The Art of Isolated Thousands

Bicycle Built for Two Thousand from Aaron on Vimeo.

Information used to be scarce, held by the rich and powerful and carefully guarded. Now we have and overwhelming amount of the stuff and each leave huge trails of it wherever we go, online and offline. It is no wonder that Data Visualisation has become such a rich area for the blending of designers, artists, programmers and number fetishists. These days there are enormous datasets, often with open APIs to mine.

Aaron Koblin’s project, Flight Patterns gained a lot of attention for its beautiful, ghostly patterns of flights in and out of the USA built from FAA flight data as did his work on the Radiohead House of Cards “video”.

But what do you do when you want to create a large data set all of your own? I went back to Koblin’s site for a lecture I am writing and was thrilled to discover a whole set of new projects in which he has crowdsourced input from thousands of people using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform.

The above video is from A Bicycle Built for Two Thousand – a collaboration with Daniel Massey – in which over 2,000 people were asked to record themselves emulating a tiny snippet of audio sung by a computer from the famous song.

sheep market.gif

For The Sheep Market, 10,000 participants were asked to “draw a sheep, facing left”. But my favourite is Ten Thousand Cents, which has also been around the web quite a bit. For Ten Thousand Cents, 10,000 people were paid one cent to draw 1/10,000th of an image of a $100 bill.


Like The Sheep Market it uses a custom drawing tool that records the drawing process, which is played back as you explore the images. It reminds me a of Andy Deck’s Glyphiti project, which has been around for some time now, except that in the all the Mechanical Turk instances, none of the participants had any idea of the end goal. This, for me, is where the magic lies.

There is something quite powerful about the idea of thousands of people creating a work of art in tiny, unrelated chunks, unaware of what they are contributing to. Quite apart from the end result, it provides an engaging commentary on our networked society both in terms of online connections and the global economy and sustainability.

And the sheep are hilarious.

The Network Generation is in The White House


Photo: barackobamadotcom on Flickr

It is hard to overstate just how different these US elections were and what a shift in thinking Obama and his campaign signify. Is this the dawn of a fourth republic, whose cycles are “linked indirectly to stages of technological and economic development,” as Michael Lind argues? Or is this the rise of a kind of new informality or informalism, to bastardise a perfectly decent word into another -ism?

Just four years ago, at the time of the previous US election, the blogosphere consisted of around four million blogs, now it’s difficult to even count, but it’s possibly 133 million. In those four years we have, of course, seen blogging become and integral part of mainstream media culture. As The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss noted, this was a truly cross-platform election, with TV woefully slow to catch up with calling the election win for Obama compared to those online.

But what was impressive and very different about the Obama camp approach was how much they clearly get these new media forms.

Twitter’s election feed was – and still is – a torrent of posts and opinions, but during the voting we got to hear people’s accounts of waiting in line, the excitement the atmosphere. I’m not American, what should I care? And yet. And yet, it was hard not to be drawn into the sense of shared experience.

Obama has (or had – it’s been a bit quiet since the elections) a Twitter stream and being on Twitter during the vote was a shared experience. The Obama camp made great use of Twitter to push for support, to spread the message. The exit poll stats show just how much the 18-29 year old turnout had increased from 2000.

What is essential to remember here is that Twitter isn’t just a computer-based chat space, it is completely integrated into mobile devices too. That means Obama’s tweets, and those of his supporters, reached people on the way to or in the waiting lines of polling booths. It’s direct and intimate.

The world has become cynical of politicians who have long since appeared to ignore the protest and voices of the people who elected them. Whether Obama himself wrote his Twitter tweets we will probably never know, but the fact a presidential candidate is aware of it shows a much more direct connection with people – and not just US citizens. Even if there’s a lowly paid intern tweeting on his behalf, there is a sense that it might filter up. And, of course, there’s always the secret hope that Obama himself is doing the tweeting.

The Flickr photo set above show’s Obama with his family and aides watching the results of the election, watching McCain’s concession speech and being congratulated by his family. They’re intimate, often off-guard and in many he looks quite nervous as if he’s thinking “Oh God, now I actually have to be president”. It’s like looking at post-ceremony, pre-reception drunkenness photos of a freshly minted bride and groom.

The most striking thing about these pictures, though, is that they’re covered by a non-commercial Creative Commons licence. These photos (by David Katz) that picture editors all over the world would love to use to sell their papers remain out of their reach. But they remain usable by the millions of bloggers around the world.

The difference in approach is striking – these aren’t polished, selected, vetted images, tightly controlled by a PR office. They’re informal and out there for the world to see and use. It’s unthinkable that Bush – or any other major politician – would have done anything remotely similar on the “internets“. (The cynic in the back of my mind wonders if they maybe are vetted – there are no photos of Obama shotgunning a beer and flicking the Vs at McCain on TV, after all. But that doesn’t seem like his style.)

A day after the election, Obama’s campaign set up with, naturally, a blog. (Compare it to the stiffness of

So, now we have a US President who blogs and twitters – or whose staff do at least – and appears to be open to opinions and voices from all over the world. In an age of increased surveillance and control, of clipped civil liberties, of an attempt by the previous generation to hang onto control at all costs, this different attitude and use of technology signifies a much bigger, generational shift. It is a shift to a mindset in which collaboration, conversation and the network mind are much more powerful than spin and top-down control ever can be.

It’s what anyone using Twitter, Facebook or writing a blog has known for some time, but now it’s as mainstream as it gets. The network has grown up. The network generation is in The White House.

Mobile and Home phone convergence

So, Orange just announced their new Orange Unique service, a convergence of home phone, mobile phone and broadband. The question is, will their customer service match the product?

It’s not that radically different from BT’s Fusion service, though I think you get more. Here’s the Orange Unique low-down:

  • Inclusive calls from home, over your broadband connection
  • Up to six Unique phones per home, and up to three people can make calls at once, even when you’re surfing the Internet
  • Dedicated customer helpline for registration and support
  • Fast broadband connection up to 8 meg. Top speeds vary due to your distance from your local exchange
  • From £50 a month including broadband package and free phone

It’s still not quite a Wi-Fi phone and mobile and landline all in one, but it’s close. I’d like a phone like the Vonage Wi-Fi ones (that can hook into almost any Wi-Fi network) as well as it hooking into my home network and mobile. But it’s pretty close and the multiple phone connections are great news. I wish they had it here in Germany though.

So, a dedicated customer helpline for Unique? Hope it works better than their normal customer helpline and why not just get this stuff right across the board?

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