Friday, October 10, 2008

A Picnic Sampler :: 24- 26 september, 2008

"8,535 professionals from the creative and technology industry from more than 100 countries took part in at least one of the sessions at the PICNIC’08 event. A third of the conference delegates were visiting from abroad. A further 3,000 or more, watched the PICNIC live video stream."

I was one of the lucky 25 researchers who were given a free pass to this event in exchange for writing an article. Below is a variation of what I wrote for the Reader, comments and criticism are welcome.

My experience of Picnic was the result of dipping in and out of the parallel sessions, a kind of mobility and open access that the picnic format encouraged. My zapping gave me an overall impression of a great diversity of perspectives.

Charles Leadbeater in his presentation: “We think: The Power of Mass Creativity,” on the first day of the PICNIC conference, used the metaphor of pebbles on a beach for individuals in the 21st century who have use of the internet and web technology, contrasting this against the bygone age of boulders broadcasting. I loved his optimism and agree that user-generated systems are a way to develop communities, and from them innovations that could be globally empowering (see the 10 minute summary of his book:
We Think on YouTube).

However more access doesn't necessarily lead to better or more diverse communication. As he stated himself, without collaboration or something more, pebbles lie randomly and unconnected on the beach. One of the issues of the web 2.0 world is that it is for those with time and access, for the privileged. However his premise: openness, open source, everyone contributing and sharing en masse not only makes sense, it is also a means to a diversity beyond. Wikipedia is an example: it could not have worked, not been such a wonderful resource, if it hadn't been open to all. However wikipedia also demonstrates the inbalance of access. English language contributions far outweigh other language contributions, yet Wikipedia is more diverse than any other reference tool: as of 9-10-2008 there are 255 language versions. However because it is user-generated, we are aware that the 'truths' added by individuals like ourselves contain some level of subjectivity. So knowledge can be treated differently and in multiple ways, in contrast to having a canon of knowledge accessed via library books. Leadbeater's emphasis was that we need systems that allow people to contribute and share, and in which contributors gain some sense of purpose, some shared payoff which makes the conflicts that diversity entails worthwhile. This differs from a hierachical system in that the content (or meanings) are created by the innovations of pebbles, of various individuals, and is open to use. My only criticism of Leadbeater is his seemingly uncritical acceptance of all that is available on the web, where the perspectives of women and non-westerners are less visible than they are in other worlds. However his stress on sharing and openness is a way towards more diversity.

Stefan Agamanolis's presentation hit one of my concerns of Leadbeater's presentation on the head. While showing an image of various real wearable gadgets that all looked like technological sportswear, and he asked why were these designed like this? Why the need for speed and the instant?

The next images of wearables: a solar fan and a parasol, immediately made the point. They were aesthetic objects with a purpose. The solar panels in both items provided evening ambient lighting. These intricately embroidered elegant lace-like objects were not only ecologically-sound, and cultural expressions of a quality not often seen in new media, they were also examples of gadgets that seemed to celebrate the passing of time.
Earlier Agamanolis compared things like mobile phones to Fast Food, where the taste (of the experience) and nutrition is subordinate to the access. Physicality is always part of an experience, and the projects he demonstrated gave insights into how the physical experience can be savoured as part of the communication or purpose of a gadget. One example was Jogging over Distance, in which your heart-beat in relation to your co-runner affects the spatialised voice, so runners speed up or slow down in order to "stay" with their partner. Agamanolis seems to be celebrating distance in a world that seems to have traded hierarchical centres (Paris, New York) for virtual ones.

Two of the mediamatic hacker projects touch on the idea of being part of “virtual centres”with humour. iKWiN (developed by Simon Claessen, Axel Roest and Mathias Forbach) consists of two elevators in which you stand after registering your “ik” RFID tag (tags which each person at the conference were instructed to wear). The 'game' is to see which person's profile scores highest on google. Of course, a winning score doesn't relate to any content or the quality of impact.

Likewise with between two points, to register your RFID tag.
IkRun: a race of about 200 metres
Designed for speed, this system threw your registration out of the system if you were slower than about 20 minutes. Artists, Harold Schellings and Peter Mertens (pictured on the right taking 11 minutes to complete the run) had also noticed this. Their project, (The Right to be Slow) during picnic was to celebrate the range of time.

Admittedly both of these projects were made in a workshop a week before Picnic started, but it would not have been difficult for IkRun to be inclusive for slower participants if that had been the purpose.

The author of How Computer Games Help Children Learn, David Williamson Shaffer, gave a presentation on “Epistemic Games”. This reiterated Leadbeater's emphasis that creatively is developed by practice and participation. Josephine Dorado's presentation of Kids Connect showed teenagers communicating between New York and Amsterdam in the virtual (Second Life), but Shaffer's games were rooted in real-life problem-solving projects.

>> Josephine Dorado presents Kids Connect at the Young Picnic Special

And as part of the session, on “Anytime Any Place Learning”, a donkey-borne webcam made an appearance. The donkey
was part of the school project, Donkeypedia. Children were asked to list locations in their neighbourhood in various ways, and they added them to the website. The donkey visited these locations indicated by the children as part of a visit to the school, and if possible, fulfilled a child's wish. In one case, lighting was provided for a “scary” place. The project, launched in August 2008, will proceed from village to city, throughout Europe. The locations and assignments, recorded and stored by the gadgets the donkey carries, are uploaded to the website (at the moment only in Dutch), enabling children to follow events.

There was also a day of presentations by various European medialabs which I dipped in and out of, randomly encountering Simon Robertshaw's show-and-tell of Sandbox in Preston in the north of the U.K., Irina Blomquist who mentioned that collaboration wasn't just consensus but about taking responsibility, and Frank Kresin who presented two projects located in Amsterdam. For one of these, people wore headphones and followed a route and instruction for experiencing your religious heritage. Madretsma (Amsterdam backwards) was a
visualisation of Amsterdam's slavery history.                 Simon Robertshaw presents Sandbox

Next morning I joined The Next Women ( breakfast, which included an offer + ask session to match people who could help one another. It felt rather odd participating in such an entrepreneurial way, but it broke the ice for a group of 50 and might led to some work.
25 matches were made within fifteen minutes!

During The Next Women Brainstorm Camp

Normally I would not attend a business-centred session, but here I felt quite at ease, the three pitches were called presentations and while the criticism given was direct, it created a sense of trust and respect. Three women were competing for one opportunity, but the atmosphere was dominated by constructive criticism rather than competition. An atmosphere dominated by female voices is an opportunity for other ways of doing business.
Simone Brummelhuis, organiser of the event mentioned that women don't like the word ‘pitching,’ so they called the event a “Brainstorm Camp”. This small example of an alternative approach provided an opportunity for inclusion and as a result, more diverse feedback for the event. In contrast, I walked out of the “Games go Social” session, even though the gaming world is more my environment than a business world, because the atmosphere was so oriented to under-35 male interests. Admittedly, if the sessions had been more open in orientation, I would not have noticed the gender nor the fact that I was one of the few females (briefly) in the audience. One of the points that resonated from "The Next Women" session was the emphasis on collaboration and involving the knowledge of your audience, and in their case, involving female and male perspectives.

Adam Greenfield's session was a reminder of how mutable 'space' is. His image of four people seated next to each other, each engrossed by the phone in their hand, is funny but a poignant reminder of how technology can and does distract us from our physical surroundings.
Even more intrusive, he argued, is the information gleaned via the web, (such as data representations of the amount of crime in an

Adam Greenfield presents at the conference.
The caption reads: Where are you when you are on the phone?

area or Twitter notifications of what all your friends are doing) which influences our actions, especially if the interface seems ubiquitous such as via billboards. Even though his talk centred more on the benefits of surveillance systems, such as avoiding queues, rather than on how technologies change the choreography of our daily movements, such as allowing us to avoid interacting with an entry attendant by just swiping a handbag bearing a chip, his presentation did warn of the subjectivity of data. A touching example is the flickr geotagging function (which depending on your perspective reveals how un-unique you are as a photographer or is a visualisation of how this monument has been seen by others). A scary example was of a driver being killed by an automatically actuated pole that suddenly blocked an entrance. Greenfield's slogan “Everyware” is the title of his book.

During the “Open Museum” session, Fiona Romeo of the London Maritime Museum spoke of using museum objects as game objects in a virtual environment for visitors to build experience in various time frames and mappings. She noted that copyright was a major barrier to releasing data for open creative use. Jelmer Boomsma gave some examples of using existing social networks such as Hyves to enable users to customize what they wanted to see or participate in during museumnacht, and to forward this to their friends.

Fiona Romeo, discussing how the “The race to the South Pole” project of the London Maritime Museum, made use of web technology.

Seb Chan's ( presentation addressed more long-term issues for museums such as how to build forms of reputation and trust online, so researchers and those with knowledge would be willing to share. He also mentioned the need for museums to connect more with other institutes online, to give more relevance (and context) to their collections, adding that museum communities are now not just those inside the physical building.

Loic Le Meur's presentation in the conference of was punchy and inspiring and showed potential for an alternative video-sharing portal. After various talks about making change in the way we do things, that evening's Green Challenge Awards ( was a demonstration of putting some of this into practice. Greensulate ( organic insulation won the 500,000 euro prize to go towards marketing a greenhouse-gas reducing product.

Another event that seemed to be about alternatives and putting these into practice was the day-long “Surprising Africa” sessions. It was a pity that I only found time for 2 sessions. Journalist Olivier Nyirubugara ( demonstrated his mobile reporting project, Voices Of Africa, where reporters use mobile phones (General Packet Radio System (GPRS)) to produce video footage, written reports and photographs and upload them direct. It was an impressive demonstration of no-fuss innovation.
Two things that I took from Ethan Zuckerman's presentation was how access to media helps protect citizens against injustice, such as a phone call which was then immediately broadcast via the radio, resulting in the police leaving a home, and the high quality of the reporting made with mobile phones. On visiting initiated by Ethan Zuckerman and others, I was impressed by the diversity of news stories from all over the world.
At least that is how it seemed: on reading the guidelines, I read that news from West Europe and North America was not covered at present :) “Global Voices seeks to aggregate, curate, and amplify the global conversation online - shining light on places and people other media often ignore.”

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