Thinking Digital late(ish)blog #4

Forgive me – technical & time issues have delayed the rest of these posts, so what was a liveish blog has now become a lateish blog. But plenty to make up for it in this post.

Plenty of the sessions of Thinking Digital weren’t really that digital, to be honest. But there was a distinct theme running through several of them – the irrational, emotional and sensual sides of ourselves, and the struggle to rationalise and co-opt them.

First up – Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine. While his politics are a little wonky (including a slightly bizarre rant about the world financial system), the majority of his talk was an interesting discussion of what makes people believe in the paranormal, in conspiracies, aliens, the Illuminati, Holocaust denial and all the rest. It’s sorely tempting to dismiss them as mere cranks, but Shermer did an admirably level-headed job of using what we know about the brain and evolutionary explanation.

What he calls “patternicity” (but I think is more usually called “apophenia“, one of my favourite words), the tendency to patterns in random noise is one tenet, which he explained is a side-effect of our ability to spot threats and predators. Then there’s “agenticity” (which sort-of ties in with anthropocentrism, the cognitive bias that humans (or some other species) must be the cause of observed phenomena, a side-effect of the development of empathy and a theory of mind. The two combine to make it easy for a belief that random events are actually orchestrated by powerful unseen entities. It’s a compelling explanation, although it still covers perhaps too easy and irrelevant a target – only a tiny minority of people holding irrational viewpoints are utter wingnuts. The more dangerous kind of irrational person, the mainstream kind like climate-change deniers, armchair general liberal interventionists, subprime derivatives traders and religious fundamentalists are influenced by more than cognitive kinks such as these – external factors such as money, power and greed – although cognitive biases of course play a part.

From trying to explain the irrational mental consequences of our evolution to exploiting them for fun and profit. Mostly fun, but also a lot of profit (we’re talking billions of dollars here). Yes, it’s the perfume trade. Chandler Burr, the New York Times’ perfume critic (yes, such a post does exist) gave us an entertaining and illuminating talk about the world of scent, a subject I know bog-all about (so forgive me if I get his words wrong here).

Our sense of smell (detecting molecules from the ambient environment) is perhaps our oldest, and yet at the same time while we’ve seen every colour we’ll ever see in our lives, we will never be able to do the same for smell. Artificial molecules will bring us new smells and experiences, and the course of the perfume industry’s history was shifted irreversibly when they were introduced. Chandler gave an illuminating talk into how it was both complex science – experimenting with different aromas and combining – and yet also art, likening movements in the industry to movements such as Impressionism and Abstract Art in the world of painting.

Interspersed in this talk was a series of smell tests of individual scents – we all got given individual strips to sniff – that are combined together into a full perfume. Chandler was good at explaining how each scent can be regarded as a note, and how you hear a note depends on the context it’s put in and the accompanying notes and tones – one chemical which is a component of artificial strawberry can equally be used in a different combination to form steak. The final sample we smelled was the final product the components were used in, and it was amazing to be able to pick apart the different scents thanks to the talk we had. The perfume in question was Silver Mark by Jack Black (no not that one) which was awesome – spicy and woody and probably not to everyone’s taste.

A different spin on tech for fun and profit was the final talk by Caleb Chung, toy inventor. While this sounds like the most awesome job in the world it seemed to be initially a tale of continued rejection and perseverance, of being forced to keep budgets low and ideas neutered. Chung toiled for years before making a big break with the Furby – which in fact he was almost apologetic for; it seemed he didn’t wager how much of a global phenomenon the simple, cute but above all their interactivity – interacting with their environment in a way that might seem crude now but was apparently enchanting then.

Having sold 50 billion (or so) Furbys, Caleb became a made man, an experience he likened to a death in the family, as it left him without purpose for the first time in his life. On the plus side it gave him free reign to do what he liked, and so after much work he came up with Pleo – an animatronic robot dinosaur with an advanced AI that reacts and learns from its surroundings. He brought one out to play, and I was astonished. I knew it was just a device of gears and rubber, but it really did accurately simulate a baby animal which could walk, cry for ‘food’ (its favourite was banknotes, ironic given the huge R&D costs), climb and react to human contact with (pseudo-)emotional behaviour.

Perhaps what made this even more like something out of Bladerunner was the fact that it’s not just humans that react empathetically to it. One Pleo owner shot this video (fast forward to 1:40) while taking it to an aquarium – one of the attendants there said they had never seen behaviour like that from the dolphins before. It’s a rare occasion that I’ve been both gobsmacked and smiling, but this video was one of them:

Sadly, Pleo’s manufacturers went bankrupt earlier this year, perhaps hamstrung by the device’s high cost. It’s a device perhaps a little too advanced for its time, too expensive for mass adoption like the Furby, which is a pity as they were finding out new and interesting uses for it beyond the toy world – such as being the ideal pet for those with dementia or mental difficulties who need companionship yet also unable to take care of a real animal. Perhaps when the cost of the parts and manufacturing come down a bit, we’ll see a second generation of Pleos being mass-adopted, and with it an interesting set of questions on the ethics of artificial pets (do they have rights like animals) and what it means to be empathetic.

These examples of using science and technology to understand – and where possible – provoke human irrationality and emotion – were perhaps the most eye-opening and enjoyable aspect of Thinking Digital for me. Partly because it’s a field I’ve dabbled in but can’t claim to even be a skilled amateur at, so tricky is it to grasp. Even comparative failures like Pleo involve a level of understanding of human psychology way above my own, and as for being able to critique and create perfume – forget it. But it’s good to know one’s deficiencies, it’s the best spur to learning we have.

Coming up – more geekery, the future of media, and something that provoked my fear of growing old. In the meantime there’s also a post about a subject I do know a fair bit on the work blog as well.

Thinking Digital live(ish)blog #3

One of the nice things about Thinking Digital is that some of it is unashamedly, gloriously geeky. Two talks in the middle of yesterday basked in that. The first was by Tara Shears of Liverpool University and CERN, who gets to play with the greatest scientific toy ever made, the Large Hadron Collider. Me jealous. Tara covered a very brief study of particle physics and the Standard Model, before showing off the sheer awesome power & capability of the LHC. She was amazingly lucid and engaging as a presenter – it reminded me of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures – and shows you don’t have to resort to the “OMG it’s going to end the world” sensationalism that was in the press coverage. If all our physics teachers were like her we wouldn’t be worrying about a shortage of decent scientists.

The sheer amount of data that CERN produces is in the hundreds of petabytes, so a special distributed computing network is needed to help process it. But that’s not just the preserve of CERN – Simone Brunozzi of Amazon was here to talk about cloud computing, or distributed computing services for all. The parallel he drew up was of electricity – factories used to have their own in-house power generation, but eventually moved to a national grid; cloud computing does the same for processor power. Simone talked a lot of good stuff – of creating applications that are robust, scalable and on demand. And scalable is difficult – it’s not just a case of throwing more processors at it, it takes a lot of clever management and architecture around it. In an age where we’re going for mobile and lightweight devices, and universal broadband is becoming a reality, then I can see the justification of cloud computing, but it’s still not going to be a household name – its future seems more b2b and quietly in the background. However, I worry as and when the first major cloud security compromise happens (which it will, security is not easy either and I thought Simone was a bit dismissive), and the privacy implications of who’s able to look at your data when it’s uploaded to a cloud application.

Curtis Wong of Microsoft Research showed off their geeky toy, WorldWide Telescope. What struck me was how great it was having free content (everything produced by NASA is public domain) and with something that allowed people to create their own content; the video of a six-year-old kid talking you through his journey through the stars made me think – damn, I would have loved this as a kid. So much better than just a poster of the solar system on your bedroom wall. It’s not the only such software out there – there’s Celestia for example, but the community & user-generated content aspects make WWT a more fun prospect. That said, I have my quibbles with WWT – the web version’s in Silverlight and no Mac desktop version – come on Microsoft, you must know that’s such a clich?… :) There’s a TED video if you want to see more. Speaking of which, more TED-like stuff in the next post…

Thinking Digital live(ish)blog #2

Thinking Digital’s been really good. One of the things that has amazed me today has been the variety of topics and speakers. Kicking off was Paul Miller, the man behind School of Everything (matching people who want to learn with people who want to teach) and Social Innovation Camp (bringing together innovators and hackers to solve social problems). Paul was really quite inspired and energetic, calling out “that cyberspace is dead” and meatspace is all it is now (cf. my own discussion on how the barrier between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ has come down) – technology should be more urgently directed to social problems. The kicker is, where is money going to come from – School of Everythng has a half-decent business model of taking commission, but SI Camp is still volunteer and sponsor-powered; as a recession kicks in will this be a problem (or maybe it won’t be – unemployed geeks volunteering to keep them sharp and improve their CVs, maybe?)

In a similar vein, there was also an interesting talk by Jim TerKeurst, director of the Institute of Digital Innovation, something I must confess has never really been on my horizon. Jim showcased some of the IDI’s fellows, who have worked on diverse range in the arts and technology – both art and artefacts. As a things geek, I was initially more impressed with the artefacts, such as chandeliers made from recycled plastic, the silver nanotechnology or the chairs that change according to your mood & clothing – annoyingly the IDI’s site doesn’t seem to showcase much, which is a pity. That said, later on one of the performers supported by the IDI, The Sancho Plan, gave us a great of their combination of live percussion controlling weird and wonderful computer animation, which I really liked – check out one of their videos:

The morning sessions weren’t just about targeting social problems or supporting the arts and creativity, but also about cold hard business. Well, with a cuddly side. Alex Hunter of Virgin group (though a committed Diet Coke drinker) talked about how he’s reshaping the Virgin website for a Web 2.0 & social media outlook. It was for the most part a well-presented Cluetrain Manifesto but still had some interesting lessons; Alex regards Digg’s blog as the best corporate blog – not just because it’s written by the guys at the top, but because it’s a multiplicity of voices and they respond to their fans. Geeks with fans, who would think it? But then, Digg know the audience they’re blogging for, and it’s harder for non-tech brands, so be careful of using them as an example.

Still, Alex was evangelistic about embracing social media in the business word, and made it clear it works for brands big and small (citing Qype and Zappos as examples). We also got some insights in the Virgin process – they have Virgin Eye a beautiful visualisation of mentions of their brands on the web (from over 5,000 sources) and other “labs”-style projects from Virgin at Explore Virgin. They have a new website, more of a community platform out which they’ve spent a year and a half listening, researching and creating, which is an impressive level of care and attention (although in a world where online fads come & go in days, risks being stale on the day it launches).

From another business point of view, Harry Drnec talked about his experiences as MD of Red Bull. His philosophy was from the emotional end of the spectrum rather than the practical – find your consumer, touch them, thrill them. Marketing wank? Possibly. But there’s no denying how attached people are to Red Bull as a brand, despite the ridiculous price it sells at (Red Bull made it a policy of not cutting price to increase sales, preferring the premium cachet). Now he’s trying to do the same for computers – make them rely on as little skill on the user’s part as possible. A noble goal, but I hope they don’t confuse simplicity and intuitiveness; by making things too simple to use we risk destroying their power and potential. Intuitiveness is what counts.

Right, enough business. Next post – hardcore geekery and genuine leftfield afternoon weirdness.

Thinking Digital live(ish)blog – #1

First Thinking Digital post, here goes… This is a post adapted & extended from one I wrote this morning over at We Are Social.

Thinking Digital kicked off with a ‘social media masterclass’ Stowe Boyd, the chair of the talk, kicked off with what he called the “strip-malling of the Web”. Controversially, he declared blogging as ‘dead’, claiming it as a transitionary stage between traditional web and ‘social media’ – which he says doesn’t exist (at least not yet). There are valid points – blogging’s format is derived from traditional news outlets’ own, and they have found it very easy to adapt to blogging as a result.

Boyd likens the takeover of the blogging to “strip malling” – likening the blogosphere to an urban landscape, where some big players in the mainstream media end up crowding out the smaller independent blogs. Those bloggers have since fled to streamed, more social and more egalitarian, media such as Twitter – compare with the phenomenon of urban flight.

It’s a nice metaphor but I don’t agree with it – not least because blog platform traffic is steadily on the up. Some blog traffic will be disproportionately allocated to the big players, but this is just part of the long tail effect. And Twitter is no more egalitarian than blogs – some user such as celebrities and news organisations have tens or hundreds of thousands of followers, and with the exception of a few web gurus, ordinary users have followers several orders of magnitude fewer.

An aside on the growth thing – the blog platform with the most remarkable growth is Tumblr – which has shot up five times this past year to 2.5M unique users per year. Tumblr is sort-of blogging but also lifestreaming – short posts, asides & links are encouraged – maybe that’s where the future lies as a hybrid (see also Friendfeed, or even Facebook, which now takes RSS feeds from your Flickr, delicious, blog, etc.)

Also there was Alex Hunter, head of web marketing at Virgin, who was talking about the social networking site he is setting up around the Virgin brand, and Paul Smith aka the Twitchhiker, who raised a lot of money for charity: water. In both cases, they’re contrasted with what happens in ‘real life’ – strangers sitting next to each other using Virgin planes & trains rarely talk to each other in person, and old-fashioned hitchhiking is nowhere near as common as it used to be over fears of kidnapping etc. In both cases there is a more atomised social capital-starved society, but interactions online with strangers have moved into this vacuum, giving context and building trust where there was none before.

As with many of these things, the best bits came up with the free discussion at the end. JP Rangaswami talked about his desire for ‘biodegradable’ data – the idea that personal data should rot like dead matter – old blog posts, photos, should have a limited shelf life (this is related to the concept of bit rot for code. Interestingly this chimes in with something Cory Doctorow said at the ORG privacy talk – that all data should either be less than two years old (so as to be accurate) or over 100 (so the person affected is long dead). Stow Boyd chipped in that Twitter already does this, to a degree – it’s very hard finding Tweets older than three months. Needless to say, with my current fetish for preserving everything I disagree.

There were also nice points on what happens when online media and the ‘real world’ collide. Thanks to sites like and events like Twestival, strangers are now using online to meet & make new friends in a social context (as opposed to Internet dating which is usually one-on-one, unless you’re kinky/lucky). But there’s a downside as well – backchannels at real-life events can quickly lead to douchebaggery (think the rebellion against Sarah Lacy’s admittedly soft interview with Mark Zuckerberg at last year’s SXSW).

Right that’s part one for now. There’s more livetweeting of the conference over at @conferencebore. And if you’re here then don’t be shy – come up and say hello…

Twitter & fixing replies (aka “Why am I writing this?”)

So I got quoted in the Guardian Tech blog on the Twitter replies debacle. And quite frankly, nobody cares about this, but once your name’s on a national newspaper website it’s best to lay the record down, so here goes.

When someone replies to you on Twitter in public, they use the @ sign like IRC. When looking at others’ replies in your stream, you had the choice of either seeing every single @ reply that people you followed made, or just those to other people you followed. 2% chose the former option, 98% chose the latter. Yesterday Twitter changed it to the latter only.

Cue backlash from the 2%. Cue backlash against the backlash (from me, amongst others). So Twitter freaked out, backed off and fessed up – discriminating between those you follow and those you don’t was proving to be not scalable. So the solution was to reverse the decision, and make @s to everyone visible – unless they were done through the “reply” button. So you now have to rely on how others use the system rather than have control over it – the worst possible solution.

Intermission: Nobody gives a shit about this. Why am I writing about this? WHY?

A half-arsed solution if ever there was one, and one that caused me annoyance. I flippantly Tweeted my annoyance – which I still stand by – and this got a mention in the Guardian’s Tech blog (thanks guys). But this is one of those things that needs more than 140 characters to elaborate on,so here goes…

Twitter’s approach was a classic fail in consulting users. The @ was a community-created asset and Twitter messed with it for no apparent good reason. Cure was worse than problem, and then they were forced into an icky compromise that suits no-one. The solution? They could fessed up it was causing problems, and announced a change well in advance. To help users prepare for it, they could extend the API to allow clients like Twhirl & Tweetdeck know the user IDs of who you follow and who you don’t. Then the clients can make the discrimination between followed and not followed, instead of the server, and the choice can be exercised at that end. Scalable, user-chosen, none of the problems encountered above.

Right, that’s it. Of all the things I’m meant to be writing about, I didn’t expect to write at length about this. Better stuff to come, promise.

If you’re thinking about commenting, don’t – I’ve wasted enough of the planet’s time as it is, please don’t add to it.

Thinking Digital

From today till Friday I’m going to be at the Thinking Digital Conference as a guest blogger of the organisers (be sure to check out their blog too). Thinking Digital’s speakers include some of the top people in the digital sphere such as Russell Davies, Ben Hammersley, Adrian Hon, JP Rangaswami and Paul Smith (aka the Twitchhiker) and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m blogging about it both here (the more tech & geeky side) and on the We Are Social blog (the social media side), so keep your eyes peeled.

I’m planning to Tweeting fairly extensively on a special dedicated @conferencebore account, with edited Match of the Day-style highlights of all the best bits on my usual @qwghlm account (to save overloading regular followers). And if you’re there too and want to meet up, feel free to @ or DM me or just come up to me and say hi!