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The mind-blowing awesomeness of dConstruct 2012

Where do I start?

I could start by saying that dConstruct 2012 was one of the best days of my life. But let me back up a bit…

Here’s what I did last week:

  • Sunday, September 2nd: The amazing PixelPyros at Jubilee Square with Seb, followed by The Geekest Link pub quiz at The Caroline of Brunswick.
  • Monday, September 3rd to Wednesday, September 5th: non-stop Reasons To Be Creative.
  • Thursday, September 6th: Improving Reality with the brilliant Warren Ellis followed by Brighton SF, which exceeded my wildest expectations.
  • Friday, September 7th: dConstruct. Indescribably brilliant.
  • Saturday, September 8th: Mini Maker Faire, a fantastic collection of hackers and hardware in one place.
  • Sunday, September 9th: IndieWebCamp UK round at The Skiff with some of the smartest people I know.

That was just one week in the Brighton Digital Festival! And the weather was perfect the whole time—glorious sunshine.

I was really nervous on the day of Brighton SF. Like I said, I had no idea what I was doing. But I began to calm down right before the event.

I was sitting outside with Christopher Priest (I told him how much I liked Inverted World) and Joanne McNeil when the Brighton SF authors showed up, met one another, and started chatting. That’s when I knew everything was going to be fine.

Jeff Noon. Lauren Beukes. Brian Aldiss. Three giants of science fiction. Three warm, friendly, and charming people.

The event was so good. Each of the authors were magnificently charismatic and captivating, the readings were absolutely enthralling, and I end up thoroughly enjoying myself.

Thank you for sending in questions for the authors. On the night, things were going so smoothly and time was flying by so fast, I actually didn’t get a chance to ask them …sorry.

It was a wonderful event and Drew very graciously agreed to record the audio so there’s going to be a podcast and a transcript available very soon. Watch this space.

When the day of dConstruct dawned, I was already in a good mood from Brighton SF. But nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.

I had the great honour and pleasure of introducing an amazing line-up of speakers. Seriously, every single speaker was absolutely superb. It was all killer, no filler.

Ben’s keynote set the scene perfectly. And boy, what a trooper! He really wasn’t a well chap, but with classic English stoicism and moustachioed stiff upper lip, he delivered the perfect opening for a day of playing with the future.

From there, it was just a non-stop delivery of brilliance from each speaker. After each talk, I kept using the words “awesome” and “mind-blowing”, but y’know what? They were awesome and mind-blowing!

Ben Hammersley Jenn Lukas Scott Jenson Ariel Waldman Seb Lee-Delisle Lauren Beukes Jason Scott Tom Armitage

And at the end …James Burke.

(this is the point at which I really needed to study the dreams/reality diagram because I was beginning to lose my grip on what was real)

James Burke

What can I say? I was really hoping it would be as good as an episode of Connections but what I got was like an entire season of Connections condensed into 45 minutes of brain-bending rapid-fire brilliance. It was mind-blowing. It was awesome. It broke my brain in the best possible way.

When James finished and the day was done, I was quite overcome. I was just so …happy! I had the privilege of hosting the smartest, most entertaining people I know. And I’m not just talking about the speakers.

At the after-party—and on Twitter—attendees told me just how much they enjoyed dConstruct 2012. I felt very happy, very proud, and kind of vindicated—it was something of a risky line-up and tickets were selling slower than in previous years, but boy, oh boy, that line-up really delivered the goods on the day.

Here’s one write-up of dConstruct. If you were there, I’d really appreciate it if you wrote down what you thought of the event. Drop me a line and point me to your blog post.

If you weren’t there …my commiserations. But here’s something that might serve as some consolation:

Thanks to Drew’s tireless work through the weekend, the audio from Friday’s conference is already online! Browse through the talks on the dConstruct archive or subscribe to a podcast of the talks on Huffduffer.

But you really had to be there.

Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll on Huffduffer

Questions, please

The Brighton Digital Festival is in full swing, Reasons To Be Creative is underway, and Brighton is chock-a-block with all manner of smart geeks enjoying the seaside sunshine. It’s pretty damn great.

Not long now ‘till Brighton SF on Thursday evening with Brian Aldiss, Lauren Beukes, and Jeff Noon. I’ll be the host for the evening so I should make sure that I’ve got lots of incisive questions for the three authors…

What the hell am I thinking‽ I have no idea what I’m doing. Damn it, Jim, I’m a sci-fi fan, not an interviewer!

I could do with your help. If you have anything—anything at all—that you’d like to ask one or all of these luminaries, please share it with me. We’ll be taking questions from the floor on the night too, but I’d feel a lot better if I had a nice stack of good questions to get the ball rolling.

So please, leave a comment and let me know what I should be asking these three masters of sci-fi.

From Chicago to Brighton

I was in the States last week for An Event Apart Chicago. I had a most excellent time. Partly, that’s because An Event Apart is always excellent, and partly because Chicago is such a great city.

I took pictures.

I did the Architecture Foundation’s river cruise (again), which I would highly recommend to anyone with the vaguest interest in either architecture or just cruising down rivers in boats.

Canyons of stone and glass Jessica

I also went to my the second bases-ball game of my life. The first one was at Fenway Park, so going to Wrigley Field feels like the logical next step—maybe I should work my way through all the bases-ball field diamond pitches in chronological order.

Chicago dog in Wrigley Field On the bleachers

To balance out such sportsness, I made sure to spend plenty of time in the Art Institute Of Chicago, taking full advantage of the Lichtenstein exhibition that’s currently running there.

Lichtenlips Lichtendog

I had the opportunity to meet some of the hard-working web geeks of Chicago. I had a look around the Obama campaign HQ, thanks to Daniel Ryan. I also got a tour of the whacky Tribune Tower, thanks to Chris Courtney, and I got to see first-hand how the web team at The Chicago Tribune are doing some very cool stuff with data.

On the Tribune roof Journalism is serious business

Now I’m back in Brighton, which is turning into geek central with the Brighton Digital Festival. It kicked off last night with Seb’s fantastic PixelPyros digital fireworks.

PixelPyros PixelPyros are go!

Reasons To Be Creative starts today. I’ll be popping in out to hear some of the talks, but things are getting pretty busy here at Clearleft Towers, what with this being dConstruct week.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve started having dConstruct dreams this week. I have to remind myself to actually enjoy myself and not spend the whole time stressing out. I think it should be fairly easy to enjoy myself, what with that kick-ass lineup.

That’ll be on Friday. Before that, there’s Brighton SF on Thursday. That’s going to be a lot of fun too, and a total geekfest with Jeff Noon, Lauren Beukes, and Brian Aldiss.

Grab a ticket if you haven’t already. See you there.

Improving Reality

Much as I enjoyed myself in Tennessee, it was shame to miss some of the Brighton Digital Festival events that were going on at the same time. I missed Barcamp and Flash On The Beach. But since getting back I’ve been making up for lost time, soaking up the geek comedy at The Caroline of Brunswick last Wednesday with Robin Ince and Helen Keen.

I also went along to the Improving Reality conference on Friday, which turned out to be an excellent event.

The title was deliberately contentious, inviting a Slavin-shaped spectre to loom over the proceedings after he closed dConstruct with his excellent talk, Reality is Plenty wherein he placed his boot on the head of Augmented Reality, carefully pointed his rhetorical gun at its temple and repeatedly pulled the trigger.

But AR was just one of the items on the menu at Improving Reality. The day was split into three parts, each of them expertly curated: Digital Art, Cinema and Gaming. In spite of this clear delineation of topics there were a number of overlapping themes.

I’m somewhat biased but I couldn’t help but notice the influence of science fiction in all the different strands. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Science fiction sets expectations for technology and culture …and I don’t just mean flying cars and jetpacks.

Mind you, this is something that cinema has always done. Matt Adams from Blast Theory asked:

How many romantic kisses had you seen before you had your first romantic kiss?

Or, on a more pedestrian level, everyone in the UK knows what an American yellow school bus is, even though they’ll probably never see one. It’s part of a pre-established world that needs no explanation. In the same way, science fiction is pre-establishing a strange world that we already inhabit.

José Luis de Vicente took us on a tour of some of this world’s stranger corners. He pointed us to the deserted Mongolian city of Ordos, a perfectly Ballardian location.

We also heard about the Tower of David in Venezuela. Intended as a high-rise centre of commerce but bankrupted before completion, it is now the world’s tallest favela.

It reminds me of William Gibson’s bridge.

It isn’t hard to draw parallels between Gibson’s Spook Country and the locative art presented at Improving Reality like Julian Oliver’s mischievous creation The Artvertiser.

He describes his work as “jamming with reality”—much like Mark Shepard’s Sentient Cities

But Julian Oliver is at pains to point out that that it’s not just about messing with people’s heads. He’s attempting to point out the points of control that might otherwise go unquestioned. There’s also an important third step to his process:

  1. Identify the points of control in the infrastructure.
  2. Hack it.
  3. Show how it was done.

This stands in stark contrast to the kind of future that Aral outlined in his energetic presentation. He is striving for a world where technology is smooth and seamless, where an infrastructure of control is acceptable as long as the user experience is excellent. It’s Apple’s App Store today; it’s the starship in Wall·E tomorrow (or possibly the Starship Opryland)—a future where convenience triumphs over inquisitiveness.

As Marshall McLuhan put it “there is no augmentation without an amputation.” In Charles Stross’s Accelerando that is literally true: when the main character—exactly the kind of superhuman cyborg that Aral envisions—has his augmentation stolen, he is effectively mentally and socially retarded.

Julian Oliver’s battle against a convenient but complacent future is clearly shown with Newstweek where William Gibson, Umberto Eco and Philip K. Dick collide in a project that skirts around the edges of morality and legality, hijacking wifi connections and altering news headlines for the lulz.

Then there’s Blast Theory’s current work on the streets of Brighton, A Machine To See With. It’s ostensibly another locative art piece but it may have more in common with a cinematic work like David Fincher’s The Game.

It’s all part of a long tradition of attempting to break down the barrier between the audience and the performance, a tradition that continues with the immersive theatre of Punchdrunk. This reminds me of the ractives in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a form of entertainment so immersive that when a troupe attempt to perform a traditional theatrical piece, they run into problems:

The hard part was indoctrinating the audience; unless they were theatre buffs, they always wanted to run up on stage and interact, which upset the whole thing.

It’s a complete inversion of the infamous premier by the Lumière brothers of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat where, so the myth goes, the audience ran from the theatre in terror.

It’s probably a completely apocryphal story. But as the representative from Time’s Up said at Improving Reality: “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Stories were at the heart of the gaming section of Improving reality. Stored In A Bank Vault, which is currently running in Brighton, was presented as part of PARN: Physical and Alternate Reality Narratives. These are stories where the player is empowered to become the narrator.

Incidentally, it was refreshing to hear how much contempt the game designers like Tassos Stevens held for the exploitationware of “gamification”—a dehumanising topic that was explored in Stross’s superbly damning .

There were plenty of good stories in the middle section of Improving Reality too, which began with a look at the past, present and future of cinema from Matt Hanson. Matt’s own remarkable work A Swarm Of Angels bears a striking similarity to “the footage” in Gibson’s Pattern Recognition—both are infused with a spirit of .

The subject of film funding is currently a hot topic and it’s unsurprising to see that much of the experimentation in this area can be found in sci-fi endeavours such as Iron Sky and The Cosmonaut.

Micropatronage can be very impowering. Where once we were defined (and perhaps judged) by the films we chose to watch and the books we chose to read, now we can define ourselves by the films and books we choose to fund. Instead of judging me by my what’s on my bookshelf or my Last.fm profile, judge me by my Kickstarter profile. Kickstarter is one of those genuinely disruptive uses of the network that’s enabling real creativity and originality to come to the surface in projects like Adrian Hon’s A History Of The Future In 100 Objects.

This change in how we think about funding feels like the second part of a revolution. The first part was changing how we think about distribution.

Jamie King, director of Steal This Film, hammered home just how powerful Moore’s Law has been for film, music and anything else that can be digitised. Extrapolating the trend, he pointed to the year 2028 as the media singularity, when it will cost $5 to store every film ever made on a device that fits in your pocket. He evocatively described this as the moment when “the cloud settles at street level.”

It’s here, at the point where anything can be copied, where the old and new worlds clash head on in the battle for the artificial construct that has been so inaccurately labeled “intellectual property”.

Once again we were shown two potential futures; one of chaos and one of control:

  1. There’s the peer-to-peer future precipitated by Bit Torrent and Pirate Bay where anyone is free to share their hopes and dreams with the entire world …but where no distinction is drawn between a creative work of art and a hate-filled racist polemic.

  2. Then there’s the centralised future of the iPad, a future where people will gladly pay money to climb into a beautifully designed jail cell. You can have whatever you want …as long as it has been pre-approved. So you won’t, for example, ever be able to play Phone Story.

This second future—where your general-purpose computing device is broken—promises to put the genie back in the bottle and reverse the disruptive revolution in distribution and funding.

Thinking about it, it’s no surprise that payment systems are undergoing the same upheavals as distribution systems. After all, money is just another form of information that can be reduced to bits.

The much tougher problem is with atoms.

Until recently this was entirely the domain of science fiction—the post-singularity futures of replicators and . But even here, with the rise of 3D thing printing, our science fictional future is becoming more evenly distributed in the present.

Improving Reality closed with a talk from Alice Taylor wherein she demoed the work being done at Makie Lab:

We’re making a new kind of toy: customisable, 3D-printed, locally made, and internet-enabled.

A year ago, this was a work of fiction by Alice’s husband. Now it’s becoming reality.

Just as Makie Lab envision a game that’s an infinite loop between the network and the physical world, I think we’ll continue to see an infinite loop between science fiction and reality.