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Social Tools, Internet, and Future Culture

I wrote previously that I went to Futuresonic 2009. There will be another Futuresonic related announcement here in the next day or two; also Futuresonic now arrives rebranded as Future Everything, and they have a nice event attached to the reborn festival.

The text below has appeared previously elsewhere (orig. published on May 27, 2009). After all the pleasant events of the last week and looking at the number of bloggers who follow this blog now (and the subjects of their blogs) I thought useful to transfer the post here and see where we all stand re: blogs and how the Internet has influenced our culture, values, etc.

The talk is 45 mins long, which is why the text below is really a skimmed version of what you will hear if you listen to the audio. It is hardly a commentary, so whoever wants to get the ball rolling and say where they agree or disagree, and especially how they experience the changing impact the web has had on them, please be my guest. As I am in the process of paying visits to all friendly blogs, Twitter accounts, and blog introductions, here is a post by Lethe Bashar, Is the Internet Killing Culture?

Stowe Boyd, the leading authority on social applications and their impact on society, media and business and a self-confessed “presentist”, was speaking about how social tools have been shaping our culture at Futuresonic 2009. Boyd coined the term “social tools” back in 1999. He spelt out the idea in the last newsletter he sent out before he turned to blogging. Considering the number of articles that hailed 2009 as the year of Social Media, it is interesting to see how long it has taken the world to wake up to the call of the social web. This also confirms that Social Media is by no means new.

Social tools were defined by Boyd as “a new category of software intended to augment social systems; the social tools are intended to shape culture”. The distinction was drawn between the culture-shaping tools and the social tools that were improving communication. The web resembles the global village where everything is pushed together, and in this context the most important thing about the web is not the latent data, or servers, etc., but how people interact with each other, talk to each other, and how they are being changed by these conversations and connections. The web is the prime artefact of our civilisation, and for this reason social tools and their impact on people as individuals are near and dear to Stowe Boyd’s heart. Web stands out because it’s not primarily physical. The impact is also uncertain: it will emerge at a later stage, as we are shaped by the culture that we build. Right not, however, the cost of investment in making of this culture – let alone the value of culture itself – remains largely unexamined.
A couple of points are of the biggest interest, as far as the impact of social tools on our personal and business communications is concerned. Social tools are social insofar as they are primarily designed to support social relations, and as such their estimation is based on connectiveness rather than efficiency. The prime example here is a simple Instant Messanger (IM) that can serve as the indicator of presence or availability of a person we are trying to connect with. If people are connected on Skype or MSN, then they are likely to check the status of their correspondent before they make a phone call or write an email. This doesn’t stop here, as people may be seeking help or advice, and hence they are likely to ask a question via the IM, the hassle of using an email client is reduced. Through this, Boyd stresses, occurs a shift in work ethics and workplace behaviour. One of the traits is manifested in people’s willingness to trade off some personal productivity for connectedness – a kind of new social cohesion.
The above results in unintended consequences of shifting from one mode of communication to another, from email through IM to Twitter; or, to use the same Gabriel Garcia Marquez quote uttered by Boyd in his Futuresonic talk, from secret life through private life to public life. Arguably, we have already seen this with blogging, or generally with sharing information about ourselves online. Yet however instantaneous blogging may be, it is not as real-time as posting short messages via Twitter or FriendFeed. As a result, our understanding and response to the notion of privacy is constantly challenged, and continuously evolves. What comes to mind is the phrase I came across on someone’s blog a while ago: the person said they were sharing the public side of their private life. I found this expression fascinating, and what the rise of Twitter demonstrates is that this public side of our private lives may in fact be bigger than we think – or would like to think.

Twitter has currently got the kind of monopoly similar to what AOL had had with its IM product. Microblogging appears to be the future of communications not only due to its convenience and proliferation, but also due to how it helps to further change the tempo and efficiency of communications. The opennes is the key, and Boyd illustrated the importance of this on the example of JP Rangaswami‘s experiment at Dresdner Bank when he forced the usage of an open email on his colleagues. The impact was that his employees were very interested in what responses he sent to people. Graded by privacy and protection levels, emails are very private; chats and IMs are usually guarded by a chat owners who decide whether or not to block or restrict a user’s access. Twitter is the most egalitarian, which we recently saw in the influx of celebrities to the platform: it is possible to be in the same space as Stephen Fry, although it still doesn’t mean that he will automatically follow you back.
And some straight-forward points from the talk:

Edglings are people who spend large amounts of their time being connected to other people. This is a new way of defect from mass identity, and increasingly – the use of a new social identity shaped by the use of social tools, to connect with others. “I” is the sum of my connections.
“Democratisation of media” only means that it’s now cheap to go online, connect, publish, interact – but it’s not democratic. It’s more like a return to a pre-industrial social scale. The Internet is egalitarian in the sense that anyone can relate/speak to anyone – but it doesn’t support equality or levelling. Inequality still strongly manifests itself through a user’s reputation or authority.

The rise of the edglings is directly responsible for the collapse of traditional media. The media doesn’t paint the correct picture, when reflecting on this fact, instead presenting the situation in such way as if the media tastes have somehow dramatically changed. But in truth there is a power shift occurring. People begin to decide to themselves to whom and how they relate, and where they outsource the information that is interesting or important to them. This will only accelerate, since the process is now irreversible.

Social equals “me” first – for some people this sounded selfish. But it’s not selfish to realise that a person is the centre of their own universe. The shift occurs from mass information to friend information. We’re thus moving into a new kind of tribalism. People’s understanding of the world will shift to a more granulated identity, and mass identification will become less important.

“Web is amazingly conservative” – shall this serve as the best illumination of the fact that it’s all about people, and that if we want to bring about any change, then we will have to start with ourselves, instead of investing hopes into an idea, institute, or tool?

The world will be becoming more partial, and manifestantly subjective, to the point when we choose who to work with. Neotribalism is going to step in place a traditional, “industrial” family, although this is likely to be the change that will take the longest to arrive. Even the current web media is still not particularly social, although the social television possibly has the biggest potential. The most troublesome area is the environment.

What people are trying to do on the web isn’t really about people they’re interacting with, and it’s not the things that are being discussed – it’s about self-discovery. And on the religious level, we may move towards the new mysticism.

The core issue is that we’re moving towards a re-identification of ourselves.

Jodrell Bank Touches the Stars and Stars in Euro Space Mission

At Futuresonic 2009, the visitors to the opening gala performance on 13 May 2009 were treated to a very special project co-commissioned and co-ordinated by the festival and the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory. In the picture on the left you can see Teresa Anderson introducing Touch the Stars – a collaboration of the musician Mark Pilkington and astrophysicist Tim O’Brien, to mark the International Year of Astronomy and the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon landings. As the short description of the project tells us, “in space nobody can hear you scream, but that doesn’t mean it is totally quiet“. And although the sound in this YouTube extract leaves a lot to be desired, you can nevetheless tune in to the sound of space – or even possibly, the sound of silence, received directly from space via Jodrell Bank Observatory. The blog entry by Kate Adams at Futuresonic Community powerfully conveys both the bedazzlement and the amazement at the experiment. For my part, I’m glad to have recorded this very extract because on a couple of occasions you can hear Mark turning the sound of the cosmos into a melody. The melody is very fleeting, but, if I am to take the comparison to the sound of silence further, then I should first say that silence can indeed be melodic, but once you take a notice of the melody’s presence, it disappears. This is what we possibly have experienced in the dark space (sic) of Contact Theatre.

You can find Jodrell Bank on Facebook, and Planck Spacecraft is also on Twitter. The University of Manchester has been quick to embrace the developments in Social Media and Networks, so on the Planck webpage you’re actually served their Twitter stream. But since 14 May 2009 Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics has also been at the forefront of another major development, for science in general, as well as for Manchester and the University. I’m quoting from the University’s magazine, issue 8, vol. 6 (June 2009):

Cutting-edge engineering by staff at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics will play a crucial role in a European space mission to study the fading glow of the Big Bang. Staff at the facility have designed and built radio receivers at the heart of one of the major instruments on board the Planck satellite – the most sensitive receivers of their type ever built. The European Space Agency’s Herschel and Planck satellites – launched in May – will collect the most detailed information yet about the birth and evolution of our Universe and its stars and galaxies“.

The mission has started on 14 May in French Guiana, and here is the full story about the European space mission. Not only is this all exciting, but also helps to see why for so many years – since 1996 or 1995, to be exact – Futuresonic has been a truly outstanding event where art and science were blending together in a very inspiring way.

Drew Hemment: From FutureSonic to Future Everything

I didn’t give it much thought right after the event, but my experience of Futuresonic has so far appeared to always connect to some kind of a festival’s anniversary. Back in 2006, when I attended it for the first time, the participants were trailing the city, carrying balloons with the Futuresonic logo. In 2006, the festival was in its tenth calendar year, so there was a good reason to celebrate. 2006, too, saw the first Social Technologies Summit. I vividly remember Last.fm debuting there. Geolocation and mapping have already been in the focus, and Stanislav Roudavski, a Russian-born, UK-based architect, artist and researcher, shared the insights into what now seems to make Performative Places. In 2006, I was able to review Manchester Peripheral before it officially debuted during the first Manchester International Festival, and it was pleasant to see David Gunn returning to Futuresonic in 2009, with Echo Archive commission from Opera North. Back in the day, David was involved in Folk Songs project, particularly collaborating with Victor Gama, an Angolan-Portuguese composer, on two projects: Folk Songs for the Five Points (2005) and Cinco Cidades (2007). Victor himself, who not only composes music but also makes instruments, was exhibiting at Futuresonic 2006 with his Pangeia Intrumentos.

That festival alone orchestrated a major change in my life. I grew up without the Internet. I didn’t even have a computer well until I was 18. I never really prepared myself to the Internet-led future. Of course, I became proficient with applications and programs that were necessary for my work, but with Social Media still emerging in 2006, I was on the sceptical side. Yet the frustration from not being able to do everything I wanted in the radio environment was growing, and I had already started updating the (now discontinued AOL Homepage) website of a radio programme with short stories, links, poems, quotes… yet I was limited in space on the page, so I had to come up with another idea. The idea culminated in Los Cuadernos and in turn led to many happy, encouraging, amazing, unexpected, and ultimately enlightening, beginnings, meeting, and projects.

Three years later I returned to Futuresonic, this time primarily for Social Technologies Summit, granted I was a delegate. As a result, my impression of the festival is very different: it’s more about technology than art or music. I was more focused on the summit than in 2006; and in 2009, I was an active user of social technologies, hence Identity and Trust or Semantic Web talks were the ones where I naturally found myself actively participating – via Twitter, no less. I was also a more “engaged” or even “embedded” attendant, since I knew more people at the festival than in the previous years. And suddenly it turned out that Futuresonic was once again marking the anniversary: it was the official 10th edition of the festival, although it wasn’t celebrated. But it was also a goodbye to Futuresonic and a hello to Future Everything.

Is there a sprinkle of nostalgy in what I’ve written? There isn’t, and there is. Certainly, there is nothing that I regret, and I wholeheartedly wish that the festival continues growing stronger and even more creative under the new name. On Friday 15 May, I made several impromptu interviews at the festival, which will finally begin to appear here; one of them was with Drew Hemment, the artistic director of the festival, who kindly agreed to a quick chat after a long day at the conference. We talked in 2006, too, and on second thoughts I decided to make both interviews available. They were made in different times of the day: in 2006 we talked in the afternoon; in 2009, it was after 7pm. The changes in skills and voices is audible, too. But one of the questions I asked Drew in 2009 was about special moments, and how they all combined influence the person. For him as the organiser, there were many such moments, and ultimately it’s the journey that one makes that matters and that creates everything that is special about Futuresonic. So, in what I’ve written there’s not really any nostalgy… it’s just the desire and hope to stay on the road and to continue with the journey.


One last thing, which I can only see myself saying on this blog – not in Future Everything Community, for integrity reason… I’m not from Manchester originally, and arrived fairly late to be influenced by the late Tony Wilson. I know who he was, of course, and I’m aware that he’s often praised for pioneering many things, including the proliferation of the digital technologies in the city. As you will hear Drew saying in 2006, one of the reasons Futuresonic landed in Manchester, and not London or Glasgow, was the strength of Manchester’s music culture that had already had a digital/electronic dimension. But just last year at The Circle Club they were searching for the next Tony Wilson. As much as I’m not at ease with this (and any similar) quest, I can’t help thinking that Manchester is throwing away its own baby. Having emerged nearly at the same time as Hacienda vanished in the haze, Futuresonic has been around for over 10 years. Drew’s humility and passion for the festival and the projects he curates are admirable, and I hope he doesn’t lose that in the years to come. Maybe it’s good if Futuresonic continues as a fairly independent event, shunning away from the media hype, attracting the true enthusiasts, and subtly changing the lives of the new attendees. I only hope that, when time comes, Drew’s trouble-making skills will receive the recognition they deserve.

Futuresonic Memories – 2

I noticed a lot of Futuresonic-minded people at Simple Bar in late July, where Lee Gosnay & Co presented the performance that earned them a place in the coveted EVNTS section of Futuresonic 2006. The performance’s title, Persona, reminds me of Ingmar Bergman’s film, first and foremost. In it, Lee brings together many individuals, like DJ Neo (scratching) and Tony Watts from Manchester School of Samba (live percussion), and Ju-X5 (live vj-ing). The music styles vary from jazz, through funk and soul, to electronic music.

Now, if you’ve been to this performance and would like to visit again, or if you haven’t been and would like to go, Persona will be at Simple Bar on New Year’s Eve. DeadWasps will be on the warm-up, after which Lee and his team will take the stage. Tickets cost £7, and you can either phone 07723 357 792, or email info@broad-minded. com, for booking. Many other parties will obviously be coming up on New Year’s Eve, but this one will surely put you in good mood for 2007.

You can check out more of Lee’s activities and projects at www.broad-minded.com (via the Moon).

Futuresonic Memories – 1

Whilst looking for something recently, I came across the Art in Liverpool blog, which in 2005 was chosen the Best British Art Blog by The Times. Bearing in mind that Liverpool will be the European Capital of Culture in 2008, it makes every sense to bookmark the site to keep track of what will be happening there (perhaps, this is what you’re already doing). The site is edited by Ian Jackson, and I was nicely surprised to have discovered that I knew this gentleman – I saw him and his lovely wife in Manchester during Futuresonic 2006 in July. I can’t marvel enough at my memory.

And this is the Christmas message from Ian & Minako

The blog will now be in my blog’s list, as I’m certainly cherishing plans to visit Liverpool in 2008, although I may well do so before. I have been there once, in 2002, looking for The Beatles Adventure, which was quite an adventure in itself. I was going to the city on the day of the firemen’ strike. I was woken up by the radio telling me that an old lady had died in the fire somewhere in Wales. A very uplifting piece of news, as you imagine. And in Liverpool it took me quite a while to find the Beatles Museum. I got eventually to the ‘right’ part of the Albert Dock, where I found myself between two poles with street signs, which both had ‘Beatles Museum’ arrows. The arrow on the right pole was pointing to the left, the arrow on the left pole was pointing to the right. One would assume, of course, that the destination point would be in the middle. In the middle there was a Royal Mail post box.

At the end of this Magical Mystery Tour I did find the Beatles Museum.

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