Crowd-sourced insights into the Victorian workhouse

The UK National Archives have just released the 19th Century Poor Law Union and Workhouse Records. The history of workhouses in the UK is a typically Victorian approach to social problems. From the archive introduction:

The Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced in 1834, centralising the poor relief administrative system. Previously, poor relief had been largely the responsibility of the parish. Expenditure had risen during the Napoleonic Wars and local rate payers and authorities decided that looking after paupers was too costly. […] The new system was expected to reduce expenditure, using a harsh workhouse test. Claimants would be ‘offered the house’, but if they turned it down then the legal obligation to offer relief was considered to have been met.

The workhouse was partly social ‘support’, but also a deterrent. People would refuse the workhouse because they were so afraid of it and instead starved to death outside. It’s an unusual archive because normally history only records the activities of the wealthy and privileged, but this gives and insight into the lives of those who were at the bottom of the pile:

Apart from the fascinating stories (see video below), the whole project relied heavily on crowd-sourcing it to volunteers, without which the National Archive wouldn’t have had the resources to complete the project, according to Paul Carter the Archives’ principal modern domestic record’s specialist. Volunteers – local history and family groups, academics and historians – were given access to the archive in order catalogue the material and send this back to the archive.

Here is Paul Carter with an introduction to some of the stories from the archive:

You Don’t Know Jack lives again

A long, long time ago in the early days of ‘multimedia’ most games available were stilted click-throughs of badly rendered 3D images. The exception was the highly successful Myst, a stilted click through of really well rendered 3D worlds with some annoyingly good puzzles thrown in. The problem was that CD-ROM drives were slow (you know that 48x written on your drive? 1 x was 150 KB/s – maybe you’re too young to remember…). Slowness meant that big graphics took ages to load or you had to transfer the contents of the CD to your hard drive, but with a hard drive not much bigger than the contents of a CD-ROM, this wasn’t always possible.

Then, in 1995, came a game called You Don’t Know Jack (YDKJ) by a company called Jellyvision that, along with Gerad Van Der Kaap’s BlindRom, was exactly the way I felt multimedia should be – swift, amusing, surprising and seamless. Jellyvision cleverly chose a TV quiz show format that wasn’t graphic intensive. Instead of tiny, stuttering video clips of a presenter, they relied on a spankingly crisp and razor sharp audio track of the quizmaster, Cookie. With some clever background loading as well as some brilliant writing, the game still feels better than many equivalents today and this was 15 years ago.

The other aspect of YDKJ that most other quiz’s missed was it’s acknowledgement of the medium. It didn’t try to pretend it was a real TV show, but used the trappings of a show while making nods to the computer it was running on. As the CD-ROM loaded we were treated to the sound of the show’s band practicing, the floor manager calling out for everyone to get ready and to “kill the Desktop”, which was the equivalent of killing the lights and, of course, your Desktop went black and you were in the world of the show. Then the title music rolled and Cookie introduced himself and the show. In terms of the interactive experience, you didn’t feel like you were outside the show, but in it. It’s a subtle difference with a huge effect on the sense of engagement.

The first CD-ROM was Mac and Windows, but then it ended up as a Windows only series for a while and I thought it had died. Then, while hoping they might make a version for iOS (it would be great), I stumbled upon the You Don’t Know Jack website, which seems to have a cult following. Best of all, they offer a (slightly cut-down) version of the game online and you can embed it, so here it is:

Core77 Columnista

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I’m very pleased to have been asked to be a columnist for the Core77 blog. It’s been in the works for a few weeks, but my recent trip to Ethiopia and our new daughter delayed my ability to get down to some writing.

I’ve long been a fan of “industrial design supersite” Core77 (now re-taglined with “design magazine & resource). They have consistently grown Core77 into a rich location for design articles and insights as well as providing great resources such as the Coroflot portfolio and job board and the Core77 Design Directory. They’ve managed some great scoops, such as their rare interview with Jonathan Ive on the design of the iPhone 4.

I have contributed to the Core77 broadcasts in the past (Nik Roope, Hector Serrano, Troika,Jason Bruges, and Matt Clark from UVA) as well as a few other articles, such as 19 Books Every Professional Should Own, A peek inside the Revo Heritage and Talk to the hand: Dan Saffer and gestural interfaces. So it’s nice to become a more regular contributor in the form of a columnist (a Columnista sounds more glamourous, don’t you think?).

With other columnists including Bill Moggridge and Liz Danzico, I feel I’m in far better company than I deserve.

My opening piece argues for access, not ownership of products as not only a more sustainable approach to production and consumerism, but also for a better customer experience.