Category Archives: Readings

Degree Show Reel

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/26374234 w=500&h=400]

Viva Voce

So I’ve recently been trying to upload the rest of my year’s work on here, because I don’t like leaving things unfinished. I think once I have done this, I will likely start a new blog and keep this online as a sort of document of an entire project.

Here is the script I loosely followed for my 20-odd minute Viva Voce examination, which if you can be arsed to read it, follows the logic and journey of my year’s work. I think it was the act of doing the Viva that actually helped to bring this project to a conclusion, and in the end it has become as important an outcome as any of the films, experiments or objects I have designed.

NETWORKED: Chris Thomas BA Design Yr 3 Viva Voce

Soooo this is my project, “Networked”

My interest in the network was instigated at the start of the year by a consensus I had noticed emerging with startling regularity in various newspaper and magazine articles, regarding our relationship with technology. The assertion being, broadly, that we rely too much on the internet – that it has rendered us over-dependent and unable to learn or find out things for ourselves. I wanted to see if this was true, and if, so, whether it was a good or bad thing.

Early on, I decided to question this theory by allowing the internet to direct my actions for a day, ignoring my own whims and instead subjecting my decisions to the Google search. From the moment I woke up to when I went to bed, I asked Google what I should do next, and did whatever came up as the first result.

I ate eggs and toast for breakfast, I had a shower and brushed my teeth…  I read the paper and had a cup of coffee. I was taken aback by how little this way of living differed to how I might have spent the day normally if weren’t doing anything else.

Admittedly, Google did throw up the odd unusual result – at one point Google led me to the slightly unique situation of peering out of the window searching for tornadoes in Brockley… There weren’t any, by the way. But this anomaly aside, a Google life seemed very similar to a normal one.

In relying on Google, I was relying on content created by different people from all over the world, the ones I could trace shown on this map here. If we have come to rely so heavily on the internet, we have become individuals mediated by far more than ourselves, the objects of a huge network of information and knowledge.

In his essay “I, Pencil”, economist Leonard Read attempted to describe the vast web of processes that contribute individually to the making of a single pencil, and he described the process as such:

“millions of tiny know hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire”

The “millions of tiny know-hows” that he describes, echo, to me, the way in which the best things about the internet work. If you look at, for example, Wikipedia or Flickr – these are huge depositories of individual knowledge and creations that would never work as well, were they made by one person or directed by a centralised institution. No one person can make a pencil from scratch, just as no-one could compile all of Wikipedia alone.

Read concluded I,Pencil with a defence of global free market capitalism, citing Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market, and claiming that this structure of free trade and economic self-interest was the most efficient way to organise society. This appraisal of self-interest seemed to me in direct contradiction with the network of collaboration that Read had described just paragraphs before, and instigated in me a desire to uncover the injustices and inefficiencies that such a system is also capable of.

As an exercise, I took a photograph of myself one morning, and sought to map out the materials and production processes that culminated in the possessions I had on my person at that moment in time. It involved researching where, for example, Ben Sherman make their shirts and source their materials, and how they are made, before arriving in the shop I bought my shirt from on Carnaby Street.

The exercise revealed, amongst other things, how the great level of productive efficiency that Leonard Read depicts in I,Pencil is a purely economic one. The only reason it’s more efficient for Ben Sherman to have their shirts manufactured in Asia is because its cheaper, and delivers greater profits to its shareholders.

It also means that materials are travelling for miles that they don’t really need to, and that the makers of the shirts are being paid wages that the buyers of them would never dream of working for. Efficiency should not be mistaken as a purely economic virtue, and perhaps, I’d like to argue, is not as crucial to the functioning of society as we like to think it is anyway.

The problem is, that it is too easy to see products and artefacts as isolated things – and it can in turn make us isolated people. Of course, most of us know that products are made somewhere and regularly travel across the world to get to us, but we prefer not to learn too much more (or at least its made very difficult for us). As western consumers, we are removed from the network entirely up to the moment of exchange. They make it, we take it. And I think that this structure creates a delusion of self-dependence amongst the consuming public.

It was clear to me that I wanted to challenge this delusion. I explored the idea of the “interdependent object”, that required a number of people to come together to create something, post-consumption, to make awareness of collaboration and interdependency a crucial part of the things we use.

My early experiments with this toyed with the idea of mixing interdependent use with the banal and everyday – in one case, a toaster that required five people to physically hold it together to make it work.

Seeing a small crowd of people applaud some toast was one of the single most inspiring and strangely influential moments of the entire project. The shared awareness of time and effort facilitated by the toaster’s co-operative use created this amazing sense of social achievement, even when the outcome really was just a piece of toast. If I wanted to inspire collaborative behaviour, I had to try and find the formula for creating this moment.

In my eyes, it was the sense of event that was a major factor in the toaster’s success. The building of anticipation, and the necessity of working so closely together, ramps up mutual excitement for the moment when the toast emerges.

I looked at ways that the fragmentation of an object could make the staging of an event necessary for its social re-construction.

The internet based networks that had inspired me demonstrate that by learning and contributing separate pieces of knowledge individually, we make it possible to come together and piece these “knowledges” into something greater.

I tried to see if I could teach people to sing together by splitting a four-part harmony from a Beach Boys song into its constituent parts and giving these to people individually to learn, in the form of ringtones. A small network of knowledge interdependency is created through this distribution of unique skills.

After a couple of weeks of hearing their parts as ringtones, the moment came when they would gather together and sing with each other for the first time. That moment is recorded here.

[PLAY]

So a slightly flawed performance, but it was not one without positives. The structure and timing of the individual melodies were spot on, it was just the actual hitting of the notes that was perhaps a problem for our participants.

The fact that each person only knew one part meant that it was a sort of experiment that the participators are in on – they wanted to know how it will turn out just as much as I did. The spirit of experimentation amongst users is crucial to building the magical moment when it all comes together. It may not always come off, but even if that’s the case, at least you don’t fail alone.

Another characteristic of the online networks I mentioned before is their potential for collaborative creativity – websites like, for example github, a social coding site, are centres where people can share the building blocks with which digital worlds are built. It seemed I should try this sort of approach to the building of physical things.

One afternoon, I gave four people very brief instructions on making a quarter of a table. They could use whatever materials and processes they liked, as long as thing was within a certain set of dimensional parameters.

When all of the parts were completed, all of the individual makers had to come together to find a way of joining the four quarters together. Again, there was a cheer when the table was flipped and stood up straight and relatively sturdily.

What I had designed here was not really some furniture, but a different way of making. The role of the designer here became in setting the parameters through which others can build things together.

A nice by-product of this experiment was that you had this one thing, built by four people, but with no clear owner. After it was built, the makers decided that it should be used in the design cafe, a social space and venture. The object seems to necessarily become a shared one due to the shared labour that is so clearly evidenced in it.

Now as we could see in my infrastructure map before, there is social labour encapsulated in almost everything we use, but because it is so heavily abstracted by the scale of the network, we are less inclined to use things in a way that reflects this.

Its the distribution of a goal into individual tasks, and therefore reward, that allows this way of making to be a success for its makers. The designer becomes the person who sets and synergises these individual tasks into a process that can result in reward for all involved.

This kind of behaviour is not without precedent. Armish communities have been building things in localised collaborative events for centuries. The phenomenon of barn raising represented to me a folk/traditional version what I have been exploring – the dis-aggregation of a task into component pieces, then the staging of a collaborative event to bring them all together.

The communities that partake in such projects existed very much in a society either before or outside of the capitalist society that we now live in. And in the western world, the mentality that affords barn raising seems far more idealistic than realistic.

IKEA was interesting to me, as a popular consumer product infrastructure, but particularly as one that already has a manufacturing process built into it at a post-consumption stage. When you buy something from IKEA, you intervene in the network of production at an earlier stage than you do in most products. You take it, but you make some of it as well. I sought to repackage the IKEA experience into a more collaborative one.

I took the instructions and split them into four manuals, and packaged the components into four boxes. The idea was that it would take four people to come together and share each others instructions and parts to make one object. The instructions became like a script for a play, telling each “actor” what their role is in this scenario of building a simple cabinet.

As with the slightly more anarchic table made before, due to its collaborative manufacture, it was later shared by its makers in a social space, where it became the graphics team’s cabinet of useful stuff in the studio.

From these successes and failures, and others I haven’t had time to include, emerged a loose system for facilitating local co-operative making amongst a small network of people. And it works a bit like this.

So you start with a person or group of people who want or need a thing. The processes and components needed to make the thing are broken down into easily manageable, distributed tasks. The network, whether it be through the internet or a mobile phone, is the medium through which this distribution occurs, preparing for the event.

At the event, the people come together and combine their individual fruits of labour into a shared, socially made object, image or space.

So barn raisings are not easy things to find the communities, space and resources for in a western urban setting. But I wanted to see if by reducing the scale and using more recognisable product infrastructures, I could inspire a sort of modern day equivalent.

And so the IKEA table raising was born, an event where people would make separate parts of a structure that they would then put together and later eat a meal at to celebrate. The raw materials for the build were eight of these cheap “Lack” side tables.

Again, the enclosed instructions were the medium through which the tasks were allocated, each person required to make one of these slightly obscure looking objects.

Once each of these was made, the final part of instructions would be revealed, and all of the three legged leaning tables would converge into one large one. Here’s how it went.

I think the event was a great success. And I think the infrastructure of IKEA, with its standardised components, easily adaptable instructions, and wide distribution network, could allow for activities like this to become more and more common as a way for people to build the things they use, whether its a weird table like this or a simple cabinet.

Through fragmenting the distribution and the means of producing things amongst a wider group of people, we can, in fact, bring people together.

The human printer is an attempt to use this local distribution of labour to perform a usually mechanised process, in this case, printing.

Each person was given a stamp of a unique colour and size, which had a letter on it. This letter referred them to certain points on the printing surface which represented pixels.This focus on one type of pixel from a huge image means each person can focus on one easy task, becoming a vital cog in a sort of human machine.

When people make things together, I would argue that the things they make are only a small part of the outcome.

The process of making something together, no matter how big or small, creates shared ownership, usership, responsibility – and, potentially, from these objects, communities can be formed.

What’s more, the sense of personal achievement created through the process of being part of making something you could never easily make alone, is of great value in itself.

Throughout my project I’ve been trying to manufacture a certain moment.

Its the moment when the work of a group of people is brought together in an act that builds people’s relationships with each other, but also with the things they make and use.

Its the moment of shared anticipation;

Its the moment where a group’s collaborative project could sink or swim.

Its the moment……..

………that makes cheering for toast possible.

Thanks for listening. Etc.

 

 

At some point, I might link all the sections of this script to the blog posts that they refer to, so it makes a little more sense. But at the moment, that seems too great a task.

If you managed to get through all that, thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed it.  

Readings: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is a bloody brilliant book written by Philip K Dick in 1960-something. I have written about it before, but as certain themes in it are rather relevant to my project, I’m going to reflect on it a wee bit more.

Of particular interest here is a certain artefact in book called the “empathy box”. It is a contraption used by all the humans the story to connect with one another in a sort of quasi-religious interplanetary state of shared empathy. It is a device which allows the disconnected human race of the novel to plug themselves into a collective consciousness, and feel human.

Following on from my earlier thoughts about Twitter as a (admittedly crude) representation of a collective consciousness, I have been thinking of trying to build a sort of empathy box that uses Twitter as its motor, so to speak.

There have been projects before where people have been able to determine a global or national mood based on collating loads of tweets and analysing certain words. So I know this is possible. I then have to find a way to make someone experience that mood physically or mentally – ways of machines replicating pleasure, pain, hope, disappointment, despair… Its a tricky one.

I like the idea of being able to select whether you choose to empathise with the global twitter mood, or rather explore other countries and compare the sensations. The mood may be hopeful in the UK (unlikely, i know), but terrible in Iran. Being able to connect with other places and networks in this way would be really interesting.

So another thing for me to be working on.

Auf wiedersehen.

Readings: Shaping Things

I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages, and when I finally did, I finished it in a day. It was written by sci-fi author/design critic/general genius Bruce Sterling, and is basically an exploration into the future of objects, technology, and society. I mean, just read that blurb on the cover:

What a book. Consider my mind blown.

To describe the objects of the future, Sterling created the neologism “SPIME“. Spimes are objects that can be tracked and analysed throughout their lifespan, from virtual beginnings, through a physical object and back again. In a world of spimes, objects are “material instantiations of an immaterial system” – once their period of usefulness is over, they are disassembled and ready to become something else. They are objects linked into a vast network, contributing to and reacting to data as protagonists of an ongoing process.

There are too many exciting things about this for me to fit into one blog post. But one thing I think could be truly revolutionary would be this. Sterling says that “with enough informational power, the invisible hand becomes visible.” He is referring to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market” – the theory that a lassez-fair approach to markets will allow them to regulate and run themselves. With spimes, we can track an object from its manufacture to the end of its life. We know how its made, what materials its made of, where it has been, what it has been used for etc etc etc. A spime world lays bare the entire industrial process as we know it, and in doing so, exposes its corruption, wastefulness and exploitation.

Imagine the potential of this. Will we be so willing to buy that £2 Primark T Shirt when we can see more clearly the squalid conditions in which it was made? Futures of objects can be mapped too – we can see how long it will last, how it will be discarded, what environmental impact that has etc. It will make the whole lifespan of an artefact transparent, and make us question why we buy things (and how we use things) much more deeply.

The crucial thing, too, is that it is a future that actually has a future. The current industrial capitalist system is not sustainable. Its said that we would need three or four planets to continue sustaining life as we know it for long, and even then they would eventually perish. A spime begins as a virtual, potential object on a screen and is at some point fabricated to perform its task. It is designed in such a way that it is just as easy to de-fabricate, re-evaluate and make into something new.

It would be a culture where objects finally reflect the transient existence of their users.

I will probably be getting on a bit by the time a vision such as this even comes close to becoming true. But I’m bloody fascinated to see what happens between now and then.

Readings: I, Pencil

“I, Pencil” is an essay written in 1958 by the libertarian economist Leonard E. Read. The short narrative is told from the point of view of a regular everyday pencil, and starts with the bold assertion that “no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”

Read intended it, to a large extent, to be an illustration of why the division of labour within a capitalist system works so efficiently; a powerful polemic in defence of a global free market. But that’s not what I’m interested in (well I am a bit, but I think he’s wrong).

What I’m more interested in is the way he explains how shared knowledge is so intrinsic to the production of pretty much every object we own. It is a wonderful illustration of all the various people and processes that all contribute separately to the construction of a simple pencil, whether its the lumberjack who cut down the wood, the miner who dug for the graphite, or the person who conceived the notion of pencil in the first place. As Read describes it, “Millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally in response to human necessity and desire, in the absence of any human masterminding.”

That quote could easily be used to describe the way in which the internet works. Wikipedia, for example, although now burdened with a certain amount of (often necessary) rules and regulations, essentially started off as a free market encyclopaedia, where anyone could contribute and edit whatever knowledge they wished. There was no hierarchy, no rules, and it resulted in it growing at an insane speed into the massively useful source of information it is today (and much more reliable than most give it credit for). It is a fine example of how giving people freedom and responsibility can work.

Read’s glossing over of the vast inequality and exploitation that occurs within real life free markets makes his political/economic argument here somewhat removed from my own opinion – I mean if everyone’s contribution is, as he says, of relatively equal magnitude and importance, then why are they never all rewarded as such?

The thing is, thanks to the internet, all those little pieces of knowledge are now out there for all of us to access. I imagine I could quite easily find out on the internet how to make a pencil, from start to finish.

I briefly looked into actually doing this as an experiment, but I definitely can’t afford it. Id need to go and cut down actual trees and mine for graphite in Sri Lanka and make glue and stuff. It would make a good documentary, I can see BBC 4 commissioning it. No-one would watch it, but that’s what BBC 4 is for, right?

I digress. My point is, now that knowledge is so easy to reach and collate in this great big thing called the internet, it’s now about how we apply that knowledge. Information, unlike labour, is free, and we can use it however we like, to build things, share things, design things etc…

In a passage of I Pencil that I am more inclined to agree with, Read says “The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited.” I’m sure plenty have said this before me, but I think we now have the makings of a system that truly allows us to do this.

We’ve done the knowledge sharing bit (pretty much). Now, how do we make a network that allows us to do stuff with it all?