Mass Observation

cover of Mass Observation penguin editionI was prompted by recent hubbub over videoblogging (or ‘vlogging’ if you must) to take another look around the BBC’s own “Video Nation”.

For about 10 years, Video Nation has been letting people record, edit and broadcast their own stories on national television. The website has now become the archive and dominant prescence of Video Nation when it is off-air. It recently redesigned to create a more accessible archive, and navigation by geography amongst other improvements.

In the history section of the site, a social research organisation called “Mass Observation” is cited as an inspiration for Video Nation.

Later today, while wandering around Kookymojo, various outwards links on psychogeography lead me back to “Mass Observation”.

When this happens, I pay attention.

Found therein, a quote from David Mellor:

“One guise which reconciled the twin demands of the Surrealist and the Documentarist was that of the Poet Reporter. In his BBC broadcasts of 1938, on the general theme of Poetry and the Public, Jennings posited a unity which once existed in English literature before the advent of the mass media in which the poet was a kind of reporter; and poet-reporter was in fact the title adopted by Charles Madge during these years, echoing the Utopian hopes of Mass Observation to have reconciled science and art after their separation brought about by the Industrial Revolution.”

I get a few more synapse-sizzles from this, reminding me of a pre-Newtonmas IM conversation with MattW about another little-known BBC product: “Open Country”.

Matt often holds that Radio is the once-and-future medium, and in this IM he pointed to Open Country as a premium example of why it’s different and better than anything else. I caught the 28th December edition, driving to London back from home yesterday and he’s right. It’s fantastic – reportage, atmosphere, happy accidents and connections are rendered in rich, real, audio: a great example of the poet-reporter in action.

I had another IM conversation today with a very smart person, in which I tried to recount this feeling of everything you see being densely interconnected and interwingled with everything else. It quickly moved to Borge’s library of Babel and the death of coincidence in the age of the interweb. As social networks and domains of knowledge become more and more overlapped, the way we find things is changing… it feels more like things are finding us: manufactured serendipity.

When the blogosphere/noosphere sometimes surrounds me so uncomfortably, it seems like the navelgazing about it’s nature is both restricting and constricting, like it’s headed to either a big-crunch, with nothing to guarantee its expansion. Or maybe a heat-death, with nothing but vast, undifferentiated internodal space almost indistinguishable from the rare, dead, dark node.

But then I remember not to take blogs or the internet so seriously; and that there are poet-reporters in the world.

The Glass Wall

UPDATE: December, 2003

This post got linked to from BoingBoing, due to the mention in a comment that the PDF document is now available on the Kazaa p2p network. Two things to clear-up:

  1. I haven’t verified whether the document is on Kazaa at all, or in it’s original format.
  2. It wasn’t made clear immediately who authored the document. Again, I have to stress it wasn’t me. I just happened to work with the designers who did, and offered them a place to distribute the work. If you are linking or mentioning the document do not give me the credit but place it where it is due:

Anyway, please do give the credit to them and not me.

Don Norman on Eloi Vs Morlocks

“Kids don’t have a clue about how things work. Sure, kids can whiz through a lot of menus and commands, etc. But I understand what is
happening underneath — they are clueless. This bothers me.

Society seems to think that because kids have memorized the actions required to
get something working that they understand it. “My kid is a whiz at technology,” they brag. This scares me. This is why China will become the dominant nation and the US will fall behind. We don’t understand that true knowledge is more than learning how to push the buttons. In fact, those with true knowledge are not necessarily adept at using the stuff. Let’s not confuse one with the other.”

» Don Norman on the UI generation gap

As we may link

Tanya Pixelcharmer has a great linkful post about power-laws, the web, citation-analysis and, ascending-meme-of-the month: “the trouble with Google”:

“So, ultimately the thing that makes Google so great, is also it’s major flaw — weighting pages in favor of highly trafficked sites, or weighting in favor of sites that are pointed to by highly trafficked sites. Therefore a search on the word �Dao� will give you the article “The Dao of Web Design” at A List Apart before those that discuss it�s original meaning. So, Google suffers from the power law distribution that links obey when looked at over the entire web.”

Blogs maybe rendering Google bankrupt, but perhaps the problem is not with Google and pagerank, but with who blogs at the moment. Can’t find that much on a blogger demographic or blogging demographic other than pollyanna-ish ‘everyone’s a blogger’ puff-pieces in old media. My guess is that Chris Gulker’s piece in The Independent is rather closer to the sub-demographic, who instead of deadjournalling about Slipknot are gaming Google with their linkmachines.

“‘We’ are nerds, geeks, dweebs, technorati and, in this case, bloggers, a group of about 50, mostly male, mostly middle-aged and largely under-employed or unemployed inhabitants of Silicon Valley”

Nothing wrong with this of course… and I love reading that stuff, but while the googlebot is learning from such a limited set of time-rich, high-link-worth individuals, then you’re going to run into the problems Tanya describes. I also don’t think it’s that much of a showstopper of a problem. In the blogging, tech and digital design community we may tend to ask more tech, design or abstract questions which are not answered outside of the blogosphere, and therefore there is little surprise that the mirror of pagerank is held up against us. “Real-world” queries are still answered happily and with heterogeneity by Google. For example, this morning a friend asked me if there were puffins on Skomer Island and google helped me answer with one click (the answer is “yes”)

I’m not suggesting we immediately drop B52-fulls of free simputers all over the world in order to make the GoogleTruth more inclusive, but what about channelling some Vannevar Bush, and making like the Memex. I’m sure we all have this committed to memory by now:

” Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”

And of course his notion of many memex linked by ‘trails’:

“There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.”

As I perhaps naively see it [and if there was one post destined to get me flames it might be this one], there is a current skew of those who are creating their own Memex and, particularly those who are blazing trails between them. I’ve talked before about lowering barriers to entry being one of the most important factors for me in creating social software – and re-reading Bush’s 1945 tubthumper makes me think of one key area that might get us a high blogbang-for-buck.

What about a flavour of blog creation software aimed at academics, professors, researchers – specialised templates, tailored language and interface, easy-to-intergrate with college intranets, easier to publish to the web from within an internal net, tied to citation management software, directories and search tools.

Alongside this, pioneer blogging-academics to come up with a best-practice approach for those wanting to start out, a creative-commons style license for academic bloggers which builds an ‘everyone-wins’ academic-commons and also an approach for colleges to map blogging to traditional measures of academic success such as publishing and citation.

If we could find ways for the collected, collegiate building and crucially linking of the global academic memex to the quality of the blogosphere, where the link-loam gets deeper by the day, then pretty soon if you searched for Dao you’d get something by the chair of comparative religion and philosophy rather than a webdesigner in an aeron chair.

“On it” / Haecceity

global frequency#3
© (I imagine) Warren Ellis, Steve Dillon, DC Comics and Comics Continuum

Warren Ellis has just posted links to a preview of Global Frequency #3.

Fantastic. Warren Ellis is really “on-it” with Global Frequency. It’s a great book, and along with Patrick Farley’s Spiders joins a few other pop culture artifacts than are hitting the haeccceity, nailing the thisness-of-now.

It’s a favourite OtherMatt word: Haecceity: the “thisness” of something. Both the phrases “the-thisness-of-now” and “the-nowness-of-this” have pinged around our conversations this year about fashion-trends, fiction-suits, e-prime, semiotics, noophysics, magick and mythpolitik, comicbooks and culture; and the way the web has won.

But, as per usual, this Matt has been winging it. Biting on the wordsnorkel and diving into french philosophy has never been my idea of fun. All that Dellllooooze and Guitarry stuff was not really for me, but I liked the idea.

So when I found this trying to get a friend a swift googleplanation of the word, I was knocked out:

“It is the entire assemblage in its individuated aggregate that is a haecceity; it is this assemblage that is defined by a longitude and a latitude, by speeds and affects, independently of forms and subjects, which belong to another plane. It is the wolf, itself, and the horse, and the child, that cease to be subjects to become events.

You will yield nothing to haecceities unless you realize that that is what you are, and nothing else. … You are longitude and latitude, a set of speeds and slownesses between unformed particles, a set of non-subjectified affects.”

Being “on it” is about tracking these flows, locking on this latitude of longitude of the now. Sometimes you can feel it, sometimes you are lucky enough to ride it, more often than not it rides you. Like I say, Warren Ellis is “on it”.

Good evening, you’re on the Global Frequency.

» Global Frequency at


has accounted for a major dip in productivity in our office. Unlike previous social network building apps like sixdegrees or ryse there is something about it which is incredibly compelling.

Is it:

  • The ease of use of the well-considered IA and user-interface?
  • The photos?
  • The “privacy of the mall” feeling of a private public place that you feel confidence in?
  • The fact it’s not dressed up in “personal-productivity” speak and is just obviouslly about reinforcing and discovering social ties, and, ahem… dating?

Or all of the above. Go and explore it, using the beta code: “coke”. I’d be very interested in anyone’s views/criticisms.