3rd October 09
As in thrall as we may be to the firehose of new stuff drenching us in the here and now, occasionally we want to look a little further over the horizon. Two thoughts collided in the collective Labs brain a short while ago. By ‘collided’ we mean we saw a consequence of the relationship between the two that made us sit up and think:
1. The mass socialization of technology. 300 million + Facebook users can’t be wrong. We’re still in awe of how mainstream the adoption of technology has become and just how networked the world is. Increasingly the ‘loop’ never seems to close.
2. How ill-equipped we are to cope with the deluge. Natural human processing power is sadly finite and struggling to cope. Certainly, we know we’re not alone in adopting coping strategies like continuous partial attention and ignoring much beyond tomorrow or next week. Steve Rubel at Edelman also has written extensively on the attention crash and its relevance for marketers.
The heady mix of excitement and uneasy tension brought about by these two things has felt irresolvable and on an accelerating curve. Sure, we can help speed our path through the data with better micro tools (“there’s an app for that…”) but they invariably lead us to consume more, faster; giving us the sense that we’re simply accelerating to the point where our brains implode are placed under too much stress. We’re not wannabe priestesses and priests of Zen around here, but is there a longer term, more profound step change to be made where technology actually enables a more balanced life?
An answer began to emerge when we read a thought-provoking piece in the NYT by John Markoff subtitled “Artificial Intelligence Regains Its Allure.” AI. Cybernetics. Nanotechnology. Post Humanism? Sounds eccentric, but stay with us. Markoff’s assertion that a groundswell of attention and respect has been building around AI, in particular around an idea dubbed the Technological Singularity, made us curious. In a sentence, the idea is that once we create an an artificial intelligence greater than our own, it follows that any resulting ‘Superbrain’ will be capable of augmenting itself extremely quickly to become even more intelligent and so on, leading to an explosive growth in intelligence that is (literally) beyond our imagination.
3rd October 09
*John Markoff, “The Coming Superbrain”, New York Times, May 2009
This post exists to house the material we digested to write the “The Coming Age of Augmentation” Labs post which follows this one.
We have to come clean first. Yes, we do like tech innovation and even sci-fi. We count amongst our Labs midst a few fans of Philip K Dick and one who still reads Yevgeny Zamyatin, so we may appear to be on less than entirely rational, objective ground here. Then there is the fact there is something fabulously seductive about the language and imagery used to describe prospective real & imagined scientific frontiers: Dystopia, Utopia, Rapture (of the Nerds), the Singularity, that extraordinarily gripping, nightmare sequence in Terminator 2 when the playground is blown to smithereens… But we’re drifting from the point.
Here we’d like to create a virtual library of all the very best content about the Technological Singularity and related topics. Please add links to other good stuff worth reading in the comments. We’ve arranged the content here on a make-shift scale from Tech Evangelist all the way to Sceptic, starting with the former. Here goes -
1st October 09
In this film, recorded in NYC last week during Advertising Week, Bob Greenberg (Chairman, CEO & Chief Creative Officer) & Barry Wacksman (EVP, Chief Growth Officer) provide smart, grounded, food-for-thought around agency model re-invention, and particularly around the role of technology in the emerging shape of agencies, post-recession.
It’s of value for a number of reasons. First, because they’re talking from experience rather than about theory – always preferable. But second, they’re not just talking about themselves or about how great they are (though they are clearly very good within the niche they occupy). And so it doesn’t feel preachy. It feels honest and useful. And so no matter whether you’re a tiny & groovy start-up with six people or a networked mega-shop, there are provocations here.
The dissection of the very real differences between CAMPAIGNS, PROGRAMS and PLATFORMS is useful, not least when it comes to resource implications, processes and structures. This seems the key take-out. And two numbers have stayed with me: 25% of their headcount are technologists (where do they get *that* much great talent?). They produce 95% of their output in-house.
Their model won’t be right for the great majority of agencies – they’re still production specialists in many ways – but they at least seem to have a model, and can talk coherently around why it’s right for them. They seem to have worked out how technology can work for them, rather than the reverse.
Smart people. Worth watching.
25th September 09
We like nothing more than a brilliantly innovative creative idea that does its bit for the planet, as fans of iSaw and Papercut will know. Throw in a fashion angle on top and we’re totally sold…. so when our friends at Green Thing told us about their Glove Love initiative, we were delighted on at least three levels.
Launched to coincide with London Fashion Week, Glove Love is part of Green Thing’s anti-waste initiative All Consuming and is their first sustainable product to help people do the Green Thing in the physical world. Very simply, they will take lonely single gloves that have lost their original partners, wash them and then pair them up to create new and unique Glove Love pairs. You can get involved by donating a lonesome glove yourself and/or buying a pair for just £5 plus postage & packaging.
Glove Love has received some great support from the likes of Emma Thompson, whose voiceover immediately gives their ‘Glove Story’ promotional film a decidedly Working Title rom com-esque feel:
We particularly like the fact once you place an order a mystery pair of gloves are despatched to you lovingly labelled with their life stories. And of course you can add comments to the site and as a proud owner you’re invited to upload a photo to the site gallery.
Glove Love is creative, ethical, slightly silly and has the ability to offer that little frisson of surprise life so often lacks. What’s not to love? Go donate a lonely glove or even better buy a pair at the dothegreenthing.com shop
2nd September 09
We’re moderately obsessed with the world of data visualisaton here at Labs for a number of reasons: the ability to generate fresh insight from extraordinarily complex data sets, the ability to trigger radical reappraisal of familiar problems, the ability to put consumers in control of the vast quantities of personal data they generate every day. Not to mention the extraordinary fusion of technology and creativity it represents.
We firmly believe that data visualisation has a wealth of exciting commercial applications, from communicating in new ways to developing new tools, apps and utilities for clients and consumers alike. So we’ve grown slightly frustrated by the rise of visualisations that are moderately pretty but add little in terms of real insight, utility or illumination.
We’re also, as we may have mentioned, big fans of Manuel Lima here at Labs. So we were intrigued to see that he has authored an “Information Visualisation Manifesto”, a provocative (but characteristically generous and nuanced) take on the future of data visualisation which tackles head on the thorny questions at the heart of this ever-expanding field:
- Art versus Science
- Intrigue versus Immediacy
- Aesthetics versus apprehension.
Manuel comes down firmly on the side of clarity of communication versus visualisation for visualisation’s sake, citing the discipline’s roots in the desire “to facilitate understanding and aid cognition” and a growing frustration with the “eye candy” approach to the craft. Many of his principles are rooted in this utilitarian approach, reading almost like a Bauhaus manifesto (and none the worse for that):
- Form follows Function
- Do not glorify Aesthetics
- Look for relevancy
- Aspire for Knowledge
It’s a bold, purist and punchy vision yet also acknowledges the power of narrative and the role of intrigue. Indeed the question of narrative seems to lie at the heart of this Manifesto; the need to pose a specific question of the data and to weave coherent themes and stories from it. These themes then drive the aesthetic approach. As Manuel puts it:
“Form doesn’t follow data. Data is incongruent by nature. Form follows a purpose, and in the case of Information Visualisation, Form follows Revelation”
This is perhaps the key distinction between Information Visualisation as defined here and what Manuel suggests we start thinking of as “Information Art”. Within this approach, artists will freely allow form to follow data, using the random-ness this creates to add texture and interest. Take, for example, Aaron Koblin’s desire to embrace the random-ness of a data set and indeed the richness and texture added to his famous Radiohead video by “interrupting the data”:
“I think it really gives character, because I think it’s really that kind of intricacy and detail that builds character and in a sense it’s the errors and flaws that make art”.Both approaches are undoubtedly valid. Within any medium there will be times when we seek immediacy and times when we are prepared to be intrigued and to explore. There will be times when we want to understand our world better and times when we want to turn perceptions of it on its head. I can think of few practical applications of, say, the “Synchronous Objects” visualisation series but it mashes up art forms and messes with my mind in a truly delightful way.
As ever, then, we need to return to objectives, to ask what we are trying to achieve:
- Do we want to educate around an issue, making complex questions simple?
- To shift perceptions and provoke a response?
- To offer a fresh perspective on an infrastructure question for our clients?
- To offer our consumers better comprehension and control of their behaviours?
Simply put, are we going to offer something that is either very, very useful or very, very beautiful? Either way, greater clarity of intent and greater discipline throughout the industry can only be an advantage in building credibility and engagement. Building that credibiltiy is vital if data viz is going to become not just an entertaining diversion but a vital tool for navigating a world generating more and richer data by the second.
If what we are building is neither very beautiful nor very useful, to Manuel’s final point “Avoid Gratuitous visualisations”: “Simply conveying data in a visual form, without shedding light on the portrayed subject, or even making it more complex, can only be considered a failure”.
Or as William Morris put it: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.
27th August 09
Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London
I recently attended an excellent Made by Many event hosted at BBH which featured a re-presentation by Manuel Lima of his 2009 TED talk on data visualisation. Manuel is the curator of visualcomplexity.com and is an eloquent, modest, charming pioneer in this fascinating field.
As a novice myself, I could not help wondering why we are all so immediately and instinctively attracted to the best of data visualisation.To start with, I’m sure there is some fundamental truth that for most of us data become meaningful only when we can see scale, change, patterns and relationships. Seeing is understanding.
It’s also very reassuring to discover that complex, seemingly chaotic data sets and networks can be expressed as elegant, colourful, ordered maps and models. Perhaps there’s something akin to what the Enlightenment scientists felt as every new discovery revealed the endless beauty of nature.
Indeed the best examples of data visualisation have their own aesthetic beauty. (I felt a nostalgic pang as I recalled time spent with spirograph in my bedroom as a child.)
24th August 09