Cédre, Frimaire, 228; Project PROBE, Knowledge Capture in Design Part 3

If I put the titles to what these posts are about, they might be easier to find, though I do tag liberally to help.

Project PROBE

Last week I wrote that I’d started a new little vanity project. I find myself very happy learning new technical stuff and this project gives me the chance to combine some of the things I learnt about servos from Charismatic Megapigment with some of the other projects that have used geolocation maths like Augury. I'm not going to give much away on what it's about, just show process as I go.

I’m trying to get all the inputs to talk to each other this week. Without giving away spoilers; it needs to know exactly where it is in relationship to where something else is. So I need a WiFi module and IMU (inertia measurement unit), ideally with a magnetometer so it can figure out where north is. This way it can use WiFi beacons and the magnetometer to figure it's exact position on the Earth and it's orientation to the poles. Rather than plugging in a bunch of different components, the Rev2 pictured has a WiFi module and IMU built in so that’ll save on space and complexity (although I'm not sure the IMU has a magnetometer built-in.) However, the first challenge was getting it to talk. It wouldn’t talk to any Macs but when I hook it in to a Window’s PC; no problem.

The solution was a creeping reinstall (there's probably a technical name): I had to do a complete manual reinstall of Arduino IDE and all the drivers, starting with oldest to newest until I got one that worked. This meant going through the preferences menu to find Arduino’s cache and wiping it. This is risky if you’re dependent on Arduino projects but I don’t use it everyday so I think I’ll survive.

The second issue was getting it to connect to a WiFi network. Luckily there is a secret one at work that has only WPA encryption (no username, just a password) so I managed to sneak it on. Currently the standard Arduino wifi library – WiFiNINA – has no support for WPA Enterprise without a lot of jiggery-pokery.

The next step is finding a way to get its location in longitude and latitude. Google now charges for its geolocation API which is a pain on a vanity project and not something I wanted to go through the hassle of setting up. Unwired Labs LocationAPI which I found through this helpful tutorial allows you to track up to five devices free for 100 calls every twenty-four hours. I only need to track one device and since it should only need to call the API when it's first turned on this would easily suit my purposes.

The idea here is to ask the Arduino to compile a list of nearby WiFi routers and their signal strength, send them to Unwired Labs and then receive a longitude and latitude, same as the Google Geolocation API. The code in the tutorial is pretty useful but there’s always a bunch of problems to be un-kinked when building a system from different components. The version of the Arduino WiFi scanner library being used in the tutorial had a handy ‘BSSIDstr’ function that converts the byte arrays of BSSID (the mac addresses of nearby routers) to strings so you can feed them into a JSON string. Essentially, the format that the mac addresses are scraped in are in the wrong format to send to the API and you get mangled gobbledy gook if you try. However, BSSIDstr no longer exists so I had to mangle in a ‘sprintf’ bit to do that for me. Sprintf is one of those things I've never properly understood so it was useful to learn how it and byte arrays work. FYI, just for fun, the order of the bytes is backwards so you need to lace the string backwards to get the BSSID in the right order. Then there just some tweaking around with the URL for the API request since it’s all changed since and it was good to go. Et Voila, my Arduino knows exactly where it is on the surface of the world as pictured to a remarkable degree of accuracy.

I already have a magnetometer working from an earlier test so I'm not hugely bothered by the amount of work there so once that's integrated the Arduino will be able to know it's position and orientation when it turns on easily. Most of the stuff that seems to happen in the early stages of these projects is versioning; tutorials use out of date firmware, terms have changed or been removed etc. etc. So most of what you end up doing is chasing around dates and versions to get everything to talk to each other.

If I get any more time I will be looking in to what turns out to be some exceptionally complicated geometry problems which I hitherto had considered child's play. Who knew there are different versions of time?

Knowledge in design part 3; cognitive dissonance and sympathy,

This is more of a short addendum than an entire new line of thinking. A lot of activities last week kept me from reading as much as I’d like but I met up with Yosuke Ushigome of Takram fame on Monday night and we discussed some of this stuff since he at least apparently reads this. We were reflecting briefly on the history and state of speculative and/or critical design with regard to our peers from MA Design Interactions: Why did the canon there struggle to respond to issues that were beyond a limited temporal window and individual scale?

The easiest answer to me is in design’s aesthetic history of tackling human problems on Maslow’s hierarchy; where to live, how to eat and sleep, how to communicate and share information etc. All of these things can be interfaced or encountered within the human sensorium and consequently design’s aesthetic sensibility is drawn from the human body and it’s scale. It’s only in recent years that design has attempted to address ‘systems’ and even these are human-oriented with solutions and products largely being aimed at the interface of the human and the system; different information flows and architectures, levels of access or responsiveness. This is as opposed to the approach of an activist or artist who might address the system in total as an artefact rather than as an inevitability.

Take for example, Suzanne Triester’s work; Hexen 2.0 (left) which examines the history of computation through a quasi-occult, quasi-conspiratorial lens. The goal here is not to improve the system or design it in a different way but to give us a pan-historical reading of it that challenges our comprehensive model and presents alternate narratives.

This is opposed to any number of brilliant design projects on computation that address the way we interface with the very notion of computation through the interface. For example, the amazing work of IF and their catalogue of data patterns almost all of which feature a hand, a phone, a laptop. They address the system at the point of interface where design is most appropriate and comfortable. This is how cognitive understanding is built between the audience of the design and the idea of the design. We all have hands, phones and laptops, we can project ourselves into the alternatives that IF propose for data patterns. To a degree, Triester exploits the same sympathies by drawing on an aesthetic sensibility of diagrams and visualisations with which we might be familiar and so are equipped to interpret the work and put it in a certain frame of reference.


If I was to think about Augury as a project about computation then I’d say it is further abstract than Triester’s work. It draws on some familiar aesthetics; the audience having to look up indicates it’s about something above us, there are flight numbers and names of airline companies to conclude it has something to do with planes. Though it draws on a popular ancient practice of divination, this was less familiar to the audience which was perhaps a failing. Connecting this ancient divination technique with a contemporary technological equivalent – planes’ instead of birds’ flight patterns used to predict the future – was a knowing cognitive leap rather than one meant to create cognitive sympathy. The project exploited the idea that the audience might question why these things are together as way of teasing them towards the absurdity of computational prediction without having to reduce it to human terms (phones, laptops hands) that would make it more comfortable. From the perspective of my practice I find the only way to deal with things maybe beyond the human scale is to exploit cognitive dissonance as it's impossible to make these things sympathetic to human understanding in their entirety.

While a design project might draw on a more familiar aesthetic sensibility to provoke the idea of the absurdity of computational prediction by exploring alternative device interfaces or human interactions, in Augury Wes and I were keen to highlight the supra-human qualities of computation by placing it in the world of the supernatural. It’s hard to then draw on design aesthetics and logics for this kind of framing, there aren’t really (arguably) tenants, principles or methodologies for designing the supernatural. There are certainly designed aesthetics; colours, shapes, styles but not many functional models.

Let’s put this back into the question; ‘Why did Formafantasma design a chair about e-waste?’ which seems to have become the locus for this thinking. Ore Streams draws entirely on a comfortable and sympathetic design aesthetic – the chair – to engage with a bigger-than-human (I’ve been trying out various words here, you may have noticed) idea/issue. But, they draw on elements of sympathy and dissonance; it’s a chair with which we can all connect experientially but it is also provoking a discussion about e-waste with a particular audience. Consequently the audience might ask ‘why is the chair made that way?’  I am going to stop banging on Formafantasma now, I really do love their work and I’m sorry they’ve become a lynch pin that seems to be unduly criticised here. I do think Ore Streams is great, I’m just using it as an exemplar project for design projects that don’t give me a good sense of why did they do it that way? The follow on from which is what is the best way of doing this? Which is basically a PhD right.

Restoring some regular features - things I learned this week. 
A while back I said I liked reflecting on what I've learnt. Obviously it's a bit of a cheat this week because:

  1. I learnt a lot more Arduino stuff, particularly what is and how exactly 'sprintf' works and loads of other stuff about using Arduino with online stuff. 
  2. I've been listening intently to my Arabic philosophy podcast and have learnt a lot about Al-Razi who spent a lot of time refuting Galen and was mostly known as a heretic so most of his writings are only known by how they're refuted by later Islamic scholars. He dared to suggest that four things preceded God - soul, matter, the universe and time. 
  3. The folks at Wikimedia are super cool and have a lot of really interesting stuff going on. (Bit of a cop-out this one, I'll own it.)

And – Channel recommendation
I've loved Girlfriend Reviews since they first started. Witty and irreverent reviews of games which are becoming increasingly more critically engaged in discussion of the industry. The latest one on the new Star Wars game which received lavish praise is brilliant as a piece of media criticism on how games reuse and reconstruct tropes but also now hilarious for my new catch phrase; 'Have y'all lost your minds cos I'll help ya find 'em!'



I've already started notes for next week's blog and it's currently Tuesday so I guess it's going well. I hope you enjoy something and it's not too tiresome. 

Chou-fleur, Frimaire, 228

Hi, I'm doing well in carving out time to think, work and make things. I started a little vanity project yestertoday which is in embryonic stages but should give me an opportunity to learn some new stuff. I'll try and blog it up and put it on Instagram stories. It's not particularly conceptually clever but I just happen to have the bits lying around at the moment. In the picture you see a 9-axis accelerometer/gyro/manetomoeter (I forget the acronym for these things). This project needs to know exactly where it is on the Earth's surface to work. Today a Wi-Fi shield is arriving. I leave it up to you to guess.

Formafantasma again, this time about knowledge

Following on from my diatribe on Formafantasma last week, which might be best summarised as ‘why make a chair about e-waste?’ It was useful to crack the spine on The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts at the weekend. In the second chapter ‘ Pleading for Plurality’ by Norwegian academic Søren Kjørup there is a careful, though somewhat dated analysis of the different ways in which ‘artistic’ research (broadly defined so as to include other forms of creative practice) creates and disseminates knowledge. Here he discusses the work of embroider Hans Hamid Rasmussen who produces textiles that examine ‘intercultural experiences.’ Kjørup points out that the knowledge created in this process is two-fold; first a communication of those experiences and secondly the development of those methods of communication or as he puts it; ‘[Rasmussen’s] works not only claim that ‘intercultural experiences are like this’, but also that ‘intercultural experiences may be expressed like this’.’

This conforms well to Christopher Frayling’s 1993 categorisation of research through, for and about art. Rasmussen uses his art to talk about intercultural experience (through) but also developed new means of communication (for). These are categorisations that we are relatively used to. That the process of creative production uncovers new knowledge on the subject but can also push the whole field forward by demonstrating ways in which that knowledge is produced. However, though Kjørup takes about Rasmussen’s contribution to the field of embroidery in regard to talking about issues like ‘intercultural experiences’ doesn’t follow up with why this is a good way of communication. Suggesting ways in which an abstract notion like intercultural experiences may be expressed could be rather simple since they could be expressed in any number of ways across media and form but the value of this research is surely in discovering and sharing what media or forms are most appropriate and effective.

It is perhaps telling for this critique that Kjørup refers to the word ‘expression’ while I use ‘communication.’ Perhaps this is another separation of a designerly approach from an artistic one; consideration of audience. I might express an idea in any number of ways if the comprehension of the audience is secondary to finding a means of expression based on other criteria, for instance, dynamism, critical craft or tradition. However, where the audience’s comprehension is the primary aim then I need to think about appropriateness and accessibility and evaluate why ‘expressing [communicating] something this way’ is most effective for my objective.

This is where Formafantasma’s Ore Streams chair again becomes another useful example. If I, with a designerly mindset and sure in my understanding of my role as a designer, were to embark on a project aiming to engage an audience in discussion of issues of e-waste, I would not make a concept chair. I might consider making a viral video since these travel well and can be viewed by millions. I might consider using design-led policy development methods to affect local and national change through lobbying and appropriate use of data. I might even conduct an investigative project and find interesting and clear ways of visualising it for use by others in similar enterprises. Fortuitously, this approach was validated at the weekend when Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler’s were awarded Design of the Year for ‘Anatomy of an AI’ - an investigative visualisation of Amazon’s entire AI ecosystem.

However, I could reevaluate my critique of Ore Streams with the question ‘who was the audience?’ It’s quite possible that Formafantasma were not interested in a piece of mass communication so much as using their significant platform within the boutique design world to engage a specific audience of other designers, design critics and journalists. The earlier iterations of critical design [image] were for this purpose too after all. The idea of engaging practitioners and theorists in critical practice was to help them think better about their own practice as an educational and research tool. (Tangentially, this is why I’ve never had a good response to the ‘isn’t it just design for designers?’ question because, well, yes, it is. That was always the idea.)

Kjørup returns to Rasmussen’s work with the regrettable conclusion that the knowledge that Rasmussen produces and shares is ultimately read by others in the write-ups of the project he does that accompanies his work. The embroideries themselves are read by the research community as part of the process of uncovering knowledge that is ultimately validated only once written down. This tension between the formalism of the natural sciences and the plurality of creative subjects is the thrust of Kjørup’s chapter which he examines by demonstrating the value of the plurality of ways in which knowledge is generated through creative practice.

In doing so he introduces the taxonomy of Willhelm Windelband’s new terms of ‘nomothetic’ and ‘idiographic’ sciences. ‘Nomothetic sciences are the ones that search for general laws… as most of the natural sciences [but] even a humanistic discipline like history.’ While ‘…idiogrpahic disciplines are the ones that study these subjects in their specificity.’ Here there is another way of examining Ore Streams; it does not seek to establish general laws or frameworks like a policy design piece or a stunning work of infographics, but for Formafantasma to explore their own (and those of their immediate peers’) practice in the context of the general knowledge/laws/frameworks of e-waste.

Kjørup neatly summarises the value of these debates in his notion that artistic (etc.) research is ‘pre-pardigmatic.’ We do not have a Newtonian or Aristotelian framework for artistic research that is ‘sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity’ and is ‘sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve.’ (Quoting Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1970, p.10) Interestingly, while summarising how paradigms bring ‘values’ to science he reiterates Thomas Kuhn in his note that ‘science should or (need not be) social useful.’ This is an interesting formulation of the idea that science should be socially useful or not at all with the implication being that it should not be socially destructive. By the scientific values that dominate conversations o knowledge creation, Ore Streams is certainly not socially destructive, so my critique of it could also be flawed by assuming that all creative endeavours have to be socially useful to have had their knowledge made valuable.

The pre-paradigmatic nature of research in arts and design (although I would argue that Frayling’s work is pretty paradigmatic) makes considerations of how knowledge is generated, for who and by what means it is evaluated still worthwhile and contentious in a positive way as the paradigm might be formed at a time when social issues of inequality, accessibility and privilege feature prominently in discussions of knowledge.

Cormier, Brumaire, 228

I’ll confess to sinking more time into the Playstation than I should at the moment, something about these early dark evenings. I’ve decided to lay off Death Stranding until I’ve done a big chunk of other work I can reward myself with. Did you see that Valve announced a new Half-Life? But the thing is only going to be VR and probably on Steam's own platform? Millions of people hesitantly let out a sigh of relief they've been holding for 15 years this morning. Still it's a good technique to push us all into VR gaming.

decline.online is still working. Remarkably. I went to visit it to see how messed up it might be but most of it, apart from the Air Quality indexes, were all there. I’m going to spend some time at Christmas improving it, adding new data sources and figuring out a better scrolling mechanism.

WTF Targeting

I came across this fascinating targeted post on Instagram from a housing developer. I suppose the targeting is pretty easy to figure out: As a recent homeowner I’m still targeted by things related to a search history of someone who has recently bought a flat. The image falls easily into the remit of rendered development images we’re used to and isn’t anything particularly remarkable in that regard. It has that aesthetic that we might call ‘instructions to photons.’ From a distance it appears real enough but the execution is all wrong: As usual, the selection of render ghosts have light coming from different directions, the lack of contact shadows and ambient occlusion means they appear to float just in front of the image, they have no reflections in the glass. The textures on the black metal and paving slabs repeat too regularly and are too clean to be believable. It’s as if you’ve taught someone how light works really well but they’ve never visually experienced it.

I’m used to seeing these images and have talked about them quite extensively. To be honest, I find them remarkable in their unremarkableness. An aesthetic of rushed imperfection against the noisy ur-reality of CGI cinema has been normalised. However, I then read the text:

Join us in Chinatown for the launch of our brand new development on the 26th November. Chinese experts will be on hand 6pm-9pm. Discover more about life in an unrivalled, Zone 1 location. RSVP to confirm your place.

Well goddamnit if that isn’t the most remarkable little bit of marketing guff I’ve ever read. Let’s unpack the obvious errors and park some of the further questions they open up:

  1. Tottenham Court Road station is not in Chinatown. It’s arguable that it’s at the North-East corner, but even according to Chinatown’s own map, it’s nowhere near.
  2. The follow up question is then, why is Chinatown the point of appeal and not Soho which is geographically more proximate?
  3. So in that case what are ‘Chinese experts’? Are they Chinese folks who are experts in London or London folks (Chinese or otherwise) who are experts in Chinatown? And why would you need that?

Anyway, I'm in the midst of trying to do some digging to find answers. I spoke to Wes about it and suggested the text was fil-in-the-blanks algorithmically generated. He reckons it's just a bad intern and Instagram thinks I'm a Chinese oligarch. Either way, I figured the reason it struck me is it's basically spam mail. There's no attempt at sophistication or individuality. It's just a meaningless sentence that for one very specific group of people (that I'm clearly not in) will make sense. The transaction cost for the developer is so low that for every 10,000 people that see this, they just need 1 to click so they can afford to be completely nonsensical to 9,999 people.

Attitude, Formafantasma, Art and Deisgn.

I started reading Alice Rawsthorn’s Design as an Attitude at the weekend. I never read her columns but like anyone in design am deeply aware of her significant and positive impact in the field. The book seems to offer a pretty coherent overview for folks from design and perhaps even non-design fields of the shift from functional or decorative practice of the industrial eras to ‘attitudinal’ practice, drawing on Maholy-Nagy’s notion of design as contributing to social good and ‘being generally resourceful and inventive.’ It’s not pitched super high and it is littered with great historical and contemporary references so it’s definitely going on my student reading list.

However, something in it is making me uncomfortable; I often run into a problem with these texts, conversations and exhibitions where the sense of the subject doesn’t align to my own. Perhaps it’s where I sit at an intersection of media theory and media art and design ‘thinking’ and that needs some reconciling with design literature but to me Rawsthorn’s book (so far) draws heavily on the materialistic version of design that litters Salone, Clerkenwell Design Week, Dezeen newsletters and Instagram. She spends the opening chapters of this book exploring design's journey form the crafts to industrial production, through decoration and now into critical practice but with little reference to how the methods and intellectual frameworks have changed: From ceramics to machines to recycled furniture but with (so far) no reference of piecework, Fordism, cybernetics, ecological theory and even design thinking as the theories with which these practices were/are in dialogue.

To explore an example of this division, which reductively could be seen as a focus on practice at the cost of theory; almost every chapter (sometimes every page) in Rawsthorn’s book (so far) makes reference to Formafantasma. I have no particular issue with this apparently renowned studio I’d never heard of until about six months ago. I really like their work, I think it’s clever, challenging and insightful. However, in the long established discourses of critical technology and media studies I’ve been engaged with throughout my career they just don’t figure - not in exhibition, conversation or text despite their clever exploration of critical technological issues like e-waste. This isn’t in anyway to undermine the importance of their work but simply to say that there is a very apparent dissonance in orientating points which – looking at Formafantasma’s follower count – would imply it’s more my ignorance than anything else but nonetheless speaks of a design world that is not acknowledged in this book.

In the design world of Formafantasma's value often seems to be captured in the production rather than the process. What I mean here is that the object itself is the thing to be celebrated as a sort of idol of intellectual enquiry. Time and effort is invested in perfecting the aesthetics of a product to slide it into the high-end world of luxury design. This is a clever subversion but at the same time undermines the criticality of the work: The response is; ‘oh you made something beautiful and it says something’ rather than ‘oh you created knowledge which we can now use to improve the human condition.’ This fetishisation of design outcomes occludes the intellectual frameworks, varied, complex and contested though they are that design has birthed through an understand of materials and how these frameworks are applied elsewhere. It makes these designs remarkable and headline-worthy but the knowledge they produce unreachable.

Formafantasma's Ore Streams. Found with the caption 'formafantasma uses electronic waste to create office furniture concepts' on Designboom (2017)
Formafantasma’s work remains highly exclusive in its audience of European design students and bloggers. Take, for example, Ore Streams. It’s clear from first glance that the primary consideration is aesthetic. Clean, beautiful, viral aesthetics in concept furniture are a great way to bring people in to the ideas of the project, but the subject and issue is still beyond reach. It tells me nothing about what I can do about e-waste, no data about my devices or products or organisations I can go to. There are a series of interviews on the project's website with almost entirely white male academics and industry leaders prevaricating on the issues but no clear designerly guidance on how to improve the social condition that Rawsthorn stipulates in her introduction as the responsibility of design.

Going back to this idea of production versus process, Rawsthorn mentions Fixperts (now FixEd), another design-led organisation dealing with e-waste. However, rather than focussing on a high-end engagement with the boutique design world, Fixperts develop iterative policy, education and technical methods and interventions that engage ‘publics’ in a real way with e-waste. Again, Rawsthorn mentions these folks so it’s no criticism of the scope of her work, but Fixperts (so far) get none of the careful analysis of Formafantasma; their work is brushed over as simplistic and functional.

Again and again, I don’t want to criticise Rawsthorn’s excellent work here but there’s a mismatch in what design is in my perception. So far, the book has made little reference to the significant impact of service and policy design methods in impacting e-waste at governmental and corporate levels or the work of critical and investigative practitioners in unveiling and communicating systems which produce e-waste. I would argue that these processes are firstly much more ‘designerly’ in their approach of design as investigative and probing tools and secondly much more impactful than the work of Formafantasma.

Rawsthorn ends this chapter by glossing over the art/design argument. That's fine; I’m not particularly interested in this argument either. When it comes up I tend to dismiss it as I find the distinction relatively meaningless so I agree with her rhetorical question that ‘does it matter whether a piece of work that explores a theme equally adroitly is described as art or design?’ However, there’s an insistence at this point in the text that Formafantasma’s projects epitomise a design ‘attitude’ because they are functional and something is understood about design in their production. But this function and understanding is incredibly exclusive. Formafantasma themselves have begun to understand something of the design process in the production of their work but they’ve done a terrible job of communicating that understanding. A beautiful concept chair made from e-waste tells us nothing about the financial systems that perpetuate e-waste’s production nor does it provide a pragmatic, scalable solution, nor does it expose the means of its production. And their chair is functional only theoretically; I doubt they’d allow you to perch on it for a break while stomping around Salone for hours on end. Its function is a statement piece in the context of an incredibly wasteful luxury design industry. Ore Streams is an idol to Formafantasma’s own exclusive understanding of the work that bears little of the generosity and clarity of what I understand design to be. In this I would make the argument that it sits more firmly in the art camp - exclusive both physically and intellectually; requiring an aesthetic sophistication (read: level of understanding) in its audience to insinuate meaning and a physical proximity to examine.

I guess this leaves me looking at my own hands a bit. The work I’ve done in the last few years; Charismatic Megapigment for example, which I’m trying to figure out how to write about, is also exclusive. It can stand in for any of the art projects I’ve done recently; exclusive, elusive, intellectual. I’m quite open about this and I call it ‘art.’ I make these projects because I want to learn more about the technical and intellectual processes behind, in this instance, robotics, machine learning and working with a proper fine artist. I don’t consider it a communicative piece in the same way as a great piece of data visualisation or even a policy document – it’s not meant to be generous. This doesn’t relegate it or promote it above designerly practices but I certainly wouldn’t, in a discussion on designerly, publicly meaningful and impactful discourse on greenwashing, hold it up as an epitome, (except for selfish reasons).

Charismatic Megapigment draws on the same mechanics as Ore Streams for engagement with subject and audience and in the use of a designerly (read: inventive, resourceful, methodical) process for production, and maybe a handful of people were impacted by it, but that’s not what it’s for and I would feel uncomfortable pitching it that way.


Gee, thanks for getting this far

That was exhausting and still not quite right but perhaps has helped me untangle this knot of practice a bit. Even just a slight budge is good.


Bouef, Vendemiaire, 228

Bonjour, I missed last week didn't I. I got up to a bunch of things this week. Managed to slip the first draft of a chapter on fiction, imagination and smart machines in just in time which is great. I write a lot about writing on here (and will probably do so again today) but I find myself cramming at the deadline, doing pretty well and wondering what would happen if I actually paced myself.

Which reminds me of the fact that I'm currently restructuring the enormous block of text that currently constitutes the insane ramblings and have finished thoughts of a PhD thesis. I made myself a target of 8 hours a week and so far I'm sticking to it. It is no way structurally or argumentatively sound and is basically 60,000 words of polemics. My transactional, strategic mindset is really struggling to comprehend or develop a structure or even how intellectual arguments work. Consequently, I'm returning to the advice which I give students; that reading makes us better writers and am trying to read a lot more. I've become much more disciplined at staying away from the YouTubes.

I gave a talk yesterday at Arup, who I used to work for, which was just a general scope of things I'm interested in and I find this quite a useful process in figuring out what a PhD might be about, but even then, it's still all incomprehensible rambling to me. I find myself looking for answers and some surety in the whole thing but the catch with 'reflexivity' is that every conversation of an intellectual nature we have just makes things more confusing. Is all this writing about writing just prevaricating?

I have to get back to more transactional things; books to balance, meetings to set up, documents to complete. I have an hour of time right now so I want to make the most of it.

I'll send better words next week, promise.

Pomme de Terre, Vendemiaire, 228 (Happy new year!)

The way I write these is that I keep an open note in which I write the beginning of sentences or ideas or just bullet points to then follow up on later. Toward the end of the last (academic) year I got in a good habit of taking half an hour first thing in the morning to expand on some of them so that by each Wednesday I generally had a good amount of information together ready to tidy up and post.

Since it’s been a couple of weeks since I last posted (for which I have no good excuse) there is an inordinate amount of half-formed ideas and auto-corrected scribblings below here in my notes which I’m loathe to drag up for risk of just retreading things that seemed important weeks ago. I suppose that’s what blogs are in a way, a repository for things that only occasionally retain importance beyond the immediate.

Charismatic Megapigment



If you’ve been following me on any of the social channels over the summer you will have seen the work I’ve been doing with Wesley Goatley and Charley Peters on a new collaborative project. Charismatic Megapigment is currently on exhibition at London College of Communication as part of Emergence for the London Design Festival. The project, which I describe in short-hand as ‘a robot reading a painting’ features a roving camera and screen that compare small sections of Charley’s paintings and drawing nearest-neighbour matches from a database of 102,000 images related to ‘green’ and all it’s implicit connotations. There’s more information on the project page here.

I have to say that it was easily one of the most pleasing and natural collaborations ever. Mine and Wesley’s practice has been explored through several collaborative projects and we tend to have an easy relationship with points of conflict only on important questions of outcome and form rather than on responsibility or authorship which can plague many poor working relationships. We tend to quickly divide up tasks based on how much we need to learn to get to where we need to be and work relatively independently, coming together regularly to update each other. With Charley we also fell into an easy collaboration mostly because the role of our expertise were so easily divisible; Charley to produce the painting, Wes and I to produce the machine. Consequently, I imagined most of the frictions might emerge from methodological differences: Charley is a formalist who produces beautiful images from an expert and innate sense of form, colour and shape while Wes and I are critical practitioners who privilege reason and rationale when we consider our aesthetic decisions.

However, these imagined frictions never materialised which is a great sign of respect and admiration for alternative forms of practice which is what these type of things should be about. Equally, while Instagramming the process I found a supportive and insight full group of co-practitioners eager to offer advice and insight. One of those projects that makes you feel good about what you’re doing rather than like a bad person for talking about what you love.

At some point I will be doing a proper write up for the PhD. This may in fact help me get back into that process. Like many others before me I have an enormous document and workload in my peripheral vision that I’ve committed to spending eight hours a week working on. Opening it up on Monday I struggled for forty-five minutes to find an entry point to this block of text I produced a year ago, like trying to storm a crumbling but heterogenous fortress.

I also imagined I might find the time to document the technical process of Charismatic Megapigment in some detail so that others might find it useful as I found the blog posts and wikis of others useful in my own production and technical development. However I’ve since forgotten most of it and don’t think I’d do as good a job. If you’re interested in pursuing something similar I worked most of it from this kit and using these tutorials. Thanks to their authors.

What else

Aside from Charismatic Megapigment, I moved house and have spent some time playing Assassins Creed Odyssey. We have to agree that the Assassins’s Creed series is ludicrous and stupid. Frankly it’s also rather poorly designed. The mechanics haven’t ever really changed and in fact the game feels so bloated with bolt-on features that it’s very hard sometime to enjoy the core principles: sneaking around, exploring and well, assassinating. The fetch-questing gamification of this latest one is getting very close to putting the nail in the coffin for me. In the post-Red-Dead-2 world (which admittedly I never finished) it seems lazy to just cash in on a franchise re-hashing the same mechanics with added feature-loading. However, the draw is in the scale, beauty and most importantly the history. I’m sure you know I’m a history buff and Assassin’s Creed games with their historical settings are a good place to learn about new bits of history, even if you have to spend some time unpicking the apocrypha. However, the good folks at Ubisoft seem to have stripped out the history entirely for this one. With Origins (the previous one) they removed the encyclopaedia bit of the games which I assume I was the only person to look at and read. However, they kept a ‘historical tour’ mode which retained some of the features. With this one, there’s no contextualisation whatsoever. So as you meet characters like Herodotus, Sophocles and Pericles expecting some meta-exposition on their lives, you get nothing. Worse still, as you meet other characters who you’ve never heard of, you wonder if they are in fact significant figures. Consequently for every ten minutes I play I spend thirty minutes on Wikipedia.

Anyway, this frustration is tempered by returning to read some Borges. I’m writing a chapter for a book on smart things and design and with my co-author, Kristina Andersen, we were talking about precedents for ‘smart things’ in fiction and I finally decided to crack the spine on the US edition of the collected Borges Fictions I’ve had sat around for years. I’ve read all of Borges’ fictions over the years but it’s a pleasure to indulge in the pithy, humorous and fantastical world of his stories all in one go, particularly having since learned a lot more about the history of Argentina and South America through the Revolutions podcast.

Channel Recommendation

Probably because of all the geometry I was looking up for Charismatic Megapigment, the algorithm steered me towards maths over the summer and I found this great channel; 3Blue1Brown which explores some complex and not so complex mathematical things. The one that got me into it was this explanation of one of the International Mathematics Olympiad’s most apparently simple but difficult issues. Enjoy.



There are some notes that remain worth exploring. Some thoughts on this year’s Ars Electronica and some other events I’ve been to but I will leave them for later. Ciao. x

Chalémie, Messidor, 227

I spoke at the #UALPlatform on Networked Making last week. It was a really nice event and I got to meet some new people and catch up with some folks I've known a little while. I spoke about the models of the world that the university and the subject have and how they interact awkwardly and maybe poorly respond to each other sometimes. I made a short video to sum up the hypothesis which people enjoyed.
The slides from my talk and some of the others are up here and you can check those out.

The blog of my talk from the Design Futures meetup is still doing the rounds which is cool. It seems to have struck a resonance with people which makes me feel like it was a worthwhile thing to do so I'll try and keep writing up talks even though I have less and less to do with speculative design. Despite that less and lessness I did an interview with old friends at speculative.edu following on from the talk. It's a tricky tihng to talk about because I don't really have strong feelings about speculative design either way, I just find it concerning how strong other people's feelings are about it. I guess that's why I don't come across as particularly serious. Some quotes:
there’s the reasonable critique that the canon of Speculative Design ends up in galleries or on post-it notes. That seems pretty accurate. I would struggle to come up with more than a dozen speculative projects that weren’t either laundering corporate irresponsibility through the medium of post-it notes or inaccessible gallery work. 
As for reclaiming it … I don’t know, why bother? It broadened the capabilities of design, it brought new relationships and tools and perhaps that’s enough. There are so many other interesting emerging practices out there that deserve attention. You wouldn’t remake Fawlty Towers, would you?
I've been getting more and more chat correspondence from folks via email and I think that's really cool. Please send me emails of things you're into or just about random little project, it's nice.

Learnings

On Saturday/Sunday I did the Dunwich Dynamo, riding 120 miles overnight form London to the Suffolk coast. I put the whole thing up on Strava and Instagram where most of my bike content is. I documented some of mine and my riding buddy's learnings of that specific process so you can check them out there.

This week I also learned:
  1. Quite a lot about 'change management' from a training session I did on Monday, the Kubler Ross model is what people sometimes call the 'seven stages of...' thing. Not sure whether these models reduce complex phenomena or whether phenomena emerge from them. I've totally stopped being skeptical about these types of training things now, I almost always find them super useful and revealing. It's kind of cool to be standoffish about them but they're good opportunities for doing better. 
  2. Learnt quite a lot about connectivism from the #UALPlatform including a new physical activity for actually drawing strings together like a giant investigative wall chart. 
  3. I don't know if this was new or whether I had forgotten it but cats' meows and purrs are noises they've evolved specifically for humans. They don't miaow or purr at other cats. 

Something, Messidor, 227 (Microblogging and the self)

I didn’t blog last week. The last two weeks were a kind of perfect maelstrom of stuff and an endless domino rally of deadlines. I’m working from home today because there are no meetings and it is fascinating how much work I just got done in 2.5 hours which would normally take me the whole day in my office. So, I had time to think about what I’ve been thinking about and write about it here. It's also the reason why this post is dated 'something' since I'm not at my desk and don't have my French republic calendar to hand.

Well-known Irish-based microblogging website Twitter dot com.

I was thinking about Twitter dot com yesterday. I know it’s a bit prosaic to have divided feelings about Twitter but I do. There’s different aspects to the way my personality engages here:
  1. The player. The bit of me that is fully neuro-chemically bought into the content-creation-reward function of Twitter. The bit of it that is gamified like an RPG. You’re encouraged to grind away for likes and retweets and gain experience points as your followers. As a gamer this taps deeply into something that’s hard-wired in my elastic brain and I’m deeply and anxiously aware of in both online interaction and in my dangerous habit of slipping into gaming binges to get a kick.
  2. The networker. The bit that reminds you what Twitter was for, why you signed up and what you got out of it; where you’re connected with interesting people or ideas. This is the bit that is optimistic every time I open Tweetdeck that someone might have done a; ‘Hey Tobias, you might like this’ or ‘you should meet this person.’ This is also the bit where I get people IRL come up to me saying ‘I saw that thing you tweeted, thanks’ and I think that it’s worth it if it’s useful to people. I know it’s corny but I genuinely believe the connections I made on Twitter in the early 2010s were responsible for getting my career started. However this is all held back by…
  3. The doomsayer. This is the bit, that every time in a moment of idleness I open Tweetdeck growls ‘there is no joy to be found here.’ And it's right usually. It’s been years since anything on twitter made me joyful or laugh in a way that would have not been possible otherwise. On average its instrumental: I post what I’m up to, I share what some other people are up to and it’s like a bulletin board in a supermarket with no-one really engaging meaningfully. At worst it’s just a non-consensual hazing which by coincidence of being there you’re obligated to be grateful for. That and (and maybe it’s just my curation of my timeline) it’s anxiety-inducing stories of horror foretelling of the collapse of civilisation. In which case I’m divided again, because I don’t want to be complicit in turning away from knowing how others are suffering in the world.
So there’s kind of two reward functions: one is the nasty, neurochemical one that I’d happily be rid of but can’t, a bit like nicotine. The other is the one I get from being, learning or sharing something useful. I guess that’s what I enjoy in the media I consume, learning useful things.

There’s no right answer. Every time a new platform pops up and folks start to migrate I kind of wonder if we haven't damaged online discourse to the point where it's irretrievable regardless of where it is. I’ve found my approach to Instagram much better and fulfilling. I can share events and activities which is part of being in practice but I also put up bits of my life. Documenting a lot of what I thought might be boring and unrelatable bicycle activities seems to have got a good response, I had emails or comments from folks who said they were learning stuff about mechanics or maintenance and that’s great. If it’s useful and I can share some of the stuff I’ve learned or figured out that’s cool. Anyway, I'd appreciate any thoughts you might have as someone who is on the Internet. How do you reconcile all of this stuff?

This reminds me tangentially of a really great quote that Kristina Andersen introduced me to from The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente:
First, you build the machine, then it tells you what it’s for. A machine is only a kind of magnet for attracting Use. That’s why we say things are Useful – because they are all full of the Use that chose them to perform itself. (Valente 2013)
I should read more children's books.

Learning stuff

Since I’m increasingly valuing learning simple things and it gives me a much richer sense of progress and self-growth than followers or likes, I’ve decided to keep a note and make a section on things I’ve learned each week. These aren’t necessarily useful yet but I've found everything ends up being useful at some point. I don’t know, it might be nice to share?
  1. On Google maps, the short description for Starbucks is ‘Seattle-based coffeehouse chain known for its signature roasts, light bites and WiFi availability.’ which I find cute.
  2. Despite being deep into French revolutionary history for a while (see titles of all recent posts) it was only this week that I connected Jacques-Louis David’s famous ‘Death of Marat’ (1793) (right) with the Jean-Paul Marat. I had a real ‘oooohhhhh that Marat’ moment when the connection was made thanks to some untraceable prompt which was nice.
  3. The length of sprocket teeth on bicycle parts have no real standards, despite the widths being pretty well standardised. They’re just a sort of best guess by the manufacturer. If you get your combination of parts wrong you can end up with a really noisy drive because the teeth stay in the gaps in the chain as the chain releases form the cog, essentially trying to continue pulling the chain with it. This is the source of the Bad Noises my new bike has been making and quite frustrating as there’s little guidance, just guesswork and it creates quite a bit of resistance.

Channel recommendation

Here’s a real quick (and bicycle related one). Since I’m sinewy and whippet-like it turns out I’m actually a real good climber as I’ve found from training round Richmond Park and doing Box Hill in Surrey the other weekend. Sprinting is bit harder than trudging up hill so I looked round for info and found this cool little series from State Bicycle Company. It’s a kind of interview format where they interview pro riders (usually with a good sense of humour) while riding fixed uphill. There’s a lot of speculation on the Tour de France in the later ones, some of which is… prescient. Anyway, I like them, enjoy.



Have a great week!

Echalote, Messidor, 227

Sorry. Nothing this week. It's just paperwork and reporting.

Seigle, Mesidor, 227

There's too much on and I haven't had time to gather my thoughts. The exhibition for the design school at LCC opens this evening. It's the first time I haven't been directly involved and that makes me a bit sad. I'm an artist; I like to work with my hands and I get precious little opportunity to do so. It may well be for the best because the show looks incredible, it seems to get better every year so perhaps I should continue to withdraw from getting involved. I won't get to spend much time at the opening unfortunately. I've got a Big Thing first thing tomorrow morning that I've been preparing for all week (and still feel unprepared for) so I need a clear, sober head and a good night's sleep.

If you've been following me on the socials you might have noticed a lot more bicycle-related content. That's largely because I remembered that it used to be my great passion before I diverted too much into video games. Consequently I decided to refresh this passion by going on a bunch of long rides and documenting them and then blowing out on a new bike which I'm going to spend the weekend building. This means I've been watching bike films again so here's a quick:

Channel recommendation

Phil Gaimon used to be a professional cyclist and then retired but didn't turn out to be very good at retirement so now he has a YouTube channel where he talks about the bits of cycling and cycling culture that are fun and not ultra competitive. He has a dry sense of humour and an inquisitive mind which are basically my favourite two qualities in a person. Enjoy.



Instagrammin

I've been playing around with Instagram for documentation of things and getting more comfortable with showing bits of my life like the bike stuff. I used to find the need to update everyone about what you're doing intrusive and unwarranted but I guess we all have free will and I've learnt a lot by watching and listening to how other people do stuff so perhaps there's something to be learnt for others. Restarting this blog was a product of that. Perhaps this is more of me missing the front line of design and education.

Mostly it's resulted in some good conversations with people, there's always some 'friends' who'll be a bit obstinate for the sake of it but that's why we play around with things I suppose.

Right, back to the exhibition.

Caille-lait, Prarial, 227 (Playing with Eevee)

Once again there's been a bunch of stuff I haven't been able to articulate with the time I have to get these things smashed out. I read somewhere that the Internet is a river, we can't hold on to things, so maybe it's time to close the tabs and move on.

decline.online

I made an exhibition version of decline.online which wasn't too arduous and it's off to the Sovereign Nature exhibition in Berlin next week. I won't be able to be there myself but there's a great lineup of people involved so I'm pretty happy to be put alongside them. I managed to fix a bunch of stuff at the weekend but I'm struggling to deal with the lateral visualisation. There's enough data now that if it's compressed on a screen, the red line becomes a mess while I've discovered that some browsers don't like the side-scrolling and also that may not even be apparent. Anyway, that's a problem for next time.

LCC Degree Show

Next week is the LCC Degree Shows opening again. It's the first time ever that I haven't spent June up ladders covered in dust and paint and I miss being able to get hands-on with building the shows and fixing problems. However, it's going to be great. There's more info available here, let me know if you're coming and I'll see if I can give you a tour. 


Eevee


I spent almost the whole weekend messing around with Eevee, which is Blender's new render engine, currently in beta and building the above quick animation. The big change is the real-time rendering. There's no wait time to see rendered results so it behaves a little more like Unreal or something. The tradeoff is having to bake up the lights in advance. I also recorded a breakdown video:


Some observations:

  • The real time rendering speeds up the process of putting together materials that look great. You don't have to keep flitting back and forth between a render and the viewer and waiting for it. You can also (once baked) tweak the lights as you go to check it under different conditions. (I'm doing this around the 1min mark with the marble)
  • There are a bunch of quality-of-life UI tweaks which have long been the bug-bear of the Blender world including (shock-horror) the ability to set up with left click to select! There's also quick menus that appear around the mouse. For instance 'z' used to switch between wireframe and solid view modes. Now it gives you quick select options of wireframe, solid, materials or rendered which is so much quicker. 
  • Some of the simulation stuff is still twitchy. By far and away (and most of it isn't included in the breakdown) hair particles took the most time. There were just a bunch of inexplicable glitches, either due to my mistakes or the nature of a beta that made it really hard to get right. I ended up having to stack multiple particle systems to get dense enough looking hair that didn't glitch. 
  • Shadows in the render looks a bit rubbish, particularly where the focal length blurs and around the grass. There is a new setting for shadow resolution which I don't fully understand which may be at fault. 
  • Generally speaking little has been changed formally since cycles so most of the skills are transferrable. The biggest change to everyday stuff is the need to bake lighting with light probes. Light probes are in Unity too and are basically similar to domains that you get in smoke or liquid simulation - they define an area that light can effect. I can imagine on bigger projects with more complex lights this will cause me problems. BUT, no more fireflies!
Anyway, that's it. Signing off. 

Sureau, Prarial, 227

It's been a good week of learning more things. At the tail end of last week I was over in Lapland for Cumulus. This is a big global gathering of design educators from around the world and I was there to present a paper with my colleague Eva Verhoeven about Global Design Studio, which is a big online design project we ran last year and want to run again this year. So part of the reason to go was to connect with some other institutions that might want to partner. Being in those events is a reminder of the enormous privilege we have in being able to travel freely and just talk about the things we do. Standing at the arctic circle, listening to the sound of military jets, chatting with a reindeer with Christmas jingles in the background gives you a profound sense of scale. The other thing that I'm reminded of at these things is the incredible regard with which the work we do is held, it's humbling to discover that people really do watch what's going on at UAL and LCC and in our courses and want to get involved.

decline.online in exhibition

I've put together an exhibition version of decline.online. It was actually much simpler than I expected and once again Jonny was a real help. That's going out for an exhibition called 'Sovereign Nature' in Berlin on 19 June. At some point I'll sit down and look into adding some more sources. It's already started breaking as sites are updated and the scraper stops working which is why I stopped doing it last time. 

YouTube still got it

I don't have a channel this week but I found this cool little project via the Imperica newsletter. Astronaut is a randomly ordered stream of clips from videos uploaded to YouTube with filenames like 'DSC0001' or 'IMG0003' that were uploaded in the last week and have almost zero views. Weird and cool as hell.

I meant to put much more in here but I've got a twenty minute window to get this done.

Serpolet, Prarial, 227

Not a huge amount of stuff since last week. These bank holidays just keep coming. I got the application in I've been working on and feel pretty confident about it so that was a nice thing to do. I'm off to Finland tomorrow for Cumulus conference. It's a day long trip each way and we're only spending one day on the ground, so it's kind of nuts.

That is all I'm saying today.

Triefle, Prairial, 227

Learning things

This week has been a bunch of learning experiences, both from mistakes and from things I just hadn't had time to engage with. Despite the enormous arrogance I like to portray I actually really like learning things so I'm always grateful when folks take time out to tell me things I hadn't thought about or when I can make the time to go engage in new ideas.

I went down to the Shades of Noir event at Camberwell last week which was really exciting. The history of the different campaigns to increase diversity in staffing and increase opportunities for non-white students at UAL was something that I had been tangentially aware of as an operational matter but hearing about the thirty-five year history of these projects and the energy of the folks involved was great. The event was to celebrate the creation of fifty-five new positions across the university aimed specifically at broadening the diversity of our staff. Please go check them out.

I still hate writing

I managed to get a big piece of writing for a Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy done this week which is a goddamn relief. I’m pretty open about my dislike for writing. I don’t much enjoy the process and sort of dread committing to writing things. However, I’m a vegetables before meat kind of guy so I spent my Sunday chucking out just shy of 6000 words into an application. Once I’m in the flow of it, it’s actually quite easy (though still not as enjoyable as say a day-long Civ VI bender or watching Lord of The Rings back-to-back). My writing approach is similar to how I mentally romanticise smithing to be, which is largely drawn from YouTube videos:

  1. I start with just throwing out a bunch of words in relation to the topic, just completely off the top of my head. 
  2. After around 1000 words, subsections start to appear and I’ll reorder the paragraphs and put in temporary headings that indicate what should go in each subsection. 
  3. I’ll then iterate over each of these subsections, adding, deleting and removing to get the right ideas in the right subsections (usually three because three is neat and I’m a neat person). I’m still a dedicated GCSE history student so each paragraph follows the PEE model (Point, Evidence, Explanation) and I’ll try and get each subsection to around the same length.
  4. I top and tail this with a loose introduction and conclusion which usually say what the text will be about and then reflects on what it was just about. 
  5. Then it’s just repeated rapid iteration to look for any obvious gaps, cut down on word count (I always aim to go over and trim back) and make sure spellings, references and styling are consistent. 

I had a Skype with a co-author for an upcoming chapter yesterday so I guess I'm a sucker for punishment.

Ride w/ me

The other week, on a whim I resurrected my keirin bike which had sort of been languishing in our bedroom despite being my pride and joy for many years and doing hundreds of miles with me. God what a joy to ride! The last year or two I've been cruising around on a soft steel mid-50s path bike with a three-speed internal hub (which is deeply practical, comfortable, hard-wearing, fast when I need it and I get to wear normal shoes). Riding something that's a tenth of the weight and built entirely to go five hundred miles an hour is a great feeling. 

Anyway, I bombed around Battersea yesterday (which showed me how much stamina I've lost since I used to do sixty mile rides twice a month) but have no-one to ride with! I sort of lost contact with my old riding buddies so if you're in London, ride a bit recklessly on a track bike and want to hang out please let me know.

Bike tube

Which leads me on to a channel recommendation. Terry Barentsen has a channel of great bike vids. There's a series where he just rides with folks around their home city; no music, no bullshit just following a rider around while they occasionally talk to themselves. This is a great one with Mexican professional cyclist Ana Puga.



Civette, Floreal, 227

I got to do some nice things this week and give out some good news which is a good way of feeling a bit better. Once again I don't have a huge amount to say but I made myself the obligation to write something down every week so here I am doing it. I have quite a writing debt at the moment, even after submitting the book manuscript.

This week I'm trying to finish a six-thousand-word application which very few people will read and which is curiously personal. I have to write about my experience in academia/teaching in a very reflective way and how it's contributed to my sense of a teaching philosophy. Articulating things you've never had to articulate before is quite revealing, these misty boundaries that have been hidden by the fog of war are explained in quite an out-of-body, God's-eye-view way that makes them feel like a distant memory. I have an episodic sense of self anyway so in a way it's quite comfortable.

In Supra Systems Studio we're working on a big project that I'm really excited about. The idea is to try out the notion of the 'demonstration' that we've been thinking about - creating work that brings some attention to an idea but is also replicable and usable by others. I'm waiting for the headspace to really get into it and really get building it.

This evening I'm at Camberwell for the Academic Futures event. We're creating some new jobs in the programme as part of a new fund aimed at broadening representation in academia so please come along if you're interested in coming to teach or research with us.


Orache, Floreal, 227

The bank holidays we're having are messing with my sense of timing. This morning I determinedly headed over to the community centre to vote thinking it was Thursday 23rd May.

Part of these extended weekends we're blessed/cursed with is that I've been binging on podcasts and probably listened to about twenty hours of history this weekend which is obviously fascinating but also has a strange Hitchcock zoom effect. The histories I listen to tend to be driven by the personal narratives of the people at the centre of the story and their decisions.

I go in phases with podcasts and at the moment I'm not so into the heavily edited and well produced ones like 99% Invisible or Pod Save America. History podcasts tend to be of the 'one person in their bedroom' genre like Hardcore History and Revolutions. Dan Carlin's Hardcore History was a new one for me - he has a gruff, hyperbolic style which sounds a bit like a shock jock so it's one of those things that took me a couple of listens to get in pace with but it is excellent. He also is a little more analytical (although, in a self-admitted conservative interpretation) than Mike Duncan's stuff. He tends to come from the perspective of; 'Why did this thing happen? Who were the people and what was the context and ideas that enabled it?'

He also made a point in the one on Persia (which was excellent) about all this history we just don't know and probably never will. He coined a phrase that's been rattling around my head since - 'History is the story of what you did to or with the Greeks.' In the story of Persia, most of what we know comes from the exaggerated hero myth of Alexander the Great. He argues that there's good evidence to suggest that to the Persians, the Greeks were nothing more than a bothersome little province rather than this great, pre-destined empire. We also have only one contemporary source for Alexander the Great which is a brief inscription on a temple, almost everything else was valorised in the Roman re-tellings.

I know it's obvious but we don't really know what was going on for most of the human population for enormous tracts of time and only have these brief windows where bits were decided to be plucked out and quasi-mythologised as part of European political projects. I need to spend more time on the Eastern histories, there's a podcast on China that I started a while back but I struggled with but I'm going to give it another go.

decline.online
I've been approached about exhibiting the project in a few weeks in a great sounding exhibition but I'm faced with this perennial problem of how you exhibit a website. I think that it might be a good idea to develop a static, streaming version of it rather than an interactive one, which at least would be a fun new challenge so that's something to look forward to.

Voyager's done an interesting thing. I didn't think about it before but Voyager's distance is sinusoidal because of Earth's orbit. So from when I started collecting data Voyager was actually getting closer to Earth rather than further away. This meant I spent ages thinking the data was wrong and trying to fix it. It's now moving away again so the line has ticked up.


Sainfoin, Floreal, 227

I'm back from holiday after a few days driving around Lake Como and cavorting in Venice for my friend's birthday. I'm not very good at switching mindsets so it took me about three days to get into a relaxed groove and three days before leaving I started thinking about work again. So there was about forty-five minutes in the middle where I was relaxed.

Five Problems
Last week I posted a writeup of the talk I gave at the Speculative Futures meetup in London. Loads of folks read and shared which is great and no-one (at least publicly or to me) expressed outrage at the thoughtlessness of my polemics. It sort of refreshes my faith in the version of Twitter we had where it was fun and supportive before the vicious McCarthyist version we have now. It's funny that in a week it had almost as many reads as my original Critical Exploits writeup from six years ago.

Six years ago feels a Hitchcock zoom away. I suppose it demonstrates some sort of consistency in thought that I've kept it going that long and that the practice has expanded and grown so much since - sometimes for the better, sometimes not. I'm delivering Critical Exploits this afternoon to some students in fact and it always elicits a fun discussion.

It's a conversation I'm keen to continue and something I'm exploring actively in my PhD (when I have time) so having feedback from folks was super useful and I'm always grateful for links to other texts or examples of projects that I can measure my ideas against so please keep them coming.

decline.online


decline.online is cooked and on the table! I've just uploaded and launched a working version (2.2) and I'm really happy with it. I made a last minute decision last night to do some redesigning and remove the black border that was sitting over everything before. There were a couple of other more technical and conceptual things that I've been working through and will have to continuously evolve as it grows:

  • Dealing with the growing data set is going to be the most pressing problem. The background scraper runs every four hours which means it will rapidly start to become quite heavy. I've implemented a fixed-width visualisation for the line charts so that they scroll left to go back in time but I'll have to keep an eye on how that feels as the amount of data grows. I played around with a click-to-zoom feature so that you could click on a text line and it would zoom to show you the whole historical record but I couldn't get it running right. 
  • I put in some static sources – links to PDFs, maps and so on that are interesting but not necessarily scrape-able. There's much more of these than scrape-able data sets so I need to be careful to not go overboard with these and stick with the idea of building a historical record that can be visualised in single data points. 
  • I've tested in Chrome and Safari on various screens but who knows what type of problems will occur as people start to play with it. 
  • I also need data sources. I've got a list of things to investigate and see what I can do but I want more from other people. If there are things you'd like to see or data sources you know of let me know and I'll run them into an update for version three if I can. 
Building this again was a whole learning process and I got to grips with some things I've never done before, particularly working with Python for web-scraping (comparatively easy) and using d3 (often very frustrating.) As it keeps growing I'll try and make the most of the opportunity to keep learning new things. Send links, send feedback

That's it
Like I say I was on holiday so this week I'm catching up with paperwork and finishing off a little project for Haunted Machines which might launch soon and I can tell you about then. I'm going to be at the Graphic Design Educator's Network event next Wednesday at the RCA. It'll be interesting to see what the movers and shakers of graphics are thinking about. 

Love you. x

Five Problems with Speculative Design (Pensee, Germinal, 227)

You won't believe these five reasons why speculative design can't save the world

I gave this talk back at the Speculative Futures meet-up in London and it was super interesting. I’ve been teaching and on/off practicing some form of speculative design for years and have settled into an understanding of its limitations. I believe it is an useful research tool, but like any tool it can be used to help and maintain or to exploit and destroy. I’m always a bit vexed by the messiah-like reverence it can be treated with especially by the recent breathlessness it's being dragged up with in UX and design thinking circles. So when I was asked to talk about it at a meet-up aimed at sharing it amongst young professionals I decided to try and articulate some of my concerns about the overstepping of these limitations.

As a caveat, the audience were really great and very engaged in a discussion we had at the end with myself and the other presenter, J-Paul Neeley who was a bit more upbeat but equally wary. Also as another caveat, this talk is riddled with generalisations and broadsides which further confirm my unsubstantive polemical approach towards serious, nuanced discourse.

As another caveat, the audience were amazing the organisers perfect and J-Paul was a goddamn powerhouse of changing my mind, I hope he publishes his talk too.

Anyway, our story begins…
In around 2013 I asked ‘What if? Then what?’ I had been through Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art a few years previously but was seeing the difficulty of speculative design moving beyond the academy or the gallery. It seemed that here was a useful technique but it was struggling to translate provocation to meaningful change. I was practicing and studying in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis when that particular world of design was seized by the opportunity that the seemingly inevitable collapse of capitalism presented.

However, the last few years have seen speculative design proliferate in a different way, as part of the mainstream of the business of design - as service to profit and narrow definitions of 'good' and consequently reinforcing the very thing it was conceived of to critique. I’m going to deliver my worries about this trend in the form of five conceits or provocations that sort of flow off one another. They could probably use more thought tbh.
Speculative design seems, in its popular form, has lost its critical dimension. Perhaps my most major criticism is the appropriation of speculative design by the charlatan science of ‘design thinking’ and its deployment as a tool largely used for whitewashing corporate ambition and adding a patina of ‘design research’ to make a convincing argument. I’ve been part of these projects and have seen hundreds of them. Like any fad, the knock-offs quickly follow behind. However, this appropriation has meant that speculative design per-se is divorced from its critical origins. Rather than critiquing and antagonising the underlying institutions and structures that are complicit in the rampant social exploitation, irresponsibility and complacency that threatens the existence of societies, the species and the planet, speculative design used to make them ‘better.’
Speculative design traces its origins to critical design and the broad corpus of critical practice across the social sciences, art and architecture. For me this critical practice elicits an antagonistic confrontation with social exploitation, irresponsibility or complacency in the same way as a good artwork, film or song might. This corpus can most easily be traced to the often-referenced radical movements of the late 1960’s who provided an anathema to the central-planning modernism of most mainstream practice.

Superstudio were one of the most renowned of these practices and their principle, Adolfo Natalini, laid out the critical responsibility of creative practice in a lecture where he said…
Superstudio produced provocative future images of an homogenous global society and the world of it as a way of highlighting the complicity of design culture in the social divisions that were present in the everyday experience of people. They suggested design had a responsibility to challenge, not to serve. Though this approach was biting and is referenced in creative institutes the world over, it was largely inaccessible; design for designers. For most it had no tangible effect and it didn’t connect with policy or social in any tangible way. It became an intellectual practice that created discussion but failed to spill over into the wider political discourse. Dunne and Raby, in their formulation of critical design addressed this issue explicitly:
It's fair to say that the range of projects which have connected more meaningfully and tangibly with publics and policy is greater than in the mid-20th century. There are some great projects that have had distinct effect on policy and informed public discourse. Unfortunately, in doing so, another problem in the speculative design thesis is brought to light.
What I mean here is that speculative design if often used for either dystopia generation or as ways of reinforcing, or, at best, mildly incrementing on current social conditions. There appears to be an unquestioned subtext that the European social democratic notion of 'progress' is preferable and speculative designs are cautionary tales about straying from this path rather than genuinely exploring alternatives.
This has been significantly better explored in the work of Luiza Prado and Pedro Oliveira, Dr. Ahmed Ansari and the work of the Decolonising Design group amongst others. Discussion between practitioners and theorists in the comments attached on Burton Nitta’s Republic of Salivation project on Design and Violence is illuminating. Here, commentators pointed out the unquestioned political positioning of privilege when designers could work on projects about speculating on starvation while actual starvation was happening and as a seeming glamorisation and cautionary tale about change. A kind of speculative disaster tourism.
Questioning the politics of speculative design as a practice or method is useful because it acknowledges that at least it is a field that has a politics or acknowledges that designers are political actors, which other fields of design are often reluctant to do for fear of becoming activist. Here in Dunne and Raby’s A/B Manifesto we can use the right-hand column to interpret principles of critical (and speculative, if you like) design but what’s more important is the act of comparison itself; the idea that there is a position to be taken when practicing design that needs to be acknowledged. This is something that mainstream design is often reluctant to do.
The manifesto also suggests a questioning of what design is for, what the values of ‘good’ or ‘better’ are when we use these tools for ‘improvement.’ Is ‘better’ more profit? More engagement? More experience? Or is ‘better’ less engagement? Would it actually be better for a person to engage less with your service – to stream less music, to watch less television, to access less information? When using speculative design to ‘improve’ services or products the implicit belief is usually that ‘better’ is equivalent to ‘more.’ Consequently speculative design simply serves to reinforce existing design tendencies rather than question them.
Puling away form the individual design of a product or service its worth questioning how speculative design, as a subset of human-centred design or user experience is most often geared toward the interface of the individual and the organisation – the products and devices that people use rather than the systemic inequalities that inform these designs.
For example, Google and Microsoft in particular produce a good range of speculative design but also fund climate change denial. Design thinkers can cash in all the post-it notes they can get their hands on in an effort to ‘improve’ the products or ‘better’ the user experience but the market imperative of these companies is to maintain a status quo reliant on the exploitation of fossil fuels. Good speculative design in this context would be antagonising these systemic problems rather than targeting the user, which I’ll return to later. Speculative design in the mainstream has largely retreated form these larger questions, not entirely of its own fault; Microsoft and Google would be reluctant to pay the invoices of designers telling them they are destroying the planet.
This is a problem beyond speculative design perhaps and more a problem of design per se, in particular that of human-centred design. In this individualistic mindset, responsibility is the burden of the individual, given under the premise of ‘autonomy.’ This has the effect of atomising collective or social responsibility into information-rich individual bubbles where it’s imperative on the individual to improve themselves at the behest of the organisations making technology.
Think of basically every app ever made. Every app geared toward ‘improvement’ is about changing the lifestyle of the individual in order to conform to the worldview of the organisation producing the app. This precludes a dialogue about why that company are funding climate change denial because, by design, you are at fault for the world’s problems and you need to change. When speculative design is deployed to improve these types of interactions it invariably light-touches on the way the information is delivered or the type of interactions by which it is received. It never attempts to reignite a sense of collective responsibly for change or the spiritual necessity of Earthly survival.
The argument most often used in counter to this idea that, essentially, speculative design is not deployed critically or antagonistically to a point where it has meaningful effect is that of trickle-down. This is the idea that speculative design will influence decision makers and students of design toward more conscientious practices and wider critical consideration. My concern is that this just simply isn’t good enough. We don’t have the time for trickle-down effects or incremental improvement of exploitative organisations.
We don't have a good speculative design for planetary-change. The operating model of the business-design pipeline is exploiting the planet at one end and users at the other. The idea that these might in fact be the same thing would mean admitting that an operational focus on individual users and discrete time windows was ineffective design. And large sprawling change over massive time windows and shifting human/non-human interactions does not conform to the way in which revenue is reported. Again, this isn't the fault of speculative design; designers need to eat. But, under these conditions we can't to look at it as a catch-all solution for planetary collapse.
The idea that there is genuine investment in trickle-down, incremental improvement is not justification enough for light-touch or non-critical practice. And speculative design is toothless as long as the ultra-rich and leading organisations secure themselves against what they admit is an almost inevitable climate and social collapse. There is no more a genuine investment in incremental improvement through design than there is through legislation. Speculative design has failed to achieve the meaningful tools for change that we once hoped for and has instead been co-opted as a white-washing exercise for tech companies who fund climate change denial and buy high-altitude property to escape rising sea levels.

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I'm away next week so no blog from me unless it's a terrible week and I am so bored that I want to brave blogger's mobile interface. Ha! no.
Tx