I’m just travelling home from Belgrade in Serbia, where I’ve spent the last few days at Resonate. Resonate is a conference, or more like a festival, primarily attended by people doing visualization work. It’s full of great talks from a community that is very tightly networked, brought together by the equally highly networked Filip Visnjik, who also founded the website Creative Applications. Many of the talks at the event act almost like portfolio presentations that give an overview of some compelling computer graphics or interactive installations created through the development of complex systems of code and electronics. Many of the biographies of speakers at the event start with a similar sentence: “[Person A] is a programmer and artist working at the intersection of [X] and [Y]”. This emphasis on “art” as a discipline is an interesting one, since it releases many of the attendees from the obligation that we often have in our lab of having to justify their work on pragmatic grounds. Presenters can instead focus on aesthetics and abstraction. Many of the presentations cover visualization and interaction work done with other artistic disciplines such as dance or music.
On Thursday 12th of July 2012 I spoke at Getty’s “CurveLive” event on social photography. Here are some notes I wrote up soon after that I’ve been a little lax in posting. Hopefully they’re still interesting.
For reference, here’s a video of the event. My bit starts at 12:50 minutes in.
Here are my notes:
“The brief for Friday’s #CurveLive event at the Hospital Club was a tough and compelling one. It asked “How is social photography changing the way brands tell stories?” There are a lot of ways into that question since implicit in it are overtones of the changing nature of sociality, photography, the meaning, construction and reinforcement of person’s relationship with a brand, and new ways to tell and even participate in stories, all brought about by new technologies and a novel sense of interconnectedness between products and people.
I’m not really a brand person at all. Although I’m a designer by trade, and I suspect should be brand savvy because of that, I work in a world at Microsoft Research that has one foot in a large corporation and one foot in academia. I work with social scientists and developers, studying everyday life. My interests are in people’s relationships with things, with a particular focus on how the objects in their lives connect people with their past.
Images play an important part in this connection, as objects of legacy, since they allow us to see and recall the people, places and events that we might otherwise have forgotten. They also play more symbolic roles, allowing us, for example, to fulfil our obligations as family members. We’ll often walk into homes, as part of our research, and find mantelpieces stuffed with family portraits, in which an important aspect of the arrangement of the pictures is that every family member is represented. No one should be left out and forgotten. When family members visit and they see a display like this, they often can’t stop themselves from checking that they are represented. They want to see that they are being remembered.
From this personal perspective, then, it’s important to recognize that photos already play a very social role, and that the purpose of much social photography may be driven by the same old motivations –recording and remembering; fulfilling obligations; telling stories.
I’m not at all saying “same old same old”. The transition from physical photos to digital ones is certainly a monumental one, bringing new forms of old thing into people’s lives. Like all changes, it is double-edged. We lose some properties and gain some new ones. I have old photos of my Grandfather, taken during WWII, that have an aesthetic in their physicality, for example, from the visual – the white border and slight sepia tone that was typical of photos of the day – to the transitional – the way the picture has faded and curled slightly. They are beautiful objects that have aged gracefully, in a way that we suspect that digital things are not capable of. Perhaps that is motive for our search for authenticity in digital images, or our current obsession with deliberately distressing our photos through services like Instagram.
I have about 200 old photos of my Grandfather. I now take about 5,000 photos a year digitally. I realised that when my daughter, who is six and a half now, comes to inherit my “photo archive” she’ll be the lucky recipient of about 200,000 images. That seems like quite a burden.
Quantity, then, is one of the bigger shifts brought about by digitization. I wonder how my daughter will consume this vast amount of “stuff”. Maybe this is not unlike the transition of music from physical to digital. I’m one of those people who lament the passing of the LP record, a physical, tangible object that had a real sense of presence in my home, that reminded me of my tastes, and invited me into a little ritual of interaction as I put the needle in the groove. Even as I love physical things, though, I can’t help wondering at my iPod – 60 gigabytes of music, representing my history of taste, all of which I can put on random with one click. The randomness and unexpectedness of listening to songs this way is compelling, as songs that take you back in time pop up spontaneously. Serendipity can be a delightful thing. So, then, can many digital experiences, but in a way that is different from their physical equivalents.
The #CurveLive event was about sociality, not sentimentality, though and I have three observations that I think are interesting from the perspective of the image and its social role. The first is that the act of taking a shot has become performative, about participation, for many people. Hordes of individuals at gigs taking shots of a band with their mobile phones are doing that in part to show that they are involved, that they are celebrating the event in which they are taking part. The images they take may not even matter to them. Taking shots becomes not unlike waving a zippo around in the air as some ballad plays. It is participatory, and the act of taking photos this way is inherently a social one, in a way that diminishes the image.
Secondly, a photo posted online becomes a part of a web of relationships and data, one node in many. A photo might get commented on, and through a comment linked to another person. It may get geo-tagged, and through that tag tied to a place. It is part of a world of data and people, and the image itself may need to be thought of modestly. It may not be the most important thing in that web of data, and the properties tied to that image may be more interesting than it from a social perspective as a resource for creating connections with others, or with a brand.
Thirdly I wanted to comment on the idea of possession. Our sense with SOME (only a subset) of the people we talk to is that their sense of ownership of an image is diminishing. From the second they press the shutter release on their camera they think of the image that they are taking in social terms, as something that by default is shared with their friends. It belongs to their friends as much as it belongs to them. In some senses you can think of this as a tacit contract that they make with their friends through which they agree that their photo is shared, and that they will not take it out of that that shared experience, leaving their friends to trust that they can see it, comment on it, and make it part of their world without risk.
This leads me to wonder whether the idea of possession, from a personal rather than commercial perspective, might be diminishing. If photos become social by default, what else can there be but social photography?”
Thanks to presenter Claudia Hammond and producer Fiona Hill from BBC Radio 4’s All In The Mind show for a really great edit of a conversation we had in Cambridge last Wednesday about our Technology Heirlooms work. It was broadcast last night on Radio 4, is repeated again today at 4:30pm, and thanks to the speed of the Internets is already available to stream and as a podcast.
It’s a 10 minute segment about 9 minutes into the show in which Abi and I talk about the objects we’ve designed, as well as some of the issues of overload and longevity for digital artefacts that might be inherited from us when we pass away.
If you’re interested in the topic here are some bits to read:
Some Technology Heirlooms – Descriptions and images of the three technology heirlooms we’ve built so far, including the Timecard device discussed in the show.
Technology Heirlooms videos – This blog post doesn’t yet have a video of the Timecard device discussed in the show, but does have content I’ve created for two other objects, the Backup Box and the Digital Slide Viewer.
I’d forgotten about this video from last year’s Innovation Day event at Microsoft Research in Cambridge (so this was from about April 2009). It shows the V1 of Timecard, which was a non-working proof of concept that came before the working version I described recently. The comments about the goals behind the project still apply, even if the object itself has changed quite a bit.
I was lucky enough to do a talk at the recent Interaction 10 conference in Savannah. An amazingly inspiring event, spread over a number of really eclectic locations (a theatre, a pharmacy, a blacksmiths and a restaurant). Compared to the inaugural conference in 2008, which was also in Savannah, the distribution of locations really encouraged mixing, as well as giving a much better sense of the city.
At some point I’ll go through my notes and write something up, but for now I thought I’d post the video of my bit.
PSFK posted the video of the talk I gave recently at their Good Ideas Salon in London. It’s about 30 minutes long and covers some of our thoughts in Cambridge around how people get sentimental about objects, particularly heirlooms, and how that might apply to digital and technological objects in the future.
During the editing they seem to have replaced the Photosynth that I originally used (of a Guitar workshop) with the one from Obama’s inauguration, which changes the context a little (since I was really talking about capturing sentimental spaces).
Now they’re doing a run-off between the “winner” of the first round, the one about saving stories through services (which was actually less an idea than an observation) and three other ideas that came from other speakers and panel sessions.
Feel free to vote if you want. My wife did (I can’t bring myself to – feels like cheating). After she voted she got the tally and it looks like “my idea” (which is not in any way an original one) is in the lead
“New Ideas” provides for a broad topic area, and the speakers and panels matched that. The day begun with Mark Earl’s opening presentation on “Why Good Ideas Matter” – testing old ideas, exploring the future, just making your company more interesting and so on. There were panels on good ideas “From London”, “In Design”, “In Mobile”, “and Youth”, and “through Collaboration”. I particularly enjoyed Eva Rucki’s talk. Troika’s work, which she described, is inspired.
I’m not quite sure how my talk, titles “Good Ideas over Time” fit in. It may have been too specific, and sounded like the crazed ramblings of a guy describing some personal history. Still, I enjoyed it and got some positive feedback. Thanks particularly to Kevin McCullagh for the mention in his post on Core77. An overview of what I presented is in my earlier post.
I’ll be doing a 30 minute talk at the PSFK Good Ideas Salon in London on the 30th of London. It will be an overview of some of the work and ideas we’ve generated as part of our Technology Heirlooms project, looking at what it means to design digital artifacts with longer time spans in mind, and taking heredity of objects into account.
This is a follow on of the talk that Dave Kirk did at the Mundane Workshop a few weeks ago, presenting the ideas outlined in our paper, On the Design of Technology Heirlooms. I’ll be focusing a bit more on the design side of the project than Dave did (since he’s a sociologist and I’m a designer).
Full schedule is here, and I think it’s £300 to go for the day. My bio on the site, with a short Q&A is here. With a theme of Good Ideas, how could it not be good? There’s a great set of talks and panels that cover the gamut of new media/mobile/product/lifestyle/trends issues and ideas. Should be a blast, especially with participants from the BBC, Poke, Penguin and the Guardian.
The video of the presentation of Storymaker, Storyteller by the students from Dundee is finally up. This is the project they did for the Microsoft Research Student Design expo. Their product is a device that records the content and audio commentary from photographic slides, and allows their easy playback on a remote projector. It’s intended to connect a grandparent, who has a large slide collection, with his grandson, who is remote and more technology literate.
The video is only 13 minute long (in WMV format) and well worth a look.
The personal blog of Richard Banks. Combines both home and work life.