Storytelling

A Dialogue with the Future: Design Thinking and the 21st Century Imagination

I gave my inaugural lecture at Brighton University in December 2015. It draws on a few of the blog posts I’ve written in this blog* and sums up my current thinking about the idea of  Design.

Here is the blurb:

Design, the ‘D’ in TED*, has well and truly broken out of the Design School. In fact it made its escape some decades ago but still retains its potential to develop our collective imagination and enrich inter-disciplinary dialogue.

In this lecture Professor Lloyd will draw on over 20 years of research and teaching to trace a journey from the cognitive activity of the brain to the architecture and politics of democracy, and from Bitcoin to football to education. The linking thread is design thinking and he will argue that understanding design as a process of dialogue is not only fundamental to an ethical engagement with the world, but vital to securing an equitable future for all.

*Technology Entertainment Design: Ideas Worth Spreading When one considers the sheer range of talks that fit under these three words, you realise how important the idea of design has become.

Here is the Video (42 minutes):

Here is the Transcript (opens in a new window):

A Dialogue with the Future: Design Thinking and the 21st Century Imagination (pdf)

*And here are some references:

1. The story of Aaron Swartz is a compelling one. You can see the documentary about his life here: How to Kill a Designer

2. The mystery surrounding the inventer/designer of Bitcoin has been going for some years. I talk about it in Nakamoto’s Last Theorem. However, in the past six months the story has developed considerably. The Australian computer scientist and cryptographer Craig Wright has claimed convincingly to be the originator of Bitcoin and his ‘coming out’ tale is excellently told in an extended piece in the London Review of Books by Andrew O’Hagen.

3. I talk about how Design relates to football here: Dolphin or Shark? Designing the Beautiful Game

4. Design Education in the Wired Weird World starts with architectural education but moves on to talk about the possibilities of Design Education more generally, it also discusses The India Report by Charles and Ray Eames which I touch on briefly in the lecture.

 

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Studio Practice: Nostalgia Revisited

I was recently on a panel at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum exploring the idea of studio-based practice as part of Guy Julier’s excellent Design Culture Salon series. The discussion followed from a newly-launched book called Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies and Displacements by Ignacio Farias and Alex Wilkie [1].

Theorising studio practice is always going to be a complicated read, but there are some real moments of lucidity and insight. One quote that appears in the book, from William James (the psychologist brother of novelist Henry James) summed up the book nicely for me:
“what really exists is not things made”, James says, “but things in the making” [2].

Process is where it’s at, in other words.

Working out what exactly happens in a studio is evidently a difficult business. It’s easy to revert to William James era psychology and look for those ‘ah ha’ moments delivered from on high, but really the whole time in the studio is one long, extended, playful, social, accidental, ah ha. More of an aaaaahhhhhh than an ah ha. What we think of as creativity – if that’s what we think happens in a studio – seems to slip through our fingers when we try and point to it. Where is the creativity exactly? Is it cognitive or social or spatial or temporal? The book argues that it is the process that matters, not the atoms that make up the process. It is the materials and practices of the studio – human and non-human – that help to construct that process, however wide we might care to define what a studio is.

David Bowie, talking on one of the many recent radio programmes following his death, sums up this idea well. Working in Berlin in the late 1970s he reflects that:

“I was starting to use the studio itself as an instrument, little accidents would happen with the notes and things would go wrong and the notes sounded so good wrong that I’d make four instruments play the same wrong note and then it sounds like an arrangement, and it becomes an integral part of the composition.” [3] (48:20)

For my introduction as member of the discussion panel, and to link the idea of process, outcome, and how to describe them, I gave two examples.

The first was Artangel’s 2015 installation Recording in Progress [4] at Somerset House in London, featuring the musician PJ Harvey working in her studio with other musicians in full public view. People could book a slot to watch and hear whatever was happening through sound-proofed, one-way glass. A transparent version of the creative black box.

Work in Progress

Recording in Progress by Artangel featuring the musician PJ Harvey recording in public.

For visitors, a lot of the time there was a lot of nothing happening. One reviewer noted:
“Thursday evening they were having trouble with a chorus, “Near all the memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln”. It sounded turgid. “Could you all sing like you’re somebody else?” PJ suggests.” [5]

Let’s leave aside that ‘turgid’ remark – the aesthetics comes later – and try and summarise the experience of the studio as incremental: adding and combining – sometimes subtracting – elements; trying stuff out to see what happens and what might be the next thing to happen. Building stuff up bit by bit. Looking back It’s easy to romanticise and mythologise the activity; identify the ‘key’ points, narrate the process as logical, inevitable, even mystical, if a little haphazard.

George Shaw's etching

Untitled 07; 12 Short Walks, Etching by George Shaw, V&A Collection [6].

My second example was from the painter George Shaw, whose work records everyday scenes of housing estates – underpasses, dead ends, untended scrubland, paths next to fences, edgelands. The mundane brought to attention through art. One of Shaw’s etchings, Untitled 07; 12 Short Walks (above), appears in a current exhibition called Recording Britain at the Towner art gallery in Eastbourne, Sussex. It was the description on the caption accompanying the work that attracted my attention:
“Since 1996 Shaw has focused on the unremarkable landscapes of the Tile Hill estate in Coventry, where he grew up. He imbues his meticulous records with a melancholy nostalgia which encompasses the place itself, and the spirit of post-war idealism and ideas of community which shaped it.”

With the idea of studio practice in the back of my mind It was that phrase ‘he imbues his meticulous records with a melancholy nostalgia’ that got me. It is essentially a process-based description but one, when you think about it, that is wholly inaccurate. The implication is that George Shaw has something like an imbuing machine in his studio, Something that he can programme with ‘melancholy nostalgia’ (or perhaps ’rueful wistfulness’ or ‘sorrowful yearning’) and apply it or inject it into his image. Of course George is that machine, the person who is able to take paint and canvas and produce melancholy nostalgia. But if we imagine for a second that George has made his studio transparent, like PJ Harvey, then when would we be able to point to the bits where the ‘imbuing with melancholy nostalgia’ was taking place? Quick, don’t blink, he’s just about to start imbuing! Ah, there he goes, you can see that nostalgia imbuing itself there now…

There is a problem of aesthetics here; of getting from the practices that take place in the studio – putting sound onto hard disk, paint onto a canvas, sitting around, talking about what else is needed or something else entirely, instructing people about what to do – to the qualities of the outcome. Aesthetic value results from the process, but the process doesn’t seem to be about aesthetic value in any nuanced way; beyond the ’that’s good’ or ’that works’ comments, anyway.

The Studio Studies book refers to this problem as ‘the elephant in the studio’ (p.152), the problem for social science disciplines like sociology or ethnography or ethnomethodology to ascribe aesthetic value to empirical processes and outcomes and to account for something like ‘style’ originating from particular studios.

That’s not quite the case with the PJ Harvey example. Presented as an artwork, the process of working in a recording studio is itself given aesthetic value, independent of the outcome arising. The black box as transparent box turns out to be a bit murkier than we expected though. The boredom or excitement or interest that is felt when watching and listening to the process reveals to us the aesthetic nature of our experience; the process of production thus becomes our object:

“what really exists is not things made, but things in the making” to repeat the William James quote with a dash of melancholy nostalgia.

[1] Farias, I. and Wilkie, A. (Eds.) (2016) Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies and Displacements, Routledge.

[2] p.68, ibid.

[3] BBC Radio 4 (2016) Archive on 4, David Bowie: Verbatim, Broadcast on Saturday 30th January, 2016 (accessed February 21st).

[4] Artangel (2015) Recording in Progress.

[5] Searle, A. (2015) PJ Harvey: Recording in Progress Review, The Guardian, Friday 16th January.

[6] Shaw, G. (2005) Untitled 07, 12 Short Walks, V&A Collections.

2 Cars, 5 Mobile Phones, and 38 Pairs of Underpants: On 10 Years of Consumption

“Enormous weight is attached to all the objects that Robinson Crusoe saves from the wrecked ship or makes with his own hands. I would say that the moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships. The symbolism of an object may be more or less explicit, but it is always there. We might even say that in a narrative any object is always magic”

Italo Calvino, Quickness, Six Memos for the Next Millennium [1]

For just over 10 years, from 2000 to 2011, I kept a public list of every consumer item that I bought. You can see the list on the website Shornbare.com, which I built in 1999, back in what seems like now the early days of the web.

My intentions for the website were hazy at the time but they were part of an urge to both examine and expose my life and in so doing to create a persona that, although related to me, also allowed some form of creative freedom; a blurring between documentary and fictional documentary. I never attempted to publicise the site in any way, apart from occasionally sending a link to someone who I thought might be interested – mainly work colleagues or friends – and there were no contact details. Instead I imagined someone stumbling across it accidently and attempting, from the lists and work recorded there, to figure out the kind of person behind it all. And I include myself in that category of people that accidently stumbled across the site.

The examining and exposing of my life had a kind of moral purpose as well. On the one hand I felt that I’d got into a cycle of consuming too much, but on the other I was intrigued about what that consumption did for me in terms of my activity and life more generally. I conceptualised my consumption as input; a necessary part of transforming my life into new things of value, and I imagined my life as a machine, fuelled by the things I bought and finely-tuned in operation to produce energy, and motion, and forward travel. That’s easy to express for something like music, for example, where one can beat a path between what one listens to and what one produces. It’s not so clear for something like a pair of jeans or a mobile phone. What I was also interested in, of course, was whether these things of value were, in fact, valuable. That is to say, was all the consumption worth it? Was I a stuttering machine rather than a finely-tuned one? A machine with borderline affluenza [2].

I was also interested in another kind of life, and that was the life that ‘things’ have, from their birth (into my life) through to their death (thrown away, lost, given away, or sold). The period in between birth and death, during which the thing becomes part of your life, spawned a series of sub-questions; how often are useful things used? how do things become valuable things? It has always struck me that by far the largest proportion of a thing’s life is spent not being actively used. Chairs just mainly abide, waiting for someone to come along and sit on them; a kettle waits to be called into brief, powerful, service before being left neglected on the kitchen counter-top again. I set out wanting to document all the lives of all the things that came into my life; to map the magnetism and magic in Calvino’s terms.

So this was an inquiry both into the lives of inanimate things, but also into how those lives affected my life. These concerns, of cause and effect, were, and still are, echoed in my professional research where I’ve always been interested in how the intentions of a designer, in forming a design, affect the lives of those who go on to use the design and who may know nothing of the designer and her intentions.

What I decided I needed was to make myself objective both to other people, who could judge for themselves what it all meant, but also to myself, to allow me to experience myself analytically, as someone separate from me; someone other. I needed to create a distance between myself as a consuming machine and myself as a functioning person. Essentially to be able to ask myself the existential question: who is this person and how do the things around them allow them to exist?

So this is what I found.

Between November 2000 and January 2012 I bought and listed 878 things.

What counts as a thing?

Initially, I thought of the list as being solely about products – coffee machines, iPods, telephones, etc. – but that was way too narrow a definition – lots of meaningful stuff like clothes, cars, houses, and bicycles had to be there. Fairly early on I decided to set a minimum price, something like £4, with anything costing less than that, like light bulbs, not making the list. There was no upper limit.

Books, music, and films it seemed to me to belong to a different category of thing – more like delivery mechanisms for changing content – and that play a slightly different, perhaps more cerebral, role in life. I listed those separately on my website [3] as well as adding one photo a month from all those I was taking [4].

Then there are odd things that crop up. What about gifts? I decided they didn’t count, either things given to me, since I had not chosen them as something I needed, or things that I’d given to others which, although in a sense needed by me, didn’t play an active part in my own life other than the initial giving. What about things that were bought for me at work, like an Apple laptop?  I decided not to list these, although I used them outside of my working life they were mainly used for work activity.  And things that deplete – like aftershave or paint? I decided they could make the list as long as there was potential for them to be loved, though throwing away an empty bottle of aftershave or tin of paint is obviously different from throwing away a desk lamp that you no longer want. But that discounted, for example, petrol or washing powder. It seems to me to be the brand (Shell, Persil, Heinz) that is doing the sole work there to inveigle the raw stuff into your affections. Then there is software – what to do about that? I started off putting it down, but it just didn’t feel right, and when Apps came along with smart phones, they didn’t seem right as ‘things’ either. So they didn’t get listed.

Then there were things that were parts of other things, usually as replacement or routine maintenance; bike and car tyres for example, which I listed. I also listed things that functioned as raw material for other things, like wooden planks for example. And there were overlaps between types of things, mainly between sports clothing and clothing, for example, though they seem to me to be doing slightly different things.

There were times when I forgot to list things for one reason or another, or where inconsistency crept in over the years. But hey, I’m not claiming this as science, I just wanted to get a better understanding of the shape of my life and its relation to stuff.

So, 878 things in just over 10 years.

That number was smaller than I was expecting. Worked through as one thing every four days, though, it seems like a lot. The paradox is right there. In large numbers there is only quantity; in small numbers there is quality. In amongst these things were 2 cars (both German), 4 cameras, 5 mobile phones, 3 computers, 2 houses, and 5 fountain pens.

Most of the 878 things were items of clothing – 30% of them in fact, or one item of clothing every 14 days. Over those ten years I bought 24 pairs of jeans, 19 pairs of shoes, 30 T-shirts, 55 pairs of socks and 38 pairs of underpants.

250 of the items, or just less than 30%, were sports related, although 129, just over half of those sport things, were items of clothing. 130 things related to cycling, 27 to golf, 27 to squash, 19 to running, and 15 to swimming. And that gives a pretty good reading of my sporting life in those 10 years – cycling and running throughout, giving up squash with an arthritic big toe, and taking up golf (there is a nice symmetry to that number 27). 20 bike tyres does seem kind of excessive though.

198 things related to the house, either things to situate within the house or to use for decorating and arrangement. And then, of course, there are the two houses themselves. Two houses and two cars in 10 years seems pretty modest to me.

Of the remaining things 20 of them (2%) relate to playing music in some form or other – pianos, effects, recording devices, software; and 44 (5%) are what I called personal (6 bottles of aftershave, though I’m sure I’ve bought more, 5 fountain pens, and 3 pairs of sunglasses).

So that’s the stuff; just over 10 years collapsed into 5 paragraphs. What’s happened to it?

Of those 878 items I no longer have 593 of them. Of the things that have gone I have given away 127 (mainly items of clothing to charity shops), I’ve lost 17 things, sold 96, had 5 things stolen – including Stumpy, a much-loved mountain bike – and thrown away 322 things. That’s right, 322 (or 37%) of items that I’ve had in the last 10 years have gone in the bin. A few will have been things that were simply used up, but not many.

The good news is I still have 285 of the 878 things I bought!

And some of them I’ve kept for a long time. Of 67 things I bought in 2001, 14 years ago, I still have 16 – almost 25% of them, 5 of which I consider highly valued. Three of those highly valued things relate to cycle touring – panniers and a handlebar pack – one is Philippe Starck’s lemon squeezer (below) that always finds a prominent position in the places I’ve lived, and the final thing is a Cambridge hi-fi amplifier, still pumping out the tunes, although recently developing a frustrating buzz (perhaps time for a new one?).

Philippe Starck Lemon Squeezer, bought in 20xx

Philippe Starck Lemon Squeezer, an item I value highly, bought in 2001.

At the other end of the scale, of the 87 things I bought in 2011, 4 years ago, I still have 56 (65%), 25 of which are ‘high value’ items. 18 of those things are items of clothing, 5 are things relating to cycling, and the remaining 2 are things relating to golf.

The oldest thing in my list that I still have (and value highly) is an Ikea dining table (below), solid and simple, bought in 2000.

An Ikea table

The oldest ‘high value’ thing in my list – an Ikea table, bought in 2000.

Really it is the things that I’ve rated as ‘high value’ that I’m interested in and that, on the surface, hold the key to uncovering how things have become meaningful in my life. ‘High value’ is just a subjective measure; a feeling that, when I read the name of the thing on a list, I like the thing. It conjures up its image, it makes me smile, I can call it to mind easily, and re-experience the pleasure and quality the thing gave me in its use.

So of the 878 original things, I’ve rated 161 of them (18%), as having high value. The largest proportion of these things are 59 items of clothing closely followed by 51 items of sport, 23 ‘house’ items, and 17 electronic items.

If I look down the list of high value items 25 of them I have used in the last month, 6 I have used today, and I am currently using 3 – my Wacom graphics tablet (13 years old), my Bosch washing machine (12 years old), and my Carhartt leather belt (4 years old).

Wacom Graphics Tablet, a high value thing, bought in 20xx

Wacom Graphics Tablet, an item I consider as ‘high value’ and that I am using at this moment,  bought in 2002.

That’s it! The raw stats about all the things I’ve bought and used over a 10 year period. I can’t help feeling disappointed – is 18% all I have to show in terms of value in 10 years?

Where I failed was in fully documenting the life of each thing. At the beginning it seemed simple enough, recording the narrative arc of a thing’s life. The expectations at birth, the early difficulties, the later years of declining use and usefulness. The inevitable end. Of those 878 possible stories I only actually recorded 24 of these and I realise now that this mainly happened when something out of a normal narrative happened – the product failed or broke (a Canondale mountain bike), or I lost it (a Nokia 6510 mobile phone, a Sony portable CD player), or I got it repaired or replaced (a Parker fountain pen). Most of the stuff just abided with me for a length of time and then got thrown away; that’s the normal narrative, hardly worth recording.

I did notice that there were clusters of things that supported certain activities. Golf clubs, bags, shoes, shirts, and trousers for golf; computers, software, keyboards, mixers, and cables for music recording. It wasn’t necessarily the things in themselves that I valued but their combination, providing a scaffold for entertainment, enjoyment and a feeling of progress and development somehow. My investment in these things was also an investment in a certain activity, though I realised after a while that it is a fine balance; the need to have the thing that is smaller, operates faster, is more responsive and efficient can quickly become the focus of your activity rather than the activity itself. Buying a new mountain bike might make big improvements to comfort and performance but it is still the feeling of being out in the middle of the countryside and turning the pedals that I value most.

Unexpectedly, the clothes category contains the highest number of ‘high value’ items. Clothes, it seems to me, become you in a way that other things don’t. They lie close to your skin, they take on your scent, they construct and project your identity – in colour, in form, in detail – and provide a level of comfort and reassurance; a structure to exist in. Clothes adapt themselves to us and they, as we, change through the years, both as fashion changes, but also through continual cleaning. Jeans get looser, T-shirts fade, underpants slowly grow bigger. You grow into them as much as they grow into you; it’s a symbiotic relationship. One thing I have learned is that wear can be a source of value; scratches that accumulate on a plate or surface, marks and dents that record events and interactions (Figure 4). Things can capture a shared history, so no wonder clothes set-off positive memories.

Three imperfect things: (left) laptop dropped at airport x-ray machine, (middle) Phillipe Starck Lemon Squeezer, leg broken and then repaired, (right) acoustic guitar scraped.

Figure 4. Three imperfect things: (left) An Apple MacBook Air dropped at Biarritz airport x-ray machine, (middle) Phillipe Starck Lemon Squeezer, leg broken and then repaired, (right) Simon & Patrick acoustic guitar banged against furniture.

Sports are the next largest proportion of highest value items and (apart from the sports clothes, see above) represent the possibility of a Heideggerian sense of connection; the piece of sports equipment becomes invisible to your consciousness in becoming part of the wholeness of your performance. When you connect with a squash ball, tennis ball, golf ball so well that it seems like something metaphysical happens; when you flow down a hill on a bike as if floating on air. Sports equipment is intimately involved in your triumphs (small though they sometimes are) and also your failures (large though they sometimes appear).

That description of high value items might be applied to other products too, though less often. When I use my iPhone, or drive a car, or play guitar it sometimes feels like me and the thing are thinking together. I just don’t get that with a printer, or a kettle, or a light; those things mainly just function, though obviously they have to fit the environment and get along with the other things.

So where things work the best is when their story becomes my story, when our narratives combine even just for a short time. That’s when the magnetism and magic works with me in a way that I don’t even notice; the supporting cast to my star-of-the-show. Actually, reviewing my list in its entirety I am amazed by the number of things that I can remember quite distinctly, whether I’ve valued them or not. I often remember where I bought a thing, though not usually where I parted with it. Things provoke memories and recall experiences; the more the thing becomes you, the more intense and emotional that memory is likely to be. Like music, things take you back, things help you out, but they don’t solve the vast majority of your problems.

So what kind of machine am I? I think a not too efficient one, though there have been moments of purring performance. It seems I have far more input than output [4]. I also have a nagging feeling that if I had input less then I would have output more; that I haven’t made best use of the machine or even misunderstood its basic operation. I can’t claim to dislike the person whose life I have examined through this inquiry, but I can’t claim any love either. The things, although constituting a significant part of life, don’t, in the final analysis, really matter that much.

The reason I don’t buy home insurance is that I hope that one day I’ll come home and all my things will be gone. Then I’ll have a blank sheet, to start all over again.

[1] Italo Calvino (1984) Quickness in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Harvard University Press.

[2] Oliver James (2007) Affluenza, Vermilion.

[3] Links to my various lists (inputs) on Shornbare.com are here: 15 years of books, 14 years of music, 15 years of films

[4] Links to my various outputs on Shornbare.com are here: 10 years of one photo a month, other stuff

Unreal Realism #2: More Stories from Postcards (and some from Google Street View too)

Here are the results of combining a couple of imaging and imagination techniques I’ve developed in two blog posts. The first are my continuing close-up studies of ‘normal’ behavior taking place in the background of postcards. The second is the use of Google street view to capture distinct moments in time. Here are two examples. The first is of Tintagel in Cornwall (sent in 1959). This is the original postcard:

Postcard of Tintagel, Cornwall, with Fore Street shown in the bottom left frame (sent 1959).

Postcard of Tintagel, Cornwall, with Fore Street shown in the bottom left frame (sent 1959).

In the bottom left frame of the postcard is a picture of Fore Street and within it, two men walking side by side – click on the image to see a close up. Here are the two men taken with a macro lens attached to an iPhone 5:

IMG_4995

Close up of Fore Street, Tintagel, showing two men walking together. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

The rendering of the image with the shallow depth of field captures beautifully the historic ‘feel’ of the scene. It could easily be a carefully composed photo taken by a local photographer. At first sight I thought the two men were wearing overalls – perhaps walking home from working at a local tin mine, deep in conversation. Closer inspection reveals both in suits, however, so the interpretation of the conversation shifts to one of business being discussed (perhaps about the local tin mine?). They look like they are walking home, to lunch or dinner, relaxed in each other’s company.

It’s an interesting experiment comparing these images with modern day ones made from Google street view. In some ways the two processes – of making postcards and of producing street view images – are similar. The people that figure in the background are equally unaware that they are being captured, and each image is a public one – sent through the post or digitally referenced.

Here is the 2011 Street View image that most closely follows the frame of the original Fore Street image:

Google Street View screenshot of Fore Street Tintagel, 2011.

Google Street View screenshot showing Fore Street, Tintagel, Cornwall 2011.

The town appears to have changed very little over the intervening years. The Hotels, both to the left and to the right in the original postcard image, are no longer hotels; pavements have been added, telegraph poles removed, and of course the cars are modern. But the rhythm of the built form; the mullioned windows, bay fronts, and roof angles – the essential structure of the place – remains.

Here is a close up of the people in that image:

Close up of the Google Street View screenshot showing people in Fore Street, Tintagel.

Close up of the Google Street View screenshot showing the people bottom left in the image above.

The people, pixelated by the digital zoom and anonymised algorithmically by Google, are distinct only in their forward movement; some look like holiday-makers though there is a man in a dark jacket who looks purposeful and businesslike, a distant echo of the two side-by-side men in suits.  He appears as a leader, the others following him either to be saved or led to their doom.

The second example is of Rye, in East Sussex (circa 1970). Here is the original postcard:

Postcard of Rye, East Sussex.  The bottom right frame shows East Street.

Postcard of Rye, East Sussex. The bottom right frame shows East Street (circa 1970).

In the bottom right frame is a photo of East Street, the Union Inn prominent and with three people in the scene. Here is the close up of them:

Close up of Postcard photo showing three people on East Street, Rye. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

Close up of Postcard photo showing three people on East Street, Rye. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

In contrast to the Tintagel scene the shallow depth of field in the macro-shot doesn’t reveal a ‘photo-within-a-photo-within-a-postcard’ but a scene made impressionistic by revealing the pattern of colour making up a half-tone print. Outside of the area of focus the photo looks normal, but it takes on a painterly quality as the focus sharpens, abstracting the two figures in almost pointillist fashion, patterning the women’s skirt in the foreground.

The scene shows a couple walking towards the camera, while a younger man with teddy-boy hair and turned up trousers exits a door behind them. The couple have baggage with them. The woman holds a red handbag in her left hand while dragging a suitcase. The man, seemingly dressed in military fatigues, holds a bag in his left had while gesturing with his right. Perhaps they are on their way to the station after a weekend away – did it go well? It’s difficult to tell, though there is a feeling of slight disconnection or unfamiliarity between them – the man and the woman don’t quite fit as a couple.

Here is the 2009 Google Street View version of East Street in Rye:

Google Street View screenshot showing East Street in Rye, East Sussex, in 2009.

Google Street View screenshot showing East Street in Rye, East Sussex, in 2009.

As with Tintagel the built form is largely unchanged. The Union Inn (sign just out of view) is still functioning and really the only difference is that an (ironic) ‘historic’ streetlamp and a few bollards have been added. The photo, with dynamic digital artefacts bottom left, also reveals a striking similarity in the people that are captured; a couple walk up the street while a person exits from the same doorway as before (the building now revealed as a dental surgery). The close up is shown here:

Close up of people in East Street, Rye, East Sussex from Google Street View screenshot.

Close up of people in East Street, Rye, East Sussex from Google Street View screenshot.

This time the man of the couple looks up at the camera (the Google car is a strange beast to behold) while arm-in-arm with his partner who carries a handbag. The woman exiting the dentist does so carefully, waiting on the top step before venturing further, perhaps slightly in pain from the dentist’s poking around; recalling where to go next.

There is a stability revealed in these various fragments and stories, of slow-changing environments with familiar rhythms and uses, and of age-old behaviours, interactions, and movements. The public facing camera that ostensibly documents and replicates place reveals all kinds of other things about the daily lives of people who populate those places. One only has to look with a magnifying glass (or digital zoom) to find that, in many English towns, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Respectability and Indigence in the Urban Environment

In his twenties, Thomas Hardy, the author, was working as a successful architect which makes reading his novels with an eye on design a revealing activity. Hardy writes with a depth about the built environment – and ‘place’ more generally – that is unusual in literature. The experience he gained in practice clearly gave him an observational capacity that renders the features of houses, streets, roads, markets, inns, hotels, etc. in fine detail. This is from Chapter 5 of The Mayor of Casterbridge describing a scene where the town band has begun to play:

“The building before whose doors they had pitched their music-stands was the chief hotel in Casterbridge – namely, the King’s Arms. A spacious bow-window projected into the street over the main portico, and from the open sashes came the babble of voices, the jingle of glasses, and the drawing of corks.”

That ‘spacious bow-window projected into the street over the main portico’ might be a line out of one of Pevsner’s guides to the Buildings of England but it is the social context through which buildings structure human activity that comes through most of all in Hardy – the shaped behavior following the shaped environment, to draw on Winston Churchill’s famous quote. A good example of this comes in Chapter 32, where Hardy describes two bridges in Casterbridge:

“Two bridges stood near the lower part of Casterbridge town. The first, of weather-stained brick, was immediately at the end of High Street, where a diverging branch from that throughfare ran round to the low-lying Durnover lanes; so that the precincts of the bridge formed the merging point of respectability and indigence. The second bridge, of stone, was further out on the highway – in fact, fairly in the meadows, though still within the town boundary.”

That move to describe the first bridge as: ‘the merging point of respectability and indigence’ combines the spatial aspects of the town with the human aspects. It is a point that will be familiar in many other towns: the place were upmarket connects with downmarket, where honest toil meets dodgy dealing.

Hardy describes the bridges further:

“These bridges had speaking countenances. Every projection in each was worn down to obtuseness partly by weather, more by friction from generations of loungers, whose toes and heels had from year to year made restless movements against these parapets, as they had stood there meditating on the aspect of affairs. In the case of the more friable bricks and stones even the flat faces were worn into hollows by the same mixed mechanism. The masonry of the top was clamped with iron at each joint; since it had been no uncommon thing for desperate men to wrench the coping off and throw it down the river, in reckless defiance of the magistrates.”

The bridges, in other words, had become places to ponder, worry, and reflect on things gone awry in life. The external movements connected with those thoughts – toe and heel movements, leg movements, hand movements, and grasping at loose material – had further served to shape, and communicate the meaning of the bridges according to their use.  Like stone steps, worn down in the middle after decades of people climbing up and down. Indeed the bridges said this very clearly through their ‘speaking countenances’.

Did the architects of the two bridges intend that they would find use in such a way? One might think it unlikely, the main function of the bridges really being to take a road across water, but the parapets – the worn down projections – indicate a secondary function: places for people to stop; to fish, for example, or to keep out of the way of wide traffic, or to look out on the river. So the pondering activity is there in the plan somewhere, if not accurately defined or envisaged. What an architect might not expect is the subsequent shaping of the bridge, through friction, to more accurately define the human activity that takes place on the bridge.

Casterbridge, the imagined town in Hardy’s literature, is derived from Dorchester, the real town in Dorset and it is interesting to think how fiction and reality might be connected and overlap, especially when one thinks of the work of an architect or urban planner as a kind of fiction or authorship. The vision expressed through sketches, drawings, or artist’s impressions, that I’ve talked about in other blog posts, show a potential narrative that is then further formed by actual use. And now Google Street View, time-lapsed over years, can reveal a post-design narrative (see Figure 1). Places take on meaning as much as being given meaning.

The First Bridge

Figure 1: A Google Street View image shows the place of the first bridge in Thomas Hardy’s description of Casterbridge (Dorchester) above. The bridge is ‘immediately at the end of the high street’, though the man caught on camera on the bridge doesn’t look as desperate as the men of Casterbridge.

A prime example of this, and a kind of modern day Thomas Hardy example, came to me when I lived in the centre of Milton Keynes some years ago. The centre of Milton Keynes is a shopping mall. A reasonably nice, high quality, grade 2 listed shopping mall; but a shopping mall none-the-less. Butting on to the shopping mall, further down the hill to the east, is Campbell Park: “the largest and most imaginative park to have been laid out in Britain in the 20th Century” according to Pevsner (Buildings of England: Buckinghamshire). The centerpiece of the park, leading directly from the axis of the shopping mall, is a belvedere; a huge pile of earth projecting out from the natural hill to give a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape looking eastwards. It is place, in other words, conceivably not dissimilar to the bridges in Casterbridge. The amount of ‘desperate men’ (the law courts in Milton Keynes are further than in Casterbridge I’d wager) is probably far outweighed by the number of people seeking a nice view in their lunch hour, but there is a kind of ‘speaking countenance’ there.

Campbell Park was generally emptier than it should have been. Housing schemes surrounding the park were only partially completed, so outside the hours of business the number of people in the park was often in single figures, outnumbered by the sheep that were allowed to graze from time to time.

The flat I rented looked into a wooded area at the side of the park and, after a year or so of living there, I noticed some odd behavior. My flat, as well as looking directly at the wooded area of the park, overlooked a car-park; a place, I assumed, where people would leave their cars while having a relaxed weekend picnic in the park with their family. What I began to notice was a pattern: single men would drive into the car park and wait in their cars while looking at their mobile phones. After a period of time, they would walk purposefully into the wooded area of the park before reappearing, less purposefully, some time later. Then they would drive off. What was confusing was that the path the men (and it was almost always men) walked so purposefully towards only led out of the park again some way down, after passing through the wooded area – it was a path that led nowhere! Figure 2 shows the place.

Campbell Park, Milton Keynes

Figure 2. A Google Street View image shows the wooded area (left) in Milton Keynes where a gay cruising area had formed. On the left, near the ‘keep left’ signs, you can see the entry point for ‘the path that leads nowhere’, while the car park is to the right of the picture (behind and out of view). The man caught on camera looks like he is headed to the path.

Now, it might seem obvious now, but at the time I was genuinely puzzled – why would you walk down a path that led nowhere? The question rolled around my head for a few weeks until my friend D arrived to stay. D, who is gay, had a very simple answer to my question: “it’s a gay cruising strip”, he said, nonchalantly. “How do you know?” I asked. He shrugged, “it’s just obvious, take a walk there and you’ll see people in tracksuit bottoms.” This was all news to me, but to prove D’s point we took a walk down the path and sure enough, up came a man wearing tracksuit bottoms, and paying us a lot of attention. “It’s the sense of danger” D explained of the behavior more generally, “or maybe they are married and don’t want their wives to find out”. A place for desperate men, in other words.

D had another theory. Perhaps the path had been deliberately designed for the purposes of gay cruising? After all why would a path that led nowhere make it on to the plan for the park? Maybe this was why Pevsner had called it ‘the most imaginative park to have been laid out in Britain in the 20th Century’? It’s a nice thought, that someone in the planning office was discretely tending to the needs of a community of people for outdoor sex; intending – by arranging parking, woodland, and a path that leads nowhere in close proximity – that outdoor sex would be the result. More likely is the Thomas Hardy explanation though, that the place came to support, and eventually help to shape, the behavior. And one way of doing that is to place a space at the border of respectability and indigence.

Nakamoto’s Last Theorem

A couple of weekends ago I was at the Latitude festival and happened on a rather good talk by Sunday Times journalist Andrew Smith. The talk was a cross-legged affair, in a shed, in the woods and was about the inventor of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto. Nakamoto, it turns out, is a bit of mystery. He, if indeed it is a ‘he’ solved a mathematical cryptographic problem that the rest of the world couldn’t, as a necessary condition for inventing a peer-to-peer currency. The neat thing about a peer-to-peer currency is that it doesn’t need a central repository to guarantee its value. That’s bad news for governments and banks everywhere if it becomes mainstream, and potentially destabilising/energising for national economies.

But Nakamoto has disappeared. After introducing the currency, and impressing the pants off mathematicians everywhere, he dropped off the radar and hasn’t been seen since. A bit like Pierre de Fermat and his famous last theorem or Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects. The ‘disappearing genius’ is a good, human-interest angle for journalists and Smith is now on something of a detective trail fueled by potential conspiracy at every turn. Part of that trail is in looking at the fragments that Nakamoto left behind and talking to the people that interacted with him online, another part is trying to figure out the characteristics of the person by looking at the qualities of the ‘thing’ he created. That second part is a bit like the so-called ‘argument from design’ – inferring the nature of God by looking at the world she created – a tenuous exercise at best, as David Hume showed in his Dialogues on Natural Religion, but a fun game all the same.

Shed of Stories

Shed of Stories

I’ve been following Bitcoin in the news for a while now, without ever really understanding what it is exactly, never having used it. The talk, however, brought home design aspects to the currency, and implications for its use, that I found intriguing. One comment that Smith reports Nakamoto as saying, on one of the discussion lists he was part of was that, in figuring out his currency:

“much more of the work was designing rather than coding.”

That’s an interesting comment to me. It sort of implies that there was a ‘hard’ problem to solve, followed by a lot of design problems: working out how Bitcoins could be ‘manufactured’, used, kept secure, and how they might capture the imagination of people.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I think Bitcoin works. A Bitcoin is basically a number, though not any old number. It’s a number worked out by a computational process that allows anyone to ‘mine’ Bitcoins. Early on in the currency it really was anyone (with a computer and the right software) that could mine Bitcoins, and many did. But Bitcoins are finite, like the total amount of gold in the world, so they get progressively harder to mine. The analogy that works for me is of prime numbers – numbers divisible only by 1 and themselves. The first few are easy to work out: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37 but as you get higher and higher, the numbers get harder and harder to ‘mine’, to the extent that it is only since the invention of the computer that we’ve been able to ‘discover’ large prime numbers. The latest, discovered in April 2014 (Wikipedia is a wonderful thing), has 17,425,170 digits to it. And that’s the crux of it; to mine Bitcoins now, you need extensive computing power. There are server farms now set up in the cold half of the northern hemisphere with the sole purpose of mining Bitcoins. That’s a lot of energy, but then mining for gold takes a lot of energy too.

So basically you get a number when you mine a Bitcoin and when you exchange your Bitcoin for goods, services, or other currency there is a process that checks both that you have a valid Bitcoin – in our analogy you really do have a prime number – and that you have not already spent your Bitcoin.

That may, or may not, be a good explanation but it’s about as far as I can go. If you want more detail I’d recommend you read Andrew’s book as a starting point. What I’m really interested in though are two things. First, the process of design leading to Bitcoin and second, the potential disruptive implications of Bitcoin. The two, of course, are linked through the enigma that is Satoshi Nakamoto.

What I like first is the use of gold as a metaphor for Bitcoin. Gold instantly tunes you in to the kind of currency you’re dealing with; one set up with olde world values. Gold coins, mining, ingots stored in safes, buried treasure, mediaeval tradesmen shaking out ducats from leather pouches. Gold fires the imagination; intuitively you seem to know what you’re dealing with – it gets its value, unlike pound notes or euros, from its scarcity. That must have taken some thinking out by Nakamoto, to keep that metaphor in mind while doing the serious coding.

The serious coding, the ‘hard’ problem mainly seems to have involved making Bitcoin hack-proof. All currency is based on trust and once that trust is breached you don’t have a currency any more. If false Bitcoins can be mined as valid Bitcoins then trust in the currency breaks down.  But Nakamoto appears to have covered the bases through the architecture of his software, having a central (and simple) core, which can deflect any potential attack to satellite components; a solution which has been acknowledged by mathematicians as an elegant one. I’ll spare you the details because, to be frank, I don’t know them. What I do know is that making Bitcoin secure involved imagining how possible threats might emerge, and what to do about them. That is, how does the product respond to misuse? A classic design problem.

Of course Bitcoin must also be efficient and easy to use – no point in waiting a week for a transaction to be confirmed. Again, Nakamoto must have imagined potential use scenarios at the point of exchange. How is validity checked? How long does it take the purchaser to know that they have a real Bitcoin? How easy is it to make an exchange even? These are all potential barriers to the take up of a new system, and design problems that Nakamoto systematically solved. Nakamoto looks more and more like a very good designer.

There is more to good design than just the design, though. Good design sets the mind thinking about new directions, consequences, and effects. A good design, like a character in a novel for an author, takes on a life of its own and is able to show the designer the possible implications of the thing as it relates to a broader vision of society. Bitcoin is more than just good code, it is a way of thinking about the fundamentals of what money is and does.

That is where the (potential) disruption comes in. We have got used to our pound notes, dollars, and euros. Money is regulated by central banks and managed for us by high street banks. The whole financial system pretty much runs on transaction charges. Like a casino – and the gaming analogy is apposite – the house always wins. And, as the recent financial crisis has shown, if a bank loses it still (almost always) wins – the government can provide a bail out, say ‘don’t do it again’, and print more money as a sticking plaster. Because money, in this form, and unlike gold, is, in theory if not in practice, infinite.

So, if you can create a stable financial system without banks, that would be a big thing; a way of reshaping the whole financial system and perhaps stopping the wealthy, at least those in finance, from getting wealthier. And all from a number. The interesting thing is that it’s not clear what politics Bitcoin has, though it appears to have come about with political aims. Smashing the system seems like good old socialism, while creating new financial models sounds like rampant capitalism. That seems like an indicator, to me, that it is a potential way forward, and if it is, it has been cleverly thought through.

Bitcoin, though, has not received a good press. Silkroad, a website for buying illicit goods – the Amazon of the dark side if you like – uses Bitcoin as its currency because (another key thing) it preserves the anonymity of the people carrying out transactions. As a result the exchange value of Bitcoin has fluctuated widely from almost nothing (bad press) to something huge (good press). But it abides, and therein lies the challenge to existing financial frameworks. While crypto-currencies like Bitcoin remain, a possible future also remains. So if anything, Bitcoin looks like material for a new architecture, although that architecture remains largely to be constructed. There are interesting applications emerging though. Transactions too small for transaction charges to be feasible, so-called micro-payments, is one area of potential growth; for small chunks of web content, for example. Emerging economies are another area of Bitcoin development, where currencies, banks, and financial services tend to already to be unstable.

You might think that such a fascinating subject would attract a reasonable crowd at a festival like Latitude. Well, see the photo above, I could have counted the audience on both hands.

Oh, Author

The current issue of the London Review of Books has a great extended piece by Andrew O’Hagan on his involvement in trying to write Julian Assange’s Autobiography.  It gives a blow-by-blow account of how Assange hijacked his own book through a combination of paranoia, laziness, displacement activity, and disinterest.  O’Hagan, in thinking deeply about Assange’s motives, provides an insightful account of how a strong vision, supported by many, slowly gets eroded and in the end wasted.  Apart, that is, from O’Hagan’s account.

I was left wondering whether Assange had actually generated more publicity through not authorising publication, and hence having all sorts of versions leak out.  He certainly seems to enjoy creating confusion in continually reaffirming and exercising his power.  It is a riveting read of a thoroughly contradictory person and the end, in particular, about how Assange reacts to the rise of Edward Snowdon is fascinating.  The general process it describes will be familiar to many who have been involved with projects that have slowly, and often quite consciously, been laid to waste.