Sneeze Diary

Back Scroll To Media

Sneeze Diary

Ben Barker

7th March 2013

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 12.49.17

At Boring conference this year, Roo Reynolds spoke about collecting things. Among the curiosities one project particularly stood out, Peter Fletcher’s Sneeze Diary, ostensibly a record of every time he sneezes, but as he explains, it’s more than that. My interest centred on a couple of things.

Impartial Record


The sneeze diary creates a random, almost completely impartial record of a daily life. It scoops the mundane, the exceptional and the frustrating up into the same timeline to be reflected on side by side. I did some work on this with the watch camera a few months ago exploring non-partisan interventions that help understand the impact of all experiences, be they strong or weak, positive or negative. Typically we’re only good at capturing the strong positive experiences, it’s hard to critique such a skewed record.

The religious associations with sneezes gives them a resonance the camera doesn’t have, whilst being self-generated seems to makes it less of an imposition. As a caution, I wonder how long it takes before it begins to feel like a voluntary action, a reaction to boredom. In the same vein Peter has ways of managing his sneezes when it’s not convenient, say when he is on the toilet or away from his notebook.

Memento Mori


It’s also a momento mori. Forcing reflection by interjecting into your routine, lifting you from the moment and up into the larger narrative of your life. It asks you to remember both the moment and the journey, like stars on an ocean voyage. As Peter says:

This act of counting, and documenting, not only acts to highlight, intensify and enhance the experiences that accompany a sneeze, but also the events that fall between the sneezes, giving me a more profound understanding, even than I had before, of the simple joy in the passing of time

It’s a beautiful piece of design. Peter talks about how over time, it starts to seem unnatural when he sees someone sneeze and not make a note, and that’s the final proof. It’s a habit changing intervention, that reaches beyond the moment you sneeze and out into an exploration and reflection on what it’s like to be you. It’s an enhancing behaviour.

Once I had been counting sneezes for a short time, I became disturbed when I saw someone sneeze, and then not look closely at their watch or mobile phone and take out and write something illegible in a notebook. Witnessing people sneeze and then not record it has come to feel unsettling and wrong, as if they are losing the sneeze, letting it go to waste. Does this mean I am enhancing my life by counting my sneezes?

My own sneeze diary is an inelegant system, I just make a new evernote note for each sneeze. I have thoroughly enjoyed doing it and can’t imagine ever stopping. I love having this parallel, awkward record of my existence, that captures me next to radiators or at the kitchen sink as often as it finds me doing something memorable in the traditional sense.

As a side note, with evernote you get heaps of meta data, which is a point worth raising. Is adding extra meta data more loaded than an idea this elegant deserves? For the sake of this record I’ve added the date, but suspect it perhaps detracts. This may be the only place I don’t agreed with Peter though, the rest is poetry.

 

Sneeze Diary: #1-31


NOVEMBER

#1 / 25th Double. Central line, just out of Boring. Pizza for dinner?

#2 / 28th Hereford Arms, Gloucester Road. Friend through to the finals of the Game Lab.

#3 / 30th Cold morning at the studio. Working on the advent calendar.

#4 / 30th Just had a peice of chewing gum. Selling my iPhone on the forum.

DECEMBER

#5 / 3rd Double. Exactly midnight, editing Playable Cities document to send to everyone. Bit of a cold.

#6 / 3rd Part cough. Watching David Attenborough in Madagascar, laughing about dating an egg.

#7 / 18th 3 in quick succession. Making Saturday coffee, empty day stretching out before me.

#8 / 24th Double. Walking down stairs past Christmas stockings. Dry warmth and green/grey carpet of my parents house.

JANUARY

#9 / 2nd Double. At home, putting washing on the radiator. Festive hangover, no strong emotion.

#10 / 10th Part cough double, chewing gum induced. Laptop into bag, drink with friend cancelled. Free evening.

#11 / 19th Single. At home, morning before Playable City award announcement. Went to the mirror to watch myself sneeze.

#12 / 19th Delayed double. Making coffee, discussing the guy who thought the whole household was unemployed.

#13 / 22nd Big double, cathartic. Leaving work to do tax return at home.

#14 / 24th Single. Holding a full cup of tea, required some balance. Packing bag for training at Leyton Orient ground.

FEBRUARY

#15 / 2nd Nasal double, directed at carpet. Drinking an Erdinger, editing detective interview.

#16 / 5th Double, chesty. Lying on my side, 6.30am wake up for filming at BBR.

#17 / 4th Double, throaty. Night before going to India. Closing laptop, heading home.

#18 / 5th Rapid double. Packing for India, thinking about linen shirts.

#19 / 5th Single, just taken off out of Heathrow. Using the inflight seat to seat messaging service.

#20 / 11th Double, in Afgan airspace. Tired, watched The Help, nearly cried.

#21 / 11th Single, over Eastern Europe. Watching Brazil.

#22 / 11th Cough-like sneeze, single. Heathrow airspace, the City and the City.

#23 / 12th Single, muffled by a developing cold. Writing Mind film questions, thinking about new world wines.

#24 / 12th Single. Realising the event is paid.

#25 / 13th Single, Ill. Checking the map of Africa.

#26 / 25th Single, cycling. Fake Nike trainers and a sunset. 6-0 at football.

#27 / 26th Single, expecting a second. You’re so smart and I can’t wait to see you

#28 / 27th One sneeze, kicked out of pub. Drunk, Cheese.

#29 / 28th Single. Bacon sandwich and horror films.

MARCH

#30 / 3rd Single. Waiting for the 78, about to buy a kilo of sausages.

#31 / 5th Double. First sunny day in March, thinking beyond lunch.

#32 / 5th Three part single. Beer on the stoop, and a medicinal airwave

 

Siren Diary


We extended the idea for our recent trip to Unbox in Dehli, to make a micro version over the four days of festival. We called it the siren diary, and an alarm went off at intervals through out the four days. It was fairly unsuccessful as people were so busy, so we changed to become the sirens ourselves using a video camera. We hoped to start conversations about how people reflect and build on experiences, how we manage the passing of time and what it takes to shake up a routine. Here are some of the responses to the question, “what are you thinking about?”

Perhaps the nicest thing we heard was a girl who for every term throughout her 4 years of college used a different perfume. She saw it as a way of separating and remembering the stages in her life. It’s another beautiful intervention, giving episodes a specific smell and acknowledging them as descrete periods, strung together to form a whole. It makes standing at the dresser applying perfume an act of understanding, a smile at times passing.

Transformations for Experience

Back Scroll To Media

Transformations for Experience

Sam Hill

10th January 2013

A while back I mentioned our theory-in-progress: that there are two kinds of design intervention that can improve the human experience. The first are designed ‘events’: finite moments in time, with their own contexts, during which things happen. Lots of people work in producing consumable experiential events, even if they don’t necessarily view them this way – certainly performers, game makers and interaction designers do; but also musicians, film-makers, artists, restaurateurs, etc. etc.

The other intervention type, however, is a little bit trickier and much less common. These are transformations, or augmentations – finding constant, passive, sustainable ways of being. How do you squeeze more life out of everyday living? We’ve identified three broad categories of transformation that would allow the collection of more experience value: sensory augmentation, memory augmentation and attitudinal re-evaluation.

 

1. Sensory Augmentation


Sensory Augmentation is ‘improving’ the way we interpret the world, which could be done in many ways:

Augmenting our existing senses

We could, theoretically, take our existing senses and improve them with the following abilities:

  • Perceiving beyond our current range, e.g. our vision does not include infra-red or ultra-violet light; our hearing capacity is restricted to a narrow band of frequencies)
  • Detecting things from greater distances (e.g. sharpness of vision, smelling blood in the water that originates from far away)
  • Distinguishing subtle differences between similar sensory inputs (e.g. tasting different varieties of grape in wines, or being able to sing pitch-perfectly)
  • Isolating a particular element amongst broad and varied sources (e.g. picking out a particular voice in a bar)
  • Processing input more quickly (e.g. seeing movement at a faster “frame-rate”, as many birds can)
  • Discerning subtle rates of change (in temperature, light, speed)
  • Observing in a broader directional field (e.g. having greater peripheral vision)

Here’s part of a larger Mezzmer info-graphic doing the rounds. It illustrates how awesomely badass the mantis shrimp’s vision is, relative to ours:

 

Senses seen in other Animals, not analogous to human senses

With the aid of developing tech, we might be able to equip ourselves with entirely new senses, inspired by other organisms in nature, such as:

  • echo-location, such as that used by bats, or dolphins (granted, some people have mastered echo-location too)
  • chemical detection via a vomeronasal organ, like in snakes
  • electroreception, as seen in sharks
  • magnetoception, as seen in birds

Data-centric Augmentation:

Contextual data could aid our perception and navigation of the social, human-constructed world:

  • universal translators and other aids for communication
  • diagrammatic vision – abstract visualisation of intangible things e.g. showing the electric field around an object, or the presence of radiation
  • annotated vision – providing ancillary data about things seen

Non-naturally occuring senses – including the fantastical

  • “x-ray” vision – seeing ‘through’ solid things
  • thermography – perceiving temperature (edit: some snakes have a crude form of this)
  • tele-sensation – tactile sensation from a distance, perhaps through an avatar/ slave-sensor
  • telepathy – non-verbal/ non-physical communication

Gregory McRoberts used an Arduino Lilypad, ultrasonic and infrared sensors to augment his partially-sighted eye to provide distance and temperature data

 

But… Would Sense Augmentation Really Increase Experience Value?

We’re postulating on the fly, to be honest. It makes sense that if sensory capacity was enhanced, one would get more from life, but we don’t really have any evidence to back this up. So perhaps we should consider it an opportunity for discourse. There are after all couple of considerations…

The first consideration is feasibility. Can we improve our capacity for greater sensation? Perhaps, even with the greatest bionic and genetic development we couldn’t enhance our senses beyond a certain limiting factor. Even if we could, it seems our minds can only process a finite amount of sensory stimulation at once.

The second consideration is: should we seek to augment our senses? They are, after all, a product of our evolution and should (you’d think) be somewhat attuned to our needs – we’ve actually lost some superfluous ancestral sensory abilities, such as a stronger olfactory ability, as recently as the last couple of hundred-thousand years. It may be that not only does further sensory development fail to provide an evolutionary edge, but possessing it could even reduce quality of life.

For example, Gregory McRoberts says that anyone trying to use his eye-patch on a fully-functioning eye suffers from a form of ‘Helmet fire’ – a term coined in aviation, where stress-induced task saturation, exacerbated by helmet HUDs, impedes pilots abilities to function and make decisions.

See also the clip below of ‘binocular soccer’ – even though binoculars are an accepted form of visual augmentation, if they can’t integrate passively and sympathetically with the other demands of our vision (depth perception and peripheral awareness) they also have an impeding effect:

 

2. Memory Augmentation


Specifically, enhancing experience would require augmenting Autobiographical memory; episodic memory in particular – recollecting times, places, associated emotions, and other contextual knowledge.

Augmenting Human memory would involve affecting our ability to:

  • record memories – encoding experiences exhaustively, with depth and detail
  • retain memories – remembering experiences for longer/ indefinitely
  • recall memories – have access to memories easily, quickly, entirely, accurately

Pragmatically this can be done in part through existing stuff – tools (such as cameras), systems (such as diaries) or techniques (such as mnemonics), but conceivably, it could perhaps be achievable in the future through genetics or neural-interfacing bionics.

Of course, the experiences themselves aren’t enhanced, but the memories of them are more exactly and comprehensively stored – so all memories would retain more experiential value.

Some people already have superior autobiographical memory – the condition is known as Hyperthymesia and is incredibly rare. People possessing the condition can recall every detail of their lives with as much accuracy as if it’d happened moments ago. Once again, however, we need to question if this capability really improves the human experience. The condition isn’t always regarded as a ‘blessing’; some affected experience it as a burden, and many spend a great deal of time dwelling on the past. The condition challenges the traditional notion of what healthy memory is, prompting the attitude “it isn’t just about retaining the significant stuff. Far more important is being able to forget the rest.” [(via Wikipedia) Rubin, D. C., Schrauf, R. W., & Greenberg, D. L. (2003). Belief and recollection of autobiographical memories. Memory and Cognition, 31, 887–901.]

 

3. Attitudinal Change/ Value Re-assessment


Finally, sense- and memory-augmentation won’t reap much benefit for any individual unless they have a sincere interest in exploiting such capacity to gain more experience value.

Attitudinal change, based on a reassessment of values, is a much less technology-orientated intervention. Instead it is a cognitive shift; a willingness to perceive ones environment more actively, and with a greater attention to detail.

On the one hand, this can be thought of as a learned skill. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is the archetypal ‘observer’ – someone who is ceaselessly, lucidly, taking in the details around him, analysing them and extracting wisdom. On the other hand, there is also a broader philosophical element, or at the very least a set of arguments – statements for why seeking out and making the most of life’s variety is of benefit to us.

To cause a change in attitude and behaviour would require:

  • Learning how to stand back during autobiographical events and and have an absolute, lucid, sensory attentiveness to what’s happening.
  • Being able to objectively reflect on one’s own motivations, decisions, actions and emotional state.
  • Training emotional and intellectual post-analysis (reflection, critiquing)
  • understanding why it is desirable to maximise one’s experiences

People talk about an ability to “live in the now”. Often it is seen as a good thing, though sometimes the phrase is used pejoratively to imply an inability to see the consequences of actions. It is contrasted with both those obsessed with and living inside of their memories, and those who cannot appreciate the here and now because they are constantly looking for the next thing.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness‘ is an essential tenet of Buddhism. Considered to be one of the seven factors for achieving spiritual enlightenment, it is a ready-made, tried-and-tested tool kit for gaining a greater appreciation of one’s environment. Mindfulness teaches both the importance of being aware, as well as providing instructions into how to achieve such a state. Unavoidably, it’s is a very trendy concept in the west at the moment, mainly because it’s lessons can also be applied as a form of cognitive therapy, to help temper conditions such as anxiety, depression and stress.

From our perspective, the applicable teachings of Mindfulness are very interesting, and as we continue to investigate them we’re keen to see what can be learned. However, without wanting to diminish it’s spiritual salience, nor the significance of being able to help therapeutically, as experience designers we need to be sure we can (if possible) isolate the processes from the spiritual.

 

Experiential Research?


‘Medicine’ is an enormous branch of applied science; a collection of inter-related but distinct areas of study, implicitly dedicated (arguments for quality of life to one side) to the goal of prolonging human life, through countering disease, environmental harm or genetic conditions.

Imagine if there was another contrasting branch of science, called Experiential Research. Experiential research might be considered to have the same ultimate purpose as medicine, but with an approach pivoted at 90 degrees. That ultimate goal being to fit more living into a life, but the change in tact being to get more intensity of living into each minute, rather than increasing the number of minutes.

Obviously, the underlying sciences already exist – biochemistry, bionics, cybernetics, genetics, psychology, neurology, human-system interfaces and data visualisation. The concepts of “body-hacking”, or “super-senses” are not new either. But if there was more collaboration across these disciplines, with the aim of creating new transformative interventions, then perhaps we could all reap the benefits of new capabilities and new perspectives.

 

Taxonomy of Interaction

Back Scroll To Media

Taxonomy of Interaction

Sam Hill

4th October 2012

The version shown here focuses almost entirely on human-to-object input. The first public beta version published was v.0.13. (This is the current version.)

 

Conceived in a Pub


We had an idea a couple of months ago (one of those “made-sense-in-the-pub, does-it-still-makes-sense-in-the-morning?” type of ideas) that it’d be incredibly useful to have some kind of universal classification of interaction. Nothing fancy, just a straight-up, catch-all taxonomy of human-systems inter-relationships.

The idea was a hierarchial table; a neat, organised and absolutely correct information tree, sprouting in two directions from the middle, i.e. the computer, system, or thing. At one end would be “every” (see below) conceivable form of input, any kind of real-world data that a computer could make sense of (actually, or theoretically). These roots would converge into their parent ideas and link up to the centre. Then, in the other direction would shoot every conceivable output, any kind of effective change that could be made upon another thing, person or environment.

If suitably broad enough, any known or future ‘interaction’ object or installation would, in theory, be mappable through this process, whether it was a door handle, wind-chime, musical pressure-pad staircase or Google’s Project Glass.

We couldn’t find any existing tables of such breadth in the public domain (though correct me if I’m wrong). It was in fact hard enough to find even parts of such a table. So we decided, tentatively, to see how far we could get making our own. Some of the issues that cropped up were surprising, whilst others which loomed ahead in the distance remained obstinately present until we were forced to address them.

 

Complications and Definitions


There are a couple of important things to be clear on, it seems, when putting together any kind of taxonomy. One of them is choosing an appropriate ordering of common properties. For example, should “physical communication” come under physical activity (alongside walking, eating and other non-communicative movement) or under communication (alongside verbal and haptic communication)? Conventionally, the three elements of an interaction are assumed to be: A person, an object, and an environment. Any fundamental interaction typically occurs between any two, e.g. person-person, person-object, object-environment, etc. These elements seemed like an appropriate fundamental trinity, from which everything else could stem from.

The difference between an object and environment, however, seems mostly (though not unilaterally) to be a matter of scale. Especially when it comes to methods of analysis (temperature, colour, density etc.). We also thought it best to include “abstract data” as a source, essentially to represent any data that might have been created randomly, or where the original relevance had been lost through abstraction.

It can often be desirable to describe something in two different ways. For example, a camera might help recognise which facial muscles are in use (to achieve nostril flair or raise an eyebrow), but it might also be desirable for an object to recognise these signifiers contextually, as a likely indicators of mood (e.g. anger, happiness, fear).

Another issue is granularity. How fine (how deep) should an inspection go? Tunnelling deeper into each vein of enquiry it becomes difficult to know when to stop, and challenging to maintain consistency.

When we talk about covering “every” kind of input, we mean that it should be possible for an organisation system like this to be all-encompassing without necessarily being exhaustive. A system that broadly refers to “audio input” can encompass the notions of “speech” and “musical instruments”, or incorporate properties like “volume” and “timbre”, without necessarily making distinctions between any of them.

 

Sarcasm and Toasters


One decision we made early on was to categorise human inputs by their common characteristics, not by the input mechanism that would record them. This was because there might be more than one way of recording the same thing (e.g. movement could be recorded by systems as diverse as cameras, sonar and accelerometers). This created an interesting side-effect, as the taxonomy shifted into a far more complex study of human behaviour and bio-mechanics; “what can people do”. Whilst studying areas of audio, visual and haptic communication, we were especially struck by the sense we were writing the broad specifications for a savvy, sympathetic AI – a successful android/ cylon/ replicant; i.e. something capable of reading the full range of human action.

Imagine, for example, what it would require for an object to appreciate sarcasm – a toaster, let’s say, that can gauge volume, intonation, emphasis, facial expression, choice of language, timing, socio-cultural circumstances… –  estimate a probability of irony and then respond accordingly.

Such capacity would avoid situations like this:

Does it have a Future?


To develop this project is going to require some input from a few experts-in-their-fields; learned specialists (rather than generalists like myself with wiki-link tunnel vision). The taxonomy needs expanding upon (‘outputs’ at the moment are entirely non-existent), re-organising and probably some correcting. If you would like to contribute and you’re a linguist, anthropologist, roboticist, physiologist, psychologist, or see some territory or area you could assist with, your insight would be appreciated.

As our research has indicated, there is often more than one way of classifying interactions. But a hierarchy demands we always use the most applicable interpretation. All taxonomies are artificial constructs, of course, but a hierarchy seems to exacerbate rigid pigeon-holing of ideas. Perhaps the solution is to evolve into something less linear and absolute than a hierarchial taxonomy (like the nested folders of an OS), and instead consider something more nebulous and amorphous (for example the photo-sets and tags in Flickr).

It would also be great to have overlays; optional layers of additional information (such as examples of use, methodologies and necessary instruments). Perhaps really the solution needs to be a bit more dynamic. Like an interactive app or site. I wonder if the most effective solution might be an industry-powered interaction-centric wiki. Such a project would be non-trivial, and would require mobilising a fair few effective contributors. The Interaction Design Foundation have a V1.0 Encyclopaedia, and an impressive number of authors. And yet,  their chapter led approach to ownership make this quite different from the more democratic ‘wiki’ approach.

 

Credit


Justas did a great job pulling the early research together. A special thanks is also in order for Gemma Carr and Tom Selwyn-Davis who helped research and compile this chart.

What does remembering feel like?

Back Scroll To Media

What does remembering feel like?

Ben Barker

2nd October 2012

Since first talking about memory a few months ago, we’ve been playing with a few things that explore its role in how we reflect on experiences, and how we remember. We’ve recorded the podcast with Neuroscientist Izzy and the smell camera is coming along well, more to follow on that shortly. In conversation, it has also become a defacto measure of an experience’s worth. Below are some of the other things we’ve been fiddling with.

 

Hour Day Week Month Year


http://hourdayweekmonthyear.com/

The site asks you to recall an event after an hour has past, then a day, a week, a month and a year. It started as a space for us to test the methods we use to remember, and to try new ones. Now we’ve given it a user login and a bit of a face lift so that anyone can use it, and we’d love it if you tested your own memory. There is some advice on the site for different approaches you might take. We’ll soon be adding email reminders for when it’s time for your next recall.

How does a memory decay?

From the memories that I currently have in process on the site, I’ve found strong visuals, faces and the colour of things are easy to recall. Yet the sequence of events is easily muddled and any conversation that took place is much harder to bring back. I’m currently doing a number of variations, one where I list everything I saw in space, another where there is a sequence to events. I’m beginning one where I break it down by senses, a control of sorts. A year down the line, I’m hoping for a time capsule quality to the memories, that revealing them will be surprising and there will be traces of change in the way a memory has evolved, like Munch repainting his Sick Child. I have an image that a memory will eventually decay down to it’s essential element, the bit that will be both the reason it remained and the thumbnail by which I know it.

 

10,000th Day


http://panstudio.co.uk/ten-thousand/

We joked about the fact that no one celebrates their 10,000th day, then a quick calculation showed I’d missed mine, which I found surprisingly disappointing. To help others avoid the same loss, I built a php calculator to figure out when it was, based on a given birthday.

Then I started to obsess over what I did on my 10,000th day. It’s likely that we remember more than we realise, but unlike the systems we compare our memory to, our concept relating is poor. Which means the events of that day are probably stored, but the date does not evoke them. With a little work I was able to figure it out. This got me thinking about what role technology plays in memory recall. With my past all backed up on servers and hard drives, I became detective, no longer responsible for my past, but rebuilding it bit by bit from the traces I had left behind. The moments when I had left a digital mark.

This led on to a line of thinking about how our collected digital memory might look in the future. Do we need a new, centralised digital archive? Are we happy that our past (like our identity) has become so distributed across information structures? When we finally give it all to technology, what does our memory look like?

How much of your 10,000th day can you remember? What technologies helped you to do it?

Searching for mine, I went to twitter first, which revealed where I’d been a a day after and a few days before. My emails showed what I’d been working on, I checked my bank statements to see if I’d spent any money in the pub in the evening, but that was the day before. My calendar was blank. I checked facebook, nothing. Then I searched lightroom for the date. That was it, taken and uploaded to flickr, pictures of a bike I’d bought for my brother, a check of my text messages later reveals, the day before. So that was it, I’d gone to the studio, as my emails show, worked on mock-ups for a website, (although the only file created that day was a download of a mySql database), visited our upcoming exhibition at This Way Up. Then went home, cleaned the bike, took pictures and uploaded them. I can remember some of the parts, some I’m filling in from habit. The only part that gives me a physical pull back to the moment is uploading the pictures to flickr. Perhaps the most pleasurable part of the day? I thought it would be more immersive but it just felt like pieces that didn’t make a whole. There was no sense of self, no surging back of the past. I just knew what I’d done, plainly, more memorial than a visitable idea.

In all of this it should note that our minds ability to edit and store only the important details is vital to our sanity. The case of Jill Price highlights this. There was an interesting piece on Channel Four recently too.

 

A Definite Trace


All of the above got me thinking about how camera phones have changed the way I use photography. They capture a more constant stream than was possible before, to be searched through later like digital madelines, jerking us back to the unremembered. Before camera phones I hadn’t photographed in this way, forgetting the aesthetic and building a chronology of identity. The feed doesn’t have to be temporal either. It could be location, habit or even emotion based.

 

Tom’s GhostCar, is a FourSquare account that takes his check-ins from a year ago and visits them in the present. His ghost is walking the streets of Britain. It is a beautiful example of location as the relational concept. As Tom puts it:

It gives me a visceral memory: reminds my bones, my heart, what they felt. (That, for reference, is my defence against nostalgia. This isn’t just about nostalgia, because you might not like what it makes you feel. It’s just about remembering feelings; stopping to pause and remember the passage of time).

“It’s just about remembering feelings.” This is a point we always push, it’s not about the best bits, we only know our lives when we sense all of the experiential range. So when looking through my instagram, I felt frustrated by the inevitable positive spin put on my memories by the desire to capture me at my best. I was guilty of doing what Perec criticised the news for doing (taken from Matt’s recent post on Performance).

The daily papers talk about everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask.
What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?

Georges Perec, Approaches to What? 1973

Am I aware of the passing of time if I don’t have the tools to acknowledge the habitual?

At the same time as reading this I had set myself a challenge to remember every day. It was surprisingly easy, to take a moment and log a bit of data. It also meant I did more individual things, to ensure days became easier to deliniate. Again, as Tom said,

The moment I fired ghostcar up, I realised I needed to start giving it better data so that it’d continue to have meaning a year in the future. So that’s a strange, interesting takeaway: changing my behaviour because I want the fossil record to be more accurate.

In combing this thinking with my new use of photography, my call to action went from ‘I want to remember everyday’, to, ‘I want to be reminded of everyday’. So I put together the watch camera below. A camera, a timer and a flash memory drive. It takes a picture every ten minutes and it goes everywhere I go. A trace of the mudane, the melancholy and the habitual. A reminder of the passing of time, but also a route back through the sequence.

Wafaa Bilal, the NYC artist did a similar project where he had a camera implanted in the back of his head. He was exploring surveillance (his images were immediately available online) and the things we leave behind (the camera was in the back of his head) and many people have done 1 image a day.

It also works a non-prescriptive documenting of an individual, like Pete’s beautiful map of a year. A graphic of what a you, behaves like. We’ve talk about this element in our work with Lambeth Collaborative recently. This is more side-effect than intention. I should stress, the images are only intended for me. There is no suggestion that a record of persons life is interesting to anyone else. They’re only appearing here as proof.

This is clearly a beta prototype, more about surfacing questions that refining an object. How much of a role should aesthetic and composition play in photos? How aware should I be when the picture is being taken and how aware should others be? Where should the camera be located, clearly watch level isn’t quite right. I’ll deal with these as prototyping continues, glasses seem the the obvious next step. There are plenty of other issues too, such as privacy, editing and how we revisit the images. Is instagram the place where I should naturally be encountering these photos?

For now though, I’m more conscious of how a day is made up. I’m always near a laptop. I go to bed far too late. It’s the routine bits that jump out.

As I was posting this Chris noted the Autographer which looks really interesting.

Experience, Identity and Ideology

Back Scroll To Media

Experience, Identity and Ideology

Sam Hill

29th June 2012

There is an integral relationship between personal experience, identity and ideology. This relationship was touched upon briefly by political philosopher Robert Nozick in the “Experience Machine” thought experiment, which he published as part of his seminal work Anarchy, State and Utopia in the mid-seventies. The relationship was also discussed in more detail about ten years ago by Harvard business academics James Gilmore and Joseph Pine in The Experience Economy.

What makes these two points of view particularly interesting is that they both attempt to place the value of experience within a greater context – spiritually, economically and philosophically. Nozick treats personal experiences, personal identity and the application of personal belief as parallel value sets (intrinsic multism), but does not necessarily assign them relative worth (only stating that experience is not the be-all and end-all). Gilmore and Pine however describe experience and transformation as progressive stepping stones towards the pursuit of something altogether more spiritual – a monistic eternality, religious imperative or transcendent value (did I mention theirs was a business book?).

Both of these arguments go some way to marginalising the value of experience. Nozick is more directly attacking hedonic utilitarianism than what might be called ‘experientialism’, but his arguments still appear (certainly at face value) to be valid by proxy. Gilmore and Pine believe experiences to be important (that is the main purpose of the book) but ultimately only as a means to an end. They don’t consider experiences to be intrinsically valuable.

Nozick’s Experience Machine

Here’s a heavily abridged version of Nozick’s Experience Machine thought experiment. I would highly recommend reading the whole chapter (… and the whole book) but this is all that is immediately relevant – Nozick is discussing the implications of a more-or-less permanent existence within a simulated reality:

“Suppose there were an experience machine [1]  that would give you any experience you desired… Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?… First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we’ve done them. (But why do we want to do the activities rather than merely to experience them?) A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob. There is no answer to the question of what a person is like who has long been in the tank. Is he courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? It’s not merely that it’s difficult to tell; there’s no way he is. Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide… But should it be surprising that what we are is important to us? Why should we be concerned only with how our time is filled, but not with what we are?

…We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it. We can continue to imagine a sequence of machines each designed to fill lacks suggested for the earlier machines. For example, since the experience machine doesn’t meet our desire to be a certain way, imagine a transformation machine [2] which transforms us into whatever sort of person we’d like to be (compatible with our staying us). Surely one would not use the transformation machine to become as one would wish, and there-upon plug into the experience machine! So something matters in addition to one’s experiences and what one is like… Is it that we want to make a difference in the world? Consider then the result machine [3], which produces in the world any result you would produce and injects your vector input into any joint activity… What is most disturbing about [these machines] is their living of our lives for us… Perhaps what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality. (And this, machines cannot do for us.)”

From his exploration we can summarise the values that Nozick’s thought-experiment reveals to be apparently important to us:

To live, he infers, is the combined product of many things – reducible to a number of core values. Nozick hints there may be more then he has mentioned here.

Gilmore and Pine’s Transcendence of Experiences to Transformations

Gilmore and Pine write:

“… Remember, in the nascent Transformation Economy, the customer is the product and the transformation is an aid in changing the traits of the individual who buys it… Certainly, competitors can duplicate specific diagnoses, experiences, and follow-through devices, but no one can commoditize the most important aspect of a transformation: the unique relationship formed between the guided and the guide. It is the tie that binds.

An offering of a higher order can supersede lower-echelon relationships. But the only offering that can displace a transformation is yet another transformation – one aimed at another dimension of self, or at the same dimension but from a different world-view. By world-view, we mean a particular way – often religious or philosophical – of interpreting one’s own existence. In the years ahead, we think that companies and their customers will increasingly acknowledge rival world-views – ideologies, if you will – as the legitimate domain of business and as differentiators of competing offerings… Consider the fundamental nature of each offering:

  • Commodities are only raw materials for the goods they make
  • Goods are only physical embodiments of the services they deliver
  • Services are only intangible operations for the experiences they stage
  • Experiences are only memorable events for the transformations they guide

Then reflect on our personal belief that:

  • Transformations are only temporal states for the eternalities they glorify.

All economic offerings do more than effect an exchange of value in the present; they also, implicitly or explicitly, promote a certain world-view. In the full-fledged Transformation Economy, we believe buyers will purchase transformations according to the set of eternal principles the seller seeks to embrace – what together they believe will last.”

Now, when we compare Nozick’s derived values with Gilmore and Pine’s Progression of Economic Value we can see (assuming of course that one can agree firstly that ‘transformations’ equate to a matter of identity and secondly that any legacy we set out to achieve aligns with our life stance) the same three values are presented, but this time in a hierarchy based upon the economic principal of mass customisation. This can be shown as such:

Criticism of these approaches

Nozick, Gilmore and Pine are prolific thinkers, and I massively respect their work. For the most part these are both compelling theories (and it’s interesting to observe the parallels) but in each case I feel their ideas should be scrutinized further – mostly Nozick, who’s hypothetical experiment – brilliant as it is – was built seemingly tangentially on the way to another argument.

Nozick states: “We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it”. This seems unduly dismissive. To begin with, people already do embrace fore-runners of the experience machine – the ever-growing computer game market already provides us the capacity for continuous, uninterrupted synthetic experience. Condonable or not, people have dedicated years to their MMO accounts, RTS ladders and Xbox Live scores and at the extreme this has had the predicted detrimental effects to their real-world development and activity.

One might argue then that Nozick is really saying “…we should not use it”. Well, in this case, we’d need to rule out the possibility our reservations are irrational, or poorly founded. Perhaps, for example, the association we have with the word “machine” is too strong; we can’t fathom the idea of a truly authentic digital experience – even with all the caveats in the world – if the uncanny valley has left us irreparably prejudiced.

There seems to be a disparity, for example, between what constitutes an ‘authentic’ orchestrated experience, depending on whether it is positive or negative. An individual recounting the value of a positive digital experience might be scoffed at for buying into something synthetic, but would anyone doubt the sincerity of any trauma derived from an artificial nightmare?

An important clarification should be made of how the ‘experience machine’ really functions. Does any free will still exist within the system? Would free will matter if the system still compensated accordingly to produce the same outcome? Is the individual obliged (unknowingly) into an unwavering destiny – as if tied to the front of a train – or can they exercise even a modicum of choice – like an oarsman travelling along a river? The latter still allows an individual to be something other than an “indeterminate blob”. Perhaps identity is found in choice, and the broader the scope for choice, the better one’s identity is defined.

Who we are and what we do are very difficult things to untangle. In the same way that cinema uses frames to create the illusion of a moving image, consecutive experiences might create the illusion that there is a consistency in our identity. We’re so dependent on the contexts we find ourselves in when deciding what choices to make. But does identity exist in a vacuum?  Are we really so immutable, or is this illusion a consequence of story-telling – the ubiquitous myth that we are like the characters we learn from in narratives – predictable, serialised and defined. Are we all that different from how everyone else would be, if obliged to wear our shoes?

The nature of ‘transformation’ – an effort to change one’s identity – further compounds this abstraction. How can someone will themselves to be different? How can they will themselves in the future to make a different decision to one they’d currently make? What voluntary procedure helps an individual do this?  As Nozick says: “imagine a transformation machine which transforms us into whatever sort of person we’d like to be (compatible with our staying us)”. The idea is nonsensical; the caveat is too open-ended. If identity really is a constant, then to be a different person – by definition – would stop one remaining oneself. The best we can hope for is to change our context.

This is what really happens when individuals use the closest equivalents to transformation machines – they visit therapists to re-frame the perceived consequences of their behaviour; they pay plastic surgeons to make cosmetic differences to their appearances; they take drugs to alter their perceptions and they enter lotteries to change their wealth.

Defining Transformations

It’s useful to understand personal transformation by thinking of the industries that deliver changes to ourselves. Many of these industries are more typically associated with bringing traits of inadequacy up to a median standard, but some are concerned with the improvement of oneself above and beyond what is considered ‘normal’.

We have, for example:

  • Medicine, dentistry and healthcare
  • Personal (physical) trainers and gymnasiums
  • Mental health care – psychiatry, therapy
  • Self-help literature, courses and life coaches
  • NLP and hypnotherapy
  • Skills training and further education – tutors, teachers, mentors
  • Dietary specialists
  • Libraries, wikis and learning/ information resources
  • Beauticians – plastic surgeons, cosmetologists and fashionistas
  • Bionics, mobility devices and sensory augmentation (including eye wear and hearing aids)

(it’s important to note that these are self-initiated transformations. Not included here are the coercive transformations applied to individuals by others, groups, states or organisations – such as advertisement and compulsory education)

When compared with what are considered to be established and accepted experiential industries we notice something quite interesting. For example consider:

  • Performing arts – cinema, theatre, dance, music
  • Sport – played and spectated
  • Literature – poetry and prose
  • Fine arts
  • Events and installations
  • The gaming industries
  • Leisure and tourism
  • Cuisine

What is the difference between these two groups of industry? Moreover, what’s the difference between a diet and a feast? What’s the difference between an hour on a treadmill and an hour at a theme park?

The distinction is not that one is emotionally positive whilst the other is negative, because that is not necessarily important for experiential richness. The distinction is instead that one is stimulating and novel, whist the other is more commonly drudgerous and repetitive. The very purpose of the transformative industries is to assist people in making changes about themselves, and the reason people have not already made these changes independently (and thus demand the ‘service’) is commonly a matter of motivation.

There are a couple of points to conclude with here. First of all, how can a transformation be considered a transcendence of an experience, as Gilmore and Pine describe? How can a calorie controlled diet be the transcendence of the food consumption experience? Secondly, what happens when Nozick’s derived values conflict – i.e. between what we want to do and what we want to be? I might want to be as healthy as an athlete, but I still want to experience sedentary pursuits and eat chocolate cake.

Proposition: The Anti-Camera

Back Scroll To Media

Proposition: The Anti-Camera

Sam Hill

7th June 2012

(Photo courtesy of Russell Davies)

Cameras as Diminutive Relays

Whilst we’re waiting for Paul to ready himself for the second round of Paul’s Gamble, we’re kicking off a research project based upon a relatively nascent behaviour, practised by many folk to varying extents. It’s become a bit of a contentious bugbear in the studio, but I find myself doing it all the time. To illustrate, here’s a quote pulled right from the bleeding edge of contemporary culture, The Blair Witch Project (1999):

Doomed Teen #1: “I see why you like this video camera so much.”

Doomed Teen #2: “You do?”

Doomed Teen #1: “It’s not quite reality. It’s like a totally filtered reality. It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is… It’s not the same on film is it? I mean, you know it’s real, but it’s like looking through the lens gives you some sort of protection from what’s on the other side.”

I don’t personally take issue with video cameras being used as creative tools, or to document and share events with others. I appreciate (and actively condone) the importance of creating or finding mementos, which cameras do very well. The relationship between value of experience and the fallibility of memory is something we believe is vitally important to explore. The real issue is in the way cameras are used during salient, important events as a diminutive relay for experience. Camera phones being as ubiquitous as they are, it’s common at any public gathering – firework display, festival, parade or sunset in a beer garden – to see a forest of arms raised above heads, awkwardly waving miniature, two-dimensional proxies of the spectacle ahead. Everyone with their arm in the air is not looking at the point of interest, but their own screen, carefully making sure they are ‘capturing’ every detail for some assumed posterity.

The problem is, we become so distracted, busy trying to record these memorable events, that we’re actually missing out. Ironically, whilst making sure an imagined ‘future self’ has access to a tinny, shaky-cam approximation of what once occurred, we’re actually divorcing ourselves (our ‘current self’) from the moment, and any consequential sensory or emotional attachment.

The question for anyone who takes an interest in human experience is this: how might an individual find a way of living in the moment whilst also fulfilling the need a personal recording device appears to answer? We speculate this need goes beyond a social desire to share; it’s also to assuage a fear of forgetting – a concern that without the right prompts one cannot trust oneself to recall having been in such a place, and time, even when it seems so important.


Percolating Ideas

A few interesting things have come up recently – pub discussions, new applications of technology and ideas from literature, which have fuelled our development of what we’re calling the ‘Anti-Camera’.

Proust’s Madelines

In Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s epic novel In Search of Lost Time, the narrator describes the involuntary memory triggered upon tasting a madeline dipped in tea. He recalls having tasted the same thing in his youth, and this recurrence – like a wormhole through space-time – takes him back to that moment and other memories that followed.

The link between memory and smell/ taste is well researched; the olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system – an area of the brain closely associated with memory. We really liked the idea that a time could be ‘stamped’ in some way by a strong taste or olfactory sensation – and then recalled later by re-experiencing the same flavour.

Black Mirror: The Entire History Of You

A ‘solution’ of sorts was modelled in the third episode of Black Mirror, written by Jesse Armstrong and directed by Brian Welsh. A theoretical passive recording device would allow us live out salient moments without distraction, but still have them recorded to remember – or more correctly re-experience (The distinction between the two is quite interesting).  The program takes a cynical view of such a technology, and how it might have a degrading effect on our lives, but it prompts an interesting discussion on the role of technology in aiding or subverting memory.

Olly/ Foundry @ Mint Digital

The good guys from last year’s Mint Foundry did some nice prototyping to figure out how to interface smell-delivery systems via Arduino. They demonstrated how it was possible to release smell on demand digitally, and their experiments eventually led to Olly.

Piesse’s “Smell Organ”

Annoyingly, I can’t remember the source (a Bruce Sterling tweet?), but there’s an amazing entry in The Dead Media Project about a pipe organ designed by a French chemist in the 1920’s to “translate music into corresponding odors” – essentially an instrument that would play olfactory translations of classical pieces. The most profound aspect of this idea was the careful selection of which smell would represent each note, and how the treble and bass clef would complement each other. There’s a fantastically literal parallel between music and perfume’s high/ top notes and low/ end notes:

Look Outside, Y’all

So says creator Tom Scott:

@LookOutsideYall is a Twitter bot that checks Instagram once a day, a few minutes before sunset. If it sees that a good proportion of photos around London are tagged or described with sunset, then it’ll tell the internet that it, collectively, should go outside and take a look at it.”

All the news surrounding Instagram’s popularity and assumed value illustrates how preoccupied we are with recording moments in time. Tom’s project further demonstrates how often people are using their camera phones to capture beautiful, fleeting moments. The apex of any crepuscular event is short, but this is when we’re bowing our heads and fiddling with technology – choosing filters, finding signal, signing in, writing hashtags…

The subtle difference in Instagram however is it’s quasi digi-folk artistry – we use it creatively to express a sense of something to others, not as a way to jog our own memories.

The Descriptive Camera


We got quite excited when Matt Richardson’s Descriptive Camera began to hit the feeds. Here was a device that took the photo out of the camera – and it was brilliant. Matt’s description of the purpose for such speculative tech was as follows:

“As we amass an incredible amount of photos, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage our collections. Imagine if descriptive metadata about each photo could be appended to the image on the fly.”

This was a smart idea, and such an application of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk was inspired, but we thought the real beauty here was in providing all the qualities of a camera without the photo.

Make-Your-Own-Perfume services

It turns out there is an enormous mass-customisation market in personalised perfumes, which has made the science of fragrance composition accessible to consumers – and more transparent for us.


 


The Anti-Camera

The idea is this: the Anti-Camera doesn’t record anything, nor does it output any simulacra. Rather, it coerces our mind into recollecting the essence of a moment – something less tangible than an image can capture. The device is designed to tag a moment in time with a unique olfactory identifier code – a bespoke smell. Then, when wishing to recall the moment at their leisure, the user of such a device could recreate the unique smell.

Olfactory Composition

Initially, we thought it would be satisfactory to use a binary, 8-bit smell generator – i.e. 8 smells, either on or off, allowing 256 combinations from 00000001 to 11111111. However, this method would provide very little distinction between neighbouring, or otherwise similar smells.

Instead, we’ve been looking at creating olfactory identifier codes composed of three parts – a top note, a middle note and an end note. For example, combining three ‘magazines’, each containing eight note ‘cells’, would allow for 512 permutations. Modern perfumers have access to several thousand unique ingredients, so many further magazines could be used in different combinations, allowing practically endless permutations.

Form

At first, we wondered if the anti-camera should still skeuomorphically conform to a camera-esque typology (weight, size, right-of-centre button etc.). There were the usual arguments for and against…


… at this stage we’re leaning towards making something completely different. Here’s an early concept sketch:

Next Steps – Prototyping

It’s early days and we’ve got a lot of theory floating around. Moving forwards we’re planning to get a few proof-of-concept models under way, testing to see if the idea will withstand some critical interrogation.

Sensory Deprivation Experience

Back Scroll To Media

Sensory Deprivation Experience

Sam Hill

7th February 2012

Last week I made use of my first ever Groupon purchase – a one hour session in a floatation tank.

My understanding was that such experiences centre around sensory deprivation – no sight, no sound, no smell… the body is kept buoyant by a salt solution, heated to human body temperature, which nullifies the effects of gravity and creates a sensation of weightlessness.

The value of sensory deprivation is very interesting from a theoretical perspective. After all, if the theories we’re exploring suggest rich experiences are ultimately dependent on sensory input, and implicitly improved by greater intensity of sensation, then what would it mean to completely deny oneself of sensation as a route to experience? Can experiences be internalised? Would attempting to do so validate or invalidate our argument? Promotional literature for floatation therapy seems to suggest it is an enlightening, zen-like experience – placing the individual in a quasi-meditative state. It raises some fairly difficult issues regarding the experiential benefit of meditative thought. Obviously, this one-off event was always going to be novel in any case and would so be an enriching experience regardless of how little sensation was technically delivered – but are there long term experiential benefits to dedicating time to meditative thought (when time is such a precious commodity)?

Using the Floatation Tank

As it happened, the experience wasn’t a completely perfect case for analysis. Though it was more than adequate for it’s intended uses (relaxation, physiotherapy, catharsis) the tank did not truly deny all sensation – a tiny amount of light leaked in through the fixings, nearby traffic was just audible through the ear plugs, the water was slightly warmer than body temperature. Though this seems like nit-picking, there is a world of difference between fractional sensation and none whatsoever. In addition, this was the first time I’d done anything like floatation therapy so, as the instructor expected, it took (me) my mind quite a while to adjust to the change – I felt like my brain was urgently firing off a jumble of thoughts for the first quarter of an hour to compensate for the strange environment.

Having said all that I did, I think, get into a different mindset about half way through the hour. I felt calm, adjusted and numb. I lost track of time. The tension melted from postural muscles I didn’t realise I was knotting.  A few joints had popped and snapped in very satisfying ways. My consciousness had exhausted it’s analysis of the context and was looking inwards.

I’ll be very honest with you. I actually felt incredibly contented. Not happy, necessarily, but just very comfortable with where I was. Doing nothing. The immediate future did not matter, nor did the world outside the water tank. Then inevitably the discussion I’d been having with Ben a few weeks ago percolated up through my subconscious. I remember we discussed what it means to limit oneself from interacting with the surrounding world. I realised I was (with no melodrama implied) closer to “death” than I’d ever been. That’s not to say I was in any real way close to dying, of course, but I was removed from existence as much as a rational and lucid mind could be – I had severed any real link with (weasel word) ‘reality’ and was inhabiting an abstract non-context.

I then did a very stupid thing and rubbed my eyes. My fingers were covered in the magnesium sulphate solution and it caused a fairly nasty stinging sensation I couldn’t escape from. It probably wouldn’t have been that bad normally but this was the only thing I could feel, which meant it was the only thing I could think about. I snapped out of any kind of state that I might have been in and was jerked back into reality. It was difficult from that point on to return to any kind of meditative or theta-level state.

The idea that pain can bring an individual from a state of detachment to feeling alive synchronises well with a ‘pure’ experiential viewpoint, which suggests that all sensations (good or bad) have a richness of value. However I was startled by a more sinister parallel – using pain to feel connected and alive is sometimes cited as one psychological explanation for self harm. This should be acknowledged, I feel, but it should also be noted that emotional detachment and sensory detachment are two very different fish kettles.

Conclusion

Research into sensory deprivation appears to show there are cognitive benefits associated with occasional use but as with anything, prolonging sessions provides diminishing returns, eventually becoming counter-productive.

Returning to the difficult question ‘is there an experiential value in meditation?’, the issue is clearly more than a little complex. Unfortunately I’ve not much personal experience to draw from, other than this isolated event.

There are many interpretations of what meditation means and what purpose it serves. A cynic might claim it is mostly a waste of time – certainly an individual engaged in meditation is ‘doing’ nothing, so how can it be seen to be productive?

Is this fair? We might say one of the many interpretations is that meditation is a process conducive for focused thought. If this were so, then perhaps yes, it could be perceived as experientially rich, because concentrated enquiry can help us to rationalise, conclude and review – to make knowledge from data.

Applications

Knowledge is a critical element of experience value. This implies that an appropriate meditative session should be undertaken soon after any experientially rich happening in order to help exploit the maximum experiential potential from it. If this were the case, how would that effect the closure of experience-services, such as the credits to a film, or the returning flight from a holiday?

Sensory deprivation can also be very useful when used in combination with any tele- or pseudo-sensory application. That is to say, if there is a desire to have an individual be completely immersed in a non-local experience then they should be sensationally divorced from their immediate context. Some culturally close-to-hand examples include the ubiquitous goo baths of Minority Report, The Matrix, BSG and Avatar.

goo baths – from various sci-fi sources

Another more tangible example is Auger & Loizeau’s Isophone – paired communication devices that ensures the individuals using them have each other’s undivided attention.

Auger-Loizeau’s Isophone  – original source here

Define Intervention

Back Scroll To Media

Define Intervention

Sam Hill

30th January 2012

Experiential interventions (systems designed to improve the quality of experience for an individual) can essentially be split into two groups. One is an event – something that occupies a specific period in time and most likely a particular place, or context. The other is a passive effect and can change an individual’s perception of their circumstances, and thus the actions they commit.

Experience Value

The below graph is an illustration of ‘Experience Value’, a concept we often use to explain the benefit of applying experience-design thinking. Experience Value is what an individual retains from ‘events’ (moments of time), in the form of memory; a mental record of how they felt, both emotionally and sensationally, as well as the knowledge they acquired. The more intense the experience, and the longer the period over which it is sustained, the more experience value that is accrued and the stronger the memories that will be retained.

Experience value is essentially an intangible commodity that represents richness of life. By visualising it graphically we can explain how to generate experiences through a design process.

Intervention Type #1 – time and context dependant

The first way to enrich someone’s life is to create an event with a beginning, middle and end. This event will typically be a break from normal routine. It could last an indefinite amount of time – seconds or years – but it is probably not sustainable as a constant way of being. Many formats for this kind of experiential interaction will already be familiar to most people – watching a film, a day at a theme park, playing football, eating a chilli pepper, going on a cruise, being surprised by a car back-firing etc. These events can be something that is paid for, but this isn’t necessarily always the case. They can be planned or accidental; man-made or natural.

Intervention Type #2 – perception augmentation

The second type of intervention is a change to what already exists. It affects daily life. It is applying a lens, or filter, in order to enhance or recontextualise (refresh) experiences of the otherwise mundane. It catalyses salient events. It might literally be a pair of rose-tinted glasses. Or perhaps it is the period of reflection that occurs after a near-death experience. It might be the psychological effect of wearing expensive clothes, or having one’s prejudices challenged during an argument. It could be an effect from the use of narcotics. Perhaps it can also be retroactive – such as having a camera recall and reinforce one’s memories. The Proustian madeline serves a similar purpose.

(More information on Experience Value theory can be found here)

‘Comfortable’ Podcast

Back Scroll To Media

‘Comfortable’ Podcast

Ben Barker

17th January 2012

* – “Comfort” being a combination of 1) conditioning against trying new things, 2) repetitive routine, and 3) diminishing returns on similar experiences. Potentially also an incremental reduction of energy/ mobility due to ageing.

Sam and I recently discussed comfort and it’s impact on the way we live our lives; we are beginning a wider project that will explore it further. The recording was done to document our ideas and “possibly to share”, which has become “to share” (see below).

Flash audio player:

[audio: http://panstudio.co.uk/You-just-remember-having-chocolate-cake.mp3]

Here’s the direct link:

You-just-remember-having-chocolate-cake.mp3

(edit: I think I mention Ted Hughes at one point, I was actually thinking of Simon Armitage – Sam)

This Is Why You’re Festive

Back Scroll To Media

This Is Why You’re Festive

Sam Hill

1st December 2011

Today we launched This Is Why You’re Festive, a combined advent calendar and high-street sandwich review blog. Updates’ll be posted daily on @PAN_studio. The project leads on from some exploration we’ve been doing into experience and food. The premise is as follows:

“…For the grown adult sans offspring, the wonder and nostalgia of a childhood Christmas really only lives on through the tastes, sights and smells of a decent Christmas Dinner – a magical combination of sausages wrapped in bacon, cheese wrapped in bacon, roasties, sprouts and turkey.

Many supermarkets, coffee franchises and fast food establishments have cottoned on to this gustatory link to the past and have attempted to commodify it, portioning out festive joy in the form of pre-packaged, mayonnaise saturated turkey sandwiches.

Which begs the question: which off-the-shelf festive foodstuff best conjures up an authentic and sincere *Christmassy* feeling?”

What constitutes a “Christmassy feeling”?

Feeling “festive” (in the platonic sense) is obviously going to be subjective and varied. So to be a bit more specific – how do you describe that typical cocktail of emotions felt as a young (santa fearing) kid, in the west, in the run up to Christmas?

There are two parts – the anticipation, which starts around about the first of December (or after Guy Fawkes/ Thanksgiving) and builds until the frenzied insomnia of Christmas eve, and the climactic release on Christmas morning, with the opening of presents, chocolate, visiting of family, dinner and other rituals.

Arguably, the cocktail is greater than the sum of it’s parts: the “Christmas feeling” is a hybrid of excitement, anticipation, wonder, receipt of attention and family love and a faith in magic. It’s enforced by natural cues (darker nights, frost, fog, occasionally snow) and cultural ones (advertisements, decorations, school holidays, religious activity etc.). It’s difficult to imagine a parallel state of mind, it might as well be a discreet emotion in it’s own right.

Designing the Feeling of Christmas

It’s no wonder then that we make efforts to recreate this state as adults, even through the paltry gestures of packaged sandwiches. Unfortunately conditions change – the faith in magic is lost; expectations are lowered and tempered by the politics and etiquette of gift-giving; prolonged family interactions can cause stress; we worry about what we eat; social expectations must be met – there is an obligation to perform in certain ways.

It’s curious then, to imagine how an emotional state as powerful as a “Christmas feeling” could be authentically induced in adults. Not a rehash of jaded childhood values, but something adapted to subvert the socially matured and pragmatic mindset. Schmaltzy festive cinema does this to a small extent, but as a medium it’s hardly engaging enough to illicit a lasting effect.

Variety in Food

Back Scroll To Media

Variety in Food

Sam Hill

28th November 2011

It’s probably best to get the “Variety is the spice of life” axiom out of the way as soon as possible. But like most hackneyed phrases, it’s still observably true, and appropriately this is especially applicable with food. Meals are significant daily experiential events, and their consumption is analogous to other sensory stimulating activities.

The argument for this post is as follows: the difference in flavour between mouthfuls is arguably as important as the quality of flavours themselves.

It’s a contentious idea, perhaps. But can you imagine eating a piece of mackerel immediately after a mouthful of toffee? Or a slice of liver after a spoonful of banana ice-cream? Flavour combination is a science – hence The Flavour Thesaurus and Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Molecular Gastronomy’.

Choice and Variety

Most western cities afford their denizens a luxury of access – access to the world’s cuisine: Italian, Moroccan, Caribbean, Thai, Mexican, Polish, Chinese, Indian…  there’s never been more choice. And yet, a meal will often take the same format – carb, meat, veg, sauce.

OK – Admittedly, that’s a little simplistic. Most cultures take an encouragable approach to variety – i.e. putting a lot of different things past your taste buds in one sitting. In France they have degustation; in Japan they have bento; in India they have thali; in Spain they have tapas; in the Mediterranean they have Meze; in Scandanavia they have Smörgåsbord.  In the UK we have our classic Sunday Roasts with all the trimmings, and the occasional, colonically ambitious ‘mixed grill’.

‘The Überbuffet’


These kinds of meals are enormously satisfying, and the total amount consumed doesn’t need to be enormous. But what happens when we go further, take the idea to the logical conclusion and try to get as much variety into a meal as possible? In other words: should we propagate a hyper-varied überbuffet? After all, at any particular sitting, assuming an individual can consume only a finite amount of food, is there really any experiential benefit to eating the same kind of thing more than twice?

Experiential Analysis of the Eating Process

Eating foodstuffs follows a sort of narrative. It is a ritual, familiar and daily, with definable and discreet stages. The first bite allows a ‘consumer’ (in the most literal sense) to explore the taste and texture of a food. Between it and the second bite they have the memory of enjoying the first piece and the anticipation of the next. At the last bite, the now familiar flavours can be actively savoured. Between these milestones, any intermediary moments will lack the same level of concentration or awareness – so they are surplus to any experiential requirement. Therefore, it makes sense to pack as much into a meal as possible by using only pairs of each morsel.

An appreciation for food consumption as a designed experience can allow us to both maximise the sensory potential of our olfactory and taste receptors, and ensure we consume in a way that is sustainably healthy. A homogenous foodstuff can encourage rushed eating because a different reward mechanism to taste is employed – the dopamine release from binging. This in turn is likely to cause over-eating, because the body’s appetite-feedback system is not immediate. If food is consumed at a controlled rate with appreciation for its flavour being the primary reward, then the body is likely to feel full before eating too much. This controlling of pace can be achieved through careful experiential design, and in this case using a greater variety of flavour in smaller quantities is a suggested design solution.

There’s nothing too revolutionary here. The slow food movement has been making a point of promoting Taste Education for decades, and  it’s been a while since hypnotherapist Paul McKenna began recommending to aspiring weight-losers to chew mouthfuls 20 times.

Summary

From an experience designer’s point of view especially, the value of variety deserves a little respect. Though the focus here is on food, the applications are global. The intensity of an experience is bound by context because it is relativistic – we don’t have absolute values or experiential calculus to quantify with (not yet anyway). To talk about events, or objects in any meaningful way we have to draw comparisons with what we already know and use phrases like ‘better than’, ‘worse than’ and ‘different to’. Hence, successive differences are what we use to make sense of what there is, what there was, and what there will be.

(Thankyou to Goldsmith’s first-year BA Design students for helping compile the meal featured in the above images)

 


 

Appendix I: Experiential Counter-Arguments

This proposition is not without its’ criticisms, even from a pro-experiential view point. Here are some counter arguments, with their criticisms addressed.

– “Two mouthfuls are not enough – it takes longer to “get into” something.”

On the first hand, this might be a conditioned belief. Perhaps some do not “get into” a meal until after a few bites because it isn’t necessary to do so. If placed within a context where flavour needs to be savoured, then new behaviours would be learnt.
Secondly, this criticism might be based on a misunderstanding. The claim is not that two mouthfuls of a meal are more experientially rich than a dozen mouthfuls of the same thing, as this is clearly not the case. Rather, all intermediary mouthfuls are much less rich than the first and last. The true argument is that six pairs of flavoured mouthfuls are experientially richer than one flavour repeated 12 times.

– “I’d rather have a different meal every day, than an überbuffet every single day.”

This is an interesting point – macro-variety is as important as micro-variety. But the premise of this criticism is that the two cannot exist together. Bento on a Monday followed by thali on a Tuesday followed by meze on a Wednesday does not make for generic consumption, certainly no more generic than the overarching typology of what a “meal” is. In actual fact, adding more options to a plate increases the uniqueness of each potential meal by an exponential magnitude – having more combinations of flavours, textures and smells to play with would ensure you need never have the same plate of food twice.

– “I don’t really like X, I much prefer Y. Why would I have a bit of X, when I could just have more Y instead?”

The aim here is not to increase pleasure of consumption per se, though that would hopefully be an incentivising by-product. The aim is, instead, to increase the experiential value of a meal. For a distinction between the two, and an overview of experiential value have a look at this.

But secondary to that, it is hoped that the variety of flavours, not just the flavours themselves could become something to relish and enjoy.

– “Aren’t flavour clashes more likely on a plate with more variety?”

Yes, it is likely that some flavours will clash horribly. TV chefs have been known to criticise a meal for having “too much going on”. A ‘Pure experientialist’ might accept this as part and parcel of the eating experience. A more conventional ‘hedonic-experientialist’ (full definition pending) could choose to employ the use of sorbets or other pallet cleansers, learn something about the theory of flavour combinations when preparing their own food or perhaps defer to an expert to advise on or prepare meals.

– “Preparing more complex, varied meals can be costly and time consuming. Couldn’t the time and money invested in preparing an Überbuffet be better spent doing other, more experiential, things?”

To prepare a meal from scratch with so many component foodstuffs will take a long time, and that time could be spent doing other things, so the decision to do so may come down to a personal preference. Some people get a lot more out of cooking than others.

Perhaps the most effective way to counter this is with scales of production, which, granted, has it’s own host of problems. A restaurant can more capably prepare a number of complex dishes than someone at home, but eating out is expensive. A supermarket could supply complex ready-made meals prepared in factories but the quality of preparation and ingredients can be questionable. The compromise between quality and quantity of flavours is debatable.

One option might be to encourage communal eating – i.e. people meet in large groups having prepared one dish each, then the portions are distributed evenly.

– “The experience of food should go beyond the plate. I enjoy food because I’ve prepared or grown it myself.”

This is another good point. Some people find a lot of satisfaction in the context by which they come by their food. It’s harder to achieve a broad variety solely through one’s own means, though not impossible.

– “This idea is too prescriptive. People should be able to eat however they choose.”

Absolutely, this is just a didactic suggestion for experiential enrichment, not sensory dogma.

 


 

Appendix II: Value Conflicts

As is often the case, attempting to better satisfy one value system will dissatisfy another. Though experiential richness might in some respects be beneficial to one’s health, there will be a clash with other ideals.

Other Health Issues

Practically, to have more variety might require foods have a longer lifespan. If this was the case, preservable foods might be favoured over fresh ingredients, like fruit and veg and unprocessed meat.

Ecology

Perhaps through well organised systems the effects could be marginalised, but it’s likely that a hyper-varied diet would be less sustainable. To get more choice means looking beyond local resources and forming a more complex logistical web; smaller portions and partitioned containers might mean more packaging.

Cost

Varied meals would almost certainly be more expensive to produce. The cost of a varied-consumption lifestyle would likely be higher, and so less attainable for everyone. This might exacerbate a stratification of experience wealth – a split between those that have variety and those that do not.

Earphones and Selective Reality

Back Scroll To Media

Earphones and Selective Reality

Sam Hill

20th November 2011

It’s feasible an average commuting city worker might wear earphones between 5 and 12 hours a day. In some places they’re ubiquitous – on the train, in the office, on the high street – so much as to have become invisible.

This is fine of course – it’s not a criticism, just an observation. Personal experience reveals journeys are less stressful if the sound of a baby crying can be blocked; work is achieved more efficiently without the ambient distractions of an open-plan office.

But the observation does come with a hefty question in tow. It’s equally typical that the aforementioned worker might spend up to 15-16 hours a day looking at screens, but there is a significant difference: screens are not all encompassing. They can be looked away from, or around, and we can shut our eyes. Conversely, personal headphones are supposed to be all encompassing; they are supposed to override all ambient noise.

What does it mean then, to block out the world around you: to usurp an important link to one’s environment for so much of the time?

Context

The personal stereo is about 25 years old and has gone through multiple format changes. Significantly, the MP3 player massively opened up the potential for people to carry their “entire” music collections with them. Another (slightly overlooked) innovation has been Spotify for mobile, which allows someone to listen to any song they can call to mind from practically any location through their smartphone, 3G and ‘the cloud’. Even making allowances for licensing and signal strength, that’s an incredible thought isn’t it? Any song, any place, any time. From prehistory up until 150 years ago, the only way to hear music was to be in the same space as the instrument. There is an incredibly liberating cultural power that comes with the tech we now wield.

Voluntary Schism from Reality

To take a critical sensation like hearing and hack it’s primarily informative/exploratory role to instead supply entertainment will certainly have a significant effect on one’s perception of reality. Granted, ‘reality’ is a weasely, subjective term, but the choice will still affect an individual’s capacity to perceive their immediate environment. Critically, the user of earphones has made a choice: they are listening to what they want to, regardless of whether it’s what she should listen to. They have been granted the power to exert an amount of control on sensory input, and how they engage with their environment. Whether or not there is an experiential  ‘compromise’ going on is contentious.

For example, consider a typical 40 minute train commute. Coincidently, 40 minutes is the approximate length of time of an average album. So within a week’s commute it might be possible to listen to roughly 10 new albums. Doing so would impart a constant, fairly rich supply of fresh experience. On the other hand, listening instead to the daily sounds of a train carriage would probably be emotionally and sensationally lacking, most of the time. However, occasionally the ambient noise of a journey might yield (experiential) gems: eavesdropping on an argument, a phone call or the ramblings of an alcoholic.

Most likely, the album-listening route would be more rewarding in the long term, and so within this context could be considered experientially condonable. But is this true beyond the commute?

Boundaries

Has society had time to adjust to the power of being able to limit depth of engagement with the physical world? Do we understand the point at which the benefit becomes a hurdle – when a delivery mechanism for experience becomes an obstacle? The thought first occurred to me when I saw a father carrying a toddler in his arms through a park. The father had white earphones hanging from his ears and a vacant expression. The kid was babbling and humming and blowing raspberries at his dad but he was completely oblivious. The sight, an abuse of technological power, made me instantly uncomfortable. The fact this man had wilfully placed a barrier between himself and his son, to the detriment of them both, made me incredibly angry, actually. In this instance it wasn’t strangers on the tube being phased out of attention but immediate family. It seemed wrong by every measure of quality.

I’ve also been amazed to see cyclists weave through traffic whilst listening to music. In my experience it seems necessary to dedicated every possible faculty to cycling in a built-up environment. Granted, there might be marginally more experiential value in cycling to music, but is the pay-off worth the risk of failing to identify peripheral hazards? After all, a premature death will reduce an individuals net lifetime experience acquired, quite drastically.

By Analogy

In a recent workshop we held at Goldsmith’s College, a design student ran a quick experiment to limit their exposure to unpleasant smells. They subverted their olfactory sense by keeping a perfumed cloth over their nose whilst walking through bad smelling places.

The student realised within a few hours that living with a single abstract ‘pleasant’ smell was less desirable than having access to countless neutral and unpleasant odours – odours which were still relevant and contextually grounded.

Workshop at Goldsmiths

Back Scroll To Media

Workshop at Goldsmiths

Sam Hill

19th October 2011

Ben and I went to Goldsmiths College yesterday (our old alma mater) to deliver a one-day workshop to the first years studying BA Design. Our objectives were to explain the value of a creative process, experimentation, prototyping, and to assist with their personal projects. We also did an overview on the importance of context. To get everyone started, we encouraged them to focus their critical analysis skills introspectively, get out of their comfort zone, and set out to change an element of themselves.

We only had six hours with the undergrads so we tried to fit in as much as possible. We managed a primer lecture on experiential design; a series of rapid-fire developmental sketches; prototype building; testing and presentations.

We also ran a midday experiment and debate on new experiences, and challenged everyone to try something over lunchtime they’d never had before. They were then asked them to bring some of their lunch back to the studio to discuss. We got a really nice response, with about seventy different foodstuffs being returned (and some good stories). We had plans for these, more info on which is soon to follow

The day went really well. We were both really impressed with the standard of the work that was produced, as well as the quality with which it was discussed.

Sensory Augmentation: Vision (pt. 1)

Back Scroll To Media

Sensory Augmentation: Vision (pt. 1)

Sam Hill

30th August 2011

Blinkered

The above diagram illustrates the full breadth of the electro-magnetic spectrum, from tiny sub-atomic gamma rays to radio waves larger than the earth (there are in fact, no theoretical limits in either direction). That thin technicoloured band of ‘visible light’ is the only bit our human eyes can detect. That’s it. Our visual faculties are blinkered to a 400-800 Terahertz range. And from within these parameters we try as best we can to make sense of our universe.

There is no escaping the fact that our experience of the environment is limited by the capacity of our senses. Our visual, aural, haptic and olfactory systems respond to stimuli – they read “clues” from our environment – from which we piece together a limited interpretation of reality.

So says xkcd:

This limited faculty has suited us fine, to date. But it follows that if we can augment our senses, we can also increase our capacity for experience.

Seeing beyond visible light

Devices do already exist that can process EM sources into data that we can interpret: X-ray machines, UV filters, cargo scanners, black-lights, radar, MRI scanners, night-vision goggles and satellites all exploit EM waves of various frequencies to extend our perceptions. As do infrared thermographic cameras, as made popular by the Predator (1987).

What are the implications of para-light vision?

Let’s for one second ignore a canonical issue with the Predator films – that the aliens sort of had natural thermal vision anyway and pretend they can normally see visible light. Let’s also ignore the technical fact that the shots weren’t captured with a thermal imaging camera (they don’t work well in the rainforest, apparently). Let’s assume instead that we have a boxfresh false-colour infra-red system integrated into a headset, and that human eyes could use it. How effective would it be?

First of all, we’re talking about optical apparatus, something worn passively rather than a tool used actively (such as a camera, or scanner). The design needs special consideration. An x-ray scanner at an airport is an unwieldy piece of kit, but it can feed data to a monitor all day without diminishing the sensory capacity of the airport security staff that use it. They can always look away. If predator vision goggles were in use today, they would be burdened with a problem similar to military-grade “night-vision” goggles.

Predator Vision is not a true sensory augmentation in that it does not *actually* show radiating heat. Instead it piggy-backs off the visible-light capability of the eye and codifies heat emissions into an analogical form that can be made sense of: i.e. false-colour. In order to do so, a whole new competing layer of data must replace or lie above – and so interfere with – any visible light that is already being received.

Predator Vision in the home

For example, let’s task The Predator with a household chore. He must wash the dishes. The predator doesn’t have a dishwasher. There are two perceivable hazards: the first is scolding oneself with hot water, which Predator Vision can detect; the second is cutting oneself on a submerged kitchen knife, which only visible light can identify (assuming the washing up liquid isn’t too bubbly). Infra-red radiation cannot permeate the water’s surface. What is The Predator to do?

He would probably have to toggle between the two – viewing in IR first to get the correct water temperature, then visible light afterwards. But a user-experience specialist will tell you this is not ideal – switching between modes is jarring and inconvenient, and it also means the secondary sense can’t be used in anticipation. A careless Predator in the kitchen might still accidentally burn himself on a forgotten electric cooker ring. The two ideally want to be used in tandem.

What’s the solution?

It’s a tricky one. How can we augment our perception if any attempt to do so is going to compromise what we already have? Trying to relay too much information optically is going to cause too much noise to be decipherable (remember our ultimate goal is to have as much of the EM spectrum perceptible as possible, not just IR). This old TNG clip illustrates the point quite nicely:

Here Geordi claims that he has learned how to “select what I want and disregard the rest”. Given the masking effect of layering information, the ability to “learn” such a skill seems improbable. It seems as likely as, say, someone learning to read all the values from dozens of spreadsheets, overprinted onto one page. However, the idea of ‘selectivity’ is otherwise believable – we already have such a capacity of sorts. Our eyes are not like scanners, nor cameras. We don’t give equal worth to everything we see at once, but rather the brain focuses on what is likely to be salient. This is demonstrable with the following test:

It’s also worth noting the unconscious efforts our optical system makes to enhance visibility. Our irides contract or expand to control the amount of light entering our eyes, and the rod-cells in the retina adjust in low-light conditions to give us that certain degree of night-vision we notice after several minutes in the dark. The lenses of our eyes can be compressed to change their focal length. In other words the eye can calibrate itself autonomously, to an extent, and this should be remembered from a biomimetric perspective.

Option one:

The most immediate answer to para-light vision is a wearable, relatively non-invasive piece of headgear that works through the eye. In order to compensate for an all visible-light output, the headgear would need to work intelligently, with a sympathetic on-board computer. The full scope of this might be difficult to foresee here. Different frequencies of EM radiation might need to be weighted for likely importance – perhaps by default visible light would occupy 60% of total sight, 10% each for IR and UV, and 20% for the remaining wavelengths. A smart system could help make pre-emptive decisions for the viewer on what they might want to know, e.g. maybe only objects radiating heat above 55ºC would be shown to give off infra-red light (our temperature pain threshold). Or maybe different frequencies take over if primary sight is failing. Eye tracking could be used to help the intelligent system make sense of what the viewer is trying to see and respond accordingly. This might fix the toggling-between-modes issue raised earlier.

It’s interesting to wonder what it would mean to perceive radio-bands such as for wi-fi or RFID – obviously, it would be fascinating to observe them in effect, but might their pervasion be over-bearing? Perhaps the data could be presented non-literally, but processed and shown graphically/diagrammatically?

Option Two:

The second, more outlandish option is a cybernetic one. Imagine if new perceptions could be ported directly to the brain, without relying on pre-formed synaptic systems. Completely new senses. Perhaps existing parts of the brain could accept these ported senses. The phenomenon of synesthesia comes to mind, where stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Is it possible that in a similar vein the visual cortex could read non-optic information, and would that help us to see several types of information simultaneously but allow us to selectively choose which parts to focus on? If such a segue weren’t possible, would a neural implant bridge the gap?

In Summary

I’ve intentionally only discussed the EM scale here, but of course there are many other forms of data that can be visualised. There might be potential for augmenting vision with sonar, for example, or miscroscopy. Human-centric metadata deserves a whole post in it’s own right.

It’s difficult to predict how the potential for sensory augmentation will change, but whatever opportunities pioneering science unlocks can be followed up with tactical design consideration to make sure applications are appropriately effective and adoptable. It’s an exciting prospect to think that we may be on the threshold of viewing the world in new, never-before seen ways – and with this new vision there will be, inevitably, new points of inspiration and new ways of thinking.

Apocalust

Back Scroll To Media

Apocalust

Sam Hill

14th August 2011

During the start of Riot Week 2011, when many of us were darting wide-eyed between Twitter and rolling news coverage, there was a undeniable feeling of uncertainty. Obviously order was tenuously regained within a matter of days, but because it was difficult to rationalise a reason for the riots starting in the first place, it was even harder to understand when they would stop. Looting and arson seemed to be breaking out in locations arbitrarily. Why exactly were people raiding high streets in Birmingham, Liverpool or Bristol because of the activity going on in Tottenham?

A few people on Facebook and Twitter were quick to make wry allusions toward classic apocalyptic tropes. A comment like “It starts with isolated events…” might earn itself a dozen or so likes and replies within minutes. The implication was, invariably, that these riots were the media misinterpreting the dawn of a zombie/ ‘crazie’ uprising. It was an excuse for some people – the ones with Walking Dead collections and healthy Gamerscores – to fall, misty eyed, into a state of mental preparedness.

It’s hard to calculate precisely what proportion of people have had, at one time, an “undead survival strategy” (how can the property be secured; what immediately available object could be re-appropriated as a weapon; food and water supplies; who needs ‘saving’; routes out of the city etc. etc.) but it must be enough to have warranted the success of Max Brook’s The Zombie Survival Guide, Pegg and Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Valve’s Left 4 Dead series.

It’s tempting to predict the future of digital culture has only two certainties: zombies and kittens. It’s difficult to imagine what sort of backlash would be significant enough to counter the cultural inertia that both memes possess. Though the undead seem to have been a perennial example since even before Romero, there are other du jour harbingers of the apocalypse too: aliens, viruses, the weather, the environment, meteorites, magnetism, plants, robots, nuclear war etc.

But where is the appeal? How can the apocalyptic fiction industry be so successful? Why indulge in a mind game in which most of your friends, family and colleagues die a painful, traumatic death? Gross schadenfreude? A fetish for unrestrained commercial consumption? The idea of rebuilding society according to one’s own ideals? Subconscious manifestation of genetic competitiveness?

Perhaps it’s nothing more than a lust for adventure and exploration coupled with a resentment for restrictive aspects of western twentieth century living. We have an enormous legacy of exploration, but no frontiers left to investigate*. To quote The Truman Show: “you’re too late, there’s really nothing left to explore”. Global disaster wipes that slate clean – the familiar becomes unknown; the rules are broken; the old order is gone.

How can apocalust be sated? Well, games, films, literature and television drama seem to be doing a good job already – the demand is satisfactorily met.  It might be argued that they’re fuelling the desire too, but in general there are more than enough fantasy frontiers out there to explore in fiction, doomsday related or not. But if the illusion no longer works, then there’s always the potential to go travelling. After all, just because everywhere on earth is known by it’s people, it’s not to say the individuals cannot discover new things for themselves.

* – of course, there are tonnes of frontiers left to explore, scientifically: medicine, astronomy, marine ecology etc.  But not a lot is open for the every man, and not in a way so literal as, say, the colonisation of the Americas.