Saturday, March 13, 2010

Leftover Links

Joe, Tim, and Riley are in Austin now. Andrea arrives this evening, and I arrive tomorrow... We're excited for our panel. Remember: Monday, March 15, at 11 am. In 10AB. Join us!


Foldit — a massively multiplayer game/competition designed to reveal the shortcuts nature uses to weave a tangle of amino acids into a protein. Players use the cursor to grab, bend, pull, and wiggle the chain of amino acids anywhere along its length, folding the protein into its optimum shape. The only rules are based on physics — opposite charges attract, atomic bonds have limited angles of rotation, and the parts of the molecule that stick to water tend to point outward. The closer your model's properties adhere to those rules, the more points you get. Competing against the world's best biochemists in 2008's Community-Wide Experiment on the Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (CASP), a band of gamer nonscientists who'd used Foldit won. [from Wired]

SETI@home — the screensaver that taps spare home computer cycles to sort through radio signals from space

Rosetta@home — farms out computation to volunteered PCs.

Star Wars Uncut — Star Wars A New Hope recreated by 450+ people.

Newgrounds — the large Flash games and animation site that spawned Alien Hominid, has been accepting user-produced submissions since 1999. Amy Bruckman and Kurt Luther are studying groups who make animations collaboratively on Newgrounds. They've found that the social organization of a collaborative project like this depends on the narrative structure of the animation. Making a more traditional story with a script written in advance has different constraints than a 'collection' where lots of pieces are assembled that can later be assembled in many orders by the project leader (for example, the animation 'When Farm Animals Attack'). Another mode is a 'continuation,' where each person adds to the end, and then passes it on to the next animator. These projects can be worked on by small to medium-sized groups (up to ~50 people). Star Wars Uncut is unusual in including nearly 500 people. Bruckman notes: "Part of what makes this kind of creative production different from an open source or wiki model is that an animation generally has *one release*. You don't show it publicly til you're done. Open source benefits from the 'release early, release often' model that lets more and more people contribute over time. Like open source software, these projects tend to have a central leader. There's a tremendous burden on that leader, and projects succeed or fail generally depending on how well the leader does his/her job, and how much time he/she can devote to the project."

Nick Carr says: "It's telling that, when we discuss this phenomenon, we still almost always trot out the same two examples that we would have trotted out five years ago: Wikipedia and open-source software. I think what we're discovering is that big online groups are very good at performing time-consuming, fairly routinized tasks that can be broken up into many discrete units of work and hence sped up by having lots of people with diverse talents and perspectives working on them in parallel without much coordination. Ferreting out bugs in a complex computer program and finding and paraphrasing information on discrete encyclopedia topics both, not surprisingly, fall into this category of work. But if you're looking for the new, the creative, the moment of blazing insight, you're still going to have to look not to a crowd but to an individual human mind."

Richard Hackman, social psychologist at Harvard who studies teams, notes in Leading Teams, that there are almost no forms of writing that benefit from collaboration (reference works, of course, being the notable exception.)

Nick Carr: "I think one of the reasons we're having trouble discussing the way brilliant new ideas emerge from "networked 'mass' groups" is because that phenomenon doesn't happen. The ideas for Wikipedia and Linux, to take, once again, the obvious examples, came from individuals, not from the groups that subsequently formed to bring the ideas to fruition. As Eric Raymond, the author of "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," once wrote in an email to me, "The individual wizard is where successful bazaar projects generally start." The Net can provide a powerful means of discovering the wizards (such as we saw in the competition for the Netflix Prize), and it can provide an effective means of coordinating and assembling the contributions of a "'mass' group," but the hope that great original concepts would naturally "emerge" from the interactions of a vast Net-connected group hasn't really panned out. I would argue that Internet crowds aren't all that interesting as a means of production (though, because they're often used as giant pools of free labor, they can certainly be economically disruptive in that role). What makes Internet crowds interesting is their social dynamics and the social forms that arise from those dynamics."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Is it Bullshit?

Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?, has a passionate post up on his blog BuzzMachine where he discusses the need to move to a more collaborative learning experience. He's also pushing for less standardized tests in the educational system and more evaluation based on independent thinking.

He was a speaker at TEDxNYed, an independently organized TED event focused on "the role of new media and technology in shaping the future of education." He used that opportunity to rail against the one-sidedness of educators talking at students, rather than with them.

"There’s another model for an alternative to the lecture and it’s Dave Winer’s view of the unconference. At the first Bloggercon, Dave had me running a panel on politics and when I said something about “my panel,” he jumped down my throat, as only Dave can. “There is no panel,” he decreed. “The room is the panel.” Ding. It was in the moment that I learned to moderate events, including those in my classroom, by drawing out the conversation and knowledge of the wise crowd in the room."

It's worth a read. I happen to think that many TED talks have a lot more going on than people telling me facts, but rather telling me stories, explaining how their brand of thinking is beneficial to their given field because they have thought outside of the norm. I do agree with some of his points on education, but see a distinction between institutional learning and TED talks. At the very least, this is some food for thought as we here at Indirect Collaboration make our final preparations for our SXSW panel next week.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Q&A with Cecilia Weckstrom of The LEGO Group

Cecilia Weckstrom is an innovation and consumer experience specialist at The LEGO Group. She heads up the Consumer Insight & Experience Innovation team there. Indirect Collaboration's Tim Lillis interviewed Cecilia about incorporating customer insight into the product design process.

So, you're in charge of the Consumer Insight & Experience Innovation function at the LEGO Group. What does that mean?

I oversee all the work on gathering insights from our 1:1 connections with consumers all over the world and based on this insight and on co-creation with consumers we improve existing LEGO experiences and define new ones of what LEGO could be in the future. We want to be driven by those who love LEGO for what LEGO is and thus, knowing what is important to all these people is important and the only way we can remain sustainably successful as a company.

Lillis: What are some of the successful and unsuccessful ideas generated by this group?

Weckstrom: Mostly in my experience it is not a matter of unsuccessful or not – more about timing. We have a few examples where we were far ahead of the market (LEGO Studios for instance) where the idea was great, but ahead of its time so wasn’t as successful as it could have been had we launched it a little later. Timing is not just in terms of timing in the market-place, it is also about the rest of the company. The successful ideas are ones that become platforms for value creation, and ultimately not just within the company but including the community too.

Lillis: Is the Design By Me program related?


Lillis: Are the kits generated as part of Design By Me available to customers besides the one who designed them?

Weckstrom: Yes, but at the discretion of the designer. E.g. you have to choose that option when you upload your design.

Lillis: There is such a robust worldwide community of LEGO builders, has this community unofficially steered product design at the LEGO Group? That is, not through your official programs, but through the company's observations of LEGO culture.

Weckstrom: Absolutely – LEGO is a movement driven by the passion, urgency and creativity of an ever-expanding community. We are part of this ecosystem and are just as influenced by it as the community is by what we do.

Lillis: What are some of the most surprising uses of LEGO bricks that you've come across?

There’s more every day. Latest one is this Lego Cubestormer robot that solves Rubik's Cube in sub-12 second. Robots born with the sole purpose of solving the Rubik's Cube are nothing new, but we're pretty sure we haven't seen one crack the code.

So much of what people do with LEGO Bricks is determined by the imagination of the end user. Is there a balance to be struck between designing pieces with very specific (or branded) functions versus pieces that can be used more universally?

Weckstrom: We prefer designing universal elements ahead of specific elements. In fact, when you as a LEGO designer (I was one when I first started out working for the company) come up with a new piece, you have to ‘justify’ it’s existence to the element committee, a group of LEGO ‘Yodas’ as I like to call them (no they are not small and green with big ears, but very wise and care deeply about the LEGO System) – their combined LEGO experience is more than a 100 years and they are guardians of the system. The more uses that can be found for a LEGO element you have designed, the more likely it will pass the scrutiny of these experts. After all, the LEGO idea is one of a platform for endless ideas.

Lillis: This may be out of your department, but can you speak a bit to the process and challenges inherent in using a licensed property as the basis for a LEGO kit?

Weckstrom: This really is the expertise of our licensing department and some of our designers. Broadly speaking we will carefully assess whether an IP has a close fit with our company values and work very closely with the IP owner to ensure that we live up to the demands of the license owner and vice versa – that the product will embody the inspiration to build many more ideas than what simply comes in the box.

Lillis: Typically in the product design process, there are models and prototypes, testing, evaluation and design iterations. How does this mesh with your customer co-creation programs?

Weckstrom: There are different ways of doing co-creation – one is simply coming up with ideas and defining what would make a difference to people. That is more about identifying unmet needs and understanding which ideas resonate with people. Going all the way to co-creating a specific product is something we do with some of our Adult Fans of LEGO, who are experts in their domains, for instance Mindstorms - we work in-depth with them and they are part of every step of the design process.

Lillis: In what ways have you used technology in new ways to include the customer in the design process?

We use online panels and forums, but they are really the infrastructure to a much more important thing: meeting face-to-face. In our experience no technology can replace the value of human interaction and for co-creation to really work, you have to start by building relationships and trust with people. That makes communication easier and also makes people feel part of the project team in a completely different way. We all crave the human touch after all.

Lillis: Have you seen evidence that customer-created kits fill a void in your product line? Or do many remain niche products?

Weckstrom: LEGO Architecture is a great example of how a fan-created enterprise on the LEGO platform has come in to completely revolutionalise the souvenir industry and also to become a great product appealing to a different audience that we would normally do. Adam Reed Tucker has designed all the sets, and we are now his supply chain – producing the bricks for him that he then distributes all over the place. A very exciting joint venture.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Open-Source Authenticity

Today's New York Times "Ideas and Trends" feature is pegged to the flap over German novelist Helene Hegemann's Axolotl Roadkill, which was published last month, and which plagiarizes remixes passages from various other books. Hegemann is unapologetic: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” she insists.

This leads the Times' Randy Kennedy to lead us in a thought exercise. Kennedy writes:
Think of almost any kind of cultural endeavor and then use the word “we” to describe its creation. The communal pronoun trips easily off the tongue when talking about the world of contemporary arts and entertainment, where things are often the product of teams, workshops, studios or institutions, where collaboration and idea-swapping are the norm. But now try applying it to creative writing, especially to fiction and poetry, and it can sound absurd: “We worked for years on the character development and the voice, and when we finally nailed the subtle epiphany, we cracked open a bottle of Champagne to celebrate.”

Not that there isn’t the occasional team-written novel. But the popular conception of the creative writer is still by and large one of the individual trying to wrestle language, maybe even the meaning of life, from his soul, the kind of lone battle Jonathan Franzen described himself waging in writing The Corrections, which he sometimes did in the dark, wearing earplugs and earmuffs, trying to hold his mind “free of clich├ęs.”
Kennedy's story isn't actually about crowdsourced or open-source art; it's not about team-writing. It's about pastiche, cut-up, remixing. But his thought exercise — well, I'm tempted to steal upcycle it for my opening remarks at SXSW!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Crowdsourcing and interactions...

What happens when you allow the members of the crowd to interact? On this blog we've looked at examples in which each member of the crowd is unaware of the other members participating in the same task, and yet collectively their efforts are aggregated in interesting ways.

Given my previous work with collective viewing patterns on YouTube, which investigated word-of-mouth interactions amongst the consumers of video content, I was excited when I came across a great example of interactions between producers of video content in this great video.

What's great about this video is that much of it could have been produced in a completely crowdsourced way by specifying rules that each participant could follow without ever interacting with the other players (cover camera for 3 seconds, rotate in chair for 10 seconds, look up for 1 second, etc). However at some point there is an actual interaction between members of the crowd when they start showing up in eachother's videos.

Makes me wonder how large something like this could be scaled up without allowing actual interactions?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Crowdsourcing within Interactive Art

Over at HiLobrow (one of my other blogs) today, our artist-in-residence Edrie (of Army of Toys) explains that Sleep No More, the American Repertory Theatre/Punchdrunk's Macbeth, a version set in an abandoned school building and described as "part installation art, part interactive, self-guided theater" — didn't sound interactive enough.

So while she was waiting on line to enter the show. Edrie handed out nearly 30 red feathers to other theatergoers, with the following instructions:
  • You can keep this in your pocket as a souvenir for your time in line
  • You can hold it out to other people you meet and see what happens
  • You can use the feather to interact with the set without disturbing the integrity of the play

To one participant she gave a blue feather, with these instructions:

  • Give this to a person with a red feather and quietly let them know they must not keep it but pass it on to another person with a red feather

Read on to find out what happened.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Q&A With Shawn Allen of Stamen Design

Shawn Allen is a partner at Stamen Design, a small San Francisco-based firm with big ideas. Stamen does lots of work with maps, data visualization, information trends, and collective think-tankery. Indirect Collaboration's Tim Lillis interviewed Shawn about Stamen's process and philosophy in February 2010.

Lillis: Stamen Design seems to occupy a space somewhere between a design firm and a think tank. Are your research projects driven by your commercial work, vice-versa, or other?

Allen: Probably more vice-versa. I think of most of our work as "research" in the sense that we often don't really know what we're building when we start. Through the process of investigating the data and visualizing it for ourselves, we come up with something that our clients can either (in the case of more commercial projects) provide to their users or (in the case of our more think-tanky work) use to learn something interesting about their own information. The really good projects provide us with an opportunity to play with some new technology or investigate an idea that's been rattling around in our heads for a while. If we don't find that opportunity in our commercial work, though, we usually end up just building it for ourselves—this is how Crimespotting came to be.

Lillis: Crimespotting was a big hit for you guys. Can you tell me more about its inception?

Allen: Oakland Crimespotting was originally a research project of Mike Migurski's. He was laid up in bed with a bad back and wanted to figure out a way that he could get useful information out of his city's official crime map. This thing is awful. You have to click through at least five forms until it even shows you a map, and when it does the data is often filtered down to too small of a subset to be useful. So he set about building an application that would basically submit every permutation of the application's forms, grab the images generated by each submission, find crime icons on them then put the locations and other metadata into his own database. In the process of creating interactive maps to look at the data he was collecting, he also built the first version of Modest Maps, a open source map interaction library which we now use for pretty much every single one of our map-related commercial projects.

Lillis: What are some of the public conversations that have opened up as a result of Crimespotting?

A lot of people see Crimespotting as a shining example of open data, and a way for citizens to inform themselves about their community. During the site's first year we got some great feedback from Oakland residents who were bringing spreadsheets generated by Crimespotting to their regular meetings with local police officers and asking them what they were doing about, for instance, the recent rash of auto thefts in their neighborhood. Crimespotting armed these citizens with information that they used to have to rely on the police to get.

It's been a while since we've heard any more of those stories, though. Most mentions of Crimespotting that we read on the internet these days simply marvel at the number of dots on the map. Crimespotting does much more than just show you points on a map, though. You can get RSS feeds for crimes in your beat. We've applied for a grant to invest some serious time in Crimespotting and turn it into a site that engages journalists and (hopefully) fosters more direct civic engagement.

Lillis: Many of your projects depend on information coming from somewhere else. What has your experience been with government sources vs. citizen, or crowdsourced data?

Allen: My experience has been that just getting the data in the first place is the most difficult part of the process, regardless of the source. Crimespotting's original Oakland manifestation was an exercise in freeing a source of data that had never before been made publicly available, whereas the San Francisco version was built in less than a week after some very nice municipal employees who'd been tasked with opening the city's data provided us with a KML feed. The devil is in the details, though, and we often spend the entire duration of a project working out the specifics of data formats, timeliness, and completeness with our clients. We still don't have homicides in our San Francisco crime feed, for instance.

Lillis: In your In The News project, it seems that at some point you had to shut it down because you had too much information. Did you think about adding filters to create a unique experience for each user? Are there other ways you considered dealing with this surplus?

Allen: I actually just started working with Mike and Eric after they'd finished In the News, so I'm not qualified to answer that first question. But generally speaking, yes: while our first inclination—and our preference, I think—is to show everything, there are indeed data sets simply too large or complex to be visualized usefully in their entirety. One of the things that I think we do best is create interfaces that allow the user to filter data down into subsets that are manageable. It's important to build tools that can be played with and manipulated easily and in realtime. Those interactions are what help people discover new and exciting things at their own pace.

Lillis: I think we all have assumptions that we make about what "the crowd" is doing or thinking. Were you surprised by some of the patterns you saw emerging through your projects?

Allen: Absolutely. When I was working on the Digg Labs pieces I was constantly surprised at all of the weird stuff that people were submitting and digging. The dog pile effect of particularly big stories—which, in the world of tech, means events like the iPhone announcement and the AACS encryption key controversy—was pretty shocking, and a lot of fun to watch. Some stories broke on Digg before they broke on major news outlets, and it was fascinating to watch the conversation around them develop in this totally organic environment. It felt especially voyeuristic before the tools launched, too, because nobody knew that they were being watched like that. For a brief period we toyed with the idea of building versions of the visualizations that would help Digg find bots and track other abuses. But the public visualizations ended up being much more interesting and buzz-worthy.

Lillis: In the projects where you're collecting live data, have you witnessed people "playing to the room," where they seem to have changed their behavior because they know they're being monitored?

Allen: No doubt. Some Digg users dugg so many stories that their dots on Swarm turned into giant yellow orbs bigger than the stories themselves. A couple of people even posted videos on YouTube of their activity making the visualizations do weird stuff. Some stories blew up so quickly that they took over the screen, as was also the case during the MTV VMAs last September, when Kanye  West stormed the stage and interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech. At the height of that controversy there were thousands of mentions of Kanye on Twitter every minute, and a significant portion of them also happened to use the word "asshole":

Lillis: In some instances you're pulling in multiple data sets, have you had occasion to combine these to create or offer something you weren't expecting?

Allen: We've done some pretty cool stuff with a group called MySociety in the UK that cross references multiple data sets. Tom Carden created the first of our interactive travel time maps, which overlaid the shape representing how far you can get via public transit within a given time period with the cost of homes in the same area. The thresholds for each variable were adjustable individually and in realtime, and the map showed you areas where the data overlapped—that is, where you could buy a house for less than £500k *and* get to work from in less than an hour. We later developed this into a slippy map which you could pan and zoom, and introduced a third variable: "scenicness" scores culled from a site that MySociety set up to crowdsource Flickr photo ratings that could help you filter out less visually appealing regions.

Lillis: On your site, you refer to your clients as collaborators, how important is this distinction in your work?

Allen: I would say that it's paramount. The tighter our connection with the client, the faster things happen. We appreciate that some clients are going to defer to us on every design-related decision, but the smart ones who can call us out and involve themselves in the process are typically more fun to work with. We thrive on fast-paced projects, rapid iteration, and constructive feedback. If we haven't spoken to our client in a week something's broken.

Monday, February 22, 2010

New Bat-Time! Same Bat-Channel!

Just a reminder to all you erstwhile SXSW Interactve attendees out there, our panel is still on Monday, March 15, but it's now from 11:00 am to noon, in 10AB of the Austin Convention Center.

See you all there!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Reading by numbers

I'm a big fan of games that effectively use crowdsourced input as a solution to a very difficult problem. There are a number of examples like Google Image Labeler, and even the Guardian's attempt to keep their government transparent, by investigating expenses that "merit further investigation". However reCAPTCHA is a particularly effective one created by Carnegie Mellon Professor Luis von Ahn, which harnesses a reported 200 million solutions everyday. reCAPTCHA works by presenting a user with two words: one control, and one which could not be read by a computer. A human then enters both words, usually in an attempt to finalize a purchase at Ticketmaster, and if the control word is correct, it is assumed that the unknown word is also correct. The beautiful result: humans reading books, one word at a time, unlocking digital content along the way.

Who Owns Virtual Art? A Q&A with Andrew Sempere

Andrew Sempere is a Cambridge, Mass.-based design researcher with IBM's Collaborative User Experience Group/Center for Social Software. He's also an artist whose interactive works have been exhibited (most recently) at the 2009 Boston Cyberarts Festival and the 7th Champ Libre Manifestation Internationale Video et Art Electronique in Montreal. Indirect Collaboration's Joshua Glenn interviewed Sempere — about online collaboration, for business and aesthetic purposes alike — via email, in February 2010.

GLENN: You work with social software researchers at IBM, helping them make smart decisions about encouraging or discouraging content sharing and reuse. How is doing so important to successful, inclusive business collaboration?

SEMPERE: My role is mostly to help the researchers think through user experience to develop an interface that helps support the work they are trying to do. I personally have a particular interest in the content sharing idea, but it's not always that, although it does usually come down to figuring out what design principles to apply in order to help the users and the researchers accomplish their goals. Since we mostly make prototype systems (and not customer facing products) I also consider a big part of my job to be keeping an eye on what is happening in the social software space outside of the corporation, to try and understand early and see if there is anything that can be adapted for use inside the enterprise.

GLENN: Some skeptics might say that sharing and reuse are antithetical to business culture...

SEMPERE: It depends on your definition of business, and of sharing! Usually when people say this, they mean "socialization" as in, "Isn't allowing my employees to socialize giving them allowance to goof off." Or the more formal "What's the ROI on social software." I think these questions are the wrong ones to ask. Companies have long recognized that social interaction is important to business — certainly at the executive level. Business is fundamentally about interpersonal relationships.

But if you are looking for a quantifiable cost savings as a result of providing your employees access to social software, you're probably not going to find it. It doesn't work that way.

This is a long way of saying: yes! If your definition of business culture is essentially Taylorist, then social software is completely antithetical, but so is Internet Culture. This collision leads to what I call Compliance Theatre (more on that later). Taylor's model of standardized work practices is about getting rid of the outliers. Imagine a bell curve... the purpose of standardization is to focus single mindedly on the middle of the curve, where things are average. You don't want the low end of the curve, and as a result you also get rid of the high end of the curve. In many organizations this turns out to be exactly what people want. You probably don't, for example, want MBTA operators texting each other, no matter how boring it is to drive exactly the same route in exactly the same way. You need their focus, and you need standard operation for safety.

In other organizations, eliminating the outliers is disastrous. Research, design, any field where you want creativity or are particularly interested in high quality output: you need to allow your employees to take risks.

There are other issues more specifically related to sharing and distribution which are diametrically opposed to certain business models. The music industry, for example, and the publishing industry to a certain extent. These industries were predicated on the notion of gatekeeping by controlling distribution channels, but in an era of nearly free distribution via the internet, they are mostly useless. This is not to say that music or books are useless, just the idea that you can profit off of distribution by selling little containers of culture — it's a broken idea.

GLENN: Speaking of gatekeeping, according to Eric Raymond's 1997 formulation, there are two methods of developing software (and by extension, anything): the "cathedral" approach, in which a group of experts do the work, and the "bazaar" approach — a cooperative activity initiated by members of the public. It seems to me that crowdsourcing software — which permits experts/gatekeepers to outsource part of their project to members of the public via a call for contributions — has been received so enthusiastically in business circles because it promises a third way, a synthesis of the cathedral and the bazaar. But is this enthusiasm misguided?

SEMPERE: I'm not entirely sure it's a synthesis, or just a case of the clergy of the cathedral occasionally buying things from the bazaar. TopCoder is the best example that I know of. The main takeaway for me from the cathedral and the bazaar argument is that it's a symbiotic (maybe codependent) relationship. Both must exist. Open source software works because professionally employed software developers have spare cycles. Second Life works because most of the residents have other sources of income. I think business is becoming more comfortable with the idea that this means they can take advantage of these spare cycles to get high quality work out of motivated individuals. It makes sense and it does work, at the same time it's not a sustainable business model, it's just a good way to accomplish some tasks. There are also serious issues from a business perspective related to licensing and such, but in general I think it's great that businesses are thinking flexibly. I do sometimes worry that it potentially devalues professional work, but I even if that is true, there's no stopping it.

GLENN: You're also interested in artistic collaboration. Last year, you published a paper analyzing the fraught psychological and cultural implications of making art within Second Life, whose object-creation tool assumes individual ownership as a prerequisite to the creative process. From the SL user's perspective, why shouldn't an artwork, like any other object, be governed by a commodity-style trading system?

SEMPERE: Second Life itself is not crucial to the fate of the universe, but it is very unique, and as such represents an excellent place to see where things might go (or might go wrong) as we continue down a path of virtualizing our culture. We humans, at least in the developed world, are moving anything and everything we can online, and developing new content, ideas and tropes that never existed in the analog world. This is not a bad thing at all, but I am deeply concerned that at the same time we are relinquishing ownership of our output to private organizations whose end goals and values are often accidentally preventing that culture from breathing properly, and in some cases smothering it.

A very small but significant portion of the content on Second Life is art. It is culturally significant, and it deserves a chance to play a part in art history. Even the "lowbrow" content is often part of someone's personal history and deserves some kind of respect.

The way that SL is designed, content is created by individuals, but owned by a private for-profit entity whose goal is (and perhaps should be) to make money. This isn't a bad thing, but the money making goal and the user created content goal interact in some strange ways:

I'm not a lawyer, but the ToS for Linden Lab (which apparently Lawrence Lessig consulted on), reads like a huge problem to me. Linden gives you full rights over your intellectual property, but they do NOT give you rights over the instantiation of that property. That is to say, if I build a house in SL, I own the idea of the house, but not the record of the house as it exists on Lindens servers. The idea is a good one — apparently it was Lessig's influence that ensured it wasn't the standard "LL owns everything." But, Linden has backed itself in a corner here. They promise ownership of IP, but they have also styled themselves as the content police, and are in fact being sued for failing to properly protect the "rights" of certain content creators. These individuals represent an extreme minority of the SL user base, but they, by virtue of invoking lawyers and DRM, are making world-changing decisions within the walls of SL.

Here's the doomsday scenario: The company goes under, the servers are sold. Since the ToS relinquish IP rights, whatever is left of the LL company cannot use the content, nor can any of the creditors. In fact, the content of the servers is worse than useless, it's a legal liability, since the ToS (might) open them to lawsuits. The safest course of action from a business perspective would therefore be to delete all the content. Literally, they will burn down a library, and ten years of collective work will be gone forever.

I mentioned I'm not a lawyer, and I actually hope that I'm wrong about my reading of the situation, but even if I am I think the example stands: extremely complicated negotiations are occurring right now in spaces where we are entrusting our cultural artifacts. These discussions are of crucial importance and worth keeping an eye on, especially since we are seeing a dismantling of public libraries and other shared institutions in favor of virtual archives controlled by private organizations.

Incidentally all of this virtual talk might be hard to fathom for people who haven't spent much time online, but try and imagine if Kodak asserted ownership over that box of super 8 movies in your parents' attic just because they made the film. It's already true that it's hard to view these technologically, but imagine that one day you pulled down the box to discover that every frame of your recorded memory had been deliberately erased, not because of time, or rot, or bugs, or neglect, but because of a licensing dispute at the Kodak company.

GLENN: Are we really moving towards this possibility?

SEMPERE: Yes — for example, the recent #amazonfail where Amazon retracted versions of Orwell's book that they didn't have the rights to, AFTER they were sold. iPhones and presumably iPads all have a built-in remote "kill switch" which allows them to delete apps and data from your device. The company has promised not to use this, but they reserve the right to, not to mention the fact that these days when I buy DRM music from itunes it's nothing like when my parents bought records. I won't be able to leave them for my kids to listen to without making sure they have my login, password and the right hardware, and I have a hard time imagining finding iTunes version 7 at a garage sale (especially since software is now distributed online, rather than via "dead media") the way you might find an old 8-track or phonograph.

We're moving towards a model where were we can casually consume content from the cloud and most of our structures of control are embedded in software. In many ways this is wonderful, but we need to be very very careful about what we're coding into the system if we don't want to risk accidentally creating a dark age.

There is also a secondary shorter point to be made here: by forcefully insisting (as Second Life does) that creative practice be monetized you exclude the outliers and push towards lowest common denominator content. Rather than make something interesting and daring, you will trend towards saleable, which means copying the tried and true. It's Taylorism again: terrific for selling widgets, terrible for culture. Linden has taken several steps to encourage more revenue (because they need it). I have friends who work there, and I don't want them losing their jobs either, but aggressively chasing every revenue stream, especially in a micro economy, completely destroys innovation.

GLENN: From the online arts community Learning to Love You More, which takes Fluxus-style assignments (e.g., "Recreate an object from someone's past") out of the gallery and onto your desktop, to Takashi Kawashima and Aaron Koblin's "Ten Thousand Cents," which used Amazon's Mechanical Turk service to outsource the digital painting of a $100 bill to thousands of turkers (who could each only see their own section of the picture), artists have started using "Web 2.0" (for lack of a better term) tools originally created for crowdsourcing or social networking as a spur to innovation and creativity. Are projects like these the antidote to Second Life's approach? Or do they also fail, albeit in a different way?

SEMPERE: They fail spectacularly but are beautiful for it. Fluxus is close, but yeah, I think the whole point of crowdsourcing an art piece is to play with the idea of an artwork as singular vision. The people who are contributing to the work (especially in the Mechanical Turk example) have unknown motivation, or are motivated by micropayments. Second Life artwork is still incredibly traditional in its approach (i.e., a single individual or close team working towards a single idea). None of this is problematic exactly, there's room for both, but what Second Life is missing is exactly what the other examples have — the ability to share and collaborate in a "Web 2.0" manner. As I said earlier, I don't think SL is the end-all of art in 2010, but as an example of what is possible it frustrates me for exactly that reason. There is a collision of world views, namely the Linden business model you are obliged to internalize (effectively the old commodity model, which requires single owner/creator permission systems and DRM to exist ) and the possibilities of a universe in which everyone can have infinite virtual resources. I think this categorizes the debate going forward on how we attempt to monetize creative work in an age where we have rendered distribution control effectively free. Devices like the iPhone and iPad and the Kindle seem to be aimed at this space. In particular I find it interesting that Apple created their own processor for the iPad. The only reason I can see for this is to control DRM down to the hardware level. We'll see, I guess.

GLENN: You recently gave a talk at the 2010 ACM conference on CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) on the topic, "What Changes Since Computation: A Design Manifesto for 2010." You took issue with the received wisdom that the work style of "digital natives" (those who've grown up using computers, the Internet, mobile phones, MP3s, etc.) is different in important ways — specifically having to do with social networking and online collaboration — from that of their elders. How is this by now widely accepted bit of common sense incorrect?

SEMPERE: I discussed the Digital Natives argument because I always find it frustrating. First and foremost, kids are no more born digital natives then they are born literate. Literacy (reading or computational) is something that is learned, taught, part of a culture. Also, pretty much anyone who uses email and IM (standard business tools these days) is already living in a virtual world. The first MMPORGs date to the early 1970s! So I believe the digital natives argument is baloney, but I also believe it is invoked as a kind of shorthand to describe a complex anxiety, and that's where it gets interesting.

People, especially business folks of a certain age, invoke this argument when they have faith in the structured, top down model of business and they begin to discover that work, actually, is occurring in a completely different way then they thought. Employees routinely socialize using websites and exchange information outside of the sanctioned tools. Employees are more comfortable crossing hierarchies, or with casual interpersonal communication that would be unheard of in their experience. It is all very confusing to someone who has internalized the myth that you work 9-5 and pass everything up and down the command chain.

As a result, a huge amount of effort is spent on compliance theatre: generating the illusion that business is proceeding along standard lines, while successful employees produce their work by circumventing the culture of control.

I borrow the term from Security Theatre, and here's an important subtlety: in both security and compliance theatre, it isn't that the theatre is pointless. Theatre is never pointless: It serves an extremely important role in re-enforcing organizational culture and defining mental boundaries. It also, ironically, enables circumvention by making a production of what is "important."

GLENN: I have experienced that problem — circumventing the culture of control — almost everywhere I've worked, even before Web 2.0 tools made doing so commonplace. Which is anecdotal evidence supporting your point that anti-gatekeeping trends making older people nervous in the business world aren't new — but they're newly exacerbated by new tools and software.

SEMPERE: I couldn't agree more — it's not new at all, just working at computational speed, and so more visible, and sometimes more effective (although counter measures can also move at this speed).

GLENN: In the art world, too, indirect collaboration is as old as the parlor game Consequences, whose descendants include the Surrealists' "Exquisite Corpse" technique, not to mention Mad Libs. Now that new tools and software have (unintentionally) made it simple to invite the general public to participate in various sorts of art projects, will we see (what you call) Compliance Theatre in art?

SEMPERE: Compliance Theatre in art? Why not! I suspect it's already there, and it probably depends on art versus Art. Certainly the art world has all kinds of theatricalities... I'll have to think on that one more!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Q & A: Charles Burns and Gary Panter

Breton's cadavre exquis could be argued as the first strict experimental art that began to play with the ideas behind collectivist artistic enterprise. Arising out of the surrealist movement, Breton, Duchamp, Tanguy and others completed each others drawings in an attempt to capture the ephemeral expressionist impulse that is born of multiple minds sharing a creative direction.

In our continuing series of interviews about Indirect Collaboration, we interviewed legendary underground comic artists Gary Panter and Charles Burns, on their continuing exquisite corpse game by mail.

How did the game start, and why?

Gary Panter:
Charles and I have done a lot of collaborative projects--exquisite corpse variations maybe, but not strictly the folded paper game of the Surrealists. We both participated in an exquisite corpse comic strip book initiated by Art Spiegelman where artists continued the comic strip begun by someone else with the rule that the through-character remained identifiable; Charles and I did a book which Charles initiated where we each drew grotesque faces to a template Charles made. In the book the faces were die-cut horizontally and bound so that you could scramble the faces; and even more fun, Charles and I have done fully collaborative comic stories that are elaborate jams that begin in person and continue through the mail.

Charles Burns:
I think there's a little confusion because Gary and I never really worked on an exquisite corpse together.

The first project we worked on together was a book called Facetasm where we created drawings of different heads that roughly fit a generic template and then the pages were cut into three parts (eyes, nose, mouth) and bound into a spiral bound book so all of the sections could be flipped back and forth creating multiple permutations. This came about because Gary and I were invited to be in a two-person exhibit together and I suggested making an announcement based on the "Facetasm" idea I just described and it grew from there.

The second collaboration resulted in a piece called "Pixie Meat" (above). This was a number of comic pages we worked on together, first in pencil and then in ink. Gary was visiting me in Philadelphia and I pulled out a stack of old comics and magazines for "inspiration" and we just sat and drew with no real intention in mind other than enjoying an afternoon sitting at big kitchen table drawing. We continued passing the pages back and forth for a few months and eventually had enough pages to publish a short piece. We asked our friend, novelist Tom DeHaven to write text for our artwork and then had it published.

Our collaborations came about simply because I love Gary's work and thought it would be fun to mix our different styles together. It's rare for me to work in any collaborative manner and this was an excuse to sit and come up with some absurd-looking drawings. When I was growing up, I forced my friends to sit and draw with me and in some way this had a similar feel too it... Looking over and seeing that your friend had come up with something amazing.

Had either of you ever done an exquisite corpse game before? If so, with who? How was that game different from this one?

GP: I have done exquisite corpse at parties and there was a book published by the Drawing Center , years ago that Charles and I were probably both in. To me it is a light-weight party game and not the best way to make a piece of art together. Not my favorite art game.

CB: I've done exquisite corpse drawings with my friends before and they're fun but never seem to amount to much other than a diversion... a drawing on a cocktail napkin. I was invited to participate in an exquisite corpse exhibition at the Drawing Center in New York and I managed to find a way to do a collaboration with Mark Beyer and Peter Saul -- it sounded like a great match, but to be honest, the end result wasn't all that interesting.

Was there something in particular about each other that made the game make more sense, than with other artists?

CB: I enjoyed working together with Gary because we share similar interests (comic books, monster magazines, Japanese toys) but our drawing styles are different enough to make end result unpredictable. I also really enjoyed taking his pencil drawings and rendering them in ink -- it's a way of really examining how another artist constructs a drawing.

I've collaborated with a lot of friends on drawings. Most collaborations don't work and need to be terminated in the bud. With Charles there is a deep respect and trust and love of play.

What's the pushme-pullyou aspect of your particular collaborative relationship? Is one person more likely to make the first line, or push it in a different direction?

In most collaborations, I have been involved there is a leader and a willing accomplice. But mainly laughter is the organizing principle in the collaboration. Charles and I both feel free to erase or alter the game. Charles is one of the best inkers in the world and I am shaky, so I have to get a good brush and do the tighten up to play, but that is fun. We learn from each other.

Is there an element of competition?

GP: No, I don't think so. We are trying to make each other laugh and make something that fuses together.

CB: There was no competition. There was really only the hope that we'd come up with something fun to look at - a weird hybrid of our styles and imagery.

Do you find yourself being more of less free, creatively, when you know someone else will also have input? Do you rein yourself in, in the expectations of the other, or do you let yourself go more, challenging the other person to make something of it?

For me doing a collaboration is taking "time out" from my usual work. It's actually fun to do and I think part of the reason is there are different expectations and less control. It's like letting go of the tight control I always maintain on my writing and drawing and allowing myself to work on something with no "rules". For it to work there has to be a mutual respect, but you also need to be aggressive enough to alter (fuck-up?) the other persons drawing.

GP: In order to draw with someone or make music together there has to be close listening and watching and an intent to make a collective vision rather than a singular vision.

Is there something about collaborative art that isn't there with solo art? Is it useful, or just a parlor game?

GP: The Jack Kirby unimind.

CB: Collaboration for me is about letting go of all my control and forcing myself to explore a different perspective. Although we share similar interests, Gary constantly comes up with ideas and images I could never possibly imagine -- that's when it gets good.

GP: Charles and I have made drawing that i think are very important to us. That goes for the other collaborations we have done with friends, like Art Spiegelman, Edwin Pouncey, Jay Cotton and Ric Heirtzman and more.

I like that the notion that "being allowed to fuck up": in all the collaborative art projects I've done, it's also been a just-for-fun game, as well, which to me speaks to rigorous idealism behind singular artistic vision. In popular culture, artists are always portrayed as 'free spirits', but the artists I know are some of the most tightly dedicated people to their very particular way of doing something. Additionally, the ideal of the artist is that of auteur genius. Collaboration can fracture of the benevolent dictatorship of artistic vision, which we've already revealed can occasionally be a good thing; you're obviously just two people playing; would it work better or worse with four people? How about 10 or 20?

I've done several collaborations and they usually work best with just one other person. With two minds, the focus is tighter and the end results are usually more interesting.

A one to one collaboration is better for me. There is a better chance to find the middle ground. More people more chaos. The Zap artists were really good at jamming. Most jams look like shit.

Our panel in March is obviously focusing of collective creativity, and in particular how it manifests itself on the web. We in our culture, and especially on the internet, tend to value egalitarianism, at least in theory; but in the art world, the tight focus is on the dominant individual. Are internet culture and art culture wildly divergent for that reason? And if they are different, what does that mean for both? What if Vermeer had to fret obsessively as to whether his teeshirt design would get voted for on Threadless?

GP: Projects do need leaders or cheerleaders. Often one person will push the project harder. There is the danger of people getting too knitted together. We have to learn to easily move from isolated creative vision and consensual ideation and work. I am interested in the strength of little things and little things as prototypes for bigger things, so a team of one or two or three appeals to me. Vermeer would've done one t-shirt in his whole career and he would've known it was the best t-shirt Threadless ever had.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Letting the crowd grope you...

While I don't recommend letting the crowd grope you (unless you are into that), Fleshmap investigated the online equivalent by looking at the collective perception of erogenous zones. They used Amazon's Mechanical Turk to ask hundreds of people to rank how good it would feel to touch a lover's private parts and plotted the results as a heatmap (image right). The result is not surprising, but I always like good examples of crowdsourced input that confirm for us what we already know.

Coalition of the Willing: Animation for the planet

Here's a fine example of distributed movie-making toward a greater good. Coalition of the Willing is an online animated video that is being constructed now through April 2010 by a small army of creative collaborators from around the globe.
‘Coalition of The Willing’ is a film that discusses how we can use new internet technologies to leverage the powers of activists, experts, and ordinary citizens in collaborative ventures to combat climate change. Through analyses of swarm activity and social revolution, ‘Coalition of the Willing’ makes a compelling case for the new online activism and explains how to bring the fight against global warming to the people. As the film tackles the subject of online activism, we decided that the logical home for ‘Coalition of The Willing’ is here online.

One section of the work in progress from Simon Robson on Vimeo.

The script was co-written by philosopher/writer/filmmaker Tim Rayner and artist Simon Robson of Knife Party (an animation collective). Viewers can watch the collaborative process online, from script to storyboards to production, via the project website and a variety of social media platforms. In this instance, the mission of the project is issue-driven, and a certain level of proficiency exists because the participants were hand-picked rather than randomly sourced.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Having grown up in the Boston area, I've chuckled to myself a few times after hearing about Washington DC getting a dusting of snow that renders the city helpless. Now they've had a very real storm, and they're working to get back on their feet. Having been caught mostly unprepared, and with an infrastructure that seems to be lacking in the snow-response department, the people are taking action.

Armed with an online tool, Snowmageddon Clean-up, some snowed-in and stranded folks are seeking help. Sponsored by The Washington Post and PICnet, the website lets visitors post shovel requests, icy street warnings, and other storm-related info. There seems to be a system in place to verify the posts, which while subjective, is probably a good thing. That way the site can stay focused on shoveling parties, community-building and information-sharing. It's a little like a super-specific, less creepy Craigslist. So with this verification system implemented, how did the "My Boyfriend is Driving me Crazy" post get through?
"Right now my 24-year-old boyfriend is flapping his arms, proclaiming "I'm the Mothman!" (He's watching Monsterquest) I hope this illustrates why we both need to get out of the apartment. Somebody please melt all the snow."
Now, I'm no square, I think this is hilarious. But really, why is it there? It's the tipping point. Will this site turn into a geo-twitter, where we can see exactly where people have run out of tea? I would argue that this is one instance in which a strong gate-keeper is really vital. Or am I the curmudgeon who won't tolerate a joke? Also here's this, which is just bizarre - Snowpocalypse

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Ten Thousand Cents

San Francisco media artist Takashi Kawashima has been exploring crowdsourced art for a few years, now.

For example, Takashi's 2005 project "The King Has...", a collaboration with Krister Olsson, invited people to text the artist(s) their most burdensome secrets; these secrets were then posted (anonymously) in a public place. Video below:

The King Has... from Takashi Kawashima on Vimeo.

Between November 2007 and March 2008, Takashi collaborated with Aaron Koblin on "Ten Thousand Cents," a "coordinated, crowdsourced [digital] art project" created by several thousand individuals using Amazon's Mechanical Turk service — a crowdsourcing marketplace, publicly launched in 2005, that enables computer programs to coordinate the use of human intelligence — and a customized Flash-based drawing software.

Koblin and Takashi divided a high-res scan of the $100 bill into 10,000 equal parts, each of which was delivered to a "turker" who was paid a penny to duplicate it using the drawing tool. Contributors (who hailed from 51 different countries) didn't have any idea of the whole picture. The project took 5 months to complete; the idea was to use 10,000 turkers, but some turkers participated more than once. The end result was a reproduction of a $100 bill that cost $100 to create. Video:

Ten Thousand Cents from Ten Thousand Cents on Vimeo.

There's a neat interface here that lets you watch any one of the 10,000 Flash paintings being created. "Ten Thousand Cents" was a finalist (Experimental category) for a SXSW Web Award in 2009.

More recently, Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey collaborated on "Bicycle Built for Two Thousand" (great title), which used Amazon Mechanical Turk to record 2,088 sound clips. Turkers were sent a short-short sound clip — snipped from a mechanical-speech version of the 1892 song "Daisy Bell" — and asked to imitate what they heard, using a custom audio recording tool in a web browser. They were not given additional information. People from 71 countries participated; they were paid six cents apiece. Stitched back together, the clips sound like this:

Bicycle Built for Two Thousand from Aaron on Vimeo.

Why a mechanical-speech version of "Daisy Bell"? Because the song was used, in 1962, as the first example of musical speech synthesis. (That's also why HAL sings it, in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

What's Wappening!?

Yesterday I received a curious message from artist Lee Walton.

"At this very moment, a man is locked up to a park bench at Union Square Park in San Francisco. To unlock him, find the woman in the red scarf at the Atlas Cafe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is the only one who has the combination to the lock. She will give it to you. Can you find a way to set this man free? He is hungry and wants to go home."

This is the fourth in a series of "Wappenings" (2004-ongoing) created by Walton to see how fast, creative, and cooperative social networks really are. The first three Wappenings also had a challenge built into the plea, with a stranger awaiting relief from a predicament. For instance, a man stands unable to put on his coat, despite freezing weather, until a stranger gives him an orange; or a young (attractive, single, bookish) woman is scheduled to drop her books and papers down the steps of New York Public Library at noon, will someone be there to assist her?). These requests are posted on Walton's website and circulated voluntarily by the usual social networking platforms, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

How long did it take for the stranger to be freed from his park bench prison? According to Walton:

"It took about 2 hours to unlock the guy. Apparently, the manager at the cafe got a handful of calls asking to speak to a girl wearing a red scarf. He wouldn't help out of respect for his customers. Finally, Katrina (from SF) sent a FAX. Yes, in 2010 a fax solves the communication riddle. She got the combo and unlocked Lucas. It was starting to rain even harder..."

What I like about this series is that there is no monetary reward for participation, and the situations require cooperation and ingenuity (like if the phone doesn't work, try the fax machine). The humanitarian bent is an interesting twist, too. I wonder if passersby get in on the act, or if all participants know the circumstances in advance. Walton's Wappenings are simple enough to be solved, however, not all networked "good will" efforts are this uncomplicated. See Patrick Philippe Meier's very intriguing blog post, Using Mechanical Turk to Crowdsource Humanitarian Response.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Crowdsourcing's Baby Daddy, Jeff Howe

Jeff Howe, the man who coined the term "crowdsourcing" with Chris Anderson in 2006, has created a series of "how(e) to crowdsource" videos for American Express' Open Forum (itself a kind of online collaborative platform for small businesses). Here are Howe's five tips.

#1: Pick the right crowd

#2: Pick the right incentive

#3: Keep it simple

#4: Keep the pink slips in the drawer (i.e., don't expect to save money)

#5: Ask what you can do for the crowd

These tips are posted on a major credit card's website. Which begs the question: has crowdsourcing been so co-opted by corporations that its potential has been stunted? The first instances of crowdsourcing (distributed computing) typically involved solving a complex problem (mapping the human genome, searching for extraterrestrial life) that had an impact on humanity. I'm not sure that a crowd-generated commercial for Heinz Ketchup can do the same.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Markets and collaborative pricing

In some ways, markets can be thought of as crowdsourced input. While it is perhaps a bit of a stretch to claim that markets facilitate indirect collaboration, a nice example of what I mean is illustrated with the project "One Thousand Paintings". is an art experiment that explores the role of crowdsourced input in valuation of art. The project is the brainchild of Swiss artist/Stanford evolutionary biologist Marcel Salathe whose other projects include "Webpages as graphs", "Salathe & White - Art Bond Project". The basic premise behind this experiment is that there is a tremendous uncertainty in the value of artwork. A prominent example of this was illustrated in 2003 when 24 paintings thought to be authentic Jackson Pollocks were discovered. Determining their authenticity, or lack thereof, modifies their value by hundreds of millions of dollars.

So the question behind is: What if you let the crowd, mediated by the market, determine the value of the art? While you may argue that this is nothing more than supply/demand economics, onethousandpaitings takes it to an entirely new level by incentivizing early adopters with what has been likened to a mashup of "eBay with a pyramid scheme".

The price = 1000 - number on the painting. The first 100 paintings are discounted by 90%, with a 10% decrease in the discount every time 100 paintings are sold. So, for example, painting 50 should cost $950 (1000-50). However if you are one of the first one hundred people to purchase, you get it at the fire sale price of $95. The "indirect collaboration" comes into play when you consider that the value of your painting increases only when others, your collaborators, purchase more paintings.

I'm not sure whether or not this meets the criterion of crowdsourced input on the creative process, but it is surely a nice way to think about markets. Full disclosure, I am the proud owner of 626.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Counterpoint: Collective Creativity in service of the unfunny

When Tim and I first started batting around the idea of this panel, one thing was clear from the beginning: we didn't want this to be boosterism at the expense of honest examination of the phenomenon. This is one of those times.

Above is an example of the New Yorker's caption contest; for those not in the know, the contest was started about 5 years ago as a way to drive more traffic to the New Yorker site by having one of their esteemed artists draw a potentially hilarious cartoon, but leave off the one-line zinger below . The New Yorker then invites the audience to submit the caption, of which the best three were picked by the editors. These three then are listed on the site for the New Yorker audience to determine the winner. It is, in a neat little package, nearly exactly what we've been getting at in this discussion.

It's also an abysmal failure, in my humble opinion.

What makes people go to solo art shows, show up for one-woman plays, read manifestos, and, perhaps most germanely, think a trip to a comedy club might be a good time? In a phrase, it's singularity of vision. The New Yorker caption contest takes away everything that is (ok, occasionally) brilliant about New Yorker cartoons, namely, that the best ones are usually completely misanthropic and rather twisted. Only a magazine dedicated to the vast social experiment that is New York could wrangle the pathos that comes out in some of the cartoons in the magazine, and that is why they are funny. They are funny in a way that all slack-jawed gapes at the absurdity of life are funny; they are funny because they are bred from one too many brushes with humanity.

With all due respect to Ms. Klein and Msrs. Templeman and Harrington, the final captions options at the top of this post are, by contrast, tragically unfunny. The caption contest planes down the singular despotic comedic vision into a bland, Two And A Half Men, good-enough formula. I assume the people that enter want to win. So what's most likely to win? Probably that which appeals to the massive base of the New Yorker readership, which, while I'll grant is probably a little more urbane than most, doesn't necessary possess the nihilistic wit that a really sharp cartoon commands.

So. We end up getting suggested captions about broken coffeemakers. Crowd-sourced, indeed.

69 Love Drawings

There's a great new project, currently near completion, that aims to illustrate each song of The Magnetic Fields' "69 Love Songs" suite. How Fucking Romantic is the home of the project, where contributors' creations are posted, and the list of illustrated songs is maintained.

The project is intensely Indirectly Collaborative: Originally, the songs were written by Stephin Merrit, and were then filled out by the musicians who played on the album. The songs were then used as inspiration by not just one, but a collection of artists to create a body of visual art that was originally never intended, but serves as a great compliment to the music. It's interesting to think about how such cool illustrations could not have come to exist were it nor for an influence so removed from the visual art field. I think this speaks volumes to Merrit's ability to conjure provocative imagery with his songs, and the artists' ability to distill the mood of the music.

From the project site:
We are a loose collection of mostly London-based comic-artists, illustrators and writers, who have grown up listening to the Magnetic Fields and got together over a mutual love of the songs. One day, on Twitter, a couple of us decided that illustrating – or writing a comic – or a short story – inspired by all 69 songs was a worthwhile and exciting pursuit, so here we are!
Image by Huw "Lem" Davies

Monday, January 25, 2010

Cage Match

GOOD Magazine, in their Slow issue, highlight a composition by avant-garde artist and composer John Cage, most well known for his four minute and thirty-three second piece comprised of no notes.

Another piece, Organ²/ASLSP, has an instruction that it should be played as slowly as possible. Some Cage devotees in Halberstadt, Germany have taken that direction to heart and have begun a very slow performance of it, begun in 2000, to be completed in 2639.

This is an interesting example of Indirect Collaboration, where interpretation is paramount to other types of contributions, maybe even including even the original input. Of course the notes being played are important, but those are mostly performed, or at least sustained, by mechanical means.

This calls into question the role of the gatekeeper. This instance could be considered to have two gatekeepers, or maybe none. Cage wrote the composition, but then stepped away. The Germans stepped in, free to meddle, but only in one direction. Is this creative? Collaborative? Certainly it's indirect.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Q&A: Margaret Wertheim

Margaret Wertheim is an Australian-born science writer who — along with her sister, the poet and critic Christine Wertheim — cofounded the Institute for Figuring, a Los Angeles-based organization "dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and the technical arts." In 2005, the Wertheims launched the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project in their Highland Park living room; in 2010, the now-massive sculpture will be exhibited at the Smithsonian. From the beginning, the Wertheims imagined the project as a collective enterprise — but they had no idea how far it would spread. Joshua Glenn interviewed Margaret Wertheim in January 2010.

GLENN: What is the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project?
WERTHEIM: We produce sculptures that are a crocheted version of the Great Barrier Reef. Coral reefs have this very distinctive look about them — these crenellated, frilly forms, which are basically versions of hyperbolic geometry. And it turns out that the only way we know how to make models of hyperbolic geometry is with crochet. [From the IFF website: "The basic insight is to understand that these forms result from the simple process of increasing the number of stitches in every row. The more often you increase stitches the faster the model will grow and the more crenellated the finished form will become."] The Project was conceived because coral reefs all over the world are dying out. The evidence is that by 2030, corals might not grow any more due to the effect of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere going into the seas. So the Project resides at the intersection of mathematics, marine biology, feminine handicraft, and collective art practice. It is also a political project, because it is raising consciousness of global warming.

GLENN: The code that allows you to model hyperbolic geometry with crochet was discovered by Daina Taimina, a Latvian mathematician at Cornell. Was it she who figured out that these crochet models look like bits of coral reef?
WERTHEIM: Dr. Taimina was interested in just doing them as pure mathematical models. Christine and I realized, after we'd crocheted a few [hyperbolic models], that if you started deviating from the mathematical perfection of Taimina's models, the [resulting creations] actually looked like a coral reef. As soon as we started varying the formulae a little, you get things that are not mathematically perfect — so, not good for teaching a course on hyperbolic geometry at Cornell, but they look a lot more organic. We realized, this is what nature is doing. Nature is not being strictly geometrically perfect because nature doesn’t have to adhere to the rules of mathematics. Instead, it is doing variations, and that is why you get the diversity of forms in nature — because life starts from a simple code and then diversifies and complexifies. We started saying, "OK, how can we replicate things that look like natural forms rather than pure mathematical ones?"

GLENN: How has the Crochet Reef developed differently, thanks to "indirect collaboration," to use Joe Alterio and Tim Lillis's phrase, than it otherwise might have?
WERTHEIM: Everybody who takes up these [crochet] techniques starts to vary it in different ways — in ways that that we would never have thought of, necessarily, ourselves. So you get this endless variation that comes from people just trying things that are, as it were, inherent in the whole system. [From the IFF site: "Loopy 'kelps,' fringed 'anemones,' and curlicued 'corals' have all been modeled. While the process that brings these models into being is algorithmic, endless permutations of the underlying formulae result in a constantly surprising panoply of shapes. The quality of yarn, style of stitch, and tightness of the crochet all affect the finished forms so that each is as individual as a living organism.] Which raises very beautiful questions about the relationship between pure mathematics and the physically manifest material structure of the world that we actually live in.

GLENN: You and your sister started to make the Crochet Reef in Christmas 2005. Did you imagine it as an open-source collaborative project from the beginning?
WERTHEIM: Yes, I put up an announcement on the Institute for Figuring website asking for people to join us. We thought maybe ten, twenty people around the world would join us — and that the final project would occupy a few coffee tables' worth of space. Nearly five years later, there have been thousands of people who have contributed models to our exhibitions and hundreds of thousands of people have come to the exhibitions, and who knows how many have attended workshops and learned to do it. It has become this unintended worldwide movement, and it has just blown our minds.

GLENN: Why has the Crochet Reef, which has no major institutional support of any kind and very little funding, taken off like this?
WERTHEIM: What people are really doing when they participate in the Project is a form of experimental mathematics. And I think it is not insignificant that that is happening among women, not men. We have had a few men, and we welcome them, but 99.99% of people who do this are women — who tell us, again and again, that they love the idea of being taken seriously as people who engage with math and science. Here is a project in the context of a handicraft that women feel comfortable with and enjoy, and they are being told, "You too, can understand the mathematics that underlies general relativity." The Project has tapped into a hunger of women, everywhere, to be taken seriously as intellectual forces. Which is a reason that I've made it my full-time job, though there is no full-time salary.

GLENN: Might the Crochet Reef one day receive funding from the kinds of institutions that try to engage folks with scientific and mathematical ideas — through things like Lego Mindstorms and the X Prize?
WERTHEIM: I guarantee, from my work as a science communicator, that 99% of people who engage in Lego Mindstorms will be boys. Millions of dollars are being pumped into such projects, and there is no money being pumped into the Crochet Coral Reef Project, which is engaging thousands and thousands of women and girls all over the world. I think community projects and community creativity, it is one of the important trends of our time. But the resources available to encourage such projects are overwhelmingly in computers, say, or robotics. I am all for those things, but most of people involved in those things are boys. Engaging people in math and science can also take place in things like paper and scissors, it can take place in crochet. There are lots of handicrafts that have math and science involved — in fact, weaving led to the invention of the loom, and punch-cards come from the loom, and punch-cards helped lead to the computer. So it can be argued that weaving was the first digital technology. When any collective project happens, it's worth asking a political question: "Where is the support, and which projects get supported?"

GLENN: Is the opportunity to collaborate in a collective artwork — as opposed to being a solo artist — another important part of the appeal of the Crochet Reef?
WERTHEIM: One thing that we get told, again and again, is how much engagement with the math and science is meaningful. And the other thing that the participants tell us that is immensely powerful to them is the opportunity to participate in a total work that is more than just themselves. In the upper echelons of the art world, what is valorized is the individual genius of the artist. But what this project taps into is the opposite of that. There are many tens of thousands of hours of work in this totality. When you walk into an art exhibition where there is more than five hundred people’s work on display, the sheer congealed hours of human labor helps you see that it is just simply is physically impossible for one person to do this much work. The totality of what thousands of people produced is much more — both greater and more beautiful — than what any individual genius, one individual person, could produce.

GLENN: So it's not merely the Crochet Reef's sheer size that's so impressive, but its variation?
WERTHEIM: When you walk into a room with five hundred people’s work and each person has been free to express themselves differently — obviously many of them just do the "canonical" reef patterns, but lots of them will also take up and go in special directions — you get such a feeling of commitment and intensity, of handmade labor. There are knitting machines, but there is no such thing as a crochet machine, so the Project is true commitment.

GLENN: Do you think women are more attracted to collaborative projects than men are?
WERTHEIM: In terms of the collective group enterprise, women have been having sewing circles and quilting bees since the dawn of time. Some critics have argued, with good cause, that the collective feminist art projects of the early 1970s — like the 1972 installation "Womanhouse" — were the start of this whole trend that is now called Relational Aesthetics, which is to say artistic practices that take as their point of departure human relations as opposed to a solo genius, and which has been taken up by many men.

GLENN: What is your end goal for the Crochet Reef?
WERTHEIM: What we would love is if some museum somewhere would give it a permanent home so we could set it up once and for all beautifully. It is too big to store in our house. At the moment it is all in storage in Arizona, and then it will go to Ireland, and then to Smithsonian Museum of Natural History later this year.

GLENN: If a museum does take the Crochet Reef, will people stop contributing to it?
WERTHEIM: I doubt it. Every week, I get emails from communities all over the world saying, "We want to do this." It has truly gone viral. People say, "How long do you intend to keep doing this?" I don’t know. I used to have a serious career as a science journalist. I write books about the cultural history of physics, and I have been struggling to get my most recent book finished because the reef literally took over my life.