Thinking about social objects

You’ll see one day when you move out it just sort of happens one day and it’s gone. You feel like you can never get it back. It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist. Maybe it’s like this rite of passage, you know. You won’t ever have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it’s like a cycle or something. I don’t know, but I miss the idea of it, you know. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.

Andrew Largeman, a character in Garden State, a film that was written and directed by Zach Braff some years ago.

A group of people that miss the same imaginary place. That phrase really stuck in my head when I saw the movie, and it’s stayed there ever since. Go see the film if you haven’t already, you won’t regret it. [And you don’t have to take my word for it either. An IMDB rating of 7.9, spread out over 90,000+ votes, nearly a thousand reviews, that’s some going.]

It wasn’t long after that when Jyri Engestrom started riffing with the idea of social objects, and when Hugh MacLeod picked it up and spoke to me at length about the concept, part of me was still completely stuck in the Andrew Largeman mindset. The same imaginary place.

And that’s part of the reason I share some of the things I do via twitter: The music I listen to. The food I’m cooking or eating. The films I’m watching; the books I’m reading; the places I go to. Sometimes what I share is in the immediate past, sometimes it’s in the present, sometimes all I’m doing is declaring my intent. Because, paraphrasing John Lennon, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

When we share our experiences of sights and sounds and smells, we recreate the familiar imaginary places we share with others. We use these digital objects as the seed, as one dimension of the experience to flesh out the rest of that experience. So we take the sound or image or location or even in some cases the smell, and we extrapolate it into a rich memory of that particular experience. Which is often a worthwhile thing to do, for all the people who shared that “imaginary place” with you.

This has become more valuable as a result of phenomena like Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter, that have made it easier for you to share the digital objects with the people you shared the original experience with. Which is why any tool that helps you capture what you’re watching or reading or listening to or visiting or eating is worth experimenting with.

This is something I’ve been doing for some time now, playing with every tool that comes on to the market, trying to see what it gives me that others didn’t. [When I started doing this, I had to come to terms quite quickly with the fact that some people don’t like being on the receiving end of all this “sharing”. More than once, I thought long and hard about segmenting my stream so that people could tune in or tune out of the particular segment. But I’ve stayed “whole” nevertheless. More on this later].

I’ve written about social objects a few times, even touched on the topic of something analogous to a graphic equaliser for an individual lifestream, yet I felt it was worth while in discussing them further in the context of “a group of people that miss the same imaginary place”. This time around, I want to concentrate on the ecosystem, on the tools and conventions we will need. Because that’s how sharing of experiences can become simpler, more extensive, more valuable.

I think we do five things with digital objects:

  • Introduce the object into shared space
  • Experience (and re-experience) the object
  • Share what you’re experiencing with others
  • Place in context that experience
  • Connect and re-connect with the family that has the same shared imaginary place

So to my way of thinking, once I start going down this road, every music site, every photo site, every video site, every audio site, they’re all about helping us introduce digital objects into shared space.

Many of these introducer sites also double up as experiencer sites: so you can watch the videos, hear the music and so on.

Every community site then becomes a way of sharing the experience of those objects: every review, every rating, every post, every link, every lifestream, all these are just ways of sharing our experiences, sometimes with commentary, sometimes without.

As more people get connected, and as the tools for sharing get better, and as the costs of sharing drop, we’re going to have the classic problems that we’ve already learnt about from the web in general. There are too many firehoses. It becomes hard to know what is out there, harder to find the right things. Errors, inaccuracies, even lies abound. (Digital objects are easy to modify).

So metadata becomes important. Preferably automated, so that authenticity is verifiable. Preferably low-cost and high-speed. Preferably indelibly associated with the digital object. Preferably easy to augment with tags and folksonomies and hashtags. Times, places, people. Names and descriptions. Devices involved, settings for those devices. History of views, listens, access, usage, editing. The edits themselves.

Authenticity becomes even more important. Watermarking the object while at the same time allowing copies of the object to be modified.

Search tools have to get better. I’ve been reading and re-reading Esther Dyson’s The Future of Internet Search for some time now, linking what she’s saying to what I’m thinking about here. Esther has been a friend and mentor for a long time; when she has something to say, I shut up and listen.

Visualisation tools also have to get better, which is why I spend time reading stuff like Information is Beautiful, why I visit feltron or manyeyes.

Sometimes many of these things happen in one place, elegantly and beautifully. That’s why I like Chris Wild’s Retroscope, why I like How To Be A Retronaut. It helps us place into context some of the things we share, some of the things we used to share.

Sometimes the tools for doing some of this move us into new dimensions, as in the case of layar and augmented reality, or for that matter AR spectacles. Noninvasive ways of overlaying information on to physical objects, ways that allow us to share the imaginary place more effectively.

As a young man, I was an incurable optimist. While time has tempered that optimism, my outlook on life continues to be positive, so positive that people sometimes claim I’m almost Utopian. Yet I still remember two quotations that were like kryptonite to the Superman of my optimism.

The first was Thoreau’s: Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. And the second was Burke’s: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing“.

There are many things we have to get better at, and many people working hard to make sure that, collectively, we get better at them. Feeding the world, eradicating poverty and the illnesses associated with poverty. Making sure every child has access to basic education. Improving healthcare, moving from cure to prevention, moving from symptom to root cause. Being better neighbours. Being better stewards of our environment.

I have never found it easy to accept that so many people are fundamentally lonely; I have never found it easy to accept that so many people are fundamentally depressed. And I have always wanted to do whatever I can to prevent these things from happening.

The tools we have today can help us eradicate loneliness and depression in ways that pharmacology can only dream of. Those tools can and will get better.

Of course there are things that come in the way, things we have to deal with first. Concepts like intellectual property rights have to be overhauled from the abominations they represent today, rebuilt from the ground up. Concepts like privacy and confidentiality have to be reformed to help us bring back community values that were eroded over the last 150 years or so. Human rights have to be reframed in a global context, the very concept of a nation re-interpreted, a whole new United Nations formed.

But while all that happens, we can help. By continuing to create ways that people remember the familiar shared imaginary places, by reminding ourselves what family means.

Family is not about blood alone, it is about covenant relationships. When something goes wrong in a covenant relationship, you don’t look for someone to blame, or even sue. You look for ways to fix it. Together.

Families don’t just share a past, they share a present. And a future. Social objects are, similarly, not just about the past, they’re about the present, they’re about the future.

We’re on the start of a whole new journey, and so we spend time learning about sharing by declaring past and present experiences. Soon we will get better at sharing intentions.

Soon we will get better at sharing imaginary places that are in the future, not in the past or present.

Soon. to paraphrase the prophet Joel,  our old men shall dream dreams, our young men shall see visions.

Transition elements

Been meaning to write about this site for some time, just never got around to it. Take a look at this:

Just looking at the table doesn’t really do it justice, so I would urge you to visit the site. As you mouse over the chart, you get blown-up examples of each type of visualisation. The organisation has laudable aims and also provides a series of online courses; originally, I held off writing about this until I’d actually done one of the courses. And gradually that became a reason to procrastinate. So now I’m writing about it without actually having done any of the courses, in the belief that the chart alone is valuable enough to share.

[Yes, valuable enough to share. Why would you want to share valueless things? Welcome to the abundance economy. One that needs sensible decisions about copyright and intellectual property rather than the shambles we have today. One that begins to recognise what an extreme nonrival good is.]

Why am I sharing this? Because I believe that acquiring “literacy” in the use of visualisation tools and techniques is a Good Thing for all of us. Because I believe that somewhere out there, someone will augment the chart even further, and provide online tools that will help us create and produce the visualisations.  Because I believe that over the next ten years, visualisation will grow significantly in importance, as people recognise the value of such tools and techniques in converting firehoses into capillaries.

Because I believe in sharing the things I like, the things I find useful, valuable.

Code_swarm and community

I wrote recently about a conversation with Jerm about commit logs, opensource and hiring; Ted chipped in to the debate with a reminder for us to visit code_swarm, a project I’d been aware of but only peripherally. There is much about the project that makes it interesting, even remarkable; one that gives me personal pleasure is the usage of Processing as the visualisation tool.

What Michael Ogawa has done is find better and better ways to visualise the human interactions that take place in software development, particularly community-based development. Many of the lessons we’ve learnt in opensource are made tangible and graspable by all, just by watching what happens. The organic nature of the process is brought out beautifully. Anyone interested in opensource and community-based development would do well to take a look. I think there are applications for the use of codeswarm in many open multisided platforms; as and when we use them I shall keep you posted.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the visualisations created by Michael and his team. Our thanks to them.

Christmas comes early

I was delighted to learn that Processing 1.0 shipped last night. What is it? To quote from their web site:

Processing is an open source programming language and environment for people who want to program images, animation, and interactions. It is used by students, artists, designers, researchers, and hobbyists for learning, prototyping, and production. It is created to teach fundamentals of computer programming within a visual context and to serve as a software sketchbook and professional production tool. Processing is an alternative to proprietary software tools in the same domain.

Processing is free to download and available for GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. Please help to release the next version!

Processing is an open project initiated by Ben Fry and Casey Reas. It evolved from ideas explored in the Aesthetics and Computation Group at the MIT Media Lab.

I first came across Processing about a year ago, and was quite excited about it given the price points of the software it was displacing. We need more tools like this, tools solving generic problems efficiently, elegantly and effortlessly. The only way we’re going to have more tools like this is if we as a community adopt them, adapt them, support them, enrich them. To get an idea of what can be done with Processing, take a look here:

Radiohead and REM have used Processing to create some of the animation they’ve used in their videos; mags like SEED and Nature have used the suite to create info graphics; Nike and Budweiser commercials have featured Processing output; hundreds of schools across the US use the software in a variety of ways. So go ahead, have some fun with it, learn to use it, contribute to it.

I’m looking forward to playing with the tools over the Christmas break, there is so much I can learn from this.

And, keeping the Christmas theme intact, here’s a still from Galactic Christmas:

Relaxedly rambling

I’ve been lazing all evening. My older two children are at a concert in Brixton, the youngest is in bed, my wife has her church group over, and I’ve been left to myself. Which is a good thing sometimes, especially when it’s the end of the week and i’ve spent most of it travelling. I like companionable silences. And, occasionally, I even like companionless silences.

So after reading the papers and listening to Gabriela Montero playing Bach (absolutely amazing), I went for a gentle ramble around the web. Started with Christian Cenizal and visualisation, someone I’d bookmarked and written about recently and wanted to investigate a little more. And he led me to this Melbourne tourism video.


Which in turn led me to wanting to listen more to Joanna Newsom, and on to this video.


She’s one of these singers you either love or hate. I enjoy her. I first came across her in an ad a few years ago, to do with New York and blackouts and This Side Of The Blue. Her voice is quirky and unusual, it has a Melanie-like quality that combines really well with her harp-playing: I find the effect mesmerising. See what you think. [Incidentally, I’ve just realised that Melanie is over 60 now. Wow.]