22 May 02012

Tom Phillips and A Humument: Essays, notes

A Humument, page 4 'Nine Eleven'A year ago, almost to the day, I got an email out of the blue from Lucy Shortis, who runs the office of my favourite artist, Tom Phillips. She said some nice things about a very old blog post of mine, and asked if I would consider writing a "short biography of Tom" for a new website for him. I drummed my fingers on my desk for half an hour before replying, thinking it might seem creepily over-keen to accept the challenge within five minutes. Still, I was round at the studio to discuss the work with Lucy the next morning, a Saturday.

I already had several books of Tom Phillips' work, none of which I'd given as much attention as I would have wished. (I used to think of these enormously rich works as resources to keep me alert in my retirement. Via this commission, I enjoyed the luxury of bringing forward a few weeks of that retirement.) One of the first things I did was track down and buy some more of his books. To a dabbling hobbyist like me, Aspects of Art was particularly useful in providing a concise, straightforward account of both Tom's perspective and the grammar of art history that he draws on.

It took me weeks of research before I felt ready to start writing, and, thus when I did I was so marinated in the rich play of ideas in Tom's work, that I couldn't quite bring myself to write a 'straight' biography. My first attempt was well over the word limit and so wide of the mark that I had to put it to one side. No matter. Try again. With a little guidance from Lucy, I came up with this attempt which went live with the new website a couple of weeks ago. Moreover, Lucy was kind enough to indulge me by finding a home for my original essay.

The new website is one of a series of happenings this month that mark Tom Phillips' 75th birthday. (There's a neat symmetry about this number for me, since I first encountered Tom's work at his 1987 exhibition in Sheffield, "50 Years of Tom Phillips, 100 Years of the Mappin Art Gallery".) Other birthday events include two exhibitions in London and the publication of the fifth edition of Tom's book A Humument, which he's been working on for 46 years and counting.

Regarding the last of these, I pitched to The Spectator to write an article about A Humument and you can read it in the current edition of the magazine or online. Once again, my first draft of this went way over the word limit and included playful embellishments that had to be cut for publication. Now I've gone back to that draft to create a "Director's Cut" version. Like most Director's Cuts, it's by no means better than the version where I had my wings clipped: it rambles along down several diversions; it has pretentious flourishes; its editing is baggy. If you want a decent overview of A Humument, read the Spectator piece. If you're part of the niche audience that's interested in a few of the many different directions in which A Humument leads, this is for you.

Continue reading "Tom Phillips and A Humument: Essays, notes"

1 September 02011

On ecosystems, Adam Curtis and positions of power

I have a chronic habit of reaching more for biological metaphors for to help describe how we inhabit a world of abundant technology and media. Two decades ago, when I was working on large IT systems in the civil service, Ian Franklin and I suggested a shift from thinking about these systems as engineering interventions to a more organic, gardening-style approach. We got short shrift. Kevin Kelly took this thinking much further, and more rigorously, than I ever have in Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines… (large public sector IT systems, "out of control" — hmmm…). But I've come back to it in writing about foraging and discovery, a central metaphor in my book. And the read-across from the natural world is very clear in my work on Ken Thompson's SwarmTribes platform.

I don't claim anything unique or especially prescient about about this interest in eco/bio ways of talking about things. You could tell it was becoming commonplace, if not mainstream, when Becta announced plans for a "content ecosystem" for learning (pdf). The plans themselves were old school, top-down and centralised with negligible scope for organic evolution based on selection and feedback. Practice and terminology rarely develop in sync.

With a much grander scope than technology platforms for learning, Adam Curtis, the documentary film maker and blogger, did a demolition job on the ecosystem idea during his recent BBC series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. It's a good thing to have your cherished notions challenged and put under the microscope, particularly by someone who you might expect to be sympathetic, like Curtis. I don't think Curtis's critique is watertight, but — as Alan Kay famously said of the Macintosh user interface — it's good enough to be worth criticising.

I was on holiday when the ecosystems film (episode 2 of 3 in the series) was broadcast. I had to follow the cat-and-mouse game between YouTubers and copyright owners to see it. At the time of writing, the full episode is available here:

The film is titled "The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts". Curtis wrote his own text precis of its argument and Wikipedians offer another. There are blog posts here, here and (most interesting but mainly because it takes off in a different direction) here.

I'm going to pick out two strands of Curtis's argument and one question it seems to beg. There's more to it than this, but these are the points that most interest me in my appropriation of eco/bio terminology and concepts.

Continue reading "On ecosystems, Adam Curtis and positions of power"

13 October 02009

Counterculture, Cyberculture and Innovation: the strange case of Stewart Brand

Fred Turner: From Counterculture to CybercultureA couple of years ago, at the end of this post on the crossover between Web 2.0 and anarchism, I wrote that I'd started reading Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, and suggested I might be blogging about some of the ideas in it. Time passed; I soon forgot the ideas the book had triggered; things moved on. Then, when Nico Macdonald told me the book was up for discussion at his Innovation Reading Circle, that gave me a reason to re-engage with the book. Nico already had Joanne Jacobs lined up to give an introduction to the book, but kindly created a support slot for me to give a response to Joanne's critique. What follows is that response, plus some brief and partial notes of the discussion that followed at the Reading Circle last night.

It makes sense to read Joanne's review in full first. To try and summarise it in a nutshell, Joanne is saying that Turner's radically overstates the countercultural significance of Stewart Brand and his circle of tech-visionary associates — much of their work and ideas actually has more in common with the dominant culture than with anything genuinely subversive. And to summarise my response in a nutshell, I ask, "So what if they weren't and aren't revolutionaries? Does it take anything away from their importance?" Then I try and answer the So What question in my own way. That's enough prefacing; on with the show.

1 Counterculture? What counterculture?

1.1 Counter to what?

I'm not convinced that Fred Turner is making any claims for Brand and his associates as revolutionaries. The book is called "from Counterculture to Cyberculture" and its main narrative is one of how a bunch of ideas from the fringes of society became mainstream — through the agency or the catalyst of Brand and his eco-filofax of contacts. It's the same narrative of innovation — corporate enterprises being prepared to think out of the box to be creative and competitive — that has become orthodoxy in many circles not too far from here.

This idea of boundary objects that "both inhabit several intersecting social worlds and satisfy the informational requirements of each" has been around for a while, and I think Turner's application to Brand's story is at least plausible.

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18 September 02009

More on self-organised learning

Here's the next instalment in a 'slow conversation' with Seb Schmoller, which kicked off with my post Progressive austerity and self-organised learning, followed by a response from Seb. I think it's fair to say Seb is more cautious than me so far. He splashes a little cold water on my enthusiasm for things "lightweight" — pointing out that the institutional and technical infrastructure underpinning informal learning is far from lightweight — and worries that I underestimate the importance of accreditation. He's probably right. I'll come back to those points in a roundabout way in a bit.

But in this instalment, I want to bump the conversation along to the question of how the professional practice of people like me and Seb should change to respond to the "progressive austerity" environment. Leaving aside whether the right term is "collapse", I think we agree that business-as-usual is not an option.

Ten years ago, I was part of the team that built the original infrastructure for learndirect. The total contract value ran into eight figures. More recently, clients have been seeking to update their web portals (yes, some still use that term) and gateways rather than build from new, but there's still an implicit expectation that the cost will run comfortably into six figures.

In parallel, agile start-ups and community projects have been stitching together learning materials and peer discussion using whatever was cheap and ready-to-hand. (The Living IT project that Seb and I worked on in the '90s used listservers running on my Mac Performa, though we also had the advantage of a software partner who contributed a prototype Virtual Learning Environment.) Now the online learning ecosystem has matured, and the scope of what's cheap and ready-to-hand includes heavyweight resources like iTunes U learning materials in your pocket and MIT Open Courseware, plus tools for organising like Facebook, meetup.com and (if you need a full-scale VLE) Moodle — not to mention (still) good old email listservers. With these at your disposal, and a bit of imagination, it's possible to offer some pretty impressive learning experiences.

Large-scale, build-your-own-infrastructure learning environments are going to look like vanity projects that are hard to defend in the face of a tight squeeze on spending (arguably this lesson should have been learnt five years ago from the failures of UKeU and NHSU). Imaginative application of existing resources and infrastructure has always offered more bang for your buck. In an austere climate, that's irresistible. How can we make sure it's progressive as well? How do we retain the elements that make learning in online environments inspiring and liberating, cut away unnecessary bloat and barriers to learning, and perhaps even reform the ancillary practices around learning — including accreditation?

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21 August 02009

Progressive austerity and self-organised learning

Shake Up Your Class, by Gideon Burton

A month or so ago, my friend Guy, whose children are educated at home, treated me to one his occasional rants. "People know there's an Arms Lobby," he said, "so they're very wary about calls for more spending on Defence and question whose interests these serve. But there's an Education Lobby too, and it always wants more spent on educational initiatives and new technologies. Because it frames its proposals as Public Goods," he went on, "middle-class liberals find it harder to see through this hucksterism."

I don't think Guy was having a go at me specifically — I neither support nor participate in any formal lobbying activities in education. But I couldn't escape the fact that a good slice of my consulting income comes from public funding for educational initiatives and new technologies.

And there's no escaping the fact that that funding will not be sustained in coming years as it has been for the last decade. Earlier this year I did some work for the Learning and Skills Improvement Service. Via Seb Schmoller comes a quote from the head of a think tank under the heading of Progressive Austerity, "Any agency with the word 'improvement' in its title could probably disappear without discernible negative effects." Hmmm.

We're all programmed to learn

We all need to take responsibility for finding ways to do more with less. I'm with Guy and many in the growing Collapsonomics wing in thinking that the silver lining to this particular cloud may be not just quite substantial but also very necessary.

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13 July 02007

Is Web 2.0 a manifesto for anarchism?

Anarchy In Action book coverHere are some chapter headings from a book I read on holiday:

The Theory of Spontaneous Order
The Dissolution of Leadership
Harmony Through Complexity
Topless Federations

So was it Charles Leadbeater's latest book or Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything? Nope, it was the book on the left: a 01982 reprint of Colin Ward's Anarchy in Action, originally published in 01973.

Anarchy in Action is no call to guerilla direct action to undermine the state apparatus. But it was both radical for its time, and prescient. "Anarchists are people who make a social and political philosophy out of the natural and spontaneous tendency of humans to associate together for their mutual benefit," writes Ward near the start of the book. He goes on: "we have to build networks instead of pyramids." So are we all anarchists now, and what does it mean to be an anarchist in the era of Web 2.0? I read this book because I had a hunch that there was a common thread running through old theories and current practice, and I wanted to see how strong this thread might be.

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18 December 02006

Blogs, wikis, 'voice' and accountability

Impossible object
Photo copyright and cc-licensed
by extranoise.

In the course of writing my book, I started by describing blogs and wikis as two examples of the same thing — user-generated content. Towards the end of the book, I came up against the ways in which they are opposites: blogs reinforce individual voices, points of view and attitudes, while wikis efface this individuality and the accountability that comes with it.

Wikis have some advantages over blogs. Their design encourages users to aim for consensus, whereas the design of blogs encourages a kind of Tower-of-Babel cacophony. However, here I'm going to focus on one of the downsides of wikis. This is a philosophical piece that accompanies a more practical article over on my book blog.

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30 July 02006

Review of The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

Cover of the Long Tailignore thisIt's a measure of a term achieving zeitgeist status when people apply it liberally, even in circumstances where it doesn't really fit — as with the managers who sought to label their initiatives as Total Quality Management or Business Process Re-engineering in the nineties, even if they only half-grasped the original intention behind these terms. In the 21 months since Chris Anderson published his article on the Long Tail in Wired, this new term has come close to achieving similar status. To some extent that's a sign of its attractiveness and strength, but will it end up (forgive the almost unavoidable pun) tailing off, as TQM and BPR have done?

The Substance of the Long Tail

A quarter of the way into his book The Long Tail: How Endless Choice Is Creating Unlimited Demandignore this, Anderson explains, "The theory of the Long Tail can be boiled down to this: Our culture and economy are increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of hits (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve, and moving toward a huge number of niches in the tail."

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4 June 02006

Full versions of articles now available

Last year I posted teasers here about articles I had published on Word of Mouth Marketing and Playlisting and on Remix Culture (the articles were featured in Five Eight and The Spectator respectively).

Their value as 'exclusives' has expired, so I've published the full version of the Word of Mouth piece on my Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll blog, and the Remix piece is available as a 64 KB PDF file for download.

13 May 02006

Book announcement: Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll

People have access to vastly more music, video and other entertainment than ten years ago. In the case of music, record companies are releasing twice as many new albums per year. Not only that, but some are 'rescuing' old and deleted tracks for release in the digital marketplace.

So how do people find out about all this material? How do they judge what they might like? I'm writing a book that addresses these questions. The title is Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll: Who knows what's next in media and music in the new era of digital discovery and the download culture (the lengthy subtitle may change). It will be published next year by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, UK publishers of John Battelle's The Search and many other titles on digital enterprise and learning.

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15 December 02005

Musical Battleground — article in The Spectator

My article under the title Musical Battleground is in the arts section of the Christmas issue of The Spectator, out today. It covers the remixing potential of digital media, using the BBC Creative Archive and The Grey Album as examples. Here's an excerpt:

But are the products of this 'remix culture' any good? Though technology has made it almost embarrassingly simple to re-appropriate media in the way that Kurt Schwitters and William Burroughs did more painstakingly, few of the works made with the new tools come near to matching those predecessors. Now that the means to collage and cut-up our news, audio and video are installed in many a suburban living room, the ends of these practices seem to have been shorn of the radical, disruptive credentials that were once claimed for them.
Continue reading "Musical Battleground — article in The Spectator"

11 August 02005

Bigmouth Strikes Again — Five Eight article

My article on word-of-mouth recommendations among music fans and playlist sharing is the cover feature in the August issue of Five Eight music business magazine. Here's the introduction (written by Five Eight editor, Eamonn Forde):

Word of mouth is a term passed around the marketing playground everyday. But in a culture where the marketplace is increasingly connected, it is time to ask how these powerful and very personal phenomena can be understood and exploited. Word of mouth springs from communities — increasingly more powerful because of online and mobile — where trust is key. How can the music industry effectively work in and, crucially, with these communities and build a relationship of trust and effective recommendation systems, particularly through playlisting?

To read the full article, you need to subscribe to Five Eight.

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25 May 02005

Full article on the economics of consumer attention now available

Originally I published only a couple of paragraphs of my article on the The Economics of Consumer Attention on this site, as a 'teaser' for the full print article (published under the title One Recommendation Under a Groove). Since it's now six months old, the editor of Five Eight, where it was published, has agreed I can publish the full text myself, so here it is.

I'm currently working on a follow-up article on the subject of word-of-mouth recommendations and how they operate online, which will probably appear in the July issue of Five Eight monthly.

19 May 02005

Teaching as performance

Doug Brent has written an interesting paper in last month's First Monday on how historical trends are being played out in online education. He draws a distinction between "knowledge [or, more strictly, teaching] as performance and knowledge as thing" (emphasis in the original). Loosely speaking you could map this onto my process-versus-product distinction in e-learning.

What Brent adds to this simple opposition is an explanation of the trend towards the thing/product end of the spectrum. He follows the work of Shoshana Zuboff in seeing it as an example of the increasing recording or 'textualisation' of work, which can be traced back at least to the Scientific Management school of the early twentieth century. In this trend, work is increasingly written down in manuals and procedures, or embodied in ICT systems, so that there is less reliance on the more oral traditions of apprenticeship and learning by interacting.

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13 May 02005

Old singers, old songs

Yesterday I went to see the first of Linda Thompson's three-night series of music-hall revue shows, which cited the Cole Porter quote, "strange how potent cheap music is".

Not just potent, but — at least in some cases — much more persistent than the disposable, ephemeral stuff it was thought to be. This comes at the end of a twelve day period in which I've seen concerts by Ornette Coleman (75 years old), Mose Allison (77), and Van der Graaf Generator (a group of late-50-somethings, playing together for the first time in 28 years). Had I the inclination, I could have fitted in Little Richard (72), who also played in London last week.

Even old NME journalists are coming out in The Guardian to say it's OK for older fans to stick with the old tunes and opt out of keeping up with the zeitgeist [thanks to Five Eight for this link].

Much of this chimes with my earlier essay on Musical Youth and Middle-age Spread, which looked at demographic, technological and cultural shifts in the audience for popular music and the maturing of the pop canon. With that in mind, here are some brief review comments on the recent gigs I've seen.

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24 March 02005

What does On-Demand Media really mean?

This week Arbitron and Edison Media Research published a report of their research survey on Internet and multimedia usage, The On-demand Media Consumer. The headline result being quoted is that "One in ten Americans show a heavy preference to control their media and entertainment". Reading the summary report, however, suggests that this conclusion is not warranted by the data.

This article covers the flaws in interpretation in the report, and then suggests some distinctions that might form the basis for a more sophisticated approach.

The biggest problem is that the researchers constructed a scale which they say "represents the level of control that consumers exercise on their own media usage", and most of the report is based on correlations with this scale. If you look at the fourteen items that were used to make up this scale, it's clear that these are just measures of adoption of the latest gadgets and technologies (e.g. owning a BlackBerry®, or a portable DVD player, having watched or listened streamed video or radio online in the past month, spending seven hours or more on the Internet per week). Not for these researchers the methodological rigours of testing the reliability of their scale using Cronbach's alpha or other established disciplines.

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23 March 02005

New learning styles for digital environments

Chris Dede has an interesting article in a recent issue of EDUCAUSE on how new generations are approaching learning in new ways as they take for granted web, email, instant messaging and mobile communications, distributed knowledge and associational webs of representations. He uses the term 'neomillennial learning styles' though he is not using 'learning styles' in quite the traditional sense or that attributed to theorist David Kolb.

Many people have written about the changes to teaching, tutoring and mentoring styles that e-learning brings into play. These can be summed up by saying that tutors are no longer positioned as the founts and guardians of knowledge, and become conduits for knowledge from multiple sources, or facilitators of learners constructing their own understandings. (And, yes, before anyone says anything, I know that this shift was already under way in learning theory for a decade or two before e-learning took off.)

The learning styles that Dede suggests, based on his (non-empirical) review, do not break ranks with this, but show the other side of the coin.

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16 March 02005

E-learning for music technology

Failures are interesting. It's often said that we would learn more if we spoke more about our failures. But no-one really wants to look bad in public so they just publish their 'little' failures. Like this one, which didn't crash and burn, it wasn't aborted, or even stillborn, because it never got 'fertilised' and never got off the ground.

In 02003 I attended two courses on the SuperCollider environment and programming language for real-time audio synthesis. Despite the best efforts of my teachers, Nick Collins, Fredrik Olofsson and Fabrice Mogini, I never got the hang of it. And I was in good company: other musicians on the courses — people I've paid to see perform — either dropped out or said months later that they were still struggling to get a purchase on how to apply SuperCollider in their work. In my case, the lack of both programming background and any grasp of music/synthesis theory, combined with poor discipline in working on SuperCollider outside of the course sessions, did for me pretty comprehensively.

But that's not the failure I was going to write about.

Continue reading "E-learning for music technology"

19 February 02005

What's wrong with e-learning: product and process

My posting yesterday turned into a bit of a rant in places, particularly on the subject of educational games. Today's is part spill-over of that rant, and part explanation of it.

Leaving aside the disingenuous and diffident aspects of smuggling learning under the cloak of 'fun', what I really want to say is that e-learning should leave space for learners (and, where applicable, their tutors) to re-negotiate the learning process as it unfolds. Learning providers should accept the degree to which this entails some loss of control.

The prevailing model in the market for e-learning is to design it as a product rather than a process. What do I mean by this? I mean that the interaction through which people learn is coded into the bits and bytes of the learning material, rather than being formulated as more open-ended activities that allow learners and tutors to improvise and make up their own interactions. E-learning in the guise of games is one example; e-learning that aims to emulate the production values of television is another, following the Video Arts example — as though adding 'celebrity sauce', by hiring a famous face to shoot a sketch or two, makes the learning more enticing and effective.

Continue reading "What's wrong with e-learning: product and process"

13 January 02005

Musical youth and middle-age spread

Is the cultural role of pop music maturing, or is it stuck in perpetual puberty? Has it usurped and squandered the 'shop window' profile that used to be reserved for more deserving artforms? Or is it just that, as it has moved into mainstream acceptance, it has lost its bite, its ability to express difference or opposition?

Fifty years after Elvis first had hits, the rock'n'roll energy that he brought to a white audience for the first time has been absorbed back into a tradition of 'folk music' in the broadest sense, with the effect that this tradition is now less starkly segregated in terms of race and, to a lesser degree, of age. The wave that brought Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, and later punk and hip-hop, has broken, and we're now into a period of consolidation.

I'm going to argue that it was a combination of demographic, economic, technological and cultural factors that led to the birth of rock'n'roll — as distinct from folk/blues, pop and dancehall — and it is a similar combination that's leading to its re-integration. I'm also going to draw in different ways on two articles: one by David Hepworth in Word Magazine on listening habits across generations (this article is not available on line) and one by Michael Henderson in The Spectator decrying pop music as culturally juvenile.

Continue reading "Musical youth and middle-age spread"

9 December 02004

The limitations of search for supporting learning

Search engines have a high profile on the web, and understandably so. The web changes faster than any human attempt to catalogue it. For most people's purposes in answering specific questions, Google works most of the time — which is a recipe for success.

But the kind of success Google has enjoyed, and the way it has become a part of every web user's vocabulary as well as habits, can create a kind of tunnel vision (the kind where the only tool you have is a hammer, and every problem looks like a nail). Search facilities are necessary and important tools for rich learning resources, and particularly archives, but they have weaknesses, and are by no means sufficient without complementary ways of discovering new material.

As a complement to search, any service that aims to support learning should have some mechanisms for guiding learners (though this doesn't mean constraining them) to explore particular routes.

Continue reading "The limitations of search for supporting learning"

11 November 02004

The economics of consumer attention

Here's the beginning of an article I've written for the current issue of Five Eight — for the full article, please subscribe to Five Eight monthly.

A recent survey by The Guardian asked the question "Where do you go to find out what music to listen to?" Of the sixteen options they listed as possible answers, over a third are web-based and did not exist a decade ago. What's more, these online channels are themselves fragmented, each jockeying for listeners' attention.
So where should the industry invest its money and effort to reach its target audience? The economics of consumer attention suggest strategies that target 'trusted intermediaries' to build profile and reputation. Only when an act already has an established reputation capable of guaranteeing attention is going direct to the audience a reliable tactic. [excerpt ends]

[Update 25 May 02005: Five Eight's editor has kindly agreed that this article is now a 'catalogue' item and can be published here in its entirety, so here it is (including links not available in the print version!).]

Continue reading "The economics of consumer attention"

9 November 02004

Outline for social software to enhance personal media collections

I had an idea today for a bit of software and/or web-based service that would combine the features of cataloguing all your personal media collection (CD, DVD, digital files of various formats) and linking each item to the commentary (reviews, interviews, fan comments) that may enrich your experience of the song, album or film. This would combine the database functions of software like Media Catalog Studio with the facilities for sharing and 'social tagging' of resources offered by del.icio.us and Flickr.

It would enable you to compile your own 'boxed set' for your favourite albums, artists and films: the core media content that you've acquired through normal retail channels, plus the 'extras' that you and others have compiled to go with it.

Continue reading "Outline for social software to enhance personal media collections"

28 October 02004

Towards a taxonomy of 'making of' features

I'm reading Ashley Kahn's A Love Supreme: the Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album, and finding it fascinating. Kahn provides pictures of his sources, from the handwritten covers of the session tapes to the records of which musicians got paid how much for each session. The album was conceived in '64 and released in '65, just like I was, and the book recreates the cultural era of another time, place and race.

Which leads me to ponder what makes a valuable essay on the making of an artwork. Particularly in the DVD age, these 'making of' accounts are increasingly common. Here's a list of a few I've come across — mostly recent ones, with no claims to be the best in their field — and what I think distinguishes them.

Continue reading "Towards a taxonomy of 'making of' features"

30 August 02004

Building a wiki learning resource

Over the last month I've built a web site that allows me to test out a few ideas about collaborative and 're-mixable' learning resources. And to indulge a passion for The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, my favourite album.

69 Love Songs information is a 'wiki' site. I've touched on wikis briefly before. The technology — which allows many people to edit the content of web pages without knowledge of HTML or restricted logins etc — has been around for several years, though its adoption has remained most enthusiastic with the technical community. I have found one other wiki site devoted to a cultural artefact or artist — a sophisticated site for They Might Be Giants with over 70 contributors — if you know of others, please let me know.

The rest of this posting covers how the site is built and develops, what its potential for learning might be, and the limitations that I have either hit already or expect to hit.

Continue reading "Building a wiki learning resource"

24 August 02004

The job I'm aiming for

It's time to come clean about the motivation behind the many articles on this site about how people learn about, and consume, music online. Yes, I am angling for work in this area. My interests are in a niche music-and-learning opportunity that I believe will emerge over the next few years.

Right now this is probably some way from being viable enough to pay anyone a serious salary. In the medium to long term, I feel my mix of experience makes me particularly well suited to being a part of a team that could deliver a full product/service, but I'd need collaborators — both individuals with complementary skills and organisations that might offer alliances and help develop a 'route to market'.

Continue reading "The job I'm aiming for"

28 July 02004

Preliminary sketch for online music listener research

What kind of data do you need to cut a swathe through all the commentators and tell you whether music download services are really going to spell the end of the album? Or whether on-demand features will change the relationship between listening to new music and owning it?

Notching up each extra zero on the end of the iTunes Music Store sales figures only gives you an impression of aggregate growth of this particular kind of service, the rate of growth, and market share relative to comparable services. This data will tell you that, in the next few years, more people are going to be downloading music, and the relative success of different services will wax and wane — which is not news really.

So I did some no-budget research and collected some data, based on the Last.FM service, the results of which ask more questions than they answer, but this process clarifies what further data would be useful.

Continue reading "Preliminary sketch for online music listener research"

7 July 02004

BBC 6 Music and usability of archives

The campaign to lobby for the BBC Creative Archive is principally concerned with the form in which the archive material is made available, and specifically whether this is 'open' enough to allow (re)use for non-commercial purposes. My lobby is also to consider how the 'user interface' to this massive archive is made usable enough to ensure that everyday Jo(e) Punter can extract some value from it without needing to expend the time and energy that a researcher or artist might be prepared to commit.

The BBC's first digital radio station, 6 Music, is committed to digging up and re-presenting many of the amazing recordings they have in their archive. This week it has re-launched it most archive-based programme — the Dream Ticket, which replays recordings of live gigs and a few BBC sessions — in a tacit acknowledgement that the original format wasn't working. I think one of the problems was that it was serving up the archives in 'lumps' that were too large to be indigestible to the casual listener. The new format breaks the archives down into more refined grains, though this has cons as well as pros.

Continue reading "BBC 6 Music and usability of archives"

17 May 02004

Authorial archiving

One more perspective on my current pre-occupation with cultural collections and how we learn from them… Robert Fripp's diary entries for 7th and 14th May 02004 chart his current work on what appears to be a multi-volume archive: The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson; Crimson being Fripp's on-again/off-again band for the last 35 years.

Amidst his notes on the scope of the project and associated web site, I like Fripp's characteristically sanguine yet fatalistic assessment: "Commitment: Likely to be 1-2 days a week on an ongoing basis. Riches, Fame, Wealth: Unlikely for anyone." (See my earlier posting about Fripp's lessons of running artist-focused businesses.) This is different kind of undertaking from Tom Phillips' collection of postcards, but it's kind of fun to compare them.

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16 May 02004

Learning from Tom Phillips: We are the people

Sample postcard from We Are The People exhibition - click to enlargeFrom abstract theorising about cultural collections to concrete practice. Tom Phillips currently has 1,000 (out of his collection of 50,000) postcards on display at the National Portrait Gallery, as part of an exhibition called We Are The People.

Alongside the exhibition, Phillips guides how people can interpret and learn from the collection. There is a book with essays by himself and others, as well as shorter articles and an audio interview on his web site. The web resources also help put the exhibition in the context of Phillips' long-term artistic engagement with postcards.

This is not just a case of an artist switching hats to become a part-time archivist and interpreter. The collection and exhibition are also about collecting and interpreting, for much of Phillips' work is concerned with layers of meaning and the chance connections that occur when you pile one layer on top of another, endlessly. Playful means lead him to serious ends and vice-versa.

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8 March 02004

Doubts about models for listening to music in the future

I've been reflecting more on my claim that online radio is the model for listening to music in the future, helped by a range of exchanges with others.

Being sceptical I've so far come up with four types of reasons why my bold conjecture might come unstitched:

  • Socio-Cultural;
  • Economics of Technologies;
  • Economics of Rights Management;
  • Aesthetics.

Of these I think the first and last are most interesting (but then I'm not a techie or a lawyer, so no surprise there).

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29 February 02004

Why online radio is the model for listening to music in the future

At the RSA Music and Technology Event last month, Paul Sanders of State 51 described a scenario ten years from now where more music than you could listen to in a lifetime will be available on demand wherever you want it (at home, on the street, in your car). As he elaborated, the question then becomes, How do you facilitate listener choice in this world of ubiquitous music?

Paul rightly pointed out that the collaborative filtering systems used by Amazon et al to make recommendations to consumers are tiresomely predictable ("Customers who bought music by Bryan Ferry also bought music by Roxy Music and David Bowie" — you don't say!). My instinct in the face of the limitations of artificial intelligence is to replace it with human intelligence (see my justification for this). So, hey presto, in place of filtering technology we've just invented the disc jockey.

And then there's the question of how you pay for your access to this ubiquitous music. Perhaps a far-sighted government would set up a corporation to manage and develop this incredibly rich resource as an asset for the public good. Citizens with the equipment to access the resource might pay a license fee. So, hey presto, we've just invented the BBC.

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9 November 02003

Transnational Institutions and Sovereignty

Prompted by David Rieff's article in October's issue of Prospect magazine and his talk at the RSA this last week — both on the subject of an alleged crisis of legitimacy in the United Nations — here are a few notes on transnational institutions and the redefinition of state sovereignty.

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1 November 02003

Agent-based user interfaces for collaboration

Today I dug out an old academic-style paper I wrote in 1992, On the Definition and Desirability of Autonomous User Agents in CSCW, and put a web version in my archives section. (CSCW stands for Computer-Supported Co-operative Work.)

I think the paper still stands up fairly well as a critique of the idea that our computers will one day have faces and talk back to us (and each other) as though they were independent, anthropomorphic beings. Computers that appear like people are still a novelty item — see Ananova, the virtual newscaster for example — which thankfully behave with none of the autonomy that characterises real people. Since 1992 research has progressed on software agents, which carry out some tasks quasi-autonomously using artificial intelligence techniques, but a review of the MIT Software Agents Group's list of projects shows that these are rarely if ever presented as autonomous beings on the user interface.

The trigger that prompted me to re-visit this old paper will be made clear in my next posting.

22 October 02003

More on the Future of Music

Following my earlier posting about projecting the experience of music into the future, there's an article by Adam Sweeting in the current RSA Journal with projections for how recorded music will be bought and sold [link to RSA Journal current issue page | download article directly].

I think some of the arguments in the article are guilty of being dazzled by technological determinism. The most interesting parts relate to new organisational structures and practices.

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17 October 02003

Life After Fire: Werner Herzog

I've made a couple of additions to the Werner Herzog weblinks that I originally collected and curated a couple of years ago for the Showroom cinema. [Update, 02005: I'm no longer maintaining the Showroom weblinks site, but have transferred and updated all the links in my Werner Herzog Archive on Furl.]

You might not want to live in Herzog's world all the time, but you shouldn't forget it's there, and you should visit regularly. I've also added minor postscripts to the notes I wrote about Herzog in 2001, as well as a few new entries to my list of favourite Herzog quotes.

12 October 02003

#2 My Neil Young Archives

The second of my articles about Neil Young from thirteen-or-so years ago is now available on this site, again in slightly revised form. See my earlier posting for details of the history of these articles.

30 September 02003

#1 My Neil Young Archives

Over fifteen years ago, I spent some evenings and weekends writing a couple of articles about Neil Young. I was particularly interested in demonstrating the links between some of his 'genre' songs and particular approaches to film-making, which seemed to influence some of his work.

These articles were published in the Broken Arrow Neil Young fanzine and its 'best of' compendium, and were subsequently cited in a Neil Young biography (I was chuffed to find my name in the index between Jefferson Airplane and Jennings, Waylon!).

I spent part of last weekend producing a revised version of the first of these articles, aiming to correct some errors of emphasis in the original. If you have any interest in Neil Young, please have a read of the article and post a comment about it here. The companion article will follow onto this site in a few weeks.