Understanding VORN and the work of Jon Harris

The article I wrote about Jonathan Harris is out in Desktop now. Go buy it!

Harris was the creator of the brilliant 10×10 site, which gives a snapshot of current images and words in the news across the web. He also created a similar work called Understanding Vorn.

I noticed a lot of activity on Blogdex about his information graphics work he did at Princeton University’s International Networks Archive. Good for him, his work is great.

Jonathan Harris on the Creative Review Blog


I seem to have been writing about Jonathan Harris rather a lot recently. Following the piece on Flash on the Beach I wrote in Creative Review in November, an interview I did with Harris has just been published on the Creative Review blog.

He had some interesting things to say about the nature of software and blogging in terms of human experience – surprising, perhaps, given his use of both of those technologies in We Feel Fine. We were discussing the nature of blogging and its lack of emotional context on the micro level and I felt that the snippets of blog posts in We Feel Fine reminded me of the beauty of found objects and notes that are usually removed from their context. Harris replied:

“The reason why that touches is you is because micro is beautifully done. A found object is powerful because you found it in the gutter. If you saw a digital representation of the picture with the text in 12pt Times New Roman it wouldn’t have the same nostalgia, it would be like a blog post.”

Whilst I was at my parents over Christmas, I dug through all my old photos and I know it was a very different feeling from browsing my Lightroom archive. I wonder what kind of experience it will be for my grandchildren, or whether I will have generated so much digital data that they won’t even bother.

It is an issue that really hasn’t been dealt with much, but is going to be a future headache and/or interaction and user experience challenge. It is an issue much like wondering what will happen to my online presences in the event of my death. For some reason I have been thinking about this quite a bit recently – I have some ideas for potential solutions, but they would need funding and security expertise that I don’t have, should anyone out there be interested in taking this further.

Jonathan Harris at Flash on the Beach 08

Jonathan Harris’s talk at Flash on the Beach caused quite a stir this year. Originally titled The Art of Surveillance and Self-Exposure, he altered the last section to Beyond Flash (slides here) arguing that “there have been no masterpieces” in Flash (and he included his own work here).

I recorded the session, which you can listen to below to decide for yourself. (Due to a technical human error, the first couple of minutes are missing):

[audio:http://www.polaine.com/playpen/podcasts/jonharris_fotb08.mp3] (Direct download – 35MB)

He also suggested that the Flash community has become too absorbed in technical tinkering at the cost of ideas, and that’s probably the part that angered most people, so much so that he decided to write a response.

Whilst some attendees took a lot away from the talk, several prominent people in the Flash community such as Peter Elst, Keith Peters and Erik Natzke took exception to either the message or the delivery with many accusing Harris of arrogance.

I’m not convinced by many of those responses.

I’ve known Jonathan and his work for some time and interviewed or written about him quite often. I’m preparing a profile on him for Creative Review right now, so I got the chance to catch up with him directly after his talk. I find him far from arrogant, rather he is quiet and thoughtful about both life and his work.

Calling someone arrogant is the easiest way to avoid any truth in what they have to say and dismiss the value of it and them. Another tack was to dismiss him as “some artist” with his head in the clouds and no idea of commercial realities, but Harris has done his fair share of commercial work and until recently was Design Director at daylife.

The Flash community is often unaware of much of the history of interactive media. Over the years I’ve seen many, many re-inventions of the wheel. Some of it is about seeing whether a prior work or technique is now possible in Flash, but a lot of it claims to be “new” when it isn’t, even some of the most celebrated pieces.

The truth is, there hasn’t been anything much that has been a paradigm shift coming out of the Flash world for a long time. Carlos Ulloa’s Papervision3D and André Michelle’s Audiotool are both technically brilliant, but what is impressive is that is was possible to create in Flash, not that they are a paradigm shift from Sega Rally or Reason. There are plenty of other examples too.

The question should be, what does making any of this in Flash bring that no other format could bring to the project? It could be file size, it could be openness or the fact that it is free (which is probably the biggest aspect of Audiotool, for example).

But something like Harris’s We Feel Fine could not have been made in any other age – it is a result of the blogosphere and interactivity combined. It could have been made in Flash, Director, Processing, C++ or several other languages.

And that’s the point – the tools are irrelevant if the idea is good enough. When Harris said, “Tools are not the idea. Tools are tools.” he’s absolutely right, which might be hard for some people to hear who are focussed on the tool alone.

I Want You To Want Me by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar


Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, who created one of my all time favourite interactive pieces, We Feel Fine, have a new piece called I Want You To Want Me commissioned for MoMA’s Design and The Elastic Mind show.

I Want You To Want Me explores the world of online dating, scraping data from thousands of online profiles all in search of love. As with We Feel Fine the interaction is simple, but allows you to view the data in lots of beautiful, emotional and meaningful ways. The interface is made up of balloons representing each person and each one has one of over 500 specially shot video silhouettes inside it.

The ways of looking at the data are described as movements and include things like “Who I Am” and “What I Want” along with “Openers”, “Closers” and “Taglines”, which are used in the profile descriptions. There’s also a matchmaker section:

Matchmaker algorithmically pairs people based on their descriptions of who they are and what they’re looking for. Balloon couples emerge on the horizon and drift to the foreground, before pausing side by side for a few seconds and then floating off together.

The project’s website explains it all in detail with some great images from it. A real treat is that they also documented their process with sketches, photos, etc.

[tags]Jonathan Harris, Sep Kamvar, MoMA, installation, dating[/tags]

From the Archives: Jonathan Harris – Man of the Hour

I have been promising that I would like to upload all of the articles I have written over the years so that they might be of use for people rather than them languishing on my hard drive, but I’ve been a bit slack at actually doing so because converting them to decent HTML and fixing it all up takes a bit of time.

But Regine’s post on Visualizing: tracing an aesthetics of data inspired me to find the article on Jonathan Harris that I wrote a while back in 2004.

So, the plan from here on in is to upload one article from the archives per week (which would mean about two year’s worth of posts!).

Man of the Hour – Jonathan Harris

If recent world events have taught us anything about the media it must surely be that it is relentless organism. We have seen live videophone feeds from the frontline in Iraq, the explosion of blogging and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) news feeds and recently mobile phone camera images on the front pages of newspapers. Use any RSS news reader and you will see stories being updated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With all this information flying around the Web, how can we make sense of it all and what would an hourly snapshot look like? That is exactly the question Jonathan Harris set out to answer with his 10×10 project. In an ironic twist the site held the number one slot on Blogdex for several days as news of its representation of news spread around the Web.

(Article continues…)

Continue reading “From the Archives: Jonathan Harris – Man of the Hour”

The Whale Hunt by Jonathan Harris


Whatever your opinion on commercial whaling, substance whaling is a totally different affair. It’s been part of aboriginal Eskimo life for thousands of years and has deep roots in their cultural life, beliefs and survival.

Jonathan Harris, whose work I find consistently beautiful, has created a mesmerising project called The Whale Hunt documenting the ten days he spent with a family of Inupiat Eskimos in Barrow, Alaska, during their annual spring whale hunt.

Taking 3,214 photos, each at five-minute intervals he has created what he calls a “photographic heartbeat” of the experience. During moments of heightened activity, the “heartbeat” would quicken to a maximum of 37 pictures per minute.


The mass of information and images (almost all of which are, amazingly, beautiful photographs) can be viewed in different ways through different interfaces and constraints, something that characterises Harris’s work.

Be warned, some of the shots are pretty grisly, but you will also see the beauty of the landscape and a sense of the ritual. Visit The Whale Hunt site for the background or dive right in and play.

[tags]jonathanharris, interactivity, interface, visualisation[/tags]

Jonathan Harris Coolhunting Video

Jonathan Harris on Coolhunting

Following up on my recent post about Jonathan Harris’s new work, Universe, Mike alerted me to this video interview with Jon on Coolhunting.

It’s always interesting to see a person talk whom I have interviewed via e-mail before (I’ll post my interview with Jon in my interviews archive soon). It’s also fascinating to see all those notebooks of his – clearly he’s someone who is totally absorbed with cataloguing and arranging information, combined with a deep-felt philosophy about the interconnectedness of us all.

Related posts on Jon Harris.

New BMW ‘Say No’ Ad

Whilst writing that story about You Tube I spied BMW’s new “So No To Compromise” ad and website. It’s a US ad and is aimed at giving BMW a bit more “heart” apparently.

BMW saying no - a communal affair

The site itself features the ability for you (yes you the web-surfing, blogging, public) to upload an image and tell the world what you say no to. It’s all a bit Flcikr-esque and not dissimilar to Jon Harris’s projects. Clearly they’re plugging into the whole social network, public content idea. But I wonder if this is really the best way to do it? Something akin to what real BMW drivers actually do might be more interesting. I’m suspicious that those aren’t ‘real’ people either.

Not sure about the compromise idea either, after all BMW, as with most German car manufacturers, have been given a panning for their declining build quality recently.

In any case, most designers I know don’t get paid enough to buy a top-of-the-line BMW (BMW are apparently wanting to appeal to the ‘creative class’ in the USA) although here in Germany, as you might expect, they are ten-a-penny.

One thing: I would like to just say “No!” to BMW drivers tailgating me at 200km/h on the autobahn flashing their lights as if that’s not fast enough. But usually giving them the finger does the trick.

Flash On the Beach 2008


Flash on the Beach 2008 is coming soon: September 28th – October 1st in Brighton.

I’m not speaking this year, but plan to be there to write about it for Creative Review again. It’ll be nice to relax into being in the audience rather than worrying about my own presentation.

I’ve been to a fair few conferences and some of them can be fairly elitist beauty pageants, but FOTB is by far the best I’ve ever been to thanks to the hard work and personality of its founder, John Davey. The event feels like a family gathering and the quality of the presentations is usually excellent, often showing things you won’t have seen elsewhere.

The line-up is looking impressive and Jonathan Harris’s session should be worth the ticket price alone and no doubt Robert Hodgin will inspire another round of Flashers to get into Processing.

Master of the Universe

I’ve written a few times about the work of Jonathan Harris and We Feel Fine remains one of my favourite combinations of data visualisation combined with a brilliant interface that gives an insight into that data’s meaning.

Universe Shapes    Universal Stories

His new project is called Universe, a piece he has created for the interconnected news service, Daylife, where he is Design Director. Once again it explores the interconnected nature of all our lives:

In Universe, as in reality, everything is connected. No event happens in isolation. No company exists in a vacuum. No person lives alone. Whereas news is often presented as a series of unrelated static events, Universe strives to show the broader narrative that contains those events. The only way to begin to see the mythic nature of today’s world is to surface its connections, patterns, and themes. When this happens, we begin to see common threads — myths, really — twisting through the stream of information.

It is also another work of Processing art and he combines a wonderful interface with an insights into the morass of data that we usually become overwhelmed with. He seems to be going from strength to strength and recently showed Universe at the prestigious 2007 TED conference.

I’ve only just noticed that he has a computer science background – so it just goes to show that not all computer scientists are awful designers. Whatever he learned needs at Princeton to be spread around the other CompSci courses in the world.