Here’s my ninth (gulp) annual set of favourite photos that I’ve taken this year with my Lumix GF1. I still love the camera, and picked up a new lens which zooms (a little) and goes pretty wide. I’ve primarily taken these shots with the fixed 20mm lens, which I still love. It lets in lots of light.
For some reason, I thought I’d had a slow year for photography, but looking back it doesn’t seem to be the case. I’ve taken 7,400+, which is a couple of thousand above what I usually take. It’s been a busy year, though, with visits to Rome and Disney World, and with the Jubilee and Olympics at home. With those and our recent close call with flooding, there’s been plenty of subjects to shoot.
I’ll be running Nike’s “Run to the Beat” half marathon in London on the 28th of October, and am madly training with my wife, Shannon, who is also running. We’re raising money as part of the run in support of Lupus UK. Lupus is an auto-immune disease with a whole bunch of nasty side effects that’s had an impact on my family, and Lupus UK provides support for the 50,000 sufferers in the country and their families, as well as raising awareness of the illness.
Please don’t feel any pressure to support, but if you’d like to make a donation towards our run than we have a web page through which you can contribute:
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?”
Microsoft holds an annual design competition for students from around the world who are usually studying either interaction or product design. It’s called the Design Expo. Students work in groups at their school, usually over the spring semester, to a brief that we set and they then select their best team, who travel to Redmond, Microsoft’s home, to present what they’ve done to an audience of employees.
I had a preview of the RCA student work earlier in the year, then we picked the two projects to send to Redmond, which were shown at the colleges degree show in early July, before heading to the US. Rather than taking place at the RCA’s “head office” near the Albert Hall, this year the Design Interactions students showed their work over the river at Battersea in a very cool creative space called Testbed 1.
The first of the two student projects we picked for Design Expo was The Superstitious Fund by Shing Tat Chung. Shing has developed a fully working investment fund, but one who’s algorithms for buying and selling are based on superstition. It primarily uses numerology, looking for example for lucky and unlucky numbers, as well as phases of the moon, to decide when to buy and sell. The amazing thing abut this project is that it is fully working. It is trading live on the stock market, has £4000 pounds worth of investment put it in by people from around the world, and includes a contract, stock certificate and every other legal requirement.
This is a classic example of the schools critical approach to design. It both forces us to think about the random nature of the stock market, for example, or the illogical sense that people have of numbers and data, while at the same time being very real.
Shing had a trade board mounted at the degree show, showing live data for the fund. He also presented some of his other projects which all look at superstition and illogicality.
The second student project which went to Redmond was Neil Usher’s beautiful Pareidolic Robot. Related to Shing’s project, Neil’s interests are in human’s capacity to look for shapes, meaning and data in our surroundings where there often isn’t any. According to Wikipedia “Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant.”
Neil built a fully working robotic system, which uses face recognition to look at clouds. He’s got a lovely selection of images that the robot has found, many of which are face like. The robot is beautifully engineered, with two cameras that look like eyes, and can reorient themselves on the end of stalks.
Again, this is a fully realised object, but one that asks questions about our past times, and what it means to do idle activities. Do we feel so much pressure to use all of our time “efficiently” that we might have to give over the pleasures in our lives, like cloud spotting, to some piece of technology?
So that’s the two pieces of work that went to the design expo. You can see the other participants work here. Neil and Shing did a great job compressing their joint presentation down to 10 minutes. Hopefully the video will be up soon.
A few other pieces of work stood out for me from the RCA Degree Show. Here’s some shots:
I was in Newcastle for the Designing Interactive Systems conference from the 12th to the 15th of June. This conference takes place every couple of years, and looks at the social science of technology, with a particular emphasis on design. This year it was hosted by the University of Newcastle, and organized primarily by the Culture Lab, the university’s technology research group.
‘What area?’ you might ask, which seems like a fair question. I’ve been thinking about the idea of slow technology in the context of design work I’ve done like the Backup Box in which part of the point of the work is to think about what it might be like to keep our digital things, like our tweets, for decades as a record of our past, like a diary of our life. It’s ‘slow’ because it contrasts with the quickness of our online lives in which things only matter if they happened really recently.
Part of my interest in the workshop, then, was in seeing what the phrase “Slow Technology” meant to the participants. Fortunately, our day was structured to help get a sense of that, with a morning of presentations by everyone who had submitted position papers when we originally announced the workshop. We put the emphasis on artifacts in this workshop, with each presented asked to talk about their sense of Slow Technology, ideally through some kind of object that they had designed (or not).
So here are my very rough notes of what each participant presented. They’re rather extensive, so rather than wait another week to see them all, here’s my first set. I’ll follow with a second set soon.
Rachel and Mark had designed a beautiful system that played back year after year of climate change data, showing the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. Each year was drawn on a large, circular piece of paper, using an automated system that created marks with a soldering iron. From a slow technology perspective, Rachel and Mark’s goal was to find some way to time-shift climate change data, from (in real-time) being extremely slow, and barely perceptible by the public, to being faster and more consumable. Their system has a performative aspect to it, and was presented in a gallery environment. It raised issues of the authenticity of scientific data versus designed experiences and of what it means to make slow-time tangible.
As each year of marks came off the machine it was hung in a row with others, creating a physical visualization over the years, not just within a year. Visitors to the exhibition inevitably found themselves seeking their own birthdays in the data, making human lifespans a part of the experience.
Tim’s artefact was a piece of code. Tim’s been working on the deployment of a device called Photo Box. This was originally created by Mark Selby, and is being deployed by Will Odom in the US. It’s a box that lives in the corner of a house, randomly and very rarely printing out photos from its owners Flickr stream. It might only print a couple out a month, and is intended to explore not just slow technology, but also the nature of physical vs. digital things. Will will have it in the field with his subjects for at least a year (he published a separate paper on this work at DIS this year).
Tim made some interesting points about the technical aspects of deploying technology for research over a long period of time, including questions of robustness and resilience of code, how to deal with crashing, as well as changes in APIs and other issues with drawing from online services over time.
John outlined a number of attributes for slow technology, that are useful for thinking about the space going forward. Slow technologies…
…reveal their function over time.
… are resilient to degradation.
… are adaptable.
… have redundancy built in.
His artefact was a beautiful, hand drawn data visualization of the genealogy of an Inuit tribe, created over many years by (I think) the explorer and anthropologist Knud Rasmussen. It shows the complex relationships built up over time, and the overlap between members of the tribe, sometimes just connected by name, or with ancestors in common.
Jo is playing with notions of time in artistic creation, as well as what it means to create “authentic” artwork. She is working with an artist who painstakingly takes four months to create a single painting in a hyper-realistic style. Once he has finished a piece, many people think it has been digitally, rather than manually, generated.
She is installing a camera system into the artists studio to record and reveal the process of painting over time. The assembled time-lapse film will be displayed, itself, in the context of an art venue. If the video itself is available for purchase, it raises questions about authenticity, and what it means for a digital create to have provenance.
Veronica is a graduate of the Royal College of Art’sDesign Interactions course in London, which uses designed objects as a way of telling stories and raising questions about possible futures. Biophilia was her graduation project, and it explores the centuries old tradition of raising silkworms for cloth, and its potential for the very modern application of organ creation, using the worms to build ‘scaffolds’ onto which synthetic organs could be grown.
Although a very conceptual project, it raises questions for slow technology in contrasting the 5,000 year old tradition of Japanese silkworm farming, which is quite primitive, slow and simply executed, with the fast, mysterious and unknown world of synthetic biology. The irony in synthesis is that there still isn’t a man made substitute for silk that is as soft and durable. In her work, Veronica therefore draws a contrast between the speed of biology and biological processes and contemporary pace.
Silkworm are part of the scientific process now. Their DNA was basically sequenced in 2008, and since then genetic work has been done to increase silk output, and even make luminous silk. Some questions that Veronica raises include:
What would a silkworm organ factory look like?
Do bio-materials require a ‘humane’ process. even crafted.
If so, what might the designed experience of visiting a craftsman to pick up your organ look like?
Cow-cam tv was part of a project called ‘Neuromatic’ looking at “encouraging rural modern life through the use of ‘slow’ technologies”. As its name implies, Costas and Stefan literally strapped a webcam onto a large cow, and started transmitting images from the cow’s perspective onto the internet.
So in some ways the project is about the frenetic pace of urban life and our perceptions of rural life as slow and steady. Interestingly, though, Costas and Stefan did an analysis of Twitter looking for the words ‘slow’ and ‘technology’ and found that most people weren’t complaining about the pace of technological change, but instead were complaining when their devices weren’t fast enough, or new technology wasn’t being released quickly.
By some happy accident, I was lucky enough to have a shot of my Heart Type letterpress effort included in Barbara Brownie’s beautiful new book, Type Image. The volume pulls together hundreds of examples of contemporary uses of type, used to create portraits, objects, to fill the environment and so on. Well worth a look.
I’m a big fan of Nicholas Felton’s personal annual report (the Feltron Report), which he has published since 2005. In each one he teases out all kinds of statistics about his life, presenting them as a pseudo-business report, beautifully laid out and supported by infographics. I’ve cited them in talks in the past as an extreme example of the act of recording data about oneself (an activity entitled personal informatics).
Last year was a bit of a departure for him. Not only was the report printed using letterpress, it was also based on data from and about his friends. This departure from focussing exclusively on himself has continued this year. The 2010 report is based on data that he had or knew about his father, who died in September. Clearly very personal and thought provoking, and very related to notions of Technology Heirlooms.