Occasional blog of
Tobias Revell

Lièvre, Pluviôse, 228; Speculative design is still a thing and Warhammer is great.

What if Our World is Their Heaven?

I got around to pulling together the video from 'What if Our World is Their Heaven?' and uploaded it to Vimeo. I also stuck up some images and the text we used in the brief up on the Haunted Machines site. The whole workshop was based around the 'automated production and dissemination of images'; a phrase which, if you've spoken to me in the last month, you would have heard me use a lot. The talk here introduces some of the key ideas of the area and identifies some existing weak signals and indicators that could be used by the students to kick off their thinking.



Coming up

There's a quite a lot going on this month. Not least of which I'm doing a lot of actual teaching which is why this is a day late. I spent a while trying to pull together a Blender workshop for Eevee on Saturday but really couldn't find a way to make it do what I wanted it to do and do it in a way which was easily teachable. It's definitely really promising but at the moment there's just too many hoops to go through for an 'intro to Blender' class. 

Other than that is a bunch of speculative design stuff. I'm teaching MA Service Design students tomorrow with the old Critical Exploits and thanks to my old friend and colleague Radha Mistry have found myself on the jury for the Core 77 design awards for speculative design. The submission are open now until the end of March I think. It'll be interesting to see what people are playing with in the field. I suppose it's a field now.

On 28th February Natalie and I are presenting at Pre-histories and Futures of Machine Vision, an event put together by Joel McKim. Honestly I'm not 100% on what we're talking about yet but we've titled it 'What if Our World was Their Heaven?' again.

Channel recommendation – Warhammer and climate change

So I suppose the commonality about my viewing habits is I like watching people build things. Not in a Grand Designs way but in a really grounded craft-based way. The algorithm has pushed me recently into miniature painting which is very enjoyable to watch mostly for the remarkable amount of skill involved. Anyway, I came across Goobertown Hobbies and really like it. The guy has a good pace and voice in talking about what he's doing. However, about half way through he completely switches, turns out he's a biochemist and he wants to use his platform to engage people in talking about climate change. He talks in this one about becoming confident in who you are and what you believe – in his case that he likes Warhammer (which he was 'closeted' about for a long time) and is really concerned about the lack of public engagement with climate change. It's just a really lovely, non-aggressive, non-ranty way of calling for openness, honesty and meaningful conversation. Loved it. 



Ok. In the words of Mr Buckles: I love you. BYYYYEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!

Buis, Pluviôse, 228; What if everything was ok?

Stuart and Nicolas basically said it was ok to keep using French Republican dates as titles so that's where we are now with this blog. Incidentally I told a colleague that I blogged every week and they made a joke about 2015. 2015 was a good year for music. So. Anyway, whatever. Friday was Brexit day and like a lot of folks I found myself once again feeling the profound hopelessness and despair that we felt in 2016:

Sometimes I have a dream where I'm desperately imploring someone to listen to me and stop and change their ways. I'm not sure who my interlocutor is; I usually see myself in the third-person with my antagonist off-screen. In my dream I'm utterly convinced that they are so incorrect and so misled that if they continue what they are doing it will irreparably damage us both. I start persuading them calmly but they refuse to listen, or ignore me, or continue doing the thing I'm trying to get them to stop and it escalates into shouting, screaming for them to stop but they continue to ignore me, or simply can't hear me. In the end my throat is raw from screaming, my head throbs with rage, my back is bent over and I'm exhausted and crying but they carry on.

I hate that dream. It hurts. Maybe you have it too? I'm sorry if you do. It probably has some symbolic meaning about insurmountable adversity but like a lot of my dreams I tend to ignore it and pocket it until it later bears a semblance upon life when I can draw on it for learning.

But that dream came to mind on Friday evening while watching the symbols of Brexit happen. I'm always wary of blaming or singling out individuals for things that I personally find to be wrong because people are usually the victims of calamitous events rather than causes. And unless you are a murderer, sexual predator or other nefarious being the chances are that circumstance has as much a part in the situation as free will. But it was hard watching some of the vox-pops with folks celebrating this historic catastrophe and not want to blame them for their choices in our particular calamity: You must have seen the interview; (I generalise from despair, but you get the gist):
'We'll be in control again.'
'Of what?'
'You know, our country.'
'Ok, but what specifically?'
'Our sovereignty.'
'What does that mean for you?'
'Oh, well, control of our own laws.'
'Which laws?'
'All the laws that Europe took away.'
'Ok, which ones?'
'Like...fishing laws. We'll have our own fishing laws.'
'So how will that affect your daily life?'
'Oh, well, it won't but we'll have our own laws.' 
And on and on and on it goes like the greatest Monty Python sketch writ large on the rhetorical path to nowhere. You can't blame folks for deploying words like 'sovereignty' and 'laws' without (as I don't) even really knowing what they mean. They're parroting the Eurosceptic words they've heard since the early-2000s.

So then if we don't blame the folks gathered in Parliament Square to celebrate the ritual sacrifice of fifty years of mutual cooperation, do we blame and scream at the politicians? (you know specifically the ones I mean) I mean, it's good catharsis if you like your throat cut to ribbons but they're just doing politics. Let's imagine a pleasant fiction:

As with our world, the end of the Cold War leads to an end of a clear 'us and them' narrative simultaneous to enormous growth in the economic prosperity of the most wealthy leaving the once exhorted working and lower middle classes behind. Instead of blaming non-white people (War on Terror) or 'the elites' some right-wing think tank (supported by the tabloids, fintech and green tech investment) puts together a cohesive, straight-forward and digestible narrative that lands the blame for social inequality squarely at the feet of exploitative extraction and fossil fuel industries. New politicians like Noris Fohnson and Bigel Jarage campaign and harry – out of political expediency rather than conviction – for an anti-fossil fuel platform in the right wing, swinging MPs – out of political expediency rather than conviction – to call a referendum in 2016 on a carbon neutral economy by 2020. They promise jobs, new industries, growth, wealth for the 'forgotten' and a nationalistic vision of Britain leading the way. 

Sure, it seems unfeasible but you know, the mechanics are broadly the same. And you can't blame politicians for being political. You CAN blame them for shirking any sense of courage or integrity in the face of a opportunism and of knowingly committing the country to a policy path which they fully understand (and most have admitted before this debacle) will lead to a worse outcome for most people. You can go to fucking town on that one.

So anyway I posted a Political Opinion on Instagram on Friday night and braced for the inevitable backlash but instead received some sympathy, kind words and two interesting debates in which I learned something. This continues to support my conviction that Instagram is my favourite (great articles to the contrary aside). Had I done the same on Twitter dot com I would have received the inevitable 'eat rocks and die you fascist' response. This is a symptom I think of how much Twitter's panopticon structure (you can see what everyone else says) rewards collective outrage. On Instagram, where it's direct messages or you have to go out of your way to read what other people have written about another's thing, there's no need to play to the crowd.

Reading

This week I started reading Designs For The Pluriverse by Arturo Escobar. I actually stomped through about at third of it in one sitting (practically unheard of with my easily-distracted mind.) It explores the possibility of a design that goes agains the grain of design's inherent destructive tendencies, beginning with Tony Fry's notion of 'the "defuturing effects" of modern design, by which he means design's contribution to the systemic conditions of structured unsustainability that eliminate possible futures.' (p. 16) From here, Escobar points at a fork in the road for design and the future; the first drawn form notions such as participation, conviviality, non-dualistic ontologies and matriarchal ideas. The other; Claudia von Werlholf's 'patriarchal alchemy' based on hierarchies, dominance and control. He then scopes out the territory for a nascent new form of 'critical deisgn' present in emerging areas such as transition movements, Latin American feminism and climate activism.

To be totally honest, I don't understand half of it (the cultural theory half specifically); but in a good way. Sometimes I read things where I struggle with the ideas and terms and give up. There's so many things to read that I refuse to engage with things where the author doesn't at least try to engage an audience beyond their immediate peer group. In this case, Escobar really is trying to engage people exactly like me – a western-educated designer – in shifting my conception of my subject. His writing makes me want to re-read sections to understand where he's going at. I'm apprehensive of getting to several areas of the book – the ontological turn and transition design specifically – both of which I've taken several runs at each and come up only slightly more comprehending but I'm kind of excited to tackle those things through his writing.

However, in a book referencing designers, inevitably to be read by designers (even if he is clear that is not his sole audience), it could use some pictures! Escobar refers to a lot of practices throughout the book and rarely illustrates them through description and never through images. The thread of a thought can easily be lost when he drops the name of, for instance, a co-design practitioner I was unaware of and then doesn't expand on what they do and how or use an image of their work making it hard to interpret them as an example of his theory. I also actually like his tendency to string out lists of adjectives which I know some folk find poor style. I do that. So that makes it feel ok. More conceptually, I also feel that sometimes his ideas border on nostalgia such as at one point lamenting the replacing of the fireplace in the home (a site of community) with the television, or enthusing the value of blood relations and physically-local communities over dispersed technological social networks. Maybe there's more to go into here later in the book but I have a niggling concern that (at least early in the book) he off-handedly discounts the role of media technologies in building new kinds of families and communities that for many folks (perhaps western, yes) are more fulfilling – even safer – than the physically proximate ones. Anyway, I'll write more once I wrap it up. It's intense but I'm enjoying the challenge.

Sorry, no learning or channel recommendations this week. This is long enough for you. I've got them in my notes for next week.

Night, x

Coignée, Pluviôse, 228; Power modes, mind control, ancient games

Oh boy, there’s a lot of self-centred guff in this one. If you're not interested (and who could blame you) I would skip through the 'Power Modes' section but there’s no point pretending we don’t have implicit algorithms that we use to make decisions and structure our behaviour. Maybe not everyone does, maybe some folks are just totally confident and comfortable in themselves and their choices that they don’t try and rationalise them.



Mrs Revell and I bought our first flat over the summer and we've been settling in gradually. While the rest of the place is very designerly and tastefully finished my 'office' (the name of this room is still contentious) is the dumping ground for stuff that has nowhere else to go and old furniture. I'm hoping to get some time over the summer to sort it out but for now this is where I write to you from.

Reading

I finished up *New* Program for Graphic Design by David Reinfurt over the tail end of last week while travelling and it was good. There's not much more to say really, if you're into design, design education and design history, read it. I learned lots and found it pretty easy to engage with. So at the weekend I moved onto clearing out some open tabs. The new edition of Continent is right up the Haunted Machines alley and featured great work from Stephen Connor, Nicolas Nova, Suzanne Triester and Peter Moosgard. I also read an article by one of the editors who I hadn't come across before – Anthony Enns on Apocryphal Psychotechnologies. This was an exhaustive history of mind-reading and control devices and the narratives and pseudoscience around them propelled principally by the belief that the mind is a machine and we could read and control it with the right gizmo. 

This provided a very neat segue into Simon Niquille's lates piece for e-flux – Too Much Information. Niquille has a real talent for connecting technical, historical and political ideas around technologies and does a great job here of really hammering the technical trait of believing that 'good enough' simulation means that you can read and control perfectly. Similar to Enns' critique of mind-reading evinced by the brain as an electro-magnetic machine, Niquille describes how the logic of FACS (Facial Action Coding System) – a system used to simulate human emotions on CGI models with a series of 'universal' facial movements – evinced technologists that human emotions could similarly be discretely read from a limited available set:
These applications follow the belief that the face holds the key to truth and reveals thoughts left unspoken. [psychologist Paul] Ekman refers to micro expressions as an “involuntary emotional leakage [that] exposes a person’s true emotions.” In the case of airport screenings, automated facial expression recognition takes on a predictive function by claiming to pick up signals of future intentions. Such expectation echoes the practice of physiognomy, a pseudoscience that originated in antiquity and resurged in Europe during the late Middle Ages to assess a persons character from their outer appearance. 
I would have liked to have seen more critique of the designerly qualities of the machines that Enns' examines, similar to the work that Andrew Friend and Sitraka's 2013 Prophecy Program but I suppose that's not his remit.

Power Modes

Sometimes I think about who we are in different places. If you ask Mrs Revell she’d (probably) say that I mostly like sitting on my own in silence. That’s the kind of ‘resting state’ and then I activate other states for other situations. When I’m in situations where I don’t know anyone or know very few people I seem to have two wildly different states: Either sit-at-the-back, hide in the shadows and crack on with work on the laptop (let’s call this low power mode) or everyone here is interesting, talk to them all, learn about them, soak it up (high power mode). And then I end up thinking – well which one am I really, given no external conditions? I’m not faking being interested in talking to other people or learning about them, their lives and concerns, and we all enjoy the feeling that comes with people giving you their time and attention. Then I’m resentful of the times I don’t make the most of the opportunities to meet new people and learn new things, and sit at the back and hide but also feel safe. 

When I was up in Edinburgh last week I was definitely in high power mode and it was great. I suppose I wonder if there are specific starting conditions or triggers that I can proactively make sure are in place to make sure I get into that mode and make the most of these opportunities. At LCC I’m almost always entirely in that mode but then I already know most people who work in that building and they’re all super interesting so it’s quite comfortable. Anyway, it was fortuitous to listen to David Mitchell on the Adam Buxton podcast while tidying the flat (it’s an old one, I’m playing catch up between bouts of Islamic philosophy) talking about how he deals with small talk as a relatively new parent:
It’s not like I mean to be unfriendly, but I don’t mean to be friendly enough and that is being unfriendly and maybe it’s better that everyone expect me to be unfriendly and then they won’t try and talk to me. Then I can be friendly with my actual friends who know what I’m like and I’m less shy with them and so I will talk to them but I haven’t really got the energy or concentration or courage to be a normal chatty guy. Just generally.
He was referring specifically to small talk at the ‘school gates’ which I suppose I’m unfamiliar with but I am familiar with forced social proximity from other things (cursed ‘networking’ sessions at conferences being a chief culprit or large group meals with people I don’t know) and in those situations the triggers are definitely fired off to go into low power mode. I think when I can’t control, direct or structure the social circumstances I go low power mode: I have to be in that space for a certain amount of time and with a pre-ordained set of people and there’s no control over that. I think I go high power mode when I get to set the rules, chiefly; I can always walk away. There’s much less risk involved if you’re setting at least some of the terms of the social interactions. Mitchell wraps up this line of thought with the specifics of his career:
What I like about being a comedian and performing in general is that there are occasions where you have to be energised and think and in certain situations be chatty – I’m trying to be chatty now. But you sort of know, while doing it, that that’s part of a certain discrete project and the when that project ends you can go back to being unfriendly and morose and quiet. You know, it’s nice to put on an ironed shirt and have a wash but it’s also nice not to have to be just generally ‘clean’
I remember saying to Wes once (when he was spending every day in silence on his own working on his PhD) that I often don’t want to socialise because I spend all day in meetings and talking or teaching and lecturing and being enthusiastic, and energised and trying to bring people along with me with their own ideas and energy and it’s exhausting. So, when I’m not doing that I just like to sit in quiet on my own. I guess it’s a similar thing.

Things I learned this week

  • I learned about the Royal Game of Ur which, when you think about the longevity of games (or even specific artefacts) is kind of remarkable. Invented in the early third millenia in Mesopotamia, spread across most of the Indo-European world and beyond up until late antiquity (500 AD-ish in Europe). I like the way the rules were learned; an astronomer from Babylon wrote a tablet to his Greek friends with a more complex variation on the game from which modern scholars were able to reverse engineer the standard rules. 
  • I really liked this article which is from a few years back but seems a bit ever green. Basically, people can say mean things, not because they're mean but that's just how we build social bonds. I deleted my 'small' (read: private) Twitter account a few years ago because I didn't like how mean it was. I don't like being mean to people who aren't in the room (not to say I can't be mean to people to their face) I didn't really learn anything there but it's a nice articulation of the vicious joy of being mean on the Internet.
x

Flagon, Pluviôse, 228: Donkeys and baskets

Hi, sorry I don't have much for you this week. I was away at the weekend and I haven't really sat down and thought about much at all for the past seven days. Tom Armitage (he also has a blog) sent me an article about Disco Elysium which begins with a quote form one of the developer's (ZA/UM) founders on their name:
"It just looks hella cool, that slash there. It looks like the technical name of something that definitely exists and weighs eight tonnes."
As Tom said in his email: 'ZA/UM appear to be more rock and roll than I can conceive.' I guess in my own janky, inappropriate way I try to be a bit rock and roll. Maybe we could all try being more rock and roll.

Happenings

I have the videos and images from What if Our World is Their Heaven to sort out and write up. This was the workshop slash studio that Natalie Kane and I ran with MA Graphic Media Design at London College of Communication. We looked at the cultural and political dimensions of 'automated image production and dissemination.' This is slightly selfish as I'm trying to kick off a research project at LCC on the same theme but it proved fruitful; the students really got on with it and pulled out a dizzying array of interesting projects and practices.


Anyway, I'm off to Edinburgh in 30 mins to do an event on speculative design at Edinburgh Napier's Creative Informatics Lab. I'm still not sure exactly what to talk about. The easy version would just be to go on about some work I've done but I don't know if people are interested in that. Then on Friday afternoon I'm back in London for the 'Designing for Alternative Futures' event at the Design Museum. Just check out the lineup on that. What a corker.

Things I Learnt This Week

This week I did make sure to note some things I learnt. 
  • I learnt what a freakshake was from a menu in a cafe in Bakewell. They are...  alarming. 
  • I learnt the etymological origins of the gay slang 'Twink' which is connected to the confectionary. I honestly didn't know. When you think about it, it's kind of obvious. 
  • Finally, in the podcast at the moment we're doing Sufi mysticism and Nasreddin came up who I learnt about from Slavs and Tartars a while back but h regaled the story of the basket and the donkey which tickles me (and because I can't find the original I paraphrase here):

    Everyday Nasreddin rode his donkey into the town and every day the customs officer inspected the donkey and Nasreddin's empty basket and found nothing Years later the customs officer – now retired – ran into Nasreddin in the market and asked him; 'I've retired now, you can tell me, what were you smuggling?

    'Donkeys and baskets.'

Night x

Chat, Nivose, 228; Time has Eaten Me Again but Maybe Some of This Content will Satisfy You.

Is knowledge always a product of its technical constraints? Donald Knuth’s precise mathematical description of the letter ‘S’ owes its existence to the switch to papyrus and wax that enabled early Latin scribes to make curved shapes. Without that switch from carving stones to marking paper; no s, no Knuth on mathematics of typography. So what knowledge was lost because some arbitrary technical decision or necessity was bypassed? You see, I was doing really well at finding time to read articles and do bits of writing in the morning until the first week back at my real job, now I am back to being exhausted and frenetic, unable to concentrate on a single thing.

Common Design Studio

I’ve spoken to some folks about this but I suppose since we got some money it’s worth going a bit public. With my colleague Eva Verhoeven, I’m going to be working on a big design education project this year – Common Design Studio. This is a follow-up to the Global Design Studio that itself was a follow up to Interact, an exchange programme between LCC and some Australian counterparts. Global Design Studio was an online project with 60 students from three institutions around the world all working together for ten days. We wrote up the results of Global Design Studio into a paper and identified that one of the missed opportunities of online projects like this is that they could be done cheaper by maximising the use of resources where they were plentiful and giving more access to others where they weren’t and that they have the possibility to connect folks who may not normally have access to the institution. As a result the Common Design Studio is a proposal for a completely free, open online design learning project run out of LCC that anyone with a phone can join. This makes it sound deceptively simple but there are already hurdles.

Because the project is committed to transparency and freedom we are documenting everything online totally openly. I’m currently using a Trello board for this purpose which you can get to here. It contains all the important documents and will be populated with meeting notes and discussions as the project evolves. I’m not sure if it’s the most suitable thing but it allows for anyone to drop in and check it out which is what we’re aiming for. If you want to help out or have any ideas or references please also shoot them over.

Reading

I decided I don’t like Vanished Kingdoms and stopped reading it. I like my history with a bit of allegory and, frankly, a bit of narrative and the thing was getting quite a slog to read through, for instance in the case of Aragon, over a thousand years of names of Kings and what they did. Also, I didn’t realise when picking it up (despite being on the cover) that it focuses exclusively on European history which I’m already pretty au fait with and I was hoping to learn more about places I didn’t know so much about.

So, beyond revisiting a bunch of design research for the PhD (Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, Cross’ Designerly Ways of Thinking, Frayling’s Research in Art and Design and Design Research Through Practice) I started to read A *New* Program for Graphic Design from David Reinfurt which so far has been brilliant. It's basically a book version of the lecture series and exercises he gives his students but all really well illustrated and paced. Because it's verbatim from a lecture it also has a conversational quality that makes it really engaging. I often thought that I should just write down my talks rather than try to be a smart writer and this one is winning me over. It's broken into three sections; Typography, Gestalt and Interface and these give a super interesting overview of histories and futures of design, computation, social change and psychology.

I also read On Nonscalability by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing recommended by Anab Jain. It gives a remarkably accessible history of the scalability project and its eclipsing of the possibilities of diversity. Tsing draws a logical equivalence between the idea of the ‘pixel’ and something she calls the ‘nonsocial landscape elements’ or, ‘nonsoels.’ These are discrete units that allow for scalability. In her example, slaves from Africa and sugarcane clones. I read Tsing’s book a year or two ago and this paper helpfully includes a short version of that as an example of nonscalability.

Channel Recommendation

I can't stop thinking about how good Disco Elysium was. I can't and won't play it again but a lot of the soundtrack is on YouTube. It was all done by British Sea Power and has a wonderful horrifying melancholy to it. There's very little spoken dialogue in the game so the music sticks with you most.