Picnic 2011: Urban Futures, etc etc

(hrm. haven’t done this for a while…)

I’ve spent most of my visit to Picnic this year huneybee’ing about, along with the marvellous bumblebees, wasps, ladybugs, dragonflies and also the occasional gadfly.

The overall theme this year is “Picnic 2011: Urban Futures,” which is very much a continuation of the conversation many of us have been having for some time now. The whole Smart/Digital/Cognitive Cities, Open/Civic Data, Ubiquitous Computing thing… it’s a big topic and it’s all moving forward and that’s good.

A few thoughts for me, dipping about as I did, have been these:

Data is real, you can feel it.
The same distinctions we see in knowledge and social spheres, between the “virtual” and the “physical” are very present in this domain as well. We talk of the data, we talk of virtuality, of highly abstract systems and mashups and visualisations… and yet… More than any other domain affected by network connectedness, urban computing’s interfaces are very much physical. The sensors are there, the card readers are there… the policies and services to make our lives better manifest themselves in totally physical ways.

Perhaps it’s a semantic twist? Perhaps if we spoke not of “virtual” or “cyber”, but of “informational”? The symbiotic dance of the informational and the physical modes of the world, one as “real” as the other, and the line between between them becoming increasingly fuzzy.

Is my longterm long distance relationship any less “real” because it is largely manifested via short text messages, instead of glances and holding of hands?

Is the designation of bike lanes and reflowing of public transport services any less real because it is shaped by real time data?

Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT Senseable Cities Lab, and a few others showed an image (the header graphic for the “LIVE Singapore” project) which I had been handwavingly explaining for years: we have begun pinning the informational space to the physical space in earnest. It’s been going on for a very long time, but now it’s happening in a binding way–via timestamps, geostamps, socialstamps– with every interaction with that information space. For all intents and purposes, they are bonding.

(Fans of anime like Ghost in The Shell, Dennou Coil, Serial Experiment: Lain, etc as well as zen buddhists… will smile.)

We’re all saying the same thing, just using different words and models
This is a bit frustrating, but perfectly normal. We won’t ever all “get it” the same way, but the level we are still at here is a bit chaotic, and the stage is still litered with people trying to coin their terms and impose their mental models, rather than just agree on some of the elementals.

Observing this gives me all the more sympathy for bodies like the W3C et al who kill themselves trying to define standards for things that to many people are still profoundly arcane abstractions (but as we see, are very real, very affective.)

Carry on! I won’t join the fray. For now.

People appreciate the music, not the notes
Paraphrasing Sami Niemelä, who mentioned this in a Q&A session and kindly elaborated during a brief chat in the hotel lobby. In this case, he was remarking how everyone is talking about “the data”, where really what people care about is what comes out of that data. The “music”, the actualization, the experience based on the notes, is what is important.

This reminds me now, conversely, of conversations with Errolson Hugh, of Acrnm, where we speak of how we design the flow, the experience, and the thing shapes around that.

Authorship is an implicit fact, ownership is neither.
This popped out of me in the same aforementioned Q&A (at the end of an excellent panel featuring friends Usman Haque and Scott Burnham discussing trust of data).

The words came after the conversation turned to Intellectual Property rights. Many of us live in creative cultures which find themselves in a time where the claim of ownership (which is an abstract notion and not some physical fact) is implicit in authorship (which is a physical fact and event). The tension we are experiencing here is that with the changes in technology, we need to realise that a) ownership is not a fact but a claim and b) it is something we must state explicitly and not expect implicitly. Then the question is there is any value in doing so either way remains…

You don’t teach trust, you earn it
In the aforementioned panel on “Designing trust for the Internet of Things” (or something like that ;) it was remarked, again, how hard it is for people to “get” the importance of security and awareness and privacy etc etc in the seemingly highly abstract (invisible?) networked world. Locks on SSL secured websites, versus the lock on your housedoor, for example.
It struck me that at the root of the dilemma was a lacking mechanism for people to truly grasp the risks, to appreciate the value and the cost of not being aware, of not getting to a point where not only they get it but they also trust it all. USman pointed out rightly that we’re generally quite bad at assessing risk and value… and opportunity. Which gave me pause, for I always love to frame design as a sort of criminal activity: Means, Motive and Opportunity.

Something to mull over some more. :)

Probably lots more kicking around in my head, but it’s time to go.
I’d like to thank particularly some folks who made this visit really marvellous:
Usman Haque, Igor Schwarzmann, Peter Bihr, David Bausola, Juha van ‘t Zelfde, Scott Burnham, Jon Husband, Toby Barnes. Thank you. :)

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