more or less find out how to do anything: the need to know information has mutated to how to find it. This isn’t new – Benjamin quoted Johnson on explicit (what we know) and implicit knowledge (what we know how to find). Now, all explicit knowledge is on the internet – and this could be damaging for today’s knowledge workers. For Ellis, it is all about creating a narrative – curation is, once more the context.

The other stand out keynote was Andrew Dubber on curation – or, nore correctly, his stance on anti-curation. This was a fascinating talk. Andrew dumped his slides, deciding that he would just talk, sitting on the edge of the stage. He too talked about creating a narrative to make sense of knowledge – and in doing so, creating value out of making meanings. His stance is that the curation should be left to the user – the audience. Dubber works on collaborative projects with musicians (such as the Jura Project and Aftershock), and he throws everything into the mix, putting everything online. The creator curates, and so does the audience: we decide what is valuable and what isn’t.

I don’t fully subscribe to this idea – when we create something, we are deciding it has some value, and in putting those creations into social media – like me putting photographs on flickr – we are making a statement that we think the media are worth showing. But the talk was fascinating, and I have been thinking about what Andrew said a lot since. It clearly made an impact!

TEDxTuttle2: Son of TEDxTuttle…

With a shock I realise that it is two weeks since TEDxTuttle2 at Cass Business School; and that I meant to write about it after the event. I shall do so now, then; if my thoughts had any currency then, they should still.

I went to the first TEDxTuttle in September and was very enthused by the experience. The second round was equally interesting, although it didn’t have the same feeling of excitement or energy that the first created. This might in part be due to my own expectations – last time I didn’t know what to expect, this time it would have been hard to live up to my inflated expectations; in part it might be down to the venue – a lecture theatre – which carries a lot of baggage with it (sitting in a lecture theatre puts me into lecture mode: a passive sponge of information); and in part that, although there were a lot of people there, we didn’t fill the space, so it felt a little as if we didn’t have critical mass.

One major change for the better was the decision to allow questions after the speakers. I think a lot of the value from this kind of event comes from the debate engendered by questions, and there were some great questions from the floor.

There were five live speakers and a couple of TEDtalks videos, grouped into three sessions: the first centring on youth and education, the second on new developments in social media, the last a single session from Steve and Lobelia Lawson who mixed a discussion of the role of new media in the music industry with some musical illustration.

Norman Lewis was first up, discussing the role of technology in children’s lives and its impact on innovation. This seemed to be a talk of two halves: in the first half, Lewis built up his targets; in the second, as far as I was concerned, he missed them spectacularly. It seemed like there were some logical steps missing to his arguments – and he failed to take this part of the audience with him. Some of his discussion relied on contention that he didn’t substantiate – for instance, he maintained that young people are not necessarily better with technology than their parents, and that parents who praise their children’s technology skills do them a disservice; but I can think of lots of families in which children have naturally taken to technologies which stump their parents, and where the parents don’t take this as a sign of their children’s genius but simply that they are growing up in a different environment. He also maintained that today’s children are growing up less innovative than previous generations, but I see evidence to the opposite: they may not get to play outside like I did as a child, but they can still roam their imagination, they have more tools to be creative and seem to use them, and they use technology in innovative ways to avoid the watchful eyes of their parents. Lewis seemed to be arguing against his own views at times, and the contradictions failed to convince me. He has recently published a manifesto in praise of greater youth innovation, “Big Potatoes”, in conjunction with others, and perhaps that will fill in some of the gaps I felt were missing from his argument.

Next up was Julia Shalet, who described her digital youth project. Julia – a regular at Tuttle – spoke with passion about her work which has taken her to actively engage with young people around product development and the world of employment. What surprised me was how little of this actually seems to be going on: Julia described video games manufacturers who hadn’t thought to work with their target market – the millions of young people out there – until she suggested it. None of what Julia described seemed radical, just solid common sense; common, perhaps, but clearly rare. Julia’s evangelism for involving young people in what we do on a regular basis shamed me into realising how few young people I know…

This session finished with a precocious young American wowing the audience of a TED conference into giving her a standing ovation. I wasn’t convinced: I would have preferred to see some video of the more normal people Julia has worked with. I was left with thought about generational discord: a foretaste, perhaps, of the greater battles to come when future generations realise what a mess – ecological and economical – the current bearers of power have left them. A topic for a future TEDxTuttle discussion, perhaps.

The next session dealt with recent developments in social media. First up was Caroline Wierte who works at Cass; she spoke about her as yet unpublished research into the impact of social media in word-of-mouth marketing. She focused on Twitter and the role of tweets on the cash take of movies in their first weekend showing – a big indicator of a movies ultimate financial success. She’s developed models to compare current movies (where Twitter might be an influence) against a control of equivalent pre-Twitter movies. She also controlled for the nature of the tweet – positive, neutral or negative. It was an interesting, if as yet inconclusive, talk, and prompted a broad discussion about the nature of influence in social media – who one trusts and why.

Lloyd Davis, Tuttle’s founder and mainstay, followed. Lloyd was talking about his recent Tuttle2Texas adventure – a rail journey from Boston to SxSWi in Austin, Texas, in the company of other Tuttle people, and then onward to Los Angeles. I’ve heard Lloyd talk about Tuttle2Texas before – and, it has to be said, I was in part involved in the planning, so I must confess an interest. As Lloyd discussed the trip and the impact it had on him, as well as what he learned from the people and communities he met on the way, a slide show of the pictures he took a long the (long distance) way rolled on behind him. The combination of the images and Lloyd’s words was interesting: as yet the pictures are unedited, so there was a rough immediacy to them that matched the somewhat alienated feeling that Lloyd’s travels encompassed.

There seemed to be a lot to learn here. Lloyd described how whenever the Tuttle folk needed help, all they had to do was ask – the various communities, in the US and back in the UK, came up with solutions, even if they weren’t quite the solution originally envisaged. There was a real feeling of the power of improvisation in what Lloyd and others accomplished: a whistle stop tour (literally) of the eastern USA, finding help and friends a long the way. His insights into the different cultures – in conversation, for instance, in the UK it is polite to wait to talk, and in the US polite to fill the silence (a cultural conversational death spiral…) – were enlightening and brave, and rewarding.

The second TEDtalk video featuered Jane McGonigal talking about online games and learning; and how to save the world. She reckoned that the solutions to the world’s problems was probably out there, and that the way to access those solutions may well be by utilising the skills, dedication, collaboration and brain-power of the many millions of people who play online games. She makes a convincing case, but it is probably best if you watch the video and take away your own views!

The afternoon finished up with Steve and Lobelia‘s exploration of music and social media, and the opportunities that social media present for a different business model. Although Steve mapped out how he and Lobelia had got to where they are – how they used technology both to create and distribute their art – I couldn’t help but look forward: new technologies create lots of different opportunities; some of which succeed for some people, others maybe won’t for anyone. Time will tell…