The Myth of Teleworking

Monday, January 28th, 2013

Lots of tweets today suggesting that rather than investing billions in building the high speed rail network in the UK, (HS2), this money would be better invested in improving broadband services to encourage teleworking. The idea here is that better broadband connectivity and availability would mean more people could work from home, conduct meetings over Skype and all those high speed train journeys just wouldn’t be necessary.

Makes sense in principle, but unfortunately this fails to recognise what the biggest barriers to teleworking really are. It’s not about connectivity. The simple truth is that most individuals and businesses – certainly in the major cities – currently already have more than adequate connectivity to be able to work from home. For most businesses, we’re talking about a good enough connection for email and standard information-based websites. Technologies such as Citrix and RSA secureID dongles, VPNs and the like are well-established, so there is no technological reason why more people shouldn’t work from home. And yet our tubes and trains are still packed every day with commuters wasting many hours and hundreds of pounds travelling to and from an office that they don’t really need to be at.

As ever, what is required here is a cultural change, not a technological change. The simple truth is that businesses and business leaders are still not entirely comfortable with the idea of their employees working from home, perhaps fearful that they’re going to spend the whole day in pyjamas watching Diagnosis Murder when they really should be filing that report. I work predominantly from home but still find myself travelling to too many meetings that really could just as easily have been done over the phone or on Skype. But sometimes there really is no substitute for looking someone in the eye, shaking their hand at the close of business and – more than anything – that sense of commitment to the project or business-in-hand that people like to see illustrated by the fact that you’ve actually bothered to turn up in person.

Perhaps the time is right for a bigger discussion about teleworking and a real examination as to why it isn’t happening and what can be done about it. I suspect the answer lies more in training and support for businesses to implement the significant cultural changes required throughout their organisations to go this route rather than in improving networks.

A Furniture Designer’s Guide to Open Source Software

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

There’s an interesting debate stirring on the Digital Jersey LinkedIn group, inspired by the launch of the site and focused on its extensive use of open source software. This has thrown up issues on Jersey as to a predominance of enterprise sites and software built with proprietary technologies, (mostly Microsoft) versus the perceived risk of going the open source route in terms of lack of an adequate skills base and support.

At the risk of going off on a slight tangent, this whole debate has reminded me of Branchage Bootcamp – a project I was involved with in Jersey 3 or 4 years ago with Channel TV and the Branchage Festival. One of the outcomes of this project was a series of short films made by young, first-time directors in a couple of days and one film in particular stood out for me and is strangely relevant here.

The film was called DIY Culture : Build Your Own Island and featured a local furniture designer, Andrew Garton. The relevance here is that Andrew had an interesting approach. Not only did he design and build bespoke furniture, but he designed and built the machines and parts needed to make the furniture with. The reason for this was two-fold: it started because he couldn’t get the parts he needed on the island, but – more importantly – he believed very strongly that the machines, parts and tools we use inevitably end up shaping the output. Or, to put it another way, factory-made machines and parts produce factory-like goods. So by designing and building his own tools and machines, Andrew found he could produce more elegant and efficient solutions to the design problems he was facing.

The point here is that businesses and organisations of all shapes and sizes – from small independents to big business or even complex organisations like the UK government – face increasingly complex service and product design challenges in a rapidly-evolving world. Meeting these challenges requires a similarly rapidly-evolving response and toolset – which is why the use of open source software is growing exponentially. Does Jersey currently have such a varied and flexible toolset? Arguably, no. But that’s where Andrew Garton’s other core belief has relevance too;

“If you don’t quite like the way things are where you live you can move away somewhere else, or you can try and stay there and try and make them be a bit more like you think they should be”.

This is a challenge in itself, but one worth grasping. Incidentally, Andrew’s furniture is really quite beautiful.

Superfast rollout needs a superfast environment

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

The recent publication of the House of Lords’ criticisms of and recommendations for the UK Government’s nationwide broadband plan throws up some interesting issues that, while doubtless need addressing, threaten to further engulf the rollout of high speed networks and/or broadband-for-all in an ever-deeper quagmire of endless debate at local, parliamentary and EU level. Meanwhile other territories JFDI, (and if you’re wondering what that means, it’s not this). In this case, that well-known acronym could also stand for Jersey For Digital Innovation, since the smaller island took the bigger decision and invested in an upgrade to fibre network using future-proofed Point-to-Point technology (PtP), a decision announced back in 2010, already being rolled-out and due for completion by 2015.

Unsurprisingly, the decision was not without its critics and debate is still ongoing around many of the issues now being thrown up by the Lords report and addressed by the EU – namely competition, (or lack of it), choice of technology and whether public money is best used to widen access and reduce cost to a greater percentage of the population or chase the fastest speeds but at costs to the end consumer that will almost certainly price the service out of the reach of most domestic users, (worth reading the comments to JT CEO Graeme Millar’s comments that it will be “cheap”).

Of course, arguments can be made on all sides and – as we’ve seen in Jersey – will continue long after decisions have been made and rollout commences. So the only question is really at what point do you make the decision? Do you endure endless debate, conflicting reports and consultations in order to try as best you can to line up your defences and rationalisations and cover your back against the inevitable backlash? Or do you accept the one thing that is absolutely obvious – that Something Needs To Be Done and you are going to have to ride out a storm of criticism regardless – and commit to the JFDI approach?

This is where a superfast environment is beneficial. Jersey, of course, is an independent state that is capable of making such decisions without having to first go through the same level of lengthy parliamentary reviews amidst the crowded UK legislative framework or conform absolutely to EU regulations, including the labyrinthine nightmare that is State Aid. This means that decisions to push ahead with support for a single operator, (JT), and a Gigabit Isles strategy – whilst contentious – are not illegal. It also means that things that need to happen can happen – and quickly.

The arguments for investment ….

While it may be difficult to justify the public spend for something that will primarily benefit private businesses and those with a greater need and deep enough pockets for superfast broadband in the immediate term, this is all about a long-term strategy. The public recoupment on its investment comes first in the form of supporting business growth and inward investment and – in the long-term – in the inevitable increase in demand for superfast broadband at consumer level and corresponding reduction in cost to more affordable levels. This is exactly the same path that the first wave of copper-based broadband took from its first inception and there is no reason to believe superfast will be any different.

The long-term nature of this return is where the choice of technology is key. In Jersey’s case, the investment in PtP means direct Fibre-to-the-Home with greater speeds and flexibility rather than the lower-cost infrastructure currently being rolled-out in the UK by BT that uses the more restricted GPON and VDSL.

The backlash against both JT and the States of Jersey was inevitable, both from rival service providers on competition and technology grounds and from the public – especially since the comparatively high and, for most, unaffordable costs have now been made clear by JT. But, given the alternative now being seen in the UK of endlessly debating and delaying such vital upgrades to what is increasingly being recognised as a fundamental utility – arguably every bit as important as water, gas and electricity – the States should be applauded for at least taking action.

The impact of taking big decisions and taking them quickly has a snowball effect. JT Labs and Digital Jersey have already been set up to help press home the competitive advantage that Jersey now enjoys and UK PLC will no doubt be observing with a keen eye, through all its inevitable growing pains and triumphs, (for there will be both in equal measure). But surely it’s not so much a question of whether or not this investment will pay off – both for JT and for the States – but how quickly.


Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

It’s tempting to say that if you want to get noticed these days you have to do something truly awesome. But awesome is such an overused word. Every single day, my twitter feed is filled with awesome – holographic projections of dead rappers at live music gigs, Nokia’s 42megapixel camera phones, another new cloud-based, data-driven, social tool that promises to change the way we live and work forever ….. and it probably will. Awesome is now the minimum barrier for entry. The lowest common denominator. Being awesome is commonplace … simply isn’t good enough.

And even if you do get noticed, there’s the second issue : how do you create an impact that is meaningful enough to turn attention into action? Engagement is another hugely overused word, and while cultural organisations are getting better at engaging people online, if all we succeed in doing with digital technologies is tying someone to a screen then we have fundamentally failed.

Consider Kony. 89 million views worldwide – phenomenal audience, massively viral. And yet its mission to “cover the night” on 20th April and mobilise those millions to plaster towns and cities with posters fell flat. Did anyone see a single Kony poster on the morning of the 21st April? Now, of course, there are all sorts of reasons for that – and undoubtedly it fulfilled its objective of raising awareness, but for how long and to what end? And awareness of what? Of Kony- the Ugandan Warlord? Or when I wrote those words – “consider Kony” – was the very first thing you thought of the Kony2012 viral video itself? Thought so. The fact is, this was a viral engineered to raise awareness of the viral. (And here’s how).

Kony showed us one great truth, and that truth is this ….. we are living in a post-viral world. And numbers, clicks and likes are meaningless if they don’t translate into real world actions.

So how do you move from slacktivism to activism?

The key challenge for cultural leaders is not just to get noticed, not just to ‘engage’ people, but to do what arts and cultural organisations do best .., to move people. To inspire them to do something, or be something. To engage them on a much deeper level, to use digital tools not just to build an audience and encourage them to buy tickets or merchandise, but to reconnect that audience with the real world. The real problem here is that we are too caught up in playing purely a numbers game, and the post-viralism of Kony – amongst many other examples – tells us that big numbers does not equal high value.

The potential numbers of hits, clicks, shares and likes that a good viral campaign can deliver are so astronimical as to be almost meaningless. And does anyone really think that your Klout score comes anywhere near measuring actual influence? (If so, try this). Does your reach define your value? And yet from digital marketing to audience research and – yes – the cultural sector, impact and value is still weighted heavily in favour of number of clicks, shares, likes etc. Size of reach, not depth of engagement or breadth of real world impact and actions.

To put it another way, because the metrics are wrong, the drivers are wrong  …which means the actions and methods we build into our online world are also wrong. We make assumptions that numbers equals actions, equals results, so – like Kony – we’re losing sight of what our objective really is and sacrificing that objective in order to chase clicks, likes and shares, constructing projects and tools that prize them above all else.

We need a whole new set of KPIs for what constitutes a successful cultural project, organisation or campaign and a new way of measuring that success …. this will produce a new set of drivers, a clearer, stonger focus on the actual objective.

And that would be awesome.

Kony2012: The Most Resilient Parasite

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

“What’s the most resilient parasite? An Idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.” (Cobb. Inception).

Inception – for the few who haven’t seen it – is a film about entering a person’s subconscious during a dream state and implanting an idea that plays on emotional hooks and then triggers a course of action from that person in the real world. Which is Kony2012 to a tee.

The Kony2012 film, the impact of it and reaction to it feels like a significant moment – largely because it’s been engineered that way. Which is partly what makes me so uncomfortable about it. The film raises too many questions – about the content, the organisation behind it, its methods and techniques, the role of social media and what this all says about our understanding of it. The only way I can process this right now is a shot-by-shot analysis. Bear with me …
Kony2012 opens with a quote – “Nothing is more powerful than an idea”. Makes me think of Chris Nolan’s Inception – (see comments above). Possibly this is deliberate.00:07
The full quote fades in :
“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come”

The original quote was by Victor Hugo, although the fact it is not attributed suggests to the viewer that it’s the filmmaker’s own wisdom. Which perhaps gives an early indication of the self-aggrandisement that follows.
Scratchy film and black and white visuals. This also recurs later in the film. There’s something strangely focusing and hypnotic about this. It suggests messages coming through the ether from long ago – scratchy vinyl records, archive recordings, something long-forgotten but deeply encoded that we somehow feel is Important. Subliminal flash of the red V (victory?)-shaped inverted pyramid somewhere around 00:14 – 00:15. This whole sequence is, effectively, implanting a visual reference point that you’ll be pulled back to when it’s repeated later in the film. More on this later.
Shots of the Earth at night. “Right now there are more people on Facebook than there were on the planet 200 years ago”. Subtle, single piano chords and voice-over (VO). This is all tone-setting. It says “This involves the whole world. This is meaningful”. It also says “welcome to the new world. Planet Facebook”. Ahhh! Wistfully thinking of the SXSWi panel that never was

“Humanity’s greatest desire is to belong and connect”. Lots of shots of people hugging children, older parents at airports etc. Subtle piano tones coming back in with audio FX of scratches again as the filmmaker starts to ramp up the emotional manipulation. The phrase “I love you” repeated a couple of times by children on webcams etc. This quickly cuts to the YouTube logo, the Share and Embed button and lots of quick edits of people sharing seminal YouTube videos of great emotional impact and human triumph over adversity. This juxtaposition is significant. It builds on the opening ‘Planet Facebook’ message and cements a deep emotional connection with – and a love of – social media and its most popular tools and mechanisms …notably YouTube and Facebook, sharing and embedding. The call-to-action is clear and we dutifully responded ….hence 65m views in five days.

At this point, I’m starting to think this might be one of those Google Chrome “Web Is What You Make Of It” ads, (no doubt it soon will be). I’m also starting to wonder which organisations contributed to the $4.76m of donations and $5m of funds released from restrictions that Invisible Children received in 2011, especially the “very strong and unexpected revenue near fiscal year end” (published accounts, p. 13 ). Again, I’ll come back to this later.

If Invisible Children was actually visible about its accounts and transparent about its backing, (which it’s not ), I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find contributions from Google/YouTube and possibly Facebook/Zuckerberg, given how prominently they feature throughout the video and how brilliantly it promotes their products and agenda. Most interestingly, whatever its political impact, this is undoubtedly a landmark video for YouTube and its long-form content strategy . Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the viral growth of Kony2012, (at the time of writing, nearly 65m views in five days), is that this is no throwaway, 60 second video-snack of cats playing pianos. It’s a 29 minute film that deals with some weighty issues. Can anyone think of any other long-form film that’s gone so massively viral, so quickly? YouTube will be loving this.

“And this connection is changing the way the world works”. Cue twitter. Arab Spring. And …

Random Arab guy with subtitled quote “Now we can taste the freedom“. Instantly cuts to a shot of another Arab guy holding a hand-made cardboard sign that says simply “Facebook”. The connection between “tasting the freedom” and “Facebook” again makes me wonder what this is really promoting.

There is, of course, a huge difference between the Arab Spring and the role played by social media and what Kony2012 is trying to do. The Arab Spring came from the ground up. It was the people of Egypt and Tunisia who started this and social media was used worldwide to amplify it. Kony2012 is white middle-class American filmmakers finding their own half-baked solution and trying to impose it on the world. I’m not going to go into too much detail on this one as it’s being done better, by people who know more about it than me here , here, , here, on Charlie Beckett’s Polis blog and on the Guardian’s excellent “what’s the story” here. And for more insight into the impact and effect, rights and wrongs, of social media on Arab Spring listen to Clay Shirky’s excellent talk from SXSWi 2011, Why Would We Think Social Media is Revolutionary?.


This is where Kony2012 identifies and addresses its target audience. This is aimed squarely at young people ….

VO: “….and older generations are concerned”.

Lots of shots of older newsreaders and commentators, who – judging by the downward-trending graphs behind them – seem to be talking about the economic collapse, looking very worried and saying things like “many people are very concerned about tomorrow“, “things could get worse next year” etc. This is all entirely out-of-context. What does concern over the economy have to do with Kony, this campaign or how people, (not just the young), are using social media? The filmmaker seems to be suggesting that older generations are concerned because they don’t get the power of social media or the fact that it “is changing the way the world works“. These images do not support this thesis.

I’m uncomfortable with this for many reasons – not just the misleading inappropriateness of the images. Of course, I can’t discount the fact that I could just be pissed off by the implication that I don’t ‘get’ social media because I almost certainly fall into that ‘older generation’ category. But it’s more than that. Targeting a campaign at a young audience is one thing – and totally understandable. But why alienate an older audience and imply – and suggest to your audience – they won’t get it? My concern here is that this is a pre-emptive strike. The filmmakers, perhaps fearing the kind of inevitable backlash from an older, more cynical generation, have encoded a subtle message here to ignore those who question this film, Invisible Children or its motives. Because they’re not like ‘us’, they’re not part of this … they just don’t get it.

This is the first example of protective armouring the film uses to teflon-coat itself. There are more, which I’ll discuss later.

Black screen. Timecode, counting down. VO: “The game has new rules. The next 27 minutes are an experiment“. This fulfils a number of functions….

(1) Having set the tone, established the importance of everyone being connected, made us feel that because we are connected we have some kind of link to movements like the Arab Spring and set up the rules of engagement as “you’re either young, connected and get this or old, scared and don’t”, the countdown acts like a lock-in. If you get it, you must keep watching. Similar lock-in techniques are used later in the film.
(2) This is a timecode counting down, which – of course – video timecodes don’t. This is about setting a sense of urgency and suggests an event or action, (ie ours), when the countdown reaches zero.
(3) The ‘experiment’ bit is important. This acts as the filmmaker’s Get Out Of Jail Free card should the campaign fail in its main objective. Doesn’t matter. It was all just an experiment. And anyway …..


“In order for it to work, you have to pay attention”
In other words, if it doesn’t work … it’s your fault.This is also another one of those lock-in techniques. The language here reminds me of the kind of thing we’ve been reading in those bullshit chain letters and chain emails for years. “Don’t break the chain”. “In order for this to work you have to do x, y or z”. It’s a technique designed to make you feel that if you don’t do what you’re being asked to do then you’re not only letting yourself down, but all those other people who you’ve just been made to feel connected with too. Language reinforced by the first re-appearance of those scratchy, black-and-white, archive type visuals, audio FX and a few subliminal flashes of the images to come. Remember: This is Important.Pre-amble over, this is where the main narrative is about to kick in. Before we get into this, let’s take a quick recap of what’s just happened …. but maybe take a quick look at what has to say about some of the techniques of hypnotism first. Kony2012 has hit the first four or five on the list in the opening intro of the film …
Affirmation : We’re all connected and this is a great thing
Ambiguity : Many meanings happening at once
Confirmation : Look at that Arab Spring stuff and those images of loving families getting closer. This stuff works, right?
Fixing Attention : The scratchy archive stuff. The audio FX. “You have to pay attention”
Hand-Clasp : In this case, it’s happening in a metaphorical sense. This is those lock-in techniques.OK. So you’re prepped. Time for Inception …01:55 – 02:38
Intro over. This is where the main narrative starts. Shots of the birth of a new baby. Soft, melodic piano now playing throughout the sequence as an emotional bed. On first viewing I thought this was random footage, but – no – this is the birth of the filmmaker’s son, who will later play a starring role in all of this. More on that later. For now, let’s treat this as a metaphorical birth. Birth of an idea, birth of a movement etc. And at 02:22 the filmmaker also uses it to reinforce that opening message that we are all connected; “Every single person started this way”. Immediately after this line we are told “He didn’t choose where he was born ….etc” . It’s a clunky switch from this being a representative birth – effectively representing you and me and “every single person” – to being an individual with an identity, this is a “he”. And we are told that “he matters”. This is both an introduction to the filmmaker and his family, but also to the filmmaker’s narcissistic insistence on placing himself at the centre of this story…02:38 – 04:01

“My name is Jason Russell and this is my son, Gavin…. and just like his Dad, he likes being in movies and making movies”

Alarm bells are now ringing with me. Their volume increases around 03:21 where we see shots of some of the fun home movies they’ve made together, including home-made special effects shots of missiles firing in on random human targets. Nothing necessarily wrong with this per se – it’s just the kind of fun vid a kid might make with his dad – but it is a curious and ill-advised inclusion here, given the message that’s to follow about promoting military intervention in someone else’s country.

This whole home movie footage, which starts with a focus on young Gavin and instills the message that “it’s all about a better world for our kids” then switches focus back to Jason “Radical” Russell, (that’s his choice of middle name, not mine). Shots of him talking passionately at conferences because he “knows a way to get there”. More self-aggrandisement, with slight overtones of a messianic complex that also features heavily in that PMc Magazine piece.

04:01 – 04:18

Introducing Jacob. There are clips playing of Jason with Jacob but the dominant imagery is that of the films playing in a Facebook timeline, again putting the social network front-and-centre with a starring role in this film. This is very directly – and very deliberately – appealing to a clearly defined target audience. Young consumers of social media. When I showed this film to a group of 16 year old BOA students on Thursday they remarked how they liked this aspect of it as it talked to them with visuals they could relate to. So they ‘bond’ more readily with Jason, with Gavin, with Jacob…. these people live in a world that they recognise.

These early clips of Jacob show him having fun with Jason … at Sea World, watching the Dolphins, laughing with Gavin. He’s in a good place … and this all helps with the audience bonding too. We feel good about him.

04:18 – 04:40

“But when my friends I first met him in Uganda, in Central Africa, it was in very different circumstances. He was running for his life”

Visuals still very much influenced by the online world, with a map zoom on Uganda from Google Earth. Music changes tone, segueing into slightly darker audio FX as we whoosh slowly in on the map. This tells us that things are about to get serious. Hold on to your hats, people.

04:44 – 05:45

Full-screen clip of Jason’s first meeting with Jacob. At 04:44 they are interrupted by a man saying “you are making our work here very difficult”. It is not clear who this man is or why he has stopped them filming. The implication is that he is an official from the dark side, trying to stop the heroic Russell from changing the world, but he could equally be an aid worker trying to do some real good. Worth reading this take on this moment from Mareike Schomerus, author of “Chasing the Kony Story” and “A Terrorist is Not A Person Like Me : An Interview with Joseph Kony”.
The footage cuts to various clips of film – shot to a better standard than the first clip of meeting Jacob – where we learn from him of the story of children abducted and killed. More shots of dozens of Ugandan children sleeping head-to-tail in huge groups and shots of others on the run in the dark. Music is all melancholic and manipulative strings. Poignant fade to black.05:45 – 06:00

Point-of-View (POV) driving shots, with audio of what we assume is Jason Russell’s immediate reaction to what he has been told by Jacob …“I cannot believe that. This has been going on for years? If that happened one night in America it would be on the cover of Newsweek”.This is Russell setting up the motivation – and justification – for his own organisation’s chosen response. The focus of his ire is not that it has happened or that Uganda’s President Museveni allowed it to happen, but that he – and his fellow Americans – didn’t know about it because it isn’t in the media. Consequently, the focus of their activity – from the Invisible Children website – is to “make documentaries, tour them around the world and lobby our nation’s leaders to make ending this conflict a priority”.06:00 – 07:28
More interview footage with Jacob. Clearly taken during a later visit. He is smiling and talking of his original ambition to be a lawyer, talking hopefully about a future. This cuts to another interview with him where the mood is markedly different. He tells Russell that “It is better when you kill us”. It’s a brutal, but hugely effective, cut between these two interviews, starkly contrasting a young person’s early hopes for the future with the reality that he now feels he has none. It’s difficult to be certain, but Jacob looks older in the first, hopeful interview. Irrespective of whether this level of manipulation in montage has been employed, the filmmaker’s hand is clearly at work in cutting these two interviews so close together for maximum emotional impact. There is no music through any of this. The focus is very much on the words and on the emotion that is inherent in the sequence. No additional help is needed to enhance this. It fades to black as Jacob starts to cry, with Russell’s voice offering the only whispered reassurance. “It’s Okay. Jacob …. It’s Okay“.07:34
Russell makes what sounds like a very heartfelt promise to Jacob :
We are also going to doing everything in our power to stop them…. we are. We are going to stop them”
Russell is off-screen and the promise is made off-camera, which leaves this remarkable promise open to potential criticism that it could have been added in post. However, the audio sounds genuine and Jacob appears to be responding to Russell’s words directly. It is unlikely that this is faked, although the possibility remains.07:54
The final line “we are going to stop them” is repeated with a subtle echo effect as the image transitions from the old interview footage to still photos in an album of Jacob smiling, with hand-written captions reading “16 more days till we meet ……again”. The visuals and echo effect combine to give the impression of the passage of time and the continuation of a long friendship. The fact that Jacob is smiling in the photos suggests that the friendship has been beneficial and his life has improved, which neatly sets up the next sequence of shots showing what we assume to be the reason for this improvement. A sequence of stills of Russell (presumably) at demos, talking through megaphones, (indicating that he is a prominent voice at these demos), with accompanying VO twice referring to his “fight” to fulfil his promise to Jacob. At 08:18 there is a shot of Russell with his left arm tightly around Jacob, holding a prosumer camcorder up in his right arm. Behind them is a hand-written poster headed “GOALS” with seven bullet-pointed aims. The shot is poorly focused so it is impossible to tell what any of the goals are.08:21
“That promise is not just about Jacob. Or me. It’s also about you”
This statement is accompanied by a shot featuring a mosaic of approximately 200 photos of young people – representing the “you” Russell is referring to. As far as it is possible to tell, not one of these young people are African-American or black. This is especially significant given the criticisms that the Kony2012 campaign has loud echoes of “White Man’s Burden”.

(work-in-progress …. never completed. Pleased with the idea and the progress. Not pleased with massive time commitment -vs- benefits. The point was already made.)

Hello Culture. Again.

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Appeared on a couple of panels today at the Hello Culture conference in Birmingham and enjoyed them both immensely. For the morning panel, on Digital and Audience Engagement, I’m aware that my own enjoyment was possibly at the expense of the audience’s as I did get slightly ranty about yet another talk on how the arts and cultural sector should embrace technology and work collaboratively and blah blah blah. This is no slight on the theme of the conference, of course – from many of the comments and questions in the audience it’s clear that, unfortunately, we’ve still not yet reached the point where we can move on from these discussions. But that’s my point. So, like a dog with a bone, I’ve continued gnawing away in my head at some of the things discussed. So here’s a slightly more considered clarification of some of those thoughts that were blurted out on the panel and on twitter …

The Role of An Artist
There’s a few points here about the role of an artist – or at least my understanding of it – and how it really doesn’t chime with a lot of the ‘fear/threat of technology’ arguments that still seem to be holding back so many in the arts and cultural sector. First of all, there’s this ….

What I mean by that is that if an artist is feeling threatened or fearful of technology then I’d like to see that artist’s response. Technology is threatening. It is disruptive. And it’s coming for you. So how are you going to deal with it?

Technology has systematically changed every aspect of the world we live in – not just now, but always and in every known medium. You don’t have to embrace it, but you do have to confront it. I don’t much care if it’s picking up that technology, using it, adapting to it and evolving with it or creating a piece of work using your preferred tools, craft and technique as a response to it. Either way, by confronting it the artist will better understand it, better understand and deal with their fear of it, and be better equipped to make it work for them in one way or another. The very last thing I would expect from an artist is to avoid it for as long as possible, cower away from it and hope it goes away. It won’t.

What Do We Mean By ‘Technology’
Let’s not get too hung up on digital (whatever that isn’t) or on new buzzwords like ‘transmedia’ or ‘gamification’ or on cutting edge technologies that may or may not turn out to be snake oil like augmented reality and 3D, or on dry sounding concepts that are anathema to most traditional artists, like metadata. Think of it like this …

Technology is a paintbrush.

Imagine you had never seen one before. I could tell you what it is. I could show you what it does. But I could not predict what might happen or what you would create if you picked it up and started using it for the first time. I couldn’t say how you might use it or what effects you might create… because it’s about you, not the paintbrush. So the only way of ever finding out is to pick it up and use it. And – as an artist – that’s exciting, isn’t it? Isn’t all art and creativity essentially borne from one simple question ; “What happens if I take that and do this?”. And discovering new tools and techniques is part and parcel of developing as an artist over time rather than finding what works and sticking with it.

So – again – the fear of picking up or embracing technologies just doesn’t fit with my understanding of the essential creative curiosity that underpins the artistic mentality.

Working Hard To Stand Still
This was a direct comment someone made – possibly Helga, (chairing) – about how artists are busy creating art and don’t necessarily have time to discover, get to grips with or keep up with new technology. I understand that, I really do. But, leaving aside the questionable wisdom of “working hard to stand still”, (why the hell would you want to?), there’s a couple of important things to consider here too. The only thing you ever need to get to grips with when dealing with technology is this ….

You don’t necessarily need to understand it fully in order to use it.

This is partly because the understanding comes from using it. Again, think of the paintbrush analogy. Only by using it do you understand how different strokes create different effects. And when you do really need to understand something more deeply in order to unlock its full potential, you work with someone who does get it.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that even the most tech-savvy, digitally switched-on, geeked-out gurus are largely all still getting their heads round it and struggling to keep up too. One of the key moments in my journey through all of this was at my first mobile content conference, nine or ten years ago, where I had gone, totally green, in an effort to understand the mobile opportunity in the early days of 3G. I remember watching a panel with Worldwide Heads of Content Development for the likes of Vodafone and Orange and, when asked by the chair the usual question of what the future holds for the mobile content industry they all replied, without exception, “we have absolutely no idea”. I found that strangely liberating – it freed me from my own paranoia and nervousness and fear of ‘getting it wrong’ because it made it crystal clear that – even at the highest levels – we’re all feeling our way through this together in one way or another.

We learn by doing. So do it. But with one big proviso …

So choose the right technology and for the right reasons, make sure the medium suits the message and never use a technology for technology’s sake.

Data, datastories and the problems behind them

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

I read with interest The Guardian’s piece on Monday about the statistical analysis of the recent UK Riots – or, to be more specific, analysis of those arrested during the disturbances. That’s an important distinction, you see, because the two are not the same thing.

The data tells us that only 13% of those arrested had been identified as gang members, more than half were under 20 and more than two thirds of the young people involved were identified as having special educational needs.

I couldn’t help thinking of an incident that happened to me back in my own mis-spent youth … one I’m not particularly proud of, but it’s worth retelling here now.

I was in my early twenties and on the way home from some kind of works do, a little bit the worse for wear. Fell asleep on the tube, missed my stop and found myself in Uxbridge, miles from home and having missed the last tube back. So I went into town in a fruitless search for a cab. Feeling a sudden urgent need to relieve myself, I did so in what I thought was a quiet back alley against a wall, (like I say, not proud. But who hasn’t?), only to feel a hand on my shoulder and hear words along the lines of “you’re nicked, sonny”, before being bundled into the back of a police van with another rather mild-mannered young offender.

Dumfounded as to what seemed to be pretty heavy-handed policing, I found my fellow detainee had also been arrested for similarly spurious reasons. “It’s because there was a huge fight in the city centre tonight when the pubs spilled out”, he informed me. “the police here always do this. Wait until the trouble has died down and then just nick whoever they can find still out on the streets”. After all … it wouldn’t look so good on the local constabulary or its statistics if there were major known incidents that night and no arrests, now, would it?

Now … I’m not saying that this is what happened during the UK riots, but it does at least give me cause to question the statistical analysis we’re now being presented with. Are these statistics for all those involved in the UK Riots? Or just for those who were the easiest to arrest?

And herein lies the problem with statistics. I’m all for the increasing trend towards openness of data and the wonderful things you can do with it. But if history is written by the winners, then policy is written by the statisticians. The stampede to visualise and create more tools and services to engage wider audiences in such data and embed it in our lives needs to be measured by a greater transparency and discussion around the sources.

Data – like any other kind of report – only tells part of the story, and it can be just as one-sided or subjective as any other. I’d like to see an infographic that highlights this disparity.