Things that I said to people at Culture Hack North.

I was invited to give a short provocation/inspiration talk at Culture Hack North. CHN is part of the wider Culture Hack programme bringing developers, arts organisations and creatives together to think about how to use technology differently, and develop prototypes for New Things. It seemed to be a very successful weekend and you can see some of the hacks that were made.

There were plenty of good people talking, including the always excellent Matt Edgar (his notes), Frankie Roberto (talking about embracing ambiguous data through the Open Plaques project) and the new-to-me but very interesting Natasha Carolan (her write-up).

I’m not a seasoned speaker, so thanks to Rachel for twisting my arm and making me go to Leeds. The images I used to represent my points and the words I tried to say are below.

This is the title of the talk,  it’s probably misleading to what I’m about to say. Look at the wonderful illustration of a forest troll by Theodor Kittelsen.
Here, I introduce myself, how I work at Mudlark where we make interactive experiences — games, web apps, and try to tell stories in interesting ways.
My background is in theatre and metacriticism: the practice of reviewing reviews of reviews of events of pretend performances. This means I spend a lot of my time imagining how things are.
I see the value of stories as ways to explore the world and everything it contains. It’s a bit broad, but I don’t have much time to be specific here. I have a frustration with the ambition in the way stories are told currently, given the huge amount of different tools available, they’re not being used in a way that is engaging, meaningful or particularly natural.
That’s the provocation: to expose the stories around us without forcing unnatural means upon audiences/people.
This is an example of a story well-told. I’m a sucker for stationery at the best of times. When it comes with a story I am even happier. This is the recent Fire Spotter edition of the Field Notes brand of notepads. It’s a 48-page notepad with dotted graph paper. It’s pocket-sized and made for writing in, doodling, that kind of thing.
This is a better notepad because of its story: a tribute to the firespotters who sit 93-feet up a tower watching out over the forests of Wisconsin for fires. If they see one, it’s called in, they make a note of it and the forests remain.
The notepad is better because it contains context, history, value and meaning. When I write in it, I am more mindful of its origins. It also affords me some time to pretend. When I make a banal note in this notepad, I can pretend it’s the forest-saving banal note of a Fire Spotter.
This is an example of stories told badly. Museums and galleries are the largest, visitable public resources for stories available (I exclude libraries and the internet, of course).  All the items in the collections, on display, have masses of stories in and behind them, but they’re told through rubbish signs.
A sign that says: title, year, artist, materials.
The sign doesn’t tell anyone the importance of the piece, why it’s there, why it’s worth experiencing and what you can get from it. That’s not enough.
So we end up with QR codes. QR codes are useful for certain things, as we scrabble for the ‘hyperlink of the real world’, but they’re nothing more than a redirection to a sign on a different medium. A sign on a screen, instead of a sign on a wall or plinth.
They simply serve to exacerbate the partial attention problem of trying tell stories or convey information through separate forms. They’re a compromise of attention, a compromise of observation.
I made a slide of lazy sloganeering, because that’s quite good for cutting to the core of a point.
This section is about how Augmented Reality is very vogueish, but still very poorly thought out. There is a desire on many people’s behalf, including cultural institutions, to throw notes, data, infographics, additional images and location information on top of the things we’re supposed to be experiencing.
What this does is make it noisy. It makes it harder to experience the thing you’re supposed to be experiencing. It detracts from the experience as it redirects your attention. AR is not ‘better’, it’s just more.
This is what AR-enabled experiences are like. It’s smart, and it’s potentially valuable, but it’s obscuring the work. You know there are people behind the records, but you can’t see them. The thing in front of the people has come to be more important.
AR is the act of putting something in between you and the thing you’re supposed to be experiencing.
Which is:
(with apologies to Ian Stevenson)
Kevin Slavin said this earlier in the year, and it really sticks. It’s not just the eyes that need to be preserved, it is all the senses. It is important to not put things in between us and the experience. If we are to improve the experience, or add to it, it must be done in a way that is sympathetic to the thing that is to be experienced. Don’t let technology distort what you see.
The challenge is to find ways of improving the experience without disrupting it.
Getting back to what I said I was going to say, is this. This is from the Hello Little Fella Flickr group started by Matt Jones of Berg many moons ago. It’s about a cognitive function that ensures our brains recognise faces first, above all else. Some people are aware that they do it, others are not. As soon as you are  aware of it, you start seeing – and looking for – faces in everything around you.
This tidbit of knowledge, leading to a Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, has affected how people see the world in profound ways. It changes people’s behaviour, it affects the way they look at things, simply by using the tool of story in a simple, natural way. It is more important to change how people see things, not changing how things are seen by putting something in the way.

Rather than lay stories and experiences on top of people’s lives, we’re looking at ways to seamlessly slot into them. There are a couple of ways in which we’re trying to tell stories in ways which are already natural to people include Chromaroma and Derby 2061.

Chromaroma is ostensibly a ‘slow game’ played on the London Underground, but we like to imagine it’s a means of slow, pervasive publishing. It is something we can leak stories out into, through missions or collections, or straight up story publishing to users. It doesn’t disrupt a player’s life, it slots into it. It adds to it without demanding much of the user. You can pick up bits of stories about places you go every day, without changing what you do.

Derby 2061 is much more of a tangible story. Again, the aim is to do an ambient form of publishing; to dot 50 parts of the story at fictional venues around Derby City Centre.

The story is accessible on foursquare, as venues and tips. If you check into a nearby venue, you may be prompted with a ‘tip’ from Derby 2061, but they are parts of the story. The story slots into existing behaviours of foursquare. It’s not demanding, it’s just… there. You can engage or not.

The point of it is to provide a future-based story that would encourage general foursquare users to consider their environment, and what it will look like or be in 50 years time. It’s a gentle goad wrapped in a story.

It’s a way of looking again at the world around you, and considering it anew.

This is the end. That’s the Black Death. Thank you.


4 thoughts on “Things that I said to people at Culture Hack North.

  1. I was there. He did say all these things. Honest.

    It was good – possibly the best presentation of the day – especially (for me) the reminder to only do what adds not what obscures – more is not the same as better.

    Thanks for the care and the attention. And for this. I can share you with others now.

    Off to find out more about Chromaroma now


    • These things are important to remember every now and again, as it’s easy to lose sight of what is the correct thing.

      Thanks for the comment, you can come again.

  2. On Tour | the fabric of things

  3. Things that I said to people at Culture Hack North. | Mount Analogue | this and that

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