A blog started in 2010 by designer Chris Thomas to document the process of his final year project in BA Design at Goldsmiths.
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Blasts from the Past
Category Archives: Research
[vimeo http://vimeo.com/26374234 w=500&h=400]
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.
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.
In a post I did what seems like ages ago, I talked about how small functions on products we use everyday could be used to help us learn. I sought to prove this through teaching four people how to sing in harmony, by splitting up part of a beach boys song into its separate lines, then giving these as ringtones for each person to use. A more detailed explanation of the thinking and method behind this can be found here.
I finally got round to distributing these ringtones, and about a week later (short timescale forced by looming prototypes presentation) got the four “beach boys” back together to sing the melodies they had been hearing daily for the last week. Here’s how it went. Don’t expect miracles is all I’m going to say.
Sorry for doing that to you. Listening to that, it would be difficult to call the experiment a great success. Each of the guys could sing their part reasonably well when alone (reeeeasonably well), but when brought together, its very difficult not to get distracted by the others singing around you. Its a problem I perhaps anticipated, but am yet to work out a way to get over it. I do think, however, that there’s something in this way of teaching group-based skills subtly through networked personal objects.
Massive thank you to Henry, Ben, Hal and Danny for agreeing to make slight fools of themselves on camera for the sake of my project. Much love and respect.
The other day, my good friend Ben had the fortune of finding two very valuable Casio watches at Greenwich market for quite a low price. One of the watches, from around the early/mid eighties, had a function where it would play a well-known tune, as you can see demonstrated here.
One of the tunes it plays in the video is Simon and Garfunkel’s classic “Sound of Silence” – a bloody good song, but as I listened to it being played on the watch, the absence of Mr. Simon singing the harmony with Mr. Garfunkel left the tune feeling a bit bare. It is of course, only a watch, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could have a Simon watch and a Garfunkel watch which could play together in perfect harmony?
I thought about alarms, ringtones, even adverts – and how they become so strongly embedded in our consciousnesses, as we hear them everyday, sometimes multiple times. We soon come to learn such jingles without even realising it. I wondered if I could use such tools to teach people how to perform some kind of action together without having to practice – and as the vocal harmonies had inspired the idea in the first place, I thought I would stick with that.
Now Simon and Garfunkel are great, but there’s only two of them – I want to do it with more people. So I went for a song off one of my favourite ever records – “You Still Believe In Me” from the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Its got a really beautiful harmonised bit at the end that I thought would be perfect. If you don’t know the song, it can be found here, but really, just buy the record. Its incredible.
So I have spent a while over the last few days trying to harness my very limited knowledge of reading music to separate the various harmonies out into individual vocal lines on garageband. I’m pretty sure what I’ve ended up with is not entirely accurate, but for the purposes of this experiment, it will have to do. I’m certainly no Brian Wilson. Below you can hear the four layers come in one by one.
My plan is simply to give the four parts to four different people and get them to use each one as their ringtone for a month. After that time has passed, I will see if they can sing together without ever having done so before. I really hope it works.
After finding out about the diarist Robert Shields, who recorded a diary entry every five minutes of his life for over 25 years, I decided I would try something similar. This time however, instead of only allowing people to read it 50 years after my death, I would publish everything as it was happening. This is because, instead of a typewriter, I used Twitter.
There are many modern-day Robert Shields’ on Twitter, publishing every tiny detail of their lives to anyone who will listen. We tend to find these people annoying.
“I don’t care if you have just eaten some toast,” we like to say.
Which makes me wonder why the response to mine was relatively positive, even with a bit of sarcasm taken account for. Here are a few examples of things people tweeted at me during the day:
henryflitton @christhomas_90 7 minutes since your last tweet! how was your shower? the suspence is killing me
chrissy_styles @christhomas_90 Reading your tweets today is becoming an annoyingly interesting form of procrastination!
matty5190 @christhomas_90 You should tweet like this more often, in all sincerity. Pretty much hanging on your every word.
utku #FF @christhomas_90 As an experiment http://bit.ly/g2FB5d he’s tweeting everything for a day. ‘Normal’ can be fascinating. Great blog too.
Thank you all. But why?
It makes me wonder how people would react if I did this for an extended period of time. See how long the honeymoon period lasts. And I would do this, if it weren’t so tiring. At the beginning of the day, it was actually strangely productive – I had a closer eye on time which meant I got more done. But as it went on, having to update every five minutes became a chore. I need to find a way of making something that will do it all for me.
The full manuscript can be seen below, if you want to bore yourself for five minutes. Click on it to see it bigger. Don’t forget to tweet about it.
When chatting to my project mentor (the genius Jimmy Loizeau) the other day , we discussed all the thoughts I had been having about the systems and networks that culminate in everyday objects. He articulated it in a way I had never before – “the infrastructure of one.” Now this probably doesn’t sound like a large leap from what I had been doing before but it somehow solidified my idea of what I was interested in.
I decided to map out all of the systems of manufacture, reproduction, consumption etc. that culminated in me. Click to see at full size.
The resulting map is by no means perfect (and as far as Jimmy is concerned, not finished) but its interesting to look at the different materials that go into the manufature of my clothes, phone etc. As I said, it is by no means complete – I left out transport for example due to the insanely complex new branches that it would require to describe all the processes feeding cars, trains and planes…
As an ongoing project I’m going to keep working on it at a much larger scale (this one’s A2, so A0 would probably be better) and try to map everything.
I had a wee chat with Sean Hall (philosopher/designer/semiotician/madman) the other day about my work, and in particular about the stuff I’ve been doing like Google day, outsourcing decisions to the internet etc. It was a conversation high on tangents and low on direction, but gave me a few interesting new sources.
One of which, you may be pleased to know, I am going to talk about here.
He told me about this guy called Robert Shields, a famous diarist who wrote a new diary entry every five minutes of his life. Between the years of 1972 and 1997, he wrote over 35 million words of the most minute and mundane details of his day to day activites. He would only sleep for two hours at a time so that he could write about his dreams.
Insane, yes, but I cant help but admire his mighty effort.
I like the ridiculous level of detail with which he writes about the things most of us do without thinking. From the few excerpts I’ve read, he’s a quite a funny writer too. Here’s an excerpt from July 23rd, 1993:
Apparently he had three dozen expressions for the act of urination. The eskimos of urban legend with their myriad names for snow don’t even come close to that.
I feel like this somehow relates to what I’ve been doing, but now quite sure how. I guess the things that some people write on Twitter have much of the same banality, if not the anality of Shield’s diary entries.
Yes, anality is a new word. Feel free to use it.
So I think I’ll just try doing a Robert Shields-esque exercise tomorrow, but instead of typewrite everything, put it all on twitter. I’ll probably lose all of my followers, but something might come out of it.