Archive for March 2010


SXSW (pt.2)

March 15th, 2010 — 8:08pm

The parties here are weird. For a start, there are so many of them you don’t know which way to turn. The whole city is abuzz. But even though there are hundreds of places to go, everyone seems to be heading to the same crowded venues. By the time you get to the parties, they are already packed, and sometimes the queues to get in stretch around the block. And the really strange thing is that lots of people here think they can network, think they know how to meet people, plug themselves in, have a good time, but they really don’t. Just because you have Twitter and Gowalla on your phone and you know where your virtual friends are every second of the day doesn’t mean you actually have any social skills.

Some things you still have to learn the old-fashioned way, like starting conversations with people, being polite, mingling, looking up from your mobile device every few seconds to speak to the people around you. The whole thing is incredibly clique-y, even though it’s supposed to be about meeting new people and making new friends. There just aren’t enough good mixers here, per head of digital population, to make the parties go with a swing. So you go, you drink, you stand around, you try to venture a conversation with someone, but it fizzles out awkwardly, or they inadvertently cut you down, because they’re only used to meeting people via Skype. The real deal is too intense for them.

Or maybe not. One of the most interesting talks I’ve seen so far was a discussion of the possibilities for video games to have an emotional impact on players, with British designer Peter Molyneux, he of Milo/Theme Park/Fable fame. In Fable 3, Lionhead have added a whole load of small touches and gestures that allow the player to have physical interactions with others, so you can hug people, lift up your daughter and cuddle her, you can walk hand in hand, or if you’re feeling less altruistic, you can drag a beggar off the street and sell him to a local factory as slave labour. Molyneux was making the point that by implementing these little actions, and by making the gamer go through the process of physically embracing people, or touching them in the game, it caused those actions to be imprinted on them more deeply, created an emotional attachment, and also an incipient moral one.

He seemed bent on creating what he called ‘joyful experiences’ in games, not just killing people, or managing systems. And one of the better questions that was asked, leading out of the discussion, was: can a game ever give us the same sense of enlightenment as a book or a film? Molyneux seemed to think that, yes, of course a video game can provoke strong emotional feelings, and that ultimately, because of the interactive nature of games, they might even be able to give us the most completely affective stories of all, but that the barriers in terms of technology and skills in the industry were still quite high. The technology is improving rapidly, but it’s the skill to create emotionally adaptable characters, great stories, and profound ideas, that is still lacking. He put out a call for creative people to help him and the industry approach these problems, and once again I was struck by the need for games developers and the interactive community in general to learn from the experiences and vision of artists. Think I might drop Peter a line when I get back home. Maybe we can develop something really interesting using some of the amazing ideas of artists I know who are working with digital media.

Austin is starting to work its way into my heart. It’s hard to know what it would be like when the Festival crowd all leaves, but there’s something really idiosyncratic and charming about the place that I’m starting to get a crush on. The usual stripped-down, rapid-fire efficiency that you find in any American town, but with a fierce brand of cultural independence. They say Americans don’t have any sense of irony. Well, clearly they have never been to Austin. That wonderful laconic black humour is in abundance here, in the bars and clubs and venues, and on the streets on signs, t-shirts, bumper stickers and everywhere you go. 6th Street with its curious dives and souvenir arcades is like a cross between Camden high street and Whitby. Everywhere you look there’s another Rock and Roll bar with a live band, a Gothic pizza parlour or a Saloon glowing with neon signs for Dos Equis and Miller Lite.

SoCo, South Congress Avenue, runs all the way from the river, placid and beautiful in the still twilight, up to the imposing Capitol that sits on top of a slowly sloping hill. Wells Fargo’s glimmering towers shine in the intense sunlight, burning like mirrors, while wispy fruit trees, covered in fresh white blossoms, soften the corners of every street. There’s nothing, especially, to tell you that this is Texas, and everyone reminds you that this is just a little liberal bubble in the middle of a great Red Republican plain, but with its old stone buildings and rowing boats, and fleets of tiny birds picking seeds from the grass, it doesn’t feel like the Deep South at all. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Anyway, I’m falling very rapidly for it, the mixture of Tex-Mex arcana and sophisticated urban centre, and I’ll be sorry to go home.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty more to see at the Festival. Evan Williams, Twitter CEO, is giving a keynote today, and Daniel Ek, the prodigious 26 year-old founder of Spotify, is speaking tomorrow, and there are panels on robotics, social gaming, networks, and everything under the sun that has to do with the Web. And you, intrepid reader, shall have it all, very soon.

In the meantime, I really have got to work out how to crack these parties. The only problem of hanging out with geeks is that we aren’t very good at this real-life social networking stuff. Even the girls seem unusually shy and remote. But there’s still time.

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SXSW (pt.1)

March 13th, 2010 — 4:32pm

After an absolutely epic journey, with two flights lasting a combined total of more than 14 hours, one high-speed chase through the bowels of George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, a cold that had me sneezing and snivelling all the way across the Atlantic and snotting my way through enough bog roll to paper the Moon, a curious taxi ride with a driver from Baghdad, and the bare minimum in calories to prevent an average-sized human being from entering a coma, I arrived in Austin last night with the rest of the Umbrella Group of artists and producers – www.umbrellagroup.org – for the seven day clusterfuck that is SXSW (South by South West) interactive, Loya Jirga of the Geeks.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee could not have envisaged, when he invented HTTP and HTML, that the World Wide Web would one day become the behemoth it is today, and nor could he have foreseen this enormous, bewildering gathering of the Digital Tribes. Every single person in America, and most of the people in the world, who have anything to do with the internet, games, software and computers, seem to be here. They come in their droves from all ‘the round Earth’s imagined corners’, in every conceivable shape and size (and some inconceivable ones, as well – we are in America, afterall, land of the free refill). But there is one thing that all of them have in common: they are all nerds, hopeless, romantic nerds. They love anything that has a modem, anything that has a USB port, anything that lights up and makes noises, and most of all, they love the Web. They love it in all its glorious, unpredictable tempers, in all its eccentricities and nuances and changes of mood. They want more of it, more and more and more, until their eyes go square and they can carry out all the necessary conveyances with the external world through its glowing digital interface.

And of course I am no different. I like to think I am, but show me an iPad, show me a 4G/LTE modem or talk to me about the benefits of HTML5 and I’ll be just as happy, just as excited as the rest of them. Here it is not only socially acceptable to be a geek, it is absolutely de rigeur, it is cool. At least half the people have thick round spectacles, the sort that used to be pilloried as NHS standard issue, the sort that made you look ugly and sad, but now mark you out as somebody inquisitive, alternative, probably bristling with a laser-like intelligence. There is a rather smug sense, especially among some of the more hardcore web marketing and dotcom startup set, that they are changing the world, that this is where it is at, and that they are the new kings and queens of American, and global, business.

Panels have titles like: ‘Do all the cool kids leave the room when the suits show up?’, and ‘7 ways to deal with bastards’, and you can’t help feeling that the programmers and speakers are working hard to maintain that veneer, that sheen of grassroots, ground-up contra spirit with which the Web, and the developer community, was first animated. But by now the cloying syrup of money and branding has stuck everywhere, has covered everything, and the Homebrew Computer Club seems a million miles away in time and space. This is, in no uncertain terms, about making money, lots of it, and accumulating power.

The crowd, at least at the parties I’ve been to so far, is not young. It’s a festival for grown-ups who want to do some serious networking, and the atmosphere, far from being relaxed and enjoyable, is one of an almost breathless search for a better time, or a better deal, or a better person to talk to. The Convention Center itself, just across the river from our hotel, is a vast building. Some of the rooms are gargantuan, big enough to swallow aircraft carriers. The stages are big enough for bands or orchestras, or even whole theatre productions, so the sight of a single person at the mic, backed by huge drapes, with a full-size lighting rig overhead and screens set to either side, is quite surreal. These tiny human figures look completely out of proportion with their surroundings, and speak into a giant void. Even when the sessions are well attended, the rooms are barely half full. It makes you wonder what this place was actually intended for. The Nuremberg Rallies could have gone on quite happily in one of the first floor ballrooms, and nobody would have noticed.

After one day I feel as though I’ve been here for a week. I’ve already been to loads of sessions, met most of the people I knew who were coming, eaten burgers and whole beef ribs, explored most of the downtown area, and partied late into the night. The weather has been fantastic. There’s not a cloud in the sky, the breeze is just enough to keep cool, and the sun burns away the haze through the morning. By early afternoon you can feel your skin starting to tan.

The group that I’m with is a delegation of artists and producers selected by ACE to come and experience the festival, make new contacts in the tech industries, and generally show off the best of British cultural creativity at the festival. By the time we got on the plane I’d already got to know most of the group and had good conversations about what they do, what they were hoping to get out of the trip, and what their plans were. There’s a really good feeling about the group, and Germination and iShed, who have organised the trip, have done a really good job of bringing everyone together and helping us to get to know each other, which is as important as any connections we make at the festival itself.

We’ve also brought with us The Tweeture, a brilliant little creature made with haptic sensors, GPS, accelerometer and microphones which can receive Twitter messages and respond with its own, which needs to be looked after and entertained, taken to events and lulled when it is bored or depressed. So far it has already met a lot of new people and attracted a lot of attention. It’s going to be one of the stars of the show. You can follow him @thetweeture.

Right, after a hearty breakfast I’m about to enter the fray again. Watch this space for more from the festival.

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how to think about the future: publishing

March 3rd, 2010 — 12:28am

There are two questions that keep coming up at the moment, whenever I talk to people about the future of publishing:

– what does the future of the publishing industry look like?

– what will books look like in the future?

Not really surprising, considering I spend most of my time talking to publishers, writers and booksellers about digital technology .

If I was asked to characterize the mood in trade publishing right now, I’d say it’s a bit like a party a few seconds after a powercut. Some people have run off to find torches and candles, some have huddled round the few remaining oil lamps in the garden, but most are still standing around, holding their half-empty glasses and getting cold. They’re just starting to wonder how long it’s going to last and whether it’s worth hanging around for the DJ to come back on or if they should take this opportunity to call it a night and go home.

I think this is largely because these are the wrong questions. What we should be asking is:

– how can technology make life better for writers and readers?

– how can we help?

That is not to say there haven’t been some very intelligent, and prescient, attempts to see what the future might bring. You can hardly move (as Michael Bhaskar notes in his blog for BookBrunch – http://tinyurl.com/ya768l8 ) in publishing without being hit in the retina by some new article or think-piece on this very subject. There have been hundreds, no, thousands, of them. One very good and eloquent recent example comes from the New York Review of Books – http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23683 Props, Jacob Epstein. Everyone has had a go at predicting the future of publishing. But they are all basically (with a few notable exceptions: Sara Lloyd, James Bridle, one or two others) asking the same questions and falling into the same traps.

Penguin have had a good stab at creating some new book-type things for the iPad (unveiled by CEO John Makinson on Tuesday – http://tinyurl.com/yf3mxkx ) and they look interesting enough, but saying that they are re-inventing books with this stuff is just silly. They’re starting to explore some of the more obvious possibilities of different formats for digital books and how you can interact with them using a touch screen and embedded media. They are starting to ask how the technology can make things better for readers, but only in quite a narrow sense.

The more interesting questions are only being asked at the moment by some very fringe players, such as the Institute for the Future of the Book, Book Two, APT Studios/Enhanced Editions, Glasshouse Books and Completely Novel, et cetera. Amazon and Google are making moves in the background which may have seriously disruptive effects on the industry, but even they are not really trying to invent the future of reading, writing and publishing. They are just trying to facilitate supply and satisfy demand. if:book are trying to show all the different things a ‘book’ can be in the digital world, how it can be a social thing, a networked thing, a multimedia thing, and a collaborative thing. Glasshouse are trying to explore how a publisher can really be a reading group, and a community, not just a printer or an imprint. Completely Novel are looking at it very differently again and seeing whether the community can put the tools of publishing in the hands of every writer.

These are the kinds of experiment that will lead to the future of publishing, because they are not really about publishing at all. They are about writing and reading. Extrapolating from what we know now, what we assume now about the future, will not work. Only the vision and courage to ask deeper questions about the more fundamental changes that are coming will help us to prepare for the future we don’t yet know.

So, if I were in publishing now, I’d be watching what these entrepreneurs and thinkers are doing, and not trying to copy them, but trying to think like them. Because they understand how to think about the future. A lot of their experiments will fail, and a lot of their business models will collapse, but they are the ones who are going to change the future of reading and writing, and the future of publishing. You just don’t know it yet.

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Mark Thompson, WTF?

March 2nd, 2010 — 10:43pm

What does Mark Thompson think he’s doing? Has he gone out of his mind? It’s the cuts to 6Music that are grabbing the headlines, and I think that’s a bad decision, too, but let’s be absolutely clear about this: the internet is the future of broadcasting. Halving your output for the Web at this point is like dressing in cowhide and going to live in a cave.

The commitment to spend 80% of the licence fee on the creation of ‘quality content’ stinks of a Tory-proofing,  self-inflicted pre-emptive strike. The glib rhetoric of ‘excellence’ and ‘quality’ just means ‘traditional’ and ‘unambitious’. If the BBC really had a commitment to excellence it would not have cut back factual programming two years ago: documentaries like Storyville and news programmes, which are the best things it does. This is just craven sucking-up to Murdoch and the Conservative party.

But politics aside for a moment, the proposed cuts to the BBC’s websites and concomitant slowing down of its online strategy is just plain stupid. If the BBC doesn’t continue to pioneer the development of online platforms and services, it will become irrelevant. The Web is the future, and the future is now. Get that through your skull, Mr T, before you are completely outflanked.

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The Story

March 1st, 2010 — 9:07pm

A couple of weeks ago I went to this brilliant conference. Actually, calling it a conference is a bit unfair. This brilliant event, called ‘The Story’. It was all about stories, and the best ways of telling stories across different media. Speakers weren’t allowed to discuss any theories of narrative or storytelling, though. They either had to read one of their own stories or talk about how they went about devising, writing, performing or creating them.

Organised by Channel 4 Commissioning Editor Matt Locke, ‘The Story’ featured some pretty starry speakers, including Dr Aleks Krotoski (you may have seen her recently presenting ‘The Virtual Revolution’ on BBC2), Cory Doctorow, Tim Wright, Kat Akingbade, Tim Etchells, Tony White, and others. In the audience were representatives of broadcasters, media agencies, advertisers, publishers, games designers, writers and funders.

There were some fascinating speeches and presentations, including  a remarkable discussion of neutrinos and gravitational entropy by John Spooner of Unlimited Theatre, and a rather ditsy  but nonetheless charming and illuminating talk about the process of writing and illustrating a comic from Sydney Padua, the brilliant artist behind Lovelace and Babbage – http://sydneypadua.com/2dgoggles/lovelace-the-origin-2/

It was very interesting how strongly influenced she was by the Victorians, especially as there was another presentation about the new ARG Echo Bazaar, which is also set in a stylized Victorian London. The smoggy world of Holmes and Watson, the Dickensian back-streets and sewers and urchins seem to have a particularly strong hold on the imagination of geeks at the moment, and I wondered if that might be because it was an age of invention, of engineering and pioneering in the material sciences. I thought the spirit of enquiry and discovery that prevailed in those amateur Victorian scientific societies must have struck a cord in the much less formal gatherings of web designers, gamers and comic artists of today.

Tim Wright told an amazing story about an elaborate practical joke he’d played on a colleague, involving Harrison Ford, a hunting lodge in Banff, and a non-existent private screening of ‘What Lies Beneath’. It was so clever and so devious that it made you worry for the man’s sanity. He’d clearly enjoyed duping his gullible friend so much that he’d devoted serious time and effort to the scam. But his re-telling was thoroughly self-aware and richly ironic.

For me, though, the highlight of the day was hearing Tim Etchells, a writer I can’t believe I’ve never read before, performing some of his stories. They were hilarious, eye-wateringly, gut-shakingly funny, but also very very clever and interesting. Set in an unidentifiable but still recognisable mish-mash of urban waste and threatening forests, they somehow conjured up a nightmarish atmosphere of madness, conflict, violence and boredom. But they also managed to buzz with an electric wit and a comic’s sense of bathos. You can read one of the stories he read ‘intentions seem good’, here: http://1001.net.au/cgi-bin/isengine?o=1001&action=display&id=1537 . I defy you not to laugh until you cry.

Cory read a story about book-selling in the future, reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Singularity is Near’ , and Aleks Krotoski gave a presentation which was essentially the inside story of filming her BBC show. It was interesting to see how little say she apparently had over the final cuts and script, and how she felt she wasn’t able to ask the really interesting questions, but the presentation lacked a convincing structure.

Tassos Stevens and Annette Mees from Coney, the ‘agency of adventure and play’ talked about their latest ground-breaking theatre concept, ‘A Small Town Anywhere’, which takes Henri George Clouzot’s ‘Le Corbeau’ as its starting point and creates a performance/game in which there are no professional actors or performers, but instead the audience takes on the characters of the townspeople and follow their own stories. In the course of the evening, and using bits of information from the town’s ‘historian’, they play out the self-destructive or redemptive path of a small town community and find out whether they have avoided destruction by an invading army or their town has been overrun. You can find Coney here: http://youhavefoundconey.net/

Tony White gave an interesting glimpse into some of his latest work with a story about the destruction of possessions, which seemed to touch on many of the same concerns as Michael Landy’s ‘Break Down’. It was a very brave and intelligent enquiry but slightly hard to follow as there was a lot of visual noise, with a rolling presentation of websites behind the speaker. Later, we were treated to some great performances by the magician Stuart Nolan, and David Hepworth, who told a story about suits without notes and without hesitation.

So what were we supposed to learn from ‘The Story’? Everybody there had clearly had a great time and enjoyed the stories, and everyone voted to do it again next year, but what did we learn? Were we supposed to learn anything? I think what was really interesting was that the stories that worked best, no matter what medium they were told in, or what tools or platforms they used, relied on some pretty old literary and rhetorical tactics for their success. With the possible exception of Tim Etchells’ writing which really did seem to be going in several new directions at once.

The best constructed stories, and those which made clever use of irony, and standard rhetorical tricks, seemed to create the strongest connection with the audience. Even Sydney Padua’s comic made heavy use of the basic structure of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth, so it was based on a classic archetype. This isn’t really much of a conclusion, but I guess what I’m really saying is that, whatever platform and whatever clever technology you use to tell your story, you still need to start with the fundamental questions of structure, character, voice, and so on, for it really to connect with a reader or an audience. And before you can experiment with those fundamentals, as some of the better writers were doing, you really need to have a highly developed understanding of how they work.

Having said all that, the internet and digital platforms clearly offer a huge array of new possibilities for writers, artists and storytellers, and some of the radical new things they are doing are truly exciting. So there’s a lot to look forward to, we just haven’t got there yet. We’ve still got a lot of experimenting to do and a lot to learn, but one day soon stories on the internet will really start to take off. In the meantime, do anything you can to get a ticket for next year’s ‘Story’. Beg, borrow or steal. It will be cool.

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