The container is not the shipping

Safe to say I’m the other side of that infrastructure phase of the last couple of years. Constant exposure to shipping containers and train cars and blah blah blah… they’re all just objects.

Shunt’s The Boy Who Climbed Out Of His Own Face put the nail in the coffin. Set on a collection of shipping containers, it staged a sequence of excessive capitalist spectacles probably in order to make you question the system you’re involved in. Except it doesn’t, because it spits you out into a pop-up bar besides the river. It tries to have its cake and eat it. Crumbs everywhere.

Fetishising the boxes doesn’t make the network better legible. It doesn’t make the consequences of zero-sum consumerism any more apparent. The node is not the network.

Norwegian rigour

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I remember, at Improving Reality last year, Russell remarking that the important thing about Timo, Jørn and Einar is that their approach isn’t ‘Aren’t these new technologies and infrastructures scary?’ but ‘Aren’t these new technologies and infrastructures full of possibility?’ It makes for good, compelling work from lovely, smart people.

The Scandos have released a new thing, Satellite Lamps, an investigation into the material of GPS. It’s very good, again. It pokes the bruise from last year’s Brighton Digital Festival, that these networks and systems need to be more legible.

More than that though, it explores the process of making the lamps. There’s an excellent moment the essay leads you too, where the team realise;

We have made something that is beautiful, understandable and exciting.

Right after reading I got round to watching a Peter Saville interview Guy linked to a few days back. He describes the work of most design as;

Finding ways to cleverly articulate someone else’s message.

Which feels textbook, and probably spot on. Of course, he follows that up by talking about how his didn’t do that, but nevermind…

While the Satellite Lamps do cleverly articulate the ‘message’ of GPS, their process of ‘finding ways’ to do that feels like a mission. It’s driven by a desire to not just uncover the effect of a network, but represent it in a meaningful, legible and resonant way.

There are many, many ways they could have settled on presenting this work. Instead they took a stringent, academic route to find the right way of doing it. It’s rigourous. And that’s not something necessarily built in to most of the work I encounter, let alone do.

Blank spaces

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Frames for where ads are supposed to be. I keep noticing these in stations beyond zone 3, or on platforms that aren’t quite London and aren’t quite the place you’re getting to. It’s quite nice.

Massively networked Blue Ant

On one level, subsuming “advertising” into “solving our clients’ business problems” is all fine and well – but agencies would do well to remember that often, their clients are asking them to solve their business problems *in the context of advertising*. And even though it may well be ill-defined these days with less of a clear-cut line and more of a gradient, more often than not, “solving a client’s business problem” in the advertising context means solving a communication problem *as well as* getting the attention of someone in the first place.

That’s a lot of problems to be solved.

This struck me from the latest edition of Dan Hon’s newsletter. No extra thoughts, just a placeholder for now. A placeholder prompted in part by just having finished Zero History again.

I like Dan’s newsletter. I don’t read all of it – no-one alive could – but dipping in and out it’s super interesting to watch themes and thinking slosh about. I like how he thinks about advertising. I like how he looks at our work at GDS (even if it’s not always on target). And I like how it all collides with pop culture in such a fluid way.

Forecasts and delivery

A couple of months ago I made a few short videos. Two made it to Vimeo – I thought I’d uploaded a third, but it was all kinds of corrupted – and I sort of forgot about them.

They’re sketches of something I wanted to build; a script that would pull a given friend’s social media output for a week, stick it in a corpus with a recent MetOffice shipping forecast, and generate a Markov ‘forecast’.

It’s a spiritual companion to Russell’s Science Story Magic. I enjoy that as a vision of what something like Twitter might become – probably already is for people with screenreaders – but I look at the automation of services and I wonder if we might end up with human surplus leaking out in things like this instead. Humanising the algos.

A near future where we commonly apply emotion to artificial things seems more likely, to me, than one where we’re comfortable with the mechanisation of emotional things.

And my primary reference for that is the shipping forecast. It’s a machine generated output. Raw data, rendered emotional and poetical in the retelling.

Process wise, these were about as clumsy as you could get. The camera was set to record something for a few minutes, the background sounds slowed or removed entirely. I lobbed hastily cut-and-paste versions of several friends tweets and the day’s shipping forecast into Cheney, a browser-based Markov generator that Armitage threw together. I then toggled the settings until something useful was spat out. I used the dictation mic I have to record those as a voiceover and exported the results – badly.

Oh, and something half-remembered – I wish I had the photo to hand – but about five years ago I found a book in a phone box in New York that contained table after table of out-of-date statistical information about the price of various minerals or metals.

The book was thick and the title richly embossed, and picking it up it carried a Biblical weight. You could preach from it, and I did. The delivery changed utterly the words inside (see also the Lee-Morgan Method).

I left it, a month later, in a flat in Montreal.

Talkwriting

Just typed this in an email and I’m popping it here so I don’t forget it…

Talkwriting is a different discipline than speechwriting (possibly). You’re using a handful of words and pictures to create a space into which someone can be themselves at an audience. I’m learning that that’s a much more precise skill than I thought it was, because I used to create that space for me instead of someone else.

Not totally sure that’s right, but it’s near it. And, obviously, by ‘Talk’ I mean ‘Keynote’. Still, the thing I’d really like to do this year is spend a bit of time with actual speechwriters.

Pages lost

Last Friday I talked at The Design of Understanding about comics, specifically two futures for the medium that I’ve been processing for the last year or so. It seemed to go down pretty well, so I thought I’d put the gist of it here and link to a bunch of the things I referenced so the folks who went can buy some things.

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The basics

I rattled through McCloud’s concept ‘closure in quick-smart time; comics happen when readers comprehend panels and the spaces between them both as parts and a whole. The page, then, is the fundamental unit of a comic. By controlling the format of the sequence – by putting images on a page in a particular way – you begin guiding the reader through the narrative.

That gives creators a lot of room for spectacular feats – I used Young Avengers, One Soul and Hawkeye #11 as examples here – which play with the 150 year-old toolkit comic creators have to hand.

Here’s a thing though; the multiplicity of digital platforms – and the variety of potential reading experiences therein – shatter the certainty of the page.

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The page is fucked. It’s not coming back. If you’re telling a story that’s available online then you no longer control the layout the reader sees. They’re tapping and swiping and pinching-and-zooming their way through your work, many of them without ever seeing the page as a whole and a few of them experiencing your stories only single-panel by single-panel.

The panel is now the fundamental unit of the comic

That’s a big change. Completely shifts the reader’s relationship with time and narrative. Very hard to come to terms with. On a basic level, it means creators may end up defaulting to Rupert-like stories comprised of flexible sequencing and extra bits of narrative that can be picked up or dropped on demand. But it also means you can treat the web like a page. Meanwhile‘s a great example of that, as is XKCD’s ‘Time’.

‘Time’ is actually an incredible thing; I didn’t watch it unfold religiously, but with gaps of hours or days between panels. That meant I was experiencing a radically altered form of closure where the imagined spaces between panels had a profound effect on my interpretation of the story. Now, of course, you can go to Time at your own pace and watch it as an animation. But that’s not how I experienced it. I came in alone to each panel, bringing my own gaps and imagined spaces and context, to experience it as a comic through time. You will never have what I had.

Tears in the rain

Thing is though, the web’s a flighty beast. Try reading Philippa Rice’s ‘Leaving’ now. It blew my mind when I first read it as it does today… right util the part where the links take you to MySpace and the trail runs cold. That’s not Philippa’s fault – that’s the goddamn web we built.

It’s not just the web. Try reading Chris Ware’s comic for the McSweeny’s app after updating to iOS7. SPOLIERS: You can’t.

Touch sensitive

The brilliant stories that make use of the possibilities of digital technology will fall victim to the obsolescence of that technology. And that’s okay; lots of what I experience here – online – is ephemeral, just as all the comics I’ve given away and traded in or sold have been lost to me. But I keep the issues of comics I think will matter to me, that I love. I need to get better at doing the same for the things I love online.

On a personal note, I’ve spent a year wondering what my relationship to the medium is. I’m too busy to do much about it – GDS occupies my brain to an astounding degree – but I know it can’t just be about making things that seal stories in print. But I’m also not sure how comfortable I am that the long-term future of any story I make for the web comes down to hoping that someone clicks ‘Save Image To Desktop’.

The future, then; the death of the page will mean some brilliant, beautiful experimental stories are going to blossom, but we’ll lose many of them – most, in fact – to the fluctuating rhythms of the network they’re published on.

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And finally…

This post skips a bunch of things I referenced in the talk, so here they are…
Robin and Young Justice
Lizzie Stewart’s webcomics
Cafe Suada by Jade Sarson
Kate Beaton’s comics and her holiday diary
Come in Alone and Freakangels by Warren Ellis
Leila Johnson’s ‘The Trouble With Comics’
Paper Science
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