I really can't emphasise how fantastic Jorge Luis Borges' stories are. Everyone with even the mildest creative streak should at least own a copy of Labyrinths.

Many of his stories are referenced as design analogies. On Exactitude in Science (where Broges follows the latin tradition started with Cervantes of denying authorship) is probably the most heavily used, often being compared to Marshall McLuhan's theories and it, itself has gone on to inspire many pieces of fiction; Michel Houellebecq's forthcoming novel - La Carte et le territoire - pays direct homage to it.
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless...

My favourite has to be The Library of Babel which describes an infinite library containing all possible books in every possible language in all possible editions ever published. Later, William Goldbloom Bloch wrote The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel - an equally impressive read calculating some of the numeric and spatial properties of the library described by Borges. The story raises so many questions - if misprints of a certain volume are counted as an individual volume, what would a misprint of the misprint be? A new volume? And how long before the misprints became the original or were misprinted as to be identical to other volumes?

And what of the library catalogue? Dante's paradox was that any work created to circumscribe and encompass the works and lives of humanity would necessarily become part of it and so never be able to fully describe it's subject. Any system created to describe another system becomes part of that system. Any catalogue of the library would have to be counted as one of the volumes and thus catalogued itself.

Brevity and The Telegraph

The first instant long distance communication method was the telegraph. Telegraph literally means 'far writing' in much the same way as telephone means 'far sound.' The telegraph naturally lent itself to short communications. Telegraph messages were sent in Morse code as the electronic telegraph was essentially a binary device, unable to sent the alphabet. The first Morse code, developed in the 1830's didn't even have any lower case or punctuation.
Naturally, this led to a certain type of communication. To form a letter required many more symbols than the letter itself, this also had to be translated at the other side. Each telegraph also had to carry with it the addressee. The time it took to type a telegraph thus multiplied exponentially with it's length and so most telegraphs carried only a couple of dozen characters. The first telegraph, Morse's own simply read 'WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT'

A letter takes days to arrive, and at the beginning of the 19th century, often weeks. What was written had to be well considered and thorough. The next communication would not be for sometime and so a writer would have to consider all that might want to be said. With the telegraph, communication became instantaneous and words could be sent that were thought of in much the same manner, without the same level of consideration put in to sending vital pieces of information.

The telegraph only enjoyed a brief period at the forefront of communication technology before the phone took over. The telephone was faster and easier to use. No translation or indeed any kind of writing was necessary, and so much more information could be carried faster down the telephone wires than down the telegraph wires. The final telegraph was sent in 1999 to president Bill Clinton. It was 95 words and took 8 minutes to copy. An almost laughable amount of time.

What the telegraph left us with was a fundamental understanding that text takes a long time to copy, read and translate, and so less is more. Text takes time to writ and read. The brain is capable of translating information much faster than the eyes can read or the hand can write and so text is trimmed down to the most vital elements. It serves better than voice or images because of our ability to flash edit and skim as we read. Unlike a voice message or a video, text allows you to subconsciously read ahead and skip pieces, absorbing only the most relevant parts. Whether you like it or not, your eye does it for you. So we trim them down, saving our reader from further cognitive load by trimming out the non-vital pieces for them. How long before text becomes so shortened, abbreviated and streamlined that an entirely new communication method is born from the pictures we translate as words?

Illusion of Choice?

Five or so years ago I was enamoured by Cass Sunstein's 2.0. I was writing a dissertation on the power of the internet over the popular consumption of politics and his book was a goldmine of information. It's a follow-up to his original but published in light of the 9/11 attacks. As such his book primarily approaches the problem of how the internet can be used wittingly or unwittingly as a tool for solidifying opinion, thus fuelling extremism in both the states and in Muslim terrorist organisations leading to ideological clash and fundamentally, the War on Terror.

The point he eloquently made was that if you're interest is spiked by a certain ideal, then you actively seek it out on the internet. The people who construct the sites you seek out, who write the blogs you search for and who tweet the things your interested in themselves link to other sources of similar information and opinion. Rapidly you find yourself in a pool of agreement, natural human confirmation bias takes over and you become convinced that everyone concurs and feels the same way. Sunstein says that this becomes part of an unwitting propaganda war of ideologies. Where once you believed a certain thing because the handful of people you encountered believed that way, you can now search out hundreds, thousands of people who agree with your beliefs.

Ironically, my total belief in this theory was further entrenched by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, who extols the capabilities of the modern search engine to find you exactly what you want, when you want and Jaron Lanier in You Are Not A Gadget who tells of flattened culture where we become trapped in a 'virtual reality' of our own construction. Numerous others; David Eagleman, Brian Christian and Steven Johnson tell us that the internet and the widening of our access to it is allowing us to live out our fantasies through the capability of technology to surround us with the world we want to exist. They tell us that it's our human desire, enabled by this technology that is doing this.

So, this week, I'm interested to read The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser. Pariser seems to be arguing either a new point or indeed a counterpoint to all the reading I have so far on this subject. He seems to argue that commercial interests are fuelling what we see. Through the vast quantities of meta-information gathered by Facebook to the ingenious abilities of the targeted advertising service AdWords, we're not accessing the information we want, or our subconscious wants to confirm, but are being gently steered by the commercial interests of the web's true owners. This seems somewhat sinister. My girlfriend is always impressed by the Google's abilities to pop up an advert of shoes she was looking at two weeks before, when coincidentally now, it's just after pay day. And both Carr and Lanier talk about Google's unwritten manifesto of quantifying all internet users into discrete, well-labelled consumer bases.

I wrote an unpublished essay some time ago about how unaware of the framework that we structure our web-presence into we are. The standardised Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and so on accounts. The protocols and templates that we construct our personal websites (this one included) around make us all victims of standardisation that the internet promised would be made redundant. Adam Curtis in his fantastic documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace begins by tells us that the driving ideas of the internet's pioneers were to set us free by removing the political framework that we were all subject to. He laments that the internet, and it's current owners have used it to heavily reinforce the status quo while giving us the illusion of choice.

Psychopaths and Pills

Marcia Angell just had the second part of her article on drugs and psychiatry published in the New York Review. She references three recent books on the subject; The Emperors New Drugs by Irving Kirsch, Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker and Unhinged by Daniel Carlat all of which paint a bleak picture of a border-line corrupt US medical institution founded on subjectivity and greed.

I've always been suspicious of pharmaceutical companies and the medical profession in general. My policy on being ill is to tough it out and get over it. Anything longer than a week might mean asking someone non-medical for advice but that's as far as it goes. It strikes me as conflicting that an institution that makes money off the sick would want a 'healthy' consumer base. This is of particular concern in the US, where the lack of a welfare state and the proliferation of 'lifestyle' advertising make being sick a hugely lucrative market. The problem is, if people aen't bleeding, it's very hard to sell them bandages. Unless you convince them there's something wrong in their heads;

Of the 170 contributors to the current version of the [American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] DSM (the DSM-IV-TR), almost all of whom would be described as KOLs [Key Industry Leaders], ninety-five had financial ties to drug companies, including all of the contributors to the sections on mood disorders and schizophrenia.
The DSM is the single source of all knowledge in psychiatric diagnosis. It is the only thing a psychiatrist turns to when looking for answers and it's construction is almost universally recognised as haphazard, subjective and financially motivated. "Not only did the DSM become the bible of psychiatry, but like the real Bible, it depended a lot on something akin to revelation. There are no citations of scientific studies to support its decisions."

Angell points out that the intellectual clout of a trained medical professional is enough to convince a patient of almost anything and the sheer range and variety of possible diagnoses in the new DSM (version 5) means that, according to one anonymous insider, 30-50% of individuals could now be said to have some sort of medical disorder. Angell points out how psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies even jumped on board with children when they realised that the main target audience for treatment wasn't young professionals with disposable income as it had been in the 1970's and 80's but the children of those same young professionals:

The apparent prevalence of “juvenile bipolar disorder” jumped forty-fold between 1993 and 2004, and that of “autism” increased from one in five hundred children to one in ninety over the same decade. Ten percent of ten-year-old boys now take daily stimulants for ADHD—”attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder”—and 500,000 children take antipsychotic drugs.
She writes of Carlat's experiece, himself a trained psychiatrist:

His work consists of asking patients a series of questions about their symptoms to see whether they match up with any of the disorders in the DSM. This matching exercise, he writes, provides “the illusion that we understand our patients when all we are doing is assigning them labels.” Often patients meet criteria for more than one diagnosis, because there is overlap in symptoms.

The reason this practice continues is that it works. Whitaker tells us that when a patient is diagnosed with a disorder that could just as easily be anything else they are prescribed drugs that would just as easily treat anything else - an effective placebo effect of both drug and diagnosis which, with the publication of books and articles is gradually working it's way up the chain back to the DSM. The DSM-5 wil feature 365 separate "disorders" - many of which hugely overlap and for the first time there is strong opposition growing to the vice-like grip that the culture of over-diagnosis has over the American public.
This isn't even a uniquely American problem. Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test (see here) deals with the problems of the imperfect definitions of sanity and insanity by simply pointing out that we're all psychopathic to some extent, and applying the standard test for psychopathy - the Robert Hare Checklist - to the world outside of institutions and prisons reveals most of the world's business and political leaders as classic psychopaths. They have the ability to exercise their desire for power and so may never physically eat the heart of another human being maybe, but they make decisions that can shatter people's lives.

It wasn't only Hare who believed that a disproportionate number of psychopaths can be found in high places. Over the following months, I spoke to scores of psychologists who all said the same. Everyone in the field seemed to regard psychopaths in this same way: inhuman, relentlessly wicked forces, whirlwinds of malevolence, forever harming society but impossible to identify unless you're trained in the subtle art of spotting them, as I now was.

I met an American CEO, Al Dunlap, formerly of the Sunbeam Corporation, who redefined a great many of the psychopath traits to me as "business positives": Grandiose sense of self-worth? "You've got to believe in yourself." (As he told me this, he was standing underneath a giant oil painting of himself.) Cunning/manipulative? "That's leadership."
Ronson writes on the different schools of thinking about mental disorder - exemplified through the severity of psychopathy. There are those who believe it's curable as it's something that has gown through circumstance, those who believe that it's incurable and psychopaths are biologically pre-disposed and those who believe that we're all mad to a greater or lesser degree and so any diagnosis by anyone on anyone else is entirely subjective.

So we're all mad, and mad people are trained by psychopaths to tell us we're mad so that we'll buy drugs that make us subjectively less mad, and then the years go by and people start to question the madness of an influential, wealthy system of institution and business set up to circulate these beliefs and try not to come across as mad. Sound familiar?

Russian Classic

The Georgian Ministry of Highway Construction

In the last year there's been a little bit of a resurgence of interest in Soviet design and architecture. Two books in particular have been sparking my imagination. CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed by Frederic Chaubin and this week. Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design by Michael Idov.

The main driving factor behind much of the design work was to out-do the Americans, obviously, and both books point to this being their main failing; where American design was concerned with appealing to the consumer, which meant that it had to be consumable (more or less) Russia had no consumers, only desperate but unwilling recipients. It was essentially the post-WWII bureaucracy of Soviet Russia that made progressive design impossible. There was no market for competition and then all products had to be approved by the Soviet Industrial Design Institute, who's only priority was out-doing the Americans... and this led to some simply amazing buildings and some insane designs.

It's a shame that Soviet design is so often analogised with the AK-47. It is after-all, the world's most proliferated firearm. And there are myriad articles and books lauding it's practicality and simplicity - which is probably why it is responsible for more deaths than any other single weapon.

Less people are aware, for example that Soviet designers invented the ribbed tumbler, a design that has lasted forever, the plug-in water heater and Tetris.

The AK47 survives because it sat perfectly with the ideology of those who sanctioned the Soviet design canon. It was brutal, cheap, manufacturable and recognisable. Soviet design didn't value human life and convenience as much as it valued the raw objectives and ideology of it's designs.

It's interesting to think that it's only just now that things are changing.

Take the official symbol for the Rouble (right.) Until 2007, Russia simply didn't have one until in 2007... '26 of the best design firms in Russia chose a design among themselves, and agreed to make it a contractual obligation to use it as the symbol for the ruble in their work.' This ended up making it the de facto currency symbol of Russia without any referral to a political or bureaucratic body.

Nexus Show

It's been a long time since I've sat down and really cracked out some MAX MSP work. And it's going swimmingly well. If I could give you some tips:
  • loadram will solve everything!
  • everything...
I'm almost finished with it now. And it's actually exactly 4 times better than I thought it would end up being, so as you can imagine, I'm jolly chuffed. I'll link some footage of it and some sort of description nearer to the time of it's exhibition.

June update.

New in WORK: The Universe Never Sleeps, Living With Robots.

I've embedded the video that I originally made for the Living With Robots onto it's page. Although at the time, as an initial response, I don't think the video was a clear enough about the reasoning behind my speculation over the human/robot relationship, it works very well when coupled with photographs of the sculpture to provide an atmosphere of what this lonely future might be like.

I've also uploaded work from the Science and Society research project that I have called The Universe Never Sleeps. The title is based on the idea that though we may turn our back on the universe and it's wonders, it never turns it's back on us. There you can find the final film I made as well as an explanation of it.

Brevity of communicaiton

If brevity is next to Godliness, the trenchant beauty of the minimalist
log-line stands as its most ardent advocate: but what can be said of the equally
provocative — and growing need — for the full-length feature version of our
stories and, by conjecture, of our lives? Once separated by the subtlest of
fault lines, these two methods of delivering stories — one indexical and terse,
and the other, rich in its full-blown completeness — currently reside at
opposing ends of a fascinating chasm. Does daily, virtual posturing reduce our
capacity for long-form empathy? Does our personal link to heritage and history
lead only to traditional methods of recording our tales? Will one emerge as the
dominant narrative form, or can we have both?

via Design Observer

Recent Photos

Venice. More on flickr.

La Biennale

I've returned from my now near-ritualistic trip to Venice for the Biennale. I had a couple more days this time so got a real chance to spread myself across the venues and really get in to it. There was, as ever, some really fascinating and interesting stuff on display, spread out between some completely incomprehensible stuff and a lot of it was impressive simply for the act of it's production. As always, more photos on flickr.

Recent Photos

More here.

Updraft Entertainment

I spent the day with Elliot and others filming his new environmental-based projects. The project is designed to put an alternate spin on the motivations behind various types of carbon neutral energy, appealing to advetisers and entertainment businesses. I'll link the video in once it's finished.

Writers Hub

Forgot I wrote this ages ago. And since more people than usual are asking me for books recommendations these days there are some there.

The Universe Never Sleeps

The dark matter project (Science and Society) became known as The Universe Never Sleeps. I'm not sure why. It was very late and everything needs a name. I made the film, but have since realised that the film only works when presented in the context that I presented it. So I'll upload it at the end of next week once I've contextualised it and added more (and taken some bits away) to make it make sense within the framework that it's supposed to exist.

June Update

It's been a few days since an update. I've been busy helping Ben Oliver in his preparation for the RCA final show in two weeks. He's doing some interesting work on extra-sensory perception and out of body experiences. Mostly, I cut and stick bits of metal together in exciting ways.

I've also done a short proposal for the upcoming Space In Between show hosted by my old BA course: Interaction and Moving Image at the LCC. They're becoming they're own BA from next year (the words on my BA certificate say I have a graphic design degree - I've been offered jobs based on those words alone) so it's kind of celebratory and it looks like it could be really good if the guys running it can pull it off.

I'm submitting a relatively unadventurous Max MSP patch which I'm hoping to get down to writing next week. Should be good as long as I can find a computer that'll run it.

The other thing of course, is the dissertation. Submitted the first 5000 words last night. Pretty heavy stuff that dominates the forefront of my thinking. I'm really hoping to reel it in to my work over the summer and next year, either as form or content.

I'm flying out to Venice for the Biennale next week as well and I'll have lots of photos from that - no doubt. Two years ago was amazing and I'm hoping the same for this year. Still planning for Geneva in August, although it is debilitatingly pricey.