Creative Collaboration & The Future of Education

Slime Mould

I presented my seminar on Creative Collaboration and The Future of Education at Urban Learning Space yesterday and very much enjoyed the Glaswegian hospitality of all the folks at ULS.

Although it would have been nice if I had managed to leave a little more time for discussion, I was really encouraged by many of the responses and questions afterwards. I gave me a sense that there are plenty of like minds out there wanting to try make some real changes in the system and philosophy of education that align better with the creative/knowledge economy and the Play Ethic.

Ewan McIntosh, in an amazing feat of very fast typing and live blogging, has some thoughts on the first part of the talk here, in which I went through Omnium’s projects and Creative Waves 2007 in particular. He also added some great links and thoughts about the second, Future of Education, part in a separate post.

The slime mould you can see above is a metaphor I used for lots of small trends that are developing in parallel suddenly connecting up and coagulating into what appears to be a complete, coherent organism (which is essentially what ‘Web 2.0’ is a case of).

It can happen suddenly and there is the potential for this to happen in education and completely upend things. I think the likelihood is probably that it won’t be as upended as it could be because of the established mechanisms for controlling that status quo. (I also talked about outlying villages and towns coagulating into suburbs and finally being absorbed into major cities as a similar, slower, example).

However, the change will happen in any case and the real challenge is to be asking the right questions far enough in advance to work out how to deal with these rapid changes. At present I haven’t seen much evidence of this from within institutions themselves.

Incidentally, I owe the use of the slime mould metaphor to Steven Johnson and his excellent book Emergence.

ULS will be putting up a podcast and the presentation material on their website soon, I’ll post a link when it’s up.

UPDATE: It’s not on the website yet but you can find the podcast by subscribing to ULS’s iTunes feed.

Postful ripped off

[UPDATE: There are several updates to this post, which has made it a bit confusing to read. I don’t like deleting posts, so it’s mostly persevered here as it played out. But please read the updates at the bottom of this post to see how this all got resolved.]

A few days ago I posted about a great e-mail to snail mail idea called Postful.

The only misgiving I had was that it was a US-based service, so posting within Europe was a bit pricey (if you already live in Europe of course).

So I was initially thrilled when I got an e-mail from a service called ImailU until I realised it was a complete very near rip-off of Postful. Here’s the mail:

[UPDATE 2: I’m not in the habit of editing posts after I’ve written them, but after a long exchange with Michiel, the owner of ImailU I’ve agreed to remove his mail. I’ve left in but struck through various parts of this post to keep some authenticity to the post as well as show the shifts in the circumstances.]

I’m not going to link to their site, but I feel I should at least write about it so people know not to use it.

I have no problem with someone seeing a good idea and seeing ways to improve on it. But the ImailU site also rips off the exact design of the Postful site and the content. The Terms of Service even have references to Postful in it.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t trust the Privacy Policy nor the fact that my money is going to result in a letter sent anywhere at all.

It’s sad to see the rip-off (without even acknowledgement) (images here on Flickr) as well as it being a classic example of how not to get your idea out there in the blogosphere.

[UPDATE: After posting this I entered into a bit of an e-mail discussion with Michiel, who is understandably angry, and points to L-Mail who already offer a similar service but with more postal outlets. Even though I appreciate his reaction to my post and it seems like a case of a (dis)honest mistake and a misunderstanding of what constitutes borrowing versus ripping-off it still is not the most brilliant idea to steal a competitors idea and the design of their site]

[UPDATE 2 Continued: I still stick by all the points in the original post, but Michiel has made the best of a bad situation and written to Postful to apologise for what is arguably a naive mistake and plans to remedy everything – i.e. re-design his site, etc. – as soon as possible. I think that’s a smart move and it takes some real courage to own up to and deal with those kinds of mistakes, for which I applaud him. So, I hope for everyone’s sake this turns out well and that his business thrives having got off on the wrong foot.]

[UPDATE 3: Since this whole episode, Michiel from IMailU has done the right thing and re-worked the design and the content on his site. So, again, although I’m not deleting the post, I think it’s probably safe to say that IMailU is a legitimate service and will hopefully help add to the market for e-mail to snail-mail services. Decent competition is good for everybody.]

A balanced view of Second Life

I promised i would stop ranting about [Second Life](] and I will. Putting People First (the experientia blog) have a balanced post called Second Thoughts on Second Life.

Not only does it provide some good links to hype as well as critiques, they basically lay down what it is good for and that is… trying stuff out. It’s a good point, well-made by putting aside the usual hypes and moans. Basically it’s a giant prototyping environment. That’s okay, I’m all for people playing with new things just not telling me how well-dressed the Emperor is when he’s naked.

I still don’t buy many of the arguments about why its an interesting environment to prototype in. I remain pretty unconvinced about the importance of virtual environments in the future of the web and communications. It feels to me the same as the kind of arguments people made about video telephony, yet we all would rather send billions of tiny text messages to each other instead. I think I’d find it hard to navigate and chat in a virtual world with just my thumb whilst on a bus, for example.

It’s rather like those efforts at 3D operating systems that Scoble was hyping. 3D is great, for some things, but making everything 3D doesn’t automatically make it great, just as adding ‘interactivity’ didn’t make lots of things great in the 90s. However, I think it’s important to go through the process of trying things out and seeing just how many don’t work and the handful that do.

But hey, you’ve got to love Jaron Lanier for saying “I still believe all the ridiculous stuff I said so long ago”.

British Telecom’s Lesley Gavin on Virtual Worlds

Okay, so the whole Second Life theme is getting rather a good going over on Playpen at the moment. I think I’m probably going to have to stop writing about it because it just drives me mad.

The latest I’ve read is from The Tech Lab by the BBC. The BBC bills this “the world’s leading thinkers giv[ing] a personal view of future technologies”, but it’s not very imaginative so far. The latest is from BT’s Lesley Gavin talking about the integration of virtual worlds in real-life. Here’s the BBC’s pull-quote:

Virtual worlds will also become integrated with real environments. Buildings or public spaces may offer virtual world counterparts.

I really want to believe that large companies like BT are forging ahead with some great innovations, really I do (and I do know that there are some very smart people there), but Gavin’s comments are like someone saying “in the future people will be able to talk to each other via a ‘telephone'”. Second Life already has plenty of virtual world counterparts, most of them lame. Where’s the imagination and innovation here?

What I would much rather be reading about from BT is how they might use their considerable network infrastructure and technical research to deal with issues of traffic management, sustainability, etc., etc. This stuff is in there, just not getting out there. Sadly, this feels very much like the BBC doing the kind of CNN style “world of the future” reporting, which is almost always shallow and out of date. If you’re going to be a futurologist, it helps to know your history.

(Via Experientia)

Data Visualisation Approaches

There’s a great post on Data Visualization: Modern Approaches over at Smashing Magazine.

Madonna track on Shape of Song

Some of them are pretty well-known, like Newsmap and (one of my favourites) We Feel Fine, but there are some newer and more unusual ones in there too as well as some good links in the comments.

There seems to me to be two distinct schools of thought about data visualisation – one is about taking a data set and then creating (usually) static images from them. This I find kind of interesting in that it often displays relationships that you wouldn’t see in a spreadsheet of numbers, etc. The data often seem to be used as the raw material for some kind of Processing-esque algorithm that spits out an image (like the Madonna track image from Shape of Song that I’ve used above).

The second, and in my opinion far more interesting, are data visualisations that are interactive in some way. Now, of course I’m going to say that, but I think there is a great deal to be said for being able to play around with the relationships in data and explore. I think it makes what can often be pretty, but pretty boring, interesting instead. It’s one of the reasons I like We Feel Fine so much – it’s a really playful interface with interaction design that relates to the content perfectly.

Musiclens and Diggstack are pretty nice too. Diggstack – a bit like We Feel Fine – I find fascinating for the ‘Internet in real-time’ aspect of it, rather like Twittervision or the more interesting (content-wise) Flickrvision.

What all of them demonstrate is that core principle of interaction design which is about plugging one thing into another and seeing what happens. It seems to me that everything else is built off of that foundation.

(Via Yacco)

Send Snail Mail via E-mail


There’s been quite a bit of debate (and strikes) surrounding the privatisation of postal services. Whilst strikes has been going on, private postal companies have been (or will be) cleaning up.

Much as I love writing by hand (I still do, most days), I don’t write letters much any more because of e-mail. Postful is the connecting service. You write an e-mail, they make it into a PDF, print it and snail mail it for you.

It’s a smart idea that is a need well-spotted, but I could see it being used for some nice creative projects too (you can attach images, for example). It seems like another example of service need rethinking leapfrogging traditional businesses.

In any case, now there’s even less reason to leave the house.

(Via Read/Write web ).

Creative Collaboration and the Future of Education Seminar

I’m going to be giving a seminar called Creative Collaboration and the Future of Education at Urban Learning Space in Glasgow who have a number of really interesting projects concerning future ways of working, playing, thinking and learning.

I’ll be presenting the Creative Waves 2007 – VIP project in detail, talking about the using a design process and creative collaboration for cross-disciplinary projects as well as a look at the issues facing the future of education. Much of which I have developed since writing about these issues a while back. I’m planning a bit of a brainstorming session with the attendees too. There will hopefully be a podcast and a download of the presentation on the ULS website afterwards.

It would be great to catch up with any of you there and if you want to get in touch before hand, please do.

Details are: 30 August 2007, 10am – 12.30pm. It’s free, but you need to contact Yvonne Kincaid to register.

Second Life is like an empty restaurant

I wrote a post a while back about how dull I thought it was that Adaptive Path were researching Second Life (along with many, far too many, media academics). I still don’t ‘get’ Second Life’s appeal, but maybe that’s from experimenting with virtual worlds long ago and not finding much difference 12 years on.

However, Chris Anderson just wrote about why he gave up on Second Life and points to an article by Frank Rose that he commissioned for Wired. It’s called How Madison Avenue Is Wasting Millions on a Deserted Second Life and pretty much confirms the anecdotal evidence that once you have, in the words of the article, “put in several hours flailing around learning how to function in Second Life, there isn’t much to do.”

The hook and hype of Second Life is that it is new, to most people. But once you’ve experienced the tedium of a virtual world that’s mostly empty it’s like an empty restaurant at 9pm on a Friday – you don’t bother going in.

Long ago, my first job as an intern was on the Virtual Nightclub. It was clear even then (1993 I think) that you go to a nightclub to listen to music (which you could do in the VNC), but mainly to meet, try and seduce or merely gaze at other people. The Virtual Nightclub had a smattering of people, but they were static and didn’t do anything or speak to you. Needless to say, it wasn’t a brilliant success especially as the time it took to produce it mean that all the music and styles were out of date when it was released.

Second Life strikes me as a similar phenomenon – I know there are ‘real’ people in there and some people seem to have sex chats with each other, but as the Wired article points out, you never really see a crowd (which is a limitation of the software engine). (Granted the sexual activity in Second Life, er, scores where the Virtual Nightclub didn’t.)

I’ve often talked about this ‘new tech’ problem with interactive artworks and installations too. When the newness of the technology – rather than a smart or creative idea – is the drawcard it dates and becomes boring very quickly. Germany’s ZKM has a whole collection of pieces like this – awful blocky avatar heads reading newsfeeds about politics in a robot voice, for example. I can’t help feeling that Second Life is heading for the same fate.

At the very least, chucking ad dollars into it without really knowing what or why you are doing seems to be the usual approach of advertising folks desperate to be on the bleeding edge. To me it Second Life feels like a feeble ‘dad’ version of a multi-user virtual space for people who don’t ‘get’ MMORPGs.

Etched in Time

In almost all of the course on interactivity that I have taught, someone comes up with the idea of making a screen-based Etch-A-Sketch toy. They’re almost always rubbish because it lacks the physicality of the Etch-A-Sketch and the charm of that.

Etched In Time by George Vlosich III

All of which is a thinly veiled excuse to talk about George Vlosich III’s Etched In Time artworks that really take Etch-A-Sketch drawings to a new level. I find it impossibly hard to even draw a curve with an Etch-A-Sketch, let alone shading. Check out him in action on YouTube or his Etched In Time website

(Via Creative Generalist and PowRightBetweenTheEyes

The Playmakers

I’ve just been introduced to a wonderful book.

Timeless Toys

It’s called Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them, by Tim Walsh and documents the history and development of classic toys.

The original, self-published, book was called The Playmakers: Amazing Origins of Timeless Toys and Tim has a website and blog of the same name. I’m still waiting to receive my copy, but there are several excerpts on the Playmakers site that document the history the Super Ball, The Slinky, Jenga, Pez and Play-Doh (did you know it was wall cleaner?).

All the stories are inspiring examples of people thinking totally outside of the box and putting everything they had into an idea that they were sure would work, even if they had huge fears about it. Most of them are incredibly simple too and plenty were the result of accidents or of playing with materials. There seems to be a real sense of inventing things and then seeing what they might be useful for, rather than the other way around. It’s quite a Google approach to working and a real antidote to all the marketing/functional specification driven projects that are so often part of our daily jobs.

For extra, slightly nerdy thrills, there are also some fascinating patent diagrams Tim managed to dig up. The G.I. Joe one is particularly weird.

Thanks to my PhD supervisor, Ross Gibson, for the heads up.