Aug 01 2011

Visualizing communities

There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.
Raymond Williams

Who are the masses that the “mass media” speaks to? What can it mean to ask what “teachers” or “blacks” or “the people” of a country think? These words are all fiction, a shorthand which covers over our inability to understand large groups of unique individuals. Real people don’t move in homogeneous herds, nor can any one person be neatly assigned to a single category. Someone might view themselves simultaneously as the inhabitant of a town, a new parent, and an active amateur astronomer. Now multiply this by a million, and imagine trying to describe the overlapping patchwork of beliefs and allegiances.

But patterns of association leave digital traces. Blogs link to each other, we have “friends” and “followers” and “circles,” we share interesting tidbits on social networks, we write emails, and we read or buy things. We can visualize this data, and each type of visualization gives us a different answer to the question “what is a community?” This is different from the other ways we know how to describe groups. Anecdotes are tiny slices of life that may or may not be representative of the whole, while statistics are often so general as to obscure important distinctions. Visualizations are unique in being both universal and granular: they have detail at all levels, from the broadest patterns right down to individuals. Large scale visualizations of the commonalities between people are, potentially, a new way to represent and understand the public — that is, ourselves.

I’m going to go through the major types of community visualizations that I’ve seen, and then talk about what I’d like to do with them. Like most powerful technologies, large scale visualization is a capability that can also be used to oppress and to sell. But I imagine social ends, worthwhile ways of using visualization to understand the “public” not as we imagine it, but as something closer to how we really exist.

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Jul 22 2009

Making Things out of Fire

Last week I helped to crew a large piece of fire art called 2πr at The Crucible‘s Fire Arts Festival in Oakland. G4 TV did a segment on the show, and that’s me in the spiffy black coat, trying to come up with equally spiffy comebacks over the WHUMP! of our sixteen flame geysers.

All of the art at the festival is what might be called “home made.” It more or less has to be, because there isn’t really a category for “consumer fire art.” Every piece at the festival was there by the love and ingenuity of its inventor-artist-builders. This is fun, but it might also represent an important do-it-yourself philosophy, a technological anti-consumerism.

Just to be clear, I did not conceive, design, or build 2πr. That honor belongs to Nicole Aptekar, Reed Kennedy, and Mella Piercey. But I work with them as a member of the Oakland arts collective Interpretive Arson, and I’ve been involved in making or running a number of different arty, firey projects (such as the infamous Dance Dance Immolation). Judging by the huge number of other projects at the Fire Arts Festival, and the even more widespread attendance at the annual Maker Faire DIY technology expositions, I am far from unique in my geeky, makey proclivities.

If technology is one of the major sources of power in the world, then it is vital that we make it democratic. Technology demands specialized knowledge and experience; it is usually seen as something belonging to an elite or privileged cadre, something not the concern of the average citizen. In reality, technology is easier to learn about than it has ever been, stupendously hackable, reasonably cheap, and lends itself to entire subcultures of experimentation and play. And I think we really want and need our modern citizens to play with and learn about technology. Although technology has not universally been a blessing, ignorance of powerful things is far more dangerous than their knowledge.

Is throwing huge plumes of fire into the night a part of this? Most certainly yes! When I’m not just going WHEEEE! I see at least three interesting lessons in the tale of the Fire Arts Festival:

First, fire art is is real technology. It requires computers and software, pushes the limits of DIY manufacturing techniques, and must be designed and constructed with real engineering, because compressed flammable gasses are none too forgiving of sloppiness.

Second, the very notion of do-it-yourself fire art for public consumption can challenge the way we think about safety, responsibility, and risk. In the first world in general and in the litigious United States in particular — a country which suffers not only from an overdeveloped sense of tort law but also from  liability concerns arising from lack of universal health care — we tend to believe that it is someone else’s job to keep us safe. To a certain degree this is true, and that’s why certification and regulation and signs that warn us about high voltage can be a good idea. But ultimately the responsibilities and tradeoffs of safety and risk must be personal, and the process of designing and building a fire toy for the general public to play with makes this stunningly clear. Likewise, the act of playing with someone else’s dangerous game can lead you to think carefully about why you should believe that this or any other activity is safe — and whether it’s ok anyway. Like traveling to a different country where the citizens have made strikingly different risk tradeoffs (and you can ride on top of the trains), interacting with dangerous art pushes us outside of known territory, forcing us to become aware of the millions of safety choices that have already been made for us.

Finally, art is an end in itself. I once heard a critic of 60′s counterculture quip, “is face painting and free dope the best that they can offer?” I think this critic lived a joyless life. Yes, the democratization of technology is an important effect of “maker” culture. But that’s not why we do it.

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Jun 24 2008

Community Then and Now

The notion of community is changing, or perhaps community needs to become a notion. It used to be that community came for free. It was something you were born into by virtue of geography or biology, village and family. But now all the kids have moved away from their parents; now the subdivision has replaced the neighborhood. If we want community now — and of course we do — then we have to make it ourselves.

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