Thinking Digital 2014

Last week I had the honour of both performing with Alex and presenting at Thinking Digital 2014. Suzy O’Hara invited me to represent the intersection of art, science and education of FoAM kernow and present the work I’ve been doing with the Sensory Ecology Group at Exeter University. I did a quick Egglab game demo and related some thoughts on working with scientists and how it connects with my experience teaching programming in the classroom.

It was an interesting and unusual venue for me, organiser Herb Kim is very much developing on the TED theme – so lots of extremely well considered, motivating and inspiring talks. Much of the context was one of venture capital and startup business so it was interesting to see an explosive talk by Aral Balkan on the implications of Facebook and Google’s business models on the future of our society (he included some of the other presenter’s companies too). This reminded me very much of the themes we explored in Naked on Pluto, but coming from a new angle.

Personally his talk was challenging to me as he roundly attacked the free software movement, for essentially providing a great sandbox for enthusiasts and well funded companies – but incapable of doing much more in terms of data security for real people. As a designer, he sees this as essentially a design problem – one that these companies have solved for themselves but is utterly lacking in devices such as the Firefox phone OS. For Aral, this is fundamentally a design problem that needs it’s own movement, and new business models to be developed. These business models need to take into consideration long term usability (for which user privacy is an essential feature) rather than ultra short term profit ‘pump and dump’, selling of people’s information for vast amounts – i.e. silicon valley ‘business as usual’.

Two things are apparent to me following this talk – one is that I have been labouring under the impression that a particular focus on design is somehow implicitly tied with specific business practices – simplification as wallpapering over data harvesting, and other tactics. This is very much a short sighted developer view, and is wrong – they can of course service different types of businesses.

The other point came during his 3 slide explanation of how to start your own social network (1. fork a github repo, 2. set up a server and 3. install it). Clearly even this satirical simplification is beyond all but existing software developers (many of whom are working for companies reliant on user surveillance in some indirect or direct way). The challenge for me is that I can’t ultimately see a way to make ‘interface as user experience’ ever converge on anything other than exploitation. Can ‘user experience’ ever regard people philosophically as anything but consumers – regardless of the underlying business model?

The problem in solving that is that we now have two problems – the terrible state of software engineering preventing accessibility (i.e programming at large still stuck in the 70’s) and the lack of understanding in society of what a computer is and how it works. The second of these problems is being addressed in some part by the activities of CodeClub (Aral is [correction: was] a director of this organisation) and similar education initiatives. Regarding pushing software engineering forward, in some way I think recent livecoding takeup by musicians over programmers is a fascinating development here, in terms of showing us how programming – when it’s taken and twisted into very strange and new forms, can start to make sense and work for ‘real people’.

Many languages: Düsseldorf Institute for Music and Media Seminar

Last week was my first official seminar at the Düsseldorf Institute for Music and Media with Julian Rohrhuber filling my new role as Associate Professor in Critical Programming. I wanted to start by introducing the cultures and history of programming, with a focus on the people who invented programming languages and what they were doing if for – from the early mathematicians to the military/space industry and in more recent times the rise of JavaScript from a language that would only ever be used for “animating buttons” to the language with widest reach.


With that in mind I wanted to try teaching a fluxus workshop using planet fluxus, the version that compiles Scheme to JavaScript rather than the native code version. This is now working in a new url with quite a lot of fixes and now quite a lot of testing carried out on it. I’m pretty pleased with the support for webgl – and plan to use it for some upcoming games, other than needing switching on with some versions of Safari, it otherwise seems pretty widespread and fast.

My second day of teaching was followed by a presentation by Ellen Harlizius-Klück and Alex McLean on weaving, ancient mathematics, programming, mythology and music – which provided a great introduction for a meeting we had the next day on an upcoming project bringing these concepts together.


Cornwall “Let’s Get Digital” presentation

Here’s a presentation I gave at the end of last year at a Creative Skills Cornwall meeting at Falmouth University. I introduced the problems of a growing producer/consumer digital divide – the need for more public discourse in the politics of technology and how free software, codeclub, livecoding, algorithmic weaving and sonic bikes can indicate other relationships we can have with technology.

The talk went down really well, but the slides are a little minimal so it might not be super clear what it was all about based just on them :)


slub at Kunsthal Aarhus

Last week Alex and I took to the road on another slub mini-tour starting in Denmark at the Kunsthal Aarhus where we ran a livecoding workshop and performed at the opening of the Aarhus Filmfestival.



The Kunsthal gallery was exhbiting “Systemics #2: As we may think (or, the next world library)” with work by Florian Hecker, Linda Hilfling, Jakob Jakobsen, Suzanne Treister, Ubermorgen, YoHa + Matthew Fuller.

Linda Hilfling and UBERMORGEN’s work comprised an Amazon print on demand hack which was perhaps an even more elaborate version of their previous Google Will Eat Itself. The gallery floor was printed with a schematic describing the processing from the raw material input to the finished printed books.


Suzanne Treister’s work called HEXEN 2.0 included alternative/hidden histories of technology presented as densely descriptive tarot cards and prints showing many connections between individuals, events and inventions.


Dagstuhl – Collaboration and learning through live coding

Dagstuhl seminars are week long free form meetings between different disciplines centred around computer science. The location is a specially designed complex in the German countryside, and activities include long walks in the surrounding hills, a well equipped and beautiful music room and a well stocked wine cellar.

Our seminar was called ‘Collaboration and learning through live coding’, organised by Alan Blackwell, Alex McLean, James Noble and Julian Rohrhuber and included people from the fields of Software Engineering, Computer Science Education as well as plenty of practising livecoders and multidisciplinary researchers.


Discussion was wide ranging and intense at times, and the first job was to sufficiently explain what livecoding actually was – which turned out to require performances in different settings:

1. Explanatory demo style livecoding: talking through it as you do it.
2. Meeting room coffee break gigs: with a closely attentive audience.
3. The music room: relaxed evening events with beer and wine.

So Dagstuhl’s music room was immediately useful in providing a more ‘normal’ livecoding situation. It was of course more stressful than usual, knowing that you were being critically appraised in this way by world experts in related fields! However it paid off hugely as we had some wonderful interpretations from these different viewpoints.

One of the most important for me was the framing of livecoding in terms of the roots of software engineering. Robert Biddle, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Carleton University put it into context for us. In 1968 NATO held a ‘Software Components Conference’ in order to tackle a perceived gap in programming expertise with the Soviet Union.


This conference (attended my many of the ‘big names’ of programming in later years) led to many patterns of thought that pervade the design of computers and software – a tendency for deeply hierarchical command structures in order to keep control of the arising complexity, and a distrust of more adhoc solutions or any hint of making things up as we go along. In more recent times we can see a fight against this in the rise of Agile programming methodologies, and it was interesting to look at livecoding as a part of this story too. For example it provides a way to accept and demonstrate the ‘power to think and feel’ that programming give us as humans. The big question is accessibility, in a ubiquitously computational world – how can this reach wider groups of people?


Ellen Harlizius-Klück works with three different domains simultaneously – investigating the history of mathematics via weaving in ancient Greece. Her work includes livecoding, using weaving as a performance tool – demonstrating the algorithmic potential of looms and combinations of patterns. Her work exposes the hidden shared history of textiles and computation, and this made a lot of sense to me as at the lowest level the operations of computers are not singular 0’s and 1’s as is often talked about, but actually in terms of transformations of whole patterns of bits.

Mark Guzdial was examining livecoding through the lens of education, specifically teaching computer science. The fact that so many of us involved in the field are also teaching in schools – and already looking at ways of bringing livecoding into this area, is noteworthy, as is the educational potential of doing livecoding in nightclub type environments. Although here it works more on the level of showing people that humans make code, it’s not a matter of pure mathematical black boxes – that can be the ground breaking realisation for a lot of people.


Something that was interesting to me was to concentrate on livecoding as a specifically musical practice (rather than also a visual one) as there are many things about perceiving the process with a different sense from your description of it that are important. Julian Rohrhuber pointed out that “you can use sound in order to hear what you are doing” – the sound is the temporal execution of the code – and can be a close representation of what the computer is actually doing. This time based approach is also part of livecoding working against the notion that producing an ‘end result’ is important, Juan A. Romero said that “if you’re livecoding, you’re not just coding the final note” – i.e. the process of coding is the artform.


In terms of a school teaching situation sound is also powerful, as described by Sam Aaron, livecoder and creator of Sonic Pi. A child getting a music program to work for the first time in a classroom is immediately obvious to everyone else – as it is broadcast as sound, inspiring a bit of competition and ending up with a naturally collaborative learning experience.

It’s impossible to cover all the discussions that we had, these are just the ones I happened to get down in my notebook, but it was a great opportunity to examine what livecoding is about now in relation to other practices, where it came from and where it might go in the future.


Fascinate Falmouth

It’s not often that you get to go to the first edition of a festival or conference, but last week was the first ever Fascinate Conference, in Falmouth – a varied collection of artists, performers, musicians and experimenters with technology, some from far away on their first visit to Cornwall, others were local – both researchers from Falmouth University, as well as artists picking up inspiration.

For me the keynote presentations provided some powerful concepts, Atau Tanaka, opening the event presented an thought provoking timeline in terms of his extensive performance experience. Moving from laptop computers, to mobile computing, and onwards to “post-computers”, including Beagle Boards and Raspberry Pi – as more hackable, extendible and open than more restricted mobile platforms but providing largely the same needs.

Another idea running through a moving presentation from Seth Honnor regarded the 4 degree climate change ‘elephant in the room’. While it represents such a huge un-graspable problem, he points out that everything we do needs to take it into account. It doesn’t necessarily need to be centre stage, but it has to be there – as a background future reality. If we do this we can start to build up the necessary imagination that’s going to be needed in the future.


My presence at the conference was somewhat fragmentary (I had other duties to attend to) sadly missing many of the workshops, presentations and performances – it was however a chance for me to perform for the first time in Cornwall, as well as get to see first hand some of the research that’s happening in Falmouth. The event itself was just the right size, and while at times slightly chaotic and problematic in terms of gender representation – they are things that take time to get right, and it’s freshness and interdisciplinary nature was very welcome indeed. Looking forward to next year’s event!

Update: Since writing this post, the organisers have contacted me to clarify that considerable effort was put into gender representation for the conference, there was a good balance on other presentation tracks and in terms of the keynotes it was more a case of unfortunate last minute changes and other unavoidable factors.

Deershed Festival, Sonic Bike Lab, Fascinate Festival

Preparations for a busy summer, new Al Jazari installation gamepads on the production line:


This weekend Alex and I are off to the Deershed Festival in Yorkshire to bring slub technology to the younger generation. We’ll be livecoding algorave, teaching scratch programming on Raspberry Pis and running an Al Jazari installation in between. Then onwards to London for a Sonic Bike Lab with Kaffe Matthews where we’re going to investigate the future of sonic bike technology and theory – including possibly, bike sensor driven synthesis and on the road post-apocalyptic mesh networking.

At the end of August I’m participating in my local media arts festival – Fascinate in Falmouth, where I’ll be dispensing a dose of algorave and probably even more musical robot techno.

Codeclub and Bioinformatics

I’m swatting up on my scratch skills for the first codeclub at Troon Primary School in Cambourne tomorrow afternoon! It’s exciting to finally head to the frontlines of algorithmic literacy in education.


Also on Wednesday I present at talk about FoAM and cross-disciplinary working at Exeter University’s Biomedical Informatics Hub, I’ll be talking about Borrowed Scenery, The Lobster DorisMap, Hapstar and Lirec, specifically concentrating on things that happen when people work together across many disciplines.