About that connected future.

The last few weeks I've been ranting at friends and colleagues about my misgivings regarding the glorious connected future being gradually rolled out. This has come as a result of recent technological events I haven't had any choice in and is largely a personal experience that has set off alarms in my extrapolative brain centers. I'm aware this is really one-sided and again, disclaimer, it is largely negative and makes little concession for a lot of the genuine actual promise this technology holds. It is more of a rail against the western, Euro/US narrative of the Internet of Things the connected future. I'm also not making larger structural comments about the motivations of the companies pushing this stuff. It's just my experiences and my concerns.

The Cloud is a Hassle
This is very much down to personal experience, but I expect it's a personal experience that carries across. The Cloud is basically code for 'trusting a stranger to store your stuff somewhere you don't know.' As hard drives get cheaper and smaller at an alarmingly fast rate, I don't understand why anyone would exchange physical backup and storage somewhere safe for throwing their stuff in the air and hoping for the best. Sure, that's not the only purpose of the cloud, and I'm sure there's some convenience in being able to access data, documents and files across multiple devices anywhere. That is cool.

My experience of these wonders, however, has so far, been a fucking hassle. I've refused Apple's iCloud since it first started creeping in at the periphery of their product line, including that brief period where they tried to force you to go through their servers to backup any device. With the latest iOS update, I was forced to create an account just to disable the prompts to login so that I could promptly delete it. There is a ludicrous insanity, as I look at two devices a few centimeters away from each other right now, in knowing that Apple wants to make sure they can only talk to each other via California.
I also have Adobe's Creative Cloud which, as anyone could tell you, is a catastrofuck of a piece of software. There are none so proprietary as Adobe. Especially if you include their university lobbying to ensure students are stuck with their suite for life. And CC may as well just present this every time you want to do anything:

The updates that lock you out while they happen only start when you open a program to use it. I ran Creative Suite 2 for five years perfectly well without a single update. Ironically, most of these are security updates - now that Adobe has insisted that their software is subscription only, via their pan-optic 'cloud', they have to devote colossal amounts of time to patching up a system which simply does not need to exist for the core software to, you know, edit photos, draw pictures and so on.
 I'm also about to be locked out of CC because it's paid for by an organisation I work for and, like all organisations, it's going to take weeks to turn around the thousands of re-subscriptions they need to do. Basically, it's a hassle which has failed to make life simpler or more efficient as we're constantly re-assured it will.
 My point is that my totally secure 3 foot USB cable was sufficient for backing up and updating my phone and my offline Adobe CS2 got me through two degrees when and how I wanted it without a whiff of complaint. Adding Cloud to these perfectly well functioning things has made them annoying.  

Glitter on Glitter on Things 
 My first design tutor  told me way back when I was but a slip of a lad; 'You can put glitter on shit, but you just end up with glittery shit.' All this stuff isn't quite glitter on shit, but it is glitter, on glitter, on things. Going back to the example of a smartphone, it is a thing, that has a function, and some of those function are glitter - needless features that provide some initial novelty but are actually not that helpful. Now with extra connectivity, it's as if adding another layer of glitter will somehow disguise this fundamental uselessness. I'm racking my brain trying to think of a specific example but there are only snippets, things like 'sharing your location.' There's a promise to connectivity which is cool, but so far the most prominent way of expressing this promise has been through gimmicky rubbish.

 Brain Drain
 At a larger level I'm concerned by the people developing these things. The technical wizardry necessary to be able to hook up a blender to the Internet and control its speed based on your heart rate from your Fuel band is pretty incredible. I'm sure that most of these folk are perfectly noble and worldly but the idea of an Internet connected toaster is insanity in respect of the 2.6 billion people without clean cooking facilities and living in energy poverty. And I sure have to make concessions here, stuff like M-PESA and M-KOPA are great examples of where connected systems are actually genuinely doing something useful to improve lives.  

Offset Responsibility
This feature-loading connected product push is dominated by one narrative; 'efficiency' and efficiency is tied closely to environmentalism. One of the most successful of the success stories is Nest, the smart thermostat that learns your habits and adjusts itself accordingly. Brilliant idea. Properly brilliant, I remember reading about it and thinking about all the times during winter I forget to turn the thermostat off when I leave the house. BUT. I still wouldn't get Nest. I own the responsibility for looking after myself and my impact on the planet.
When I fuck up, I fuck up and take the hit. I am critically and existentially aware of every flight, every decision to take a bus over cycling, every time I eat meat there's a pang of guilt. I'm not perfect, and I, like many others keenly feel the effect of our mistakes but I would not try and blame it on an API. Something like Nest is offsetting this responsibility onto a machine system, putting those emotional pangs and pulls into an API and letting it shoulder the burden. It's easy, but would it desensitise you to your own impact? A utopic thought, but one I believe; would a critical and conscious understanding of how you and the planet work as a large inter-connected system be existentially healthier than Nest? I don't know. I suspect so.  

Home Sweet Home (I had clever emojis here, but blogger didn't like them)
Another personal consideration. I really like tidying my house. I like shopping, I enjoy looking after myself and my environment. It's something, much like my visceral connection with my carbon impact, I relish and celebrate. A lot of these projects talk about 'interfacing with the home,' as if this is a brand-new idea. What about re-ordering the books on my shelves, or fluffing cushions, doing the washing up, cleaning the toilet? These are all interfacing with my home in a way that I suspect a talking fridge just wouldn't understand.
I've spoken to others about this and they tend to agree, as healthy adult humans without handicaps that might necessitate extra aid, we're really not the market for automated homes and yet their ceaselessly marketed and young, priviliged, healthy people.  There is no doubt a great need for people who are infirm or elderly and live alone, or suffer a disability to need the help an automated experience will give them, so embrace this. Don't be Soylent and their blinkered 'What if you never had to think about food again?' catastrophe.

Reflections on Helsinki

This is the blog post I wrote for the British Council and Helsinki International Artist's Project. It will be published on both their sites shortly. At the bottom, I've also included a recently published video interview I did for the Finnish Institute about the residency.


There was a point sat in my studio in Helsinki's Kaapelitehdas (Cable Factory) while trying to coax a small, hacked Chinese WiFi router into doing my bidding that I considered the irony of my position. The massive Shoreditch-in-a-box Kaapelitehdas cultural centre was, prior to its conversion and during the mid-twentieth century, charged with the manufacture of electric and telephone cables and here I was earnestly and doggedly pursuing a line of research into alternate forms of communication network with just a laptop, eight or nine cups of tea and a cheap Chinese router at 3AM.

This wasn't the only cultural shock of a month in Helsinki. I haven't done a residency in a long time, due mostly to the nature of being an active designer and artist; the week-to-week improvisation of activities and short-notice assignments. Taking a blanket period from this is almost unworkable. Moving from highly-social working environments with a web of dependencies and relationships to one where I was a relative stranger, in a strange city with no deadlines, no dependencies, no demands was daunting for the first week. I found myself sleeping until midday and staying up sometimes until daybreak, lost in my own small projects.

There's also the shock of the city itself. Helsinki is a stunning city, especially in the summer, but one of what Dan HIll, formerly of Finalnd's SITRA calls 'absolute flatness.' A few hundred thousand people of relative homogeny spread over a metropolitan sprawl. I realised how used I was to London's dense slow-motion apocalypse; the devastating hypocrisy of the politics and the horrific inequality and injustices of London's new-found position as the one of the world's least liveable cities.

My mission while in Helsinki was largely to mingle, to talk to people, to build bridges between my own practice and Helsinki during the hyper-activity of Helsinki Design Week. Some of the designers I spoke to found the 'flatness' of Finland in itself incredibly frustrating; challenging the status quo was hard if not impossible and they felt that Finland spent more time revering its dead design and architecture heroes than looking for new and exciting renegades working on the fringes.

The incredible Heslinki Design Market during Helsinki Design Week, hundreds of small design companies and thousands of visitors.

That said, Helsinki has an incredible and legendary design history, breeding some of modernisms' greatest creators and works. Looking at the Design Market - a central highlight of the Design Week - I was taken aback by the vibrancy and fervour for home-grown design. Everything from small home brands to international startups with clever products was present amongst what must have been hundreds of stalls and thousands of visitors and nothing was bad. Wondering around, none of it had the nauseating charm of kitsch amateurism. It was all beautifully worked and finished, well produced and solid, from tableware to chairs. But that in itself was a stalling point: From tableware to chairs. Perhaps a part of FInland's 'flatness' is that it doesn't have to deal with the urgent political questions that London's design scene is having to, sitting as it is at the eye of a storm of global political change. If you're looking for some of the most beautiful, well-produced tableware and charis in the western world then look no further. If you're looking to have your politics challenged, you'll have to dig.

And dig I did. One of my first contacts was Martti Kalliala, Martti and Jenna Sutela are architect-designers from Helsinki responsible for one of my favourite books, Sternberg Press's Finland: The Welfare Game; a series of speculative fictions of how Finland might proceed into the future. This book has been a big part of my practice for the last few years and meeting Martti, it was also interesting to see that our work was moving in similar directions despite having never met or spoken before. Martti and Jenna represent a real fringe in the Helsinki design scene, of practitioners crossing areas of architecture, design, art and technology with a highly political mindset, something that's now relatively common in London. One of the side effects of the excellent education system is the inadvertant siloing of professions which has apparently made collaboration and crossovers rare.

Helsinki's Urban Workshop, an actual working maker space.

Later I made a trip to the Urban Workshop, a maker space in central Helsinki near the central station. Maker spaces, no matter how one feels about them (and I'm most often I'm skeptical) mark an important change in the design world. The ability to rapidly produce small scale one-off designs without the need for time or great expertise are a marked shift in the system that supports design, one with many unanswered questions and one that is responsible for at least a handful of the things on display at Helsinki Design Week. Walking into the Urban Workshop, expecting the usual sneering grubby white males, making in-jokes and maliciously belittling newcomers, I was overjoyed by what I found: A gender-balanced group of staff and attendees with ages running from the ten or so seniors being taught how to use iPads to the teens on the video editing suite. A genuinely open environment for anyone to use with an actual sense of community: 3D printers, laser cutters, a small CNC machine, high-end computers, classes, workshops, lectures and exhibitions. This was the dream of maker spaces that never quite ported to the jealously competitive neo-liberal environs of London. I asked how much 3D printing was;

'40 cents'
'Sorry, how much is the 3D printer to use?'
'40 cents'
'40 cents?'
'40 cents'
'For how long?'
"However long, it's 40 cents.'

I think there was excited profanity at that point. One of the biggest barriers to these spaces, apart from the sneering white men, is the cost. Though not expensive, £50 for something that might not work is a big risk for austerity culture. The reason for this amazing maker culture is that the spaces are supported by the libraries. Staff time is paid for and managed by the state and so the only cost is materials. I found a similar story at Aalto University's maker space which was open to the public once a week but with public university funding.

As an ex-pat friend of mine now living in Helsinki told me towards the end of my stay; 'Remember libraries? They actually work here.'

Later I visited Aalto's Media Lab, a semi-legendary technology and design research hub up in Espoo. The work the students were pursuing was interesting and thoughtful. I sat in on a sound arts class and asked the students where they came from; there were engineers, graphic designers, artists, a handful of musicians and linguists. Though I found the range of students and their interests surprising, I was most interested in what I saw on screen - from Day 0 the students are taught open-source software. While in London, the entrenched system of lobbying from software companies results in only being able to train students in hardware and software they have to pay thousands for once they graduate, the state-backed education system was teaching the students cutting-edge open source stuff, which they were actively developing.

The Design District is Helsinki's design hub, full of boutique stores and stunning works. Very occasionally you find an odd juxtaposition.

It's easy to do, as I did at first, to look at Helsinki's design scene and see it as a bit backwards, a bit reliant on the names of dead designers and established traditions. The cutting-edge is there, but in unexpected ways, and much of that edge is pushed by the state, from open-source software education to maker spaces that work like they do in the fantasies. There's criticism of course, and designers and architects attempting to emulate the violent froth and churn of London find themselves frustrated but there's an inexorable and subtle advance of change sweeping Helsinki that steps lightly across the whole city without the obnoxious showiness of London's burning lights.

Seen on the wall of Putte's Pizzeria.


Below is a video interview with the Finnish Institute about the residency:

Notes 21: The Return.

I have returned from Finland with a quick stopover in Venice for the UrbanIxD symposium and it's straight back to work. Teaching starts next week with greeting new students on Tuesday. I'm excited to be surrounded by people again from the calming but at times trying solidarity of my Finnish exile. However, it is crushing to be back into the slow-motion apocalypse in London after spending time in such a beautiful and wholesome city.

I'll be writing a post about my time in Finland which will appear here and in various other places, particularly the blogs of the sponsors and hosts in the next few days. There's also an interview with the Finnish Institute which I'll post when it's out. 

Digital Sketch

Towards the end of my time I topped off another Digital Sketch. This one is based on a favourite Japanese print of mine, The Komuso by Wada Sanzo (1940) (above). I was reminded of it while reading Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space which features a character who dresses as a Komuso. The Komuso were notable monks in that they were allowed to move with relative freedom around feudal Japan which made them excellent spies and assassins.

Internet of 404
Following the end of BERG, I began thinking a lot about this new type of object that the Internet of Things would leave behind. Discarded toasters, smart fridges and autonomous cars with their startup service layer suddenly extinct will litter the future landscape. I though it would be a good idea to document this as it happened so I've started a tumblr at FormerInternetOfThings.tumblr.com where I'm totally up for taking suggestions. There really aren't many examples of these ghost-less machines yet. But I think in the months to come we'll begin to see more and more of them. Please email or submit things though, for full credit of course.

Web Directions South 2014
This is the thing I'm most looking forward to at the moment. Doing the keynote at Web Directions South 2014 with some pretty luminary folks on October 30th-31st. Monopoly of Legitimate Use is also being shown. I'm doing a new talk called 'Haunted Machines':

The relationship we have with our technology is becoming divorced from the master-slave relationship predicted by the past and marketed by the present. As our technology becomes more advanced and more connected, it begins to act on our behalf out of our control and often without us knowing. It begins to construct and project realities and worlds that we couldn't have predicted for. This talk will outline and consider some of the side-effects and conflicts that have risen from pervasive networked technology and show indications of how artists, designers and technologists begin to critique and combat them.

It's Nice That Social
I'm taking part in the It's Nice That Social at the Design Museum with the designers in residence on October 14th. I'll be doing a little bit of a chat about my work and doing some sort of discussion.

Into Your Hands at Z33
Into Your Hands Are They Delivered is on exhibition at Z33 in Hasselt for a while as part of what looks like a pretty damn luminary show - Future Fictions. The rest of the Blueprints For The Unknown projects are there too.

Extinction Marathon at The Serpentine
I'll be taking part in the Extinction Marathon at the Serpentine on October 18th. We're going to be looking at The Ongoing Collapse sight and potentially speeding it up, using it a little more collaboratively and adding some new data sources over the live weekend. Still need to tighten up the PHP anyway. Thing moves like a tanker.

Monopoly of Legitimate Use at Aesthetica Short Film Festival
MoLU is being shown as part of the Aesthetica Short Film Festival in York November 6th - 9th. If you're 'tup north then it looks like a great festival and a load of good stuff on. Unfortunately I'm away in Brussels for...

KIKK Brussels
I'll be giving a talk at KIKK Brussels after my time in Australia and Singapore. It's less time so will probably be a shorter version of the Web Directions talk with a little bit of Critical Exploits thrown in.

Yeah this is going to be one of the busiest and most intense months in a while, which is refreshing after being away so long. There's also still more news that I can't quite full-beam broadcast yet but you probably already know or at least have inklings about. One day I'll make this thing more than just 'what I'm doing at the moment' and actually offer some considered opinions on things. Until that point I've been greatly enjoying the plethora of mailing lists and daily bites that people have begun to start using. I can only read in envy.