Tyler Brûlé is at it again. Four years after leaving Wallpaper, the high-profile global magazine he founded and edited, Brûlé is working on a new publishing venture codenamed Project Europa. "We will try to bond and glue all the people that roam the world", he said opening the second day of the Aula2006 conference in Helsinki. And he will try to do so in a crossmedia fashion, "using all the things wireless and the Internet can do, and marrying them with a great piece of print". "There is place for a good news/current affairs title that comes from this side of the Atlantic", he said. "Publishers are terrified, they're downgrading their print products so they can put money into online and mobile ventures. But if you look at heavily digital countries like Japan or South Korea, print is getting better in those markets, betting on a smart interplay with digital". Target date for the launch: this coming fall, probably November. Headquarters in London.
The conference today moved to a smaller setting - about 70 participants, invitation-only, on a tiny island just off the Helsinki harbor. Which allowed for shorter speeches and lots of discussions on a wide variety of subjects. Tyler did the opening, and here are my running notes for the day.
Donatella Della Ratta, an Italian specialist of Arab media, tells how, coming out of an age of absolute censorship and lack of political debate, the Arab world is today starting to produce its own images, its own representations, its own embryonic forms of participation - its own media. The Aljazeera TV channel of course comes to mind. "Many Westerners consider Aljazeera a mouthpiece of terrorists, but seen from the other perspective they are a tool for freedom of expression". Aljazeera is linking to bloggers from their websites, doing opinion polls online, putting video-recording boxes in various locations in the Gulf countries (universities, shopping malls) that work like photo-booths: people can sit and push a button and record a short video message that may be broadcast on the TV channel. "In the Arab context, that's revolutionary", Donatella says, inviting not to discount the magnitude of the media shift happening in the region.
Dan Gillmor, author of "We, the Media" and director of the Center for Citizen Media, underscores how the collision of new technologies and media is having a huge impact on journalism; "the former audience is getting more involved, and that's a good thing. But that comes with responsibilities". "Journalists are transitioning from oracles to guides", he adds, echoing what I wrote a few days ago.
Abbas Raza, one of the founders of the 3quarksdaily blog, advocates an elitist approach to intellectual life - and to blogging.
Dan Hill (blog), the head of interactive technology and design at BBC radio, tells how he charted the ripples around an episode of the cult TV series "Lost": the moment it was broadcast in the US, the appearance of a bootleg copy on file-sharing system BitTorrent a few hours later, the legal download on iTunes, up to the UK broadcast months later, and the whole interplay with official sites, blogs, fan sites
, etc. This is a TV show that is designed and filmed like a videogame, accompanied by "real fake" websites and other media products (a fake organization called Hanso Foundation that appears briefly on the show has its own website, as does Oceanic Air, whose flight 815 crashed leaving the show's characters stranded on an island; a manuscript that one of the character reads for a few seconds during an episode, written by "Gary Troup", becomes a real book sold on Amazon; and so on). Much of it is intentional - sites built as teasers, multiple layers of a same narrative, etc - but lots is the product of fans' activism and passion.
(UPDATE 31 August 06 - Dan has posted on his blog a full transcript of his speech, including the slides).
Jim Griffin quotes Marshall McLuhan: "We never understand the media of our time. It's like the air we breath, we can't get the context for it. We can't perceive the field from within the field. We will only know our media through the rearview mirror", understand them through history. Griffin raises a red flag on the dangers of media fragmentation, of narrow-targeting, of the "channel me", because "that's gonna end up destroying our communities". He makes the point that, because everyone increasingly has his/her own media and sources, "we find ourselves disagreeing not only on views, but on facts". There is some truth in this - but it is mostly a mirror of the US media landscape, and applies much less to Europe. And: didn't we use to complain about uniformity?
Blogger Danah Boyd - well, I've actually no idea what she's talking about. Sorry.
Saul Griffith, who runs SquidLabs in California, wonders what open-source means for hardware - can the approach be used to make real physical objects? (Clay Shirky yesterday spoke about what open-source means for businesses). Saul mentions a series of projects: Zeroprestige (an open-source approach to the design of kites and kitepowered vehicles - 600 big kites were built from these plans); Instructables (an open tool where people share explanations on how to make things step by step); Sketchup (just bought by Google); the Open Prosthetics project (which offers free exchange of hardware designs for prosthetics). Ultimate challenge: "Can you build something as complex as a car through an open-source approach?". Some (picture) are trying.
Norwegian designer Timo Arnall talks about the interfaces between mobile phones and physical world and particularly about the Touch Project for exploring the social and personal uses of RFID tags and Near-Field Communication (NFC) enabled phones.
Adam Greenfield has written a book called "Everyware" about the ethics of ubiquitous computing. The basic thinking behind UC is that "we're entering the post-PC era, and that computing power will no longer be localized in a specific machine or device, but will be distributed around us, invisible but everywhere", embedded in tools and walls and even on us. That's already happening to a certain extent, as computing-capable devices such as scanners, sensors, "smart" appliances and buildings, chips in credit cards, etc (including cell phones and the likes) reinforce by the day their presence in our environment. "That raises some ethical questions", Adam says. Embedded computing is showing up in our body (the BodyMedia SenseWear patch, a physiological monitor), in our rooms (Sensacell, commercial sensing surfaces such as tiles with embedded processors, capable of specifying presence and position) and in our streets (self-identifying RFID-equipped lamppost in Tokyo that "inform" your cell phone of its - your - position). "Tech tends to colonize everyday life, and when these things continuously and independently pick up traces of our body and of what we do, we are no longer able to control how we appear" and the information about us. In response to this, Adam proposes five principles for the ethical development of ubiquitous computing:
- default to harmlessness
- be self-disclosing (we should know that data are being collected)
- be conservative of face (must not embarrass or shame someone unnecessarily)
- be conservative of time (should not introduce undue complications into ordinary operations and life)
- be deniable (shoud have the right to opt out, always and at any point)
I have the thought, while listening to Adam, that people equipped with cameraphones and other recording devices and with blogs are, technically, also "everyware", for they can pick up traces of our whereabouts, autonomously, and store and distribute them. Writer Cory Doctorow must have had similar thoughts, for he stands up and suggests that "it should be OK to falsify the information about where we are and what we are doing". It's a radical countermeasure. During a later discussion, Dan Gillmor suggests that perhaps the next necessary conference would indeed be one about countermeasures to the tech invasion.
Arwen O'Reilly, an editor at Make, talks about the "Do-it-yourself renaissance" - which has propelled her magazine (aimed at those that love to tinker with, assemble, and invent things) to a very fast success.
Aditiya Dev Sood, of the Center for Knowledge Societies in India, discusses "Used in India", a documentation project about the ways in which Indians have used media and technology in the 20th century.
Ulla-Maaria Mutanen describes her ThingLink project, which aims at creating a system of free identifiers for products that allow to obtain contextual and related information.
Joshua Ramo, the managing director of Kissinger Associates (Henri Kissinger's firm) talks about velocity and enlightenment: "How do we become enlightened in an age when we move so fast? How do we move from knowledge to understanding?". He developed the concept of "personal velocity" (PV) which he measured on himself: in 2004 he flew 300'000 miles around the world and drove 50'000 miles. Dividing the sum by the number of hours in the year, that gives a PV of 39.95 miles/hour. "Velocity does not guarantee understanding, but in general I believe that in today's world, whose dominant feature is constant and accelerating change, the faster you move (exposing yourself to much) the smarter you become". However, in a high-velocity life "it is hard to hold onto emotional attachments"; hence "the faster you go, the more you have to be internally stabilizing". "To be enlightened is not to know for certain: it is to be prepared to deal with the uncertain".
Nokia designer Matt Jones (blog) and "Mind Hacks" co-author Matt Webb discuss cities and digits, "the two megatrends in the world" (Jones) and the development of supersenses. Marko Anderson of Nokia Ventures introduces WidSets, a new service that allows for mini-applications called widgets to be freely installed on UMTS cell phones and mobile devices so that selected information can be "pushed" to them through RSS feeds (it's basically Netvibes in the pocket - but while many on the Web are doing it, it's a very new approach for the usually control-obsessed wireless industry).
Justin Hall, a pioneer blogger (Justin's Links from the Underground, in the mid-1990s), suggests that we could data-mine ourselves (using for example the Activetimer application) to find out what we are doing - to better understand how long we spend working on each task and how well and efficiently we use our time.
Sampo Karjalainen discusses mobile virtual worlds explaining how Sulake Labs, a company he co-founded, is bringing their Habbo Hotel teenager-focused virtual world (millions of users in 17 countries) to cell phones. Henrik Torstensson tells instead the story of Stardoll, a site where young girls (mostly) can "dress" virtual paperdolls with celebrity faces. It was started as a hobby by a Finnish woman and has now about one million members. Henrik himself is not exactly sure "why they find that fun". Me neither, but we are both boys.
Alice Taylor (Wonderlandblog) works at the BBC and completes the discussion about games by examining how the BBC is exploring ways to extend the reach of its entertainment by entering synthetic worlds. Recently, the BBC has organized a music festival in Scotland, and has built a virtual version of it in a popular online game called Second Life. "Thousands of people showed up and "took part" in the festival that way, from all over the world". Television is also about creating environments, and games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft (Joi Ito spoke about it yesterday) "are established dramatic environments where people can actually step in, rather than just be at the receiving end of a broadcast". (The BBC also knows that in households where kids play online games, television viewing goes down dramatically). "What's blowing my mind right now? Imagine Google Earth meets massive multi-players online games! A MMoogle!" (It occurs to me that she may not be that far off, considering the kind of investments Google is doing).
The International Herald Tribune's tech reporter Thomas Crampton is tasked with the difficult summary of the day, and does it well and humorously, before leaving the stage to the closing keynote speaker, sci-fi writer and activist Cory Doctorow, who talks about the role and importance of self-determination and how many new technologies are limiting it (from copy-restriction software to "trusted computing" to locked cell phones). And - in a small exercise of "future history" - tells about the demise of the mobile phone carriers.
During one of the many evening discussions, I discover that the Finnish word for "computer" is "tietokone". "Computer" is such a polluted concept in pretty much every language I know ("ordinatore" and "computer" in Italian, "ordinateur" in French, "Computer" or "Rechner" in German, "computadora" in Spanish), implying at the best a cold work tool. But in Finnish, "tietokone" means "knowledge machine". How much cooler and stimulating is that?