UnBias Showcase video

October 29, 2018 by · Comments Off on UnBias Showcase video 

A video with clips and brief interviews from the UnBias Showcase event on 1st October 2018:

See my clip at 5.05

Cities of Refuge – Berlin

October 22, 2018 by · Comments Off on Cities of Refuge – Berlin 

Just over a week ago I was in Berlin as part of the LSE City of Refuge project team, where we repeated the process begun in London in July to engage with refugees, or newcomers, and the citizen actors who welcome and support them.

This involves building links with local organisations and activists, as well as the newcomers themselves, to hear their stories and to invite them into a process where we can learn from their experiences. My role has been to devise and supervise the facilitation of workshops, which have been conducted mainly in the languages of the newcomers (Arabic) and the local citizen actors (German). In Berlin this has meant stepping back whilst Dr Deena Dajani (Project Research Officer) and Kristina Kolbe (PhD student and Research Assistant) take on the active role of facilitators and mediators of the activities in the workshops. Project leads Professor Myria Georgiou and Dr Suzanne Hall were also on hand to participate in the workshops, alongside artist Marcia Chandra who is creating a series of portraits to accompany the project.

The centre of of engagement process was Refugio.berlin, an organisation in the district of Neukölln that supports a mix of locals and newcomers with accommodation and other services. A number of residents there took part in the workshops, as well as others from across Berlin. Once again, we had a series of fantastic workshops with highly engaged participants who responded with great enthusiasm and energy to the questions being asked and the formats (worksheets and stickers) for capturing their thoughts, emotions and experiences. Some key themes emerged that mirrored the experiences we encountered in London – e.g. time, the weight of bureaucracy, language etc – but there were some marked differences too. The citizen actors displayed a much stronger sense of coherence and capability than in London, perhaps enabled by the much greater resources made available by the German government. The huge difference in scale of the acceptance of refugees between the UK (about 20,00 people) and Germany (around 1 million) was visible too, both in terms of the coordination and funding between state and non-state organisations, and in the expectations of integration into German life and culture.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Next month we will be heading to repeat these workshops and activities once more in Athens.

Illustrating for algorithmic bias

September 27, 2018 by · Comments Off on Illustrating for algorithmic bias 

As part of the UnBias project I was asked to create illustrations for the Fairness Toolkit’s Trustscape and Awareness Cards. The toolkit is designed to raise awareness and create dialogue about algorithms, trust, bias and fairness. My involvement in the project started with a series of quick sketches for stickers to be used with the Trustscape. The sketches were made in response to the results of workshops with young people who identified issues, themes and difficulties in the network world, and described a wide range of bias in algorithmic decisions and how they impact on peoples lives. 

 

For the UnBias Awareness Cards the brief was to create a design for each of the eight suits: Rights, Data, Factors, Values, Process, Exercise and Glossary. The fronts of the cards contain examples, activities, scenarios and information about algorithmic bias and the ways prejudiced behaviours can emerge in systems. The focus of my illustrations was on how algorithmic decisions could affect people and communities; how do we know decisions are being made fairly and not threatening rights; how do we know decisions are not being based on gender and race? How do we know we are in social media bubble, what is real or fake and what to trust?

At the same time I also wanted the illustrations to celebrate some of the pioneering developments in computing, often made by people who wanted to enable others, and to reference the history of communication technologies, computation devices, predicting machines and mass communication technologies. 

It was important for each card to be unique but for the common themes to flow through all of them.  Across the cards you will find patterns and references to computation devices and processes: QR codes, punch cards, network diagrams, server arrays, excerpts of code for sorting algorithms, circuit board diagrams, flowcharts, early devices like the Difference Engine and Tide Predicting Machine no 2, the Mac Classic and the handheld devices and social media apps we use today. Since algorithms work behind the scenes of the web to filter and sort data, several cards feature machines used for measuring, weighing, sorting, ranking, dividing and filtering.

The main text styles are inspired by typefaces that have a relationship to the history of computing. ‘Factors’ is based on the early Selectric font for IBM’s Selectric electric typewriter which went on to become one of the first to provide word processing capability. ‘Exercise’ and ‘Example’ were inspired by the typefaces in early forms of electronic communication; telegrams,  teletext and ticker tape. The lettering of  ‘Data’, ‘Values’, ‘Rights’, ‘Process’ and ‘Glossary’ were inspired by fonts I had seen on early computation devices, like Pascal’s Typewriter, Babbage’s Difference Engine, Kelvin’s and Ferrel’s Tide Predicting Machines, and by typefaces used on mass-produced adverts and posters in the industrial revolution.

The edge of the main title scrolls are decorated with mathematical motifs like > <, ( ), X, etc. And the outer borders are decorated with binary. One of the simplest ways of visualising an algorithm is using a flowchart, and the centre shape of each card is inspired by the frames used in flowcharts to represent different stages of the process:- ‘stop/start’, ‘database’, ‘processing’, ‘decision’, ‘repetition’ ‘connector’.

UnBias Awareness Cards – Glossary Suit Illustration

Glossary is a bit different to the other cards, there is only one Glossary card and it holds a definition of the meaning of ‘ALGORITHM’. The images on the back reference various storage and processing devices, reel to reel, server array, a mac classic, an early word processor, tablet, ticker tape, punch cards, fortran cards, blackboard and an abacus. 

The card also celebrates some pioneers in mathematics. The algorithm on the computer screen and on the blackboard is Euclid’s Greatest Common Divisor (GCD), dating back to Ancient Greece it is one of the oldest algorithms still in usage.

The writing around the scroll border are excerpts from Ada Lovelace‘s pioneering algorithm to calculate Bernoulli numbers, written in the early 1840s, it is considered by some to be the first computer programme. Ada was an english mathematician, thought to be the first computer programmer and the work this is from is one of the most important documents in the history of computing. 

Standing at the chalkboard is Dorothy Vaughn, a leading mathematician and early programmer who worked at NASA and its predecessor in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Working in a time of racial segregation she led the West Area Computing team. She was the first African American supervisor at NASA and one of very few women at that level, but was not officially acknowledged, or paid, as such for several years. She was visionary in her realisation that computers would take over much of the human calculators work and taught herself FORTRAN and other languages, which she then taught to the other women, to be ready for the change. Her work fed into many areas of research at the Langley Laboratory and she paved the way for a more diverse workforce and leadership at NASA today.

Grace Hopper was a groundbreaking programmer who, in the 1950s and 60s, pioneered machine-independent programming languages and invented one of the first compiler tools that translated English words into the machine code that computers understood. Grace was an American computer scientist who realised that people would more easily be able to use computers if they could programme in English words and then have those translated into machine code.  She created the FLOW-MATIC the first English like programming language and was instrumental in the Development of COBOL, which is still widely used today. She did much to increase understanding of computer communications and went on to push more women to enter the field and for people to experiment and take chances in computing.

A Raven sits on the Blackboard watching  because all Corvids (Ravens, Crows, Rooks etc)  are renowned for their problem solving skills (the Crow Search Algorithm (CSA) is based on the intelligent behaviour of crows).

UnBias Awareness Cards – Data Suit Illustration

UnBias Toolkit Workshops at V&A Digital Design Weekend

September 12, 2018 by · Comments Off on UnBias Toolkit Workshops at V&A Digital Design Weekend 

I will be running four workshops with Alex Murdoch exploring the UnBias Fairness Toolkit at the V&A’s Digital Design Weekend on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd September. Each workshop is intended for different audiences and contexts in which the toolkit could be used.

UnBias Fairness Toolkit Educators Workshop
Seminar Room 1, Sackler Centre for arts education
Saturday 22, 11.30-13.30
Algorithms, bias, trust and fairness: how do you engage young people is understanding and discussing these issues? How do you stimulate critical thinking skills to analyse decision- making in online and automated systems? Explore practical ideas for using the UnBias Fairness Toolkit with young people to frame conversations about how we want our future internet to be fair and free for all.

UnBias Fairness Toolkit Industry Stakeholders Workshop
Seminar Room 1, Sackler Centre for arts education
Saturday 22, 14.30-16.30
The UnBias project is initiating a “public civic dialogue” on trust, fairness and bias in algorithmic systems. This session is for people in the tech industry, activists, researchers, policymakers and regulators to explore how the Fairness Toolkit can inform them about young people’s and others’ perceptions of these issues, and how it can facilitate their responses as contributions to the dialogue.

DESIGN TAKEOVER ON EXHIBITION ROAD
Sunday 23, 10.00-17.00
Celebrate ten years of London Design Festival at the V&A with a special event on Exhibition Road. Bringing together events by the Brompton Design District, Imperial College, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the V&A, this fun-filled day of design, workshops and talks will offer something for everyone, and a unique way into the many marvels of Albertopolis.

UnBias Fairness Toolkit Workshops
Young people (12-22 yrs) 12.00-13.30
Open Sessions 15.30-17.00
What is algorithmic bias and how does it affect you? How far do you trust the apps and services you use in your daily life with your data and privacy? How can we judge when an automated decision is fair or not? Take part in group activities exploring these questions using the UnBias Fairness Toolkit to stimulate and inspire your own investigations.

Download the V&A DDW Brochure

Colleagues from Oxford University and Horizon Digital Economy Institute will also be running UnBias activities as part of the event:

UnBias
The Raphael Cartoons, Room 48a
Drop-in from 12.00-16.00
How do you feel about fake news, filter bubbles, unfair or discriminatory search results and other types of online bias? How are decisions made online? What types of personal data do you share with online companies and services? Do you trust them? Explore these through a range of activities, from Being the Algorithm to Creating a Data Garden, and from Public Voting to making a TrustScape of how you feel about these issues. Suitable for families.

UnBias Fairness Toolkit

September 7, 2018 by · Comments Off on UnBias Fairness Toolkit 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The UnBias Fairness Toolkit is now available to download and use. It aims to promote awareness and to stimulate a public civic dialogue about algorithms, trust, bias and fairness. In particular, on how algorithms shape online experiences, influencing our everyday lives, and to reflect on how we want our future internet to be fair and free for all.

The tools not only encourage critical thinking, but civic thinking – supporting a more collective approach to imagining the future as a contrast to the individual atomising effect that such technologies often cause. The toolkit has been developed by Giles Lane, with illustrations by Alice Angus and Exercises devised by Alex Murdoch; alongside contributions from the UnBias team members and the input of young people and stakeholders.

The toolkit contains the following elements:

  1. Handbook
  2. Awareness Cards
  3. TrustScape
  4. MetaMap
  5. Value Perception Worksheets

All components of Toolkit are freely available to download and print under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Download the complete UnBias Fairness Toolkit (zip archive 18Mb)


Cities of Refuge

July 16, 2018 by · Comments Off on Cities of Refuge 

Proboscis is one of the partners in a new project, Resilient Communities, Resilient Cities? Digital makings of the city of refuge, led by Professor Myria Georgiou of the Media & Communications Dept at London School of Economics. The project seeks to:

examine the role of digital communication in the making of cities of refuge. More particularly, it focusses on urban communities’ digital responses to sudden, unplanned and/or unwelcome change resulting from irregular migration into the city. The project zooms into urban neighbourhoods that receive large number of refugees and migrants. It examines how urban communities mobilise digital communication to respond to disruption and develop capacities to manage change. From the development of local networks in support of refugees, to local training into digital skills, cities’ resilience is tested in the capacity to sustain inclusive, integrated and prospering communities.

Our role is to design the engagement activities and direct workshop facilitation with the various groups taking part. The project will work with communities in 3 sites: London, Athens & Berlin over the next 6 months.

On Saturday we delivered the first workshop and engagement activities at the Chesnuts Community Centre in Harringay, working with a group of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to explore their needs, the resources they have access to as well as the barriers and obstacles they face in their new situation here in London. Drawing upon our previous experience of working with vulnerable communities in challenging circumstances we created a simple way for participants to discuss these issues and to begin mapping out and exploring connections between services, places, people, technologies and systems. We also provided ways for participants to reflect on how they perceive the relative values (in terms of safety and utility) of these things and some measure of where the things they value most sit in terms of emotional and physical proximity or distance.

The workshop was conducted in Arabic and the participants split into two groups, each with an Arabic speaking co-facilitator – Dr Deena Dajani & Haneen Naamneh – from the LSE. We used worksheets and stickers with familiar symbols, from app icons to common services, features and resources, to help make the process fun and visual as well as dynamic and open. It was particularly gratifying to see how enthusiastic the participants were to engage in these ways, and to observe how this kind of ‘asset mapping’ across individual experiences enables people to identify key areas of confidence as well as the gaps where things don’t work so well, don’t feel safe or where trust is uncertain. At the end of what became a long session, it was also great to hear how much the participants had valued this opportunity to come together and discuss things collaboratively. Despite having faced many challenges and obstacles on their respective journeys to this point, there was a palpable energy in the room of optimism and determination to make a new sense of home.

We will be working next with local Harringay residents who have been part of the community welcoming these new arrivals to explore these issues from their perspectives too, and a following workshop will happen later in the summer bring together a mixed group of different locals and new arrivals. In the Autumn we will adapt the process to deliver to similar groups in Berlin (Neuköln) and then Athens (Victoria).

TKRN: reaching another milestone

June 30, 2018 by · Comments Off on TKRN: reaching another milestone 

Recently a very exciting development has taken place which confirms our confidence in the usefulness of the TKRN project, and its potential to persist beyond the lifetime of the project itself. This milestone is the scanning and uploading of over 40 new TKRN notebooks created by people on the Rai Coast to the Reite village online library by Urufaf Anip, one of the Reite villagers, using the TKRN publishing kit we left in Madang for this purpose.

At the end of our last visit to Papua New Guinea, I spent two days in intensive media training with Urufaf and his sister, Pasen Anip. Neither has used a computer before, although both very familiar with smartphones. We started from basic introduction to the computer and how to switch it on, to exploring the file system and then to setting up email accounts. From there we progressed to using the web, and creating accounts for them both in WordPress so they could post material on the Reite online library site, and how to scan in completed notebooks as multi-page PDFs, name the files and generate images of the front covers.

As we were about to leave PNG, James and I put together a document (in both English & Tok Pisin versions) to remind them of the various steps involved in each process that they could refer to next time – knowing that a one-off intensive training session would never be enough to embed the learning required. Fortunately, the project has been supported by Banak Gamui of the Karawari Cave Arts Project based in Madang, who are hosting the TKRN publishing kit, providing internet access and help with using the technology. Banak’s assistance has been invaluable both in hosting the kit and supporting Reite people such as Urufaf to come into town and help with familiarising them with how to use the computer and the internet to scan in and store online versions of the books they make.

It has been a long journey since our first notebook experiment in 2012, but we have now arrived at a point where Reite people are able not only to complete the physical paper notebooks, but have the capability and competency to digitise them and upload them to the internet for long term preservation. Our trip to the village last month also bore witness to a resurgence in people’s desire to teach and learn their traditional local language, Negkini, as a crucial factor in cultural and social cohesion. There was lots of interest in using the TKRN books to begin writing in Negkini (something only first attempted a few years ago) – both by individuals in the community as well as from teachers at the local school. This suggests so much possibility for cultural renewal and enrichment, especially when combined with the digital skills and capabilities being demonstrated by Urufaf – indigenous public authoring is becoming a practical reality, much more than a vision for what might be possible, or a dream.

TKRN: Groundwork for Legacy

May 21, 2018 by · Comments Off on TKRN: Groundwork for Legacy 

Reite participants at TKRN Legacy Workshop, Bismarck Ramu Group, Madang

It is now more than five years since my first visit to Papua New Guinea and Reite village, on Madang Province’s Rai Coast. I’ve just completed my fourth field trip there with anthropologist, James Leach, where we have been conducting the first stage of a 2 year legacy and handover phase for TK Reite Notebooks, supported again by The Christensen Fund. Our aim is to establish a firm base for Reite people to have control over the tools and techniques we have co-developed with them, and for them to have both the confidence, capability and capacity to share not only their own Traditional Knowledge with others, but to train other communities, who wish to adopt it, in the TKRN Toolkit‘s use too.

Over the years we have been exploring potential partnerships with local organisations both in PNG and in Vanuatu, hoping to build a network of support for TKRN and those using it. Last year James met with Banak Gamui of the Karawari Cave Arts Fund – an NGO based in Madang – who is active in supporting traditional cultural preservation and regeneration initiatives in Madang Province, including the Madang-Maror Network. Banak agreed to help support Reite people continue to use the Toolkit beyond the project’s end, by hosting the basic publishing kit (laptop, printer & scanner) at KCAF’s office and strengthening Reite’s connections with other communities in the area also active in practising, documenting and preserving Kastom culture. In addition, Yat Paol, of Gildipasi/Madang-Maror, was also able to broker a connection with Bismarck Ramu Group, another local NGO which supports communities retain their land and water rights against extractive development. BRG agreed to host a 3 day workshop and 18 participants from Reite and its neighbouring villages, Marpungae, Asang, Soriang and Sarangama, travelled up to Madang to take part, along with Banak Gamui, Yat Paol and Catherine Sparks – formerly Melanesia Program Officer of The Christensen Fund.

Over these days, we increased the core group we had been working with from the village and undertook refresher training in making and using the notebooks co-developed previously. Much time was also spent in discussions about what exactly TK (Traditional Knowledge) means to people for whom it is still an everyday practice – rather than a ‘heritage’ practice as many Western traditions are often relegated to. One of our key Reite collaborators, Urufaf Anip of Marpungae, came up with a popular transliteration – Timbuna Kastom – which seems to capture much of what is both special and at risk about their way of life. Timbuna could be understood as the ancestor spirits which animate the bush, as well as descendants and those to come. Kastom is the traditional way of life that communities in PNG followed for countless generations before the arrival of missionaries and colonialism. As both Christianity, the money economy and industrial development (mining, logging, monocultural farming, factory fishing and other extractive processes) have supplanted traditional beliefs and ways of living, so more and more Papuans have found their connection to land, bush and water have been severed, and their lives made more precarious.

This connection is at the heart of what makes this project such a timely opportunity to revitalize social cohesion and knowledge transmission around the importance of those communities which have retained a strong traditional culture. The workshops also underlined the crucial importance of Tok Ples – local language – which is the blood of Timbuna Kastom/Traditional Knowledge’s beating heart. PNG has over 800 individual languages (not dialects) – with some ranging from just a few tens to thousands of speakers. Until very recently, communities across PNG were almost exclusively oral in culture, writing and literacy being a product of interaction with traders, missionaries and then colonial administration. But there is an intensely rich visual culture – each community creating unique designs reflected in their crafting of objects and decorations as well as styles of house building. Designs are often deeply symbolic, communicating specific stories and meanings, or relating to particular locations. Language and visual design are thus deeply intertwined with the particular geographies and environments which PNG’s many and diverse communities inhabit and steward. Maintaining and strengthening this diversity is as crucial as maintaining the diversity of plants and seed banks for genetic variety. PNG’s school system still teaches predominantly in English, and over the years Pidgin, Tok Pisin, has become the main national language, to the point now where children in many communities are not being brought up to speak their local Tok Ples first, but Pisin instead. As the unique relationships to place are loosened in this way, the connection to land slackens and people are persuaded to register and sell their land to outsiders. For a country where around 80% of people are still reliant on subsistence food production (through their gardens) this is clearly catastrophic.

On the wall of the BRG Community Room where we held the workshop, there is an inspiring quotation from PNG’s 1975 Constitutional Planning Committee:

This is placed next to a copy of the PNG National Goals and Directive Principles:

The workshop provided us with a space and place to collectively retread the ideas and experiments of the past 5 years, and to reiterate the aspirations and ambitions for what the tools and the continued practice of kastom means to traditional communities. Being held in a less isolated and rural setting it also gave us the opportunity to demonstrate the digital aspects that are harder to achieve in the bush: scanning in notebooks and uploading to the online library which we created for Reite. Although almost all the villagers have never used a computer before, are completely unused to keyboards and have only a slim grasp of the workings of file systems and structures, windows and desktop metaphors – they acknowledge the potential benefits that this form of recording and sharing can offer them and are quick to learn it use. Two people (Urufaf and his sister Pasen) were chosen to be the leaders of this activity and to receive additional training later in our visit.

Practising with TKRN notebooks at BRG

The workshop had been programmed to precede and important ceremony in the village, and on its conclusion the villagers, James, myself, Banak, Catherine and Yat’s wife and son made the day-long journey in two small dinghies across Astrolabe Bay and down the Rai Coast, then up 400m above sea level and 10km inland to Reite village, where we would be staying. Over the next days a series of ceremonies and events took place that demonstrated Reite’s strong hold on kastom, the richness of their culture, and just how keenly people wish to continue this way of life into the future and for the benefits of future generations. We took part in a night-time Tamburan event (a performance of secret, sacred instruments) that began in the bush before moving into a Haus Tamburan itself. This was followed the following day by a large kastom food distribution between one village and families of another, followed the next day by a reconciliation payment ceremony and the all-night Singsing to conclude the festivities. In amongst these ceremonies, James, Banak, Catherine and I were invited to address the local school (which James and I worked with back in 2015) about our respective projects and the importance of traditional culture, tok ples and caring for the environment.

The ceremonies over, we rested for a day then returned to Madang for a final couple of days intensive media training with Urufaf and Pasen. This involved introducing them both to the computer from first principles, getting them used to using it for scanning documents, file management, email and using the internet. With the assistance of Banak & KCAF in Madang, and from me remotely from the UK, we will be supporting them gradually take over the maintenance of the Reite Online Library – scanning and uploading completed TKRN notebooks and expanding the resource. As their confidence and fluency with digital technologies grow, there is the potential to increase their skills to include designing their own notebooks and using bookleteer to generate their own publications.

Urufaf & Pasen after 2 days media training

The success of the workshop at BRG and the excitement generated in the village during the ceremonies, has had a significant effect in making the longer term aspirations of the project begin to see light. Reite people are growing in confidence and desire to share this method of practicing and documenting culture and kastom to other interested communities in the region and, in so doing, to establish a name and reputation for themselves. Plans are already underway for a Reite to host a group of representatives from other Madang Province communities next year to demonstrate this and share the TKRN Toolkit and training.

UnBias: Our Future Internet video

May 21, 2018 by · Comments Off on UnBias: Our Future Internet video 

UnBias Fairness Toolkit Preview

March 13, 2018 by · Comments Off on UnBias Fairness Toolkit Preview 

Here is the presentation from a workshop held in London yesterday at which I previewed the Fairness Toolkit I’ve been leading the development of for the UnBias project. It still requires further testing and refining, so feedback and comments are most welcome:

UnBias Fairness Toolkit Workshop from Giles Lane

Data Manifestation Talk at Open Data Institute

December 21, 2016 by · Comments Off on Data Manifestation Talk at Open Data Institute 

Back in June I gave a talk on data manifestation and our Lifestreams project at the Open Data Institute :

Read Giles’ post, How Do We Know? for more details on the project.

TKRN in Vanuatu Again

September 5, 2016 by · 19 Comments 

Urufaf Anip demonstrating TKRN folding & making

Urufaf Anip demonstrating TKRN folding & making

Just over a week ago the Tupunis Slow Food Festival on Tanna island, Vanuatu concluded. It was the first festival of its kind held in Melanesia – bringing together people from Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Bougainville, New Caledonia (Kanaky); the Solomon islands and Fiji to celebrate traditional ways of producing and preparing food as part of a redefinition of “development”; rejecting the simple monetary definitions (dollars per day) and exploitative, extractive industries that characterise what global institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF define as development in favour of alternative criteria that recognise the value of sustainable land and sea tenure, the qualities of organic grown food and traditional methods of preparation, and the richness of lives not governed by the need for money. The festival was organised by a coalition of local organisations (including Vanuatu Slow Food Network, Vanuatu Land Defence Desk, Vanuatu Cultural Centre, Tafea Cultural Centre) and supported by The Christensen Fund as well as the Vanuatu Government.

As part of our TK Reite Notebooks project, James Leach and I travelled to participate in the festival along with three people from Reite village in Papua New Guinea – Porer Nombo, Pinbin Sisau and Urufaf Anip – with whom we have been co-designing the TKRN toolkit since 2012. Our trip was intended to bring the TKRN project and toolkit to a wider audience of Melanesians interested in documenting and preserving traditional culture – with the focus on presentation being led by Reite people themselves (rather than James and myself). Our role was to facilitate and support, with the key exchange of ideas, tools and processes taking place between people indigenous to Melanesia themselves.

This is a key aspect of the project for us – having our co-design collaborators from Reite village be identified and engaged with as cultural leaders in their own right who are actively taking steps to document and transmit their living culture and knowledge traditions to future generations in the face of extreme pressure from “development”. For most of our time we were also accompanied by Yat Paol, a PNG man of the Gildipasi community with whom we worked in Tokain village earlier this year (and a representative of The Christensen Fund in PNG). Yat’s insight and gentle wisdom concerning the importance of self-documentation of traditional knowledge as a means for indigenous people to empower themselves has been a source of inspiration and a great sounding board for us.

Porer and Pinbin represented Reite on a panel bringing perspectives from various Melanesian communities and spoke about the project and the importance of kastom, land and bush. For many people at the festival the emphasis was on a return to traditional ways of life – having two people who come from a community that maintains its traditional way of life speak about what it means to them and their families truly caught the mood of the audience and their response was fantastic, giving rousing applause.

IMG_4888

Porer Nombo introducing TKRN & Reite traditional knowledge

IMG_4891

Pinbin Sisau giving a rousing talk on preserving kastom culture

The festival ran over 5 days and had speakers from across the region, as well as performances by cultural groups, traditional crafts, music and demonstrations of new ideas for food preservation and health initiatives. Moreover, each day traditional foods were prepared and cooked by people from all the provinces and islands of Vanuatu (and New Caledonia) for attendees to sample. Thus we were feasted on a daily basis on everything from (and often in locally specific combinations of) taro, yam, manioc, tapioca, cassava, banana to fish, coconut crab, goat and beef.

The Vanuatu Daily Post’s Life & Style section has an article on the festival here, and Sista.com has an article with excellent photos from the festival here.

At the festival we connected with Canadian anthropologist, Jean Mitchell, who is running a project (Tanna Ecologies Gardens & Youth Project) with young people on Tanna documenting and recording kastom gardens and traditional foods. James, Urufaf and I ran a TKRN workshop with a group of them, teaching them to fold and make notebooks, as well as co-designing a new custom notebook for their project. A couple of days later we demonstrated scanning in the first few completed books and printed out copies for the young people who had made them. Our simple bush publishing set up of laptop, scanner and printer meant that we were able to do this quickly and simply – working in basic conditions on site and being able to carry all the equipment we needed in a couple of backpacks. Jean’s project is an extension of one she originally developed in 1997, the Vanuatu Young People’s Project, with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. Over the next two years the young people on Tanna will be documenting as much knowledge about traditional kastom gardens as they can, using the TKRN toolkit as their primary tool. Jean has worked with them this summer to develop a questionnaire template which has been adapted for the notebooks:

Once back in Port Vila, Jean also arranged for us to train a couple of young people who will be sharing their skills with the men fieldworkers of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre at the annual fieldworkers’ meeting at the end of September. This will complement the work we did in March with the women fieldworkers and hopefully bring the TKRN toolkit to many different communities across Vanuatu.

IMG_8352

At the festival we also met and had great conversations with Dr Ruth Spriggs and Theonila Roka-Matbob from Bougainville (a semi-autonomous part of PNG), who are setting up an Indigenous Research Centre on the island, and Professor John Waiko of Oro Province PNG and his son, filmmaker and slow food activist Bao Waiko, from Markham Valley PNG (where he lives with his wife, Jennifer Baing-Waiko, also co-director of Save PNG). We’re hoping to share the TKRN toolkit with their initiatives as part of our next steps.

IMG_4605

L to R: Professor John Waiko; Dr Ruth Spriggs, Theonila Roka-Matbob; Betty Gigisi; James Leach & Bao Waiko

A highlight of our trip was a visit to Tanna’s famous Mount Yasur volcano, truly awe inspiring:

IMG_4800


Before attending the Tupunis festival, we took the opportunity to build on a relationship we had initiated with Wan Smolbag Theatre during our previous trip to Vanuatu earlier this year. Through co-founder Jo Dorras we were introduced to researcher Ben Kaurua and digital trainer Cobi Smith with whom we ran a TKRN workshop introducing the books and documentation process to a group of young volunteers who work with various island communities living in and around Port Vila, the capital on Efate island. (I had designed a very simple custom notebook for WSB in advance of travelling). We were also introduced to some local Chiefs from the nearby Lali community and were invited to attend a ceremony that was part of a boys’ initiation ritual. We left WSB with some new equipment to assist them in using the TKRN toolkit (a Polaroid Snap camera/printer & Zink sheet packs, as well as a low cost Canon combined inkjet scanner and printer) and are hoping to see some results in the future.


Porer speaking at IUCN

After the festival, while I returned to the UK and Pinbin and Uru returned to Madang, James and Porer continued on their travels to participate in the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii. There they took part in a session on indigenous documentation to demonstrate the TKRN process and toolkit, and to discuss the complex issues facing traditional communities who wish to preserve their culture and values and to transmit them to future generations.

This trip was the final activity of our recent TKRN programme – we are now preparing a new programme of activities that aim to build a lasting legacy for the project and enable the establishment of a network of indigenous groups and local organisations in Melanesia to adopt and adapt the TKRN toolkit for themselves. Huge thanks are owed to Catherine Sparks of The Christensen Fund who made so much of this possible; funding many of the projects, organisations and the festival itself, as well as being the consummate connector introducing people and taking care so that everyone had the most productive time possible. Thanks also go out to Paula Aruhuri, Joel Simo and Jacob Kapere who were instrumental in inviting us, arranging travel and accommodation and making time and space for us on the programme.

More TKRN work in Papua New Guinea

May 27, 2016 by · 3 Comments 

Finisterre Mountains on the Rai Coast, seen across Astrolabe Bay from Madang

Finisterre Mountains on the Rai Coast, seen across Astrolabe Bay from Madang

I’ve recently returned from Papua New Guinea where, with James Leach, I have been doing field work for our TK Reite Notebooks (TKRN) project. This follows on from our work last year in Reite village on Madang’s Rai Coast, and also from our trip to Vanuatu in February, where we worked with a group of women fieldworkers and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre.

Having established the model of working with the notebooks with Reite villagers last year, the focus of our trip in this second year of the project was not to produce more books, but to explore how and if the model would work with other communities and, to find other local partners for whom the tools and techniques we have developed could be useful additions to their own methods and practices of documenting traditional knowledge.

Through our close discussions with Catherine Sparks and Yat Paol of The Christensen Fund (our project’s main sponsor), we identified some possibilities – the Research + Conservation Foundation (RCF) of Papua New Guinea (in Goroka, Eastern Highland Province); and Tokain village, Bogia District (Madang Province). Having arrived in Madang and met up with two of our key collaborators from Reite – Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau – we made plans to travel up the coast to the village of Tokain and stay a few days to introduce our model to local people. James and I then travelled to Goroka to spend a day at RCF meeting with their director, Sangion Tiu, education programme manager, Emmie Betabete, and resource officer, Milan Korarome. We learnt about RCF’s work in communities and in teacher training, and presented our TKRN approach. This resonated strongly with RCF whose staff spoke of the problem of documenting traditional knowledge in both school and village settings. It was a lovely moment when their enthusiasm for the books spilled over and we decided on the spot to co-design a new template with them. We then spent a while devising questions about climate change for elementary schoolchildren, which RCF will pilot this summer.

We returned to Madang after this highly successful meeting and the next day set out for Tokain with Porer, Pinbin and another young man from Reite, Urufaf, who has become a key proponent of using the TKRN books in his own community. Piling aboard a PMV (an open back truck with benches and a tarpaulin for sun/rain cover) we bumped along the highway following the coast north for about 4 hours before arriving. Many people from the village turned out to meet us and hear Porer, Pinbin and James introduce what the Reite villagers had done with the TKRN books and why it was important to them to preserve and transmit their culture and knowledge to future generations this way. The following morning we walked around different parts of the village meeting people going to market and in the community office, where they have a laptop and printer/scanner of their own, giving us an opportunity to demonstrate the whole cycle of printing off a PDF booklet, filling it in, scanning and storing it as a PDF on the computer and printing out another copy of the scanned book.

On the PMV, Porer & Urufaf

On the PMV, Porer & Urufaf

Tokain market

Tokain market

addressing Tokain's schoolchildren & teachers

addressing Tokain’s schoolchildren & teachers

Then we addressed all the students from the elementary and primary schools, their teachers and some of the village elders – again, the focus being on the Reite villagers explaining their use of the books and how the school in Reite had adopted the books as part of their own curriculum activities on environmental science and cultural heritage. This indigenous or local exchange of documentation practices (with James and myself taking a secondary role as facilitators rather than teachers) is very much the beginning of where we see the TKRN model developing in the future. The afternoon was spent workshopping ideas for the booklets and getting people used to the cutting and folding process for making up the books, as well as taking their photos to stick onto their books – always a popular aspect of the process. This continued well into the night with the convivial atmosphere of a house party surrounding the guesthouse where we stayed.

Porer Nombo explaining the TKRN books and method to Tokain villagers

Porer Nombo explaining the TKRN books and method to Tokain villagers

Dusk falls as people continue to gather to hear about TKRN

Dusk falls as people continue to gather to hear about TKRN

We left Tokain having agreed to meet up in a week or so’s time with a representative from the village who would bring us the first batch of completed books to scan and for me to build a simple website for – as I did last year for Reite (Reite Online Library).

Preparing the boat for the trip to Reite

Preparing the boat for the trip to Reite

From Madang we set off across Astrolabe Bay and down the Rai Coast to return to Reite for a few days and discuss with the community what had happened since our last field trip and what we proposed to do next. A meeting was organised and many people also came from neighbouring villages and hamlets: Sarangama, Asang, Marpungae and Serieng. Porer, Pinbin and Urufaf all spoke about the project, what was achieved last year, what we had just done at Tokain and how important it is for knowledge to continue to thrive and be passed on to future generations despite all the changes happening to the world around them. James also spoke of our visit to Vanuatu, how we had shared some of the Reite books with the indigenous fieldworkers there and we showed them some of the books made by the ni-Vanuatu people we met.

Public meeting in Reite

Public meeting in Reite

The response was dramatically positive, with people calling for a revival of teaching and learning in their traditional local language, Nekgini, alongside using Tok Pisin to document stories and practices. A core group of people interested in taking the lead to build up a library of traditional knowledge also emerged, a group who were also prepared to go ‘on patrol’ to other local villages to share with them the TKRN methods. We left over 250 blank books in the village, as well as a simple to operate Polaroid Snap camera (and several hundred sheets of Zink photo paper) to take and print out photos of people to stick on the front covers. By shifting the focus from the familiar and everyday towards the more esoteric, and perhaps endangered, types of knowledge of their environment that Reite people have, we are hoping they will be able to develop a truly unique and exemplary library that could inspire others across PNG, Melanesia and perhaps even farther afield to document their traditional knowledge before it is lost. We also took the opportunity to improve the design of the books, redesigning the front covers to allow for more contextual information about the author and the books contents, and rewriting the engaged consent statement on the front for better clarity.

Returning again to Madang we met with Ernest Kaket from Tokain and scanned in the books he’d brought with him from the village. These now form the foundation of their own online library which we hope to expand in due course.

Our next steps are to make a return visit to Vanuatu with a couple of Reite villagers to introduce their use of the TKRN model themselves; and to continue to develop the basis of a partnership with RCF as a means of extending the reach across PNG of the tools and methods we’ve co-created with Reite people.

IMG_4360

Dawn breaks across Astrolabe Bay

Lifestreams Redux

March 24, 2016 by · 4 Comments 

IMG_3679

This week I presented a new generation of lifecharm data shells at a symposium on ethics in data science for the Alan Turing Institute. The shells were created by Stefan Kueppers using the Lifestreams process for data manifestation, and used data from a research project led by Professor George Roussos at Birkbeck University of London which records symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease as experienced by sufferers.

These shells are an initial experiment flowing just 3 data sources into the shell growth parameters, which we hope to expand with further data sources and increase the complexity of the model in future generations. The aim is to capture the high variation in symptoms experienced by those with Parkinson’s as an alternative to the way in which patients’ complex symptoms are collapsed into the single summary statistic of the Universal Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale.

Read my provocation piece for the ATI symposium for more information.

Bookleteering with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre

March 14, 2016 by · 4 Comments 

IMG_3651

Over the past 2 weeks I have been in Port Vila, Vanuatu in the South Pacific with James Leach and Lissant Bolton (Keeper of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, British Museum) working with the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (Bislama for Vanuatu Cultural Centre). Lissant organised and led a special workshop with a group of women fieldworkers on the theme of current changes to kinship systems (supported by the Christensen Fund). The fieldworkers are ni-Vanuatu (local) people representing some of the many different vernacular language groups from across the many islands who do voluntary work to record and preserve traditional culture and knowledge. The fieldworker programme has been established and overseen by the Cultural Centre (VKS) for over 35 years and is a unique initiative where local people gather “cultural knowledges about all the aspects of the customary art of living of Vanuatu”. Each year the fieldworkers gather together to share their research with each other and contribute to the documentation held at the VKS.

Lissant had invited James and I to visit Vanuatu with her and introduce the TKRN toolkit and techniques to the fieldworkers participating in the kinship workshop, as well as to meet with others working on different projects at the VKS. The low cost and ease of use of the TKRN booklets – both for collecting documentation in rural settings as well as digitising and archiving (both online and as hard copies) – made it an obvious tool to share. Prior to leaving London, Lissant and I had made some initial examples of Bislama (the local pidgin) notebooks for Vanuatu similar to those created in Tok Pisin for Papua New Guinea. These would be tested with the women fieldworkers during the workshop and we planned to adapt them with their assistance, as we have done in PNG with local people from Reite village.

In Port Vila James and I were also were introduced to Paula Aruhuri of the Vanuatu Indigenous Land Defence Desk, an organisation that promotes awareness of indigenous custom and land rights across Vanuatu and campaigns to stop land alienation from traditional owners. With Paula we co-designed a simple reporting notebook for the fieldworkers who deliver awareness events to local communities that will assist the land desk in documenting local people’s concerns and how they might be able to help them. And we met with Edson Willie of the VKS Akioloji Unit (Heritage Unit), with whom we co-designed a notebook for fieldworkers to record heritage sites.

The women fieldworkers experimented with one of the notebook formats and helped us re-design the front cover and write up a more appropriate ethics statement that reflected their different concerns about sharing traditional knowledge. In this case they chose not to share their books online (as we did in Reite), but to have them scanned, re-printed and stored in the ‘Tabu Rum’ of the VKS, the audio-visual archives. Local concerns about rights to aspects of traditional knowledge in Melanesia are a major theme and extremely important to design for. Developing tactics and a strategy to enable clear documentation and permission for sharing has been at the heart of the TKRN co-design process. Lissant has written about this issue in the context of Vanuatu and it also reflects on James’ work with Porer Nombo from Reite on their book Reite Plants in this essay.

We are planning to return to Vanuatu later in the year with some Reite people to participate in a knowledge exchange around the TKRN toolkit and techniques with men and women fieldworkers of the VKS. In this way we hope to develop a model of adoption whereby communities learn from each other how to use and adapt the toolkit for their own purposes, with our role being more one of facilitation than education or training. As a toolkit designed from the grassroots up, I hope to continue expanding on the concept of ‘public authoring’ that has driven the development of bookleteer and the ‘shareables’ it enables people to make and share.

In late April James and I will return to Papua New Guinea to work with Reite villagers to introduce the TKRN toolkit to a couple of other villages in Madang Province – this should provide an good indication of the possibilities and limitations of how a model of community knowledge transfer and adaptation can work.

Reite Village Online Library

September 21, 2015 by · 4 Comments 

This website has been created as an online library of TKRN notebooks made by the villagers of Reite and its neighbours in Papua New Guinea’s Madang Province. These books were created during a field trip in March 2015 and we hope to add many more in the future. We aim to transfer management of the site to the villagers themselves in due course, so that they can continue growing the library for future generations. As 4G mobile internet service penetrates into the jungle where they live and more local people own smartphones and connected devices, this is an increasingly likely possibility.

Mixing the physical and digital in this way means that traditional knowledge and customs may be preserved and transmitted forwards by embracing some of the changes that industrialisation and urbanisation bring to traditional rural communities. By working alongside the existing relationships of knowledge exchange it offers new opportunities for inter-generational collaboration on self-documentation of stories, experiences, history and practical knowledge of working with and sustaining the local ecology and environment.

The site itself is extremely simple and uses only free services: a free WordPress.com blog as the primary interface for organising and sharing the books; and a free Dropbox account as the primary repository of the PDF files of the scanned books. It is a key component in our TKRN Toolkit, and closes the loop in our use of hybrid digital and physical tools and techniques.

The villagers themselves developed their own categories and taxonomies for cataloguing the books, which have all been tagged accordingly. The books are thus searcheable by title, author and subject(s). Many of the books include an author photo on the cover page; a thumbnail image of the scanned book was included in each post, and a blog theme chosen that presents the main page as a mosaic of images from the posts. For communities with highly varied literacies, it also enables visual recognition both of the author’s faces, and in many cases their handwriting or drawing style.

TKRN Blank Notebooks

September 17, 2015 by · 4 Comments 

tk-reite-notebook-logo-test-small-web
These notebooks have been co-designed with villagers of Reite in Madang Province, Papua New Guinea by Giles Lane and James Leach as part of the TK Reite Notebooks project and Toolkit. They can be downloaded, printed out and made up into physical notebooks for recording traditional knowledge. Then they can be scanned and shared online or as physical objects.

The books have been created using bookleteer – Proboscis’ free self-publishing platform. Each link is to an A4 PDF file. The “view options” links open each notebook’s page in bookleteer with US Letter PDF and a web readable version.

16 page Standard Notebook with Questions – Tok Pisinview options

16 page Standard Notebook with Questions – Englishview options

16 page Teaching & Learning Notebook with Questions – Tok Pisinview options

20 page Multi-stage Processes Notebook with Questions – Tok Pisinview options

16 page Story Notebook with Questions – Tok Pisinview options

12 page Initiation Notebook with Questions – Tok Pisinview options

16 page General Purpose Notebook (No Questions) – Tok Pisinview options

16 page Structured Notebook with Question – Bilingual Tok Pisin/Englishview options

View the TKRN Notebooks collection on bookleteer.

We also have created this guide to folding and making up the notebooks (in English/Tok Pisin) :

Book_Folding_Instructions

Bookleteering on the Rai Coast of Papua New Guinea

March 22, 2015 by · 12 Comments 

Making books, printing photos and solar charging our kit

Making books, printing photos and solar charging our kit

Today is the last day of our fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. I’ve been here for the past 3 weeks or so with anthropologist James Leach piloting the first stage of a new kind of toolkit designed to help remote indigenous communities document and record – in their own hand and forms of expression – the kinds of traditional cultural, environmental, ecological and social knowledge (“TEK”) that are in danger of gradually fading away as development, resource extraction, industrialisation and the money economy erode their ability to live sustainably in the bush/jungle.

I flew to Perth in late February to spend a week with James preparing for our trip : gathering the gear we’d need to be able to co-design booklets using bookleteer offline in the bush, print them out and scan them back in, as well as documenting all these processes. James is currently on an ARC Future Fellowship at the University of Western Australia, as well as Professor and Director of Research for the French Pacific Research Institute, CREDO in Marseille. He has been working with the people of Reite village on Papua New Guinea’s Rai Coast (Madang Province) since 1993 and his 2003 book, Creative Land (Berghahn Books), is a major anthropological study of their culture and society. James and I have been collaborating on ideas of self-documentation of traditional knowledge and “indigenous science” ever since I introduced him to the Diffusion eBook format and bookleteer back in 2008. When two Reite people, Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau, came to the UK in 2009 to take part in a project at the British Museum’s Ethnographic Dept telling stories and giving information about hundreds of objects from PNG in the collection, we first used the notebooks together to create a parallel series of documents about this encounter and what was revealed.

In 2012 I was invited to share my thoughts on how bookleteer and the books format could be used by indigenous people themselves at the Saem Majnep Memorial Symposium on TEK at the University of Goroka in PNG. We followed this up with a trip to Reite village where we spent a week testing out our ideas with people from the village, and developing a simple co-design process for creating notebooks with prompts to help people (whose literacy varies dramatically) record and share things of value to them. The focus was to understand how far this idea could really deliver something of use and value to people who live a largely traditional way of life in the bush, and why they might want to do this. It became clear early on that the enormous enthusiasm was driven by concerns about how all the knowledge that has allowed their society to thrive in the bush for countless generations could easily vanish in the face of money, cash cropping and the speed of communications and change that factors like mobile phones are bringing – leading some young people to turn away from traditional life for the dubious advantages of a precarious life in the shanty towns on the edge of PNG’s growing cities. The notebooks offer a new kind of way to preserve and transmit such knowledge for future generations, especially as they combine the physical and the digital, meaning the loss of a physical copy of a book doesn’t matter when it has been digitised and stored online. The success of this first experiment enabled us to write a proposal for funding a 2 year pilot to the Christensen Fund (a US-based foundation) which awarded us funding in 2014.

After a brief stopover in Canberra to consult and share ideas with Colin Filer and Robin Hide of Australian National University (both PNG experts of longstanding), we headed straight to Madang to meet with James’ friend Pinbin Sisau (at whose home we would be staying in Reite village) and gather all the necessary stores to sustain us in the field for several weeks. After a day in Madang we took a dinghy, skippered by the ever-reliable Alfus, across Astrolabe Bay and South-East 60km or so along the Rai Coast to the black sand beach where we landed and were met by some villagers who’d help portage all our cargo the 10km inland we’d have to walk, up into the foothills of the Finisterre Mountains where Reite village is located (at about 300m above sea level).

James had visited Reite again recently, in October 2014, to discuss the upcoming field work and to gather more feedback on our original experiment so we could plan how, in practice, we could co-design notebook templates with the villagers and what we could prepare in advance to help this. A few small tweaks to prompts used in our 2012 co-designed notebook were made, as well as creating a simple printed version (I had handwritten all the notebooks we used before) on bookleteer and a new book for collective writing. To have the capability to design, generate and print out bookleteer books in the field, I commissioned Joe Flintham (Fathom Point Ltd) – who is bookleteer’s chief consultant programmer – to adapt a version of bookleteer to run offline (i.e. with no need for internet connectivity) on my Apple MacBook Air laptop. Joe created an Ubuntu Virtual Machine image of bookleteer (minus various online services) that runs on Oracle’s Virtual Box application. Combining this with a portable inkjet printer (a Canon Pixma iP110 with battery), a portable scanner (an EPSON DS-30) and the Polaroid PoGo & LG Pocket Photo PD239 Zink printers would give us a fully-fledged ‘bush publishing” capability. For paper we brought with us a supply of Aquascribe waterproof paper (a Tyvek-type product) and pre-printed and shipped some 170 copies of different book templates. The waterproof paper is a highly useful technology to use in the damp and humid environment, where ordinary pulp-based paper becomes fibrous very swiftly and disintegrates in a short time. Books printed and made on this paper (as we used before) have a much longer lifespan – possibly decades.

Our "bush publishing" set up

Our “bush publishing” set up

Reite is made up of several hamlets, being the name applied not just to one village but an administrative district from the colonial period. As such the people who took part in our project come not just from Reite itself, but from Sarangama, Yasing, Marpungae and Serieng. For the next two weeks of our fieldwork we were constantly engaged in discussions with local people about the books, what they might include in them and how they could help reinforce the importance of the knowledge of the land, plants, animals and environment that people here have developed over generations. Once again, James’ long-term collaborator and informant, Porer Nombo, was the hub around which much of the necessary energy to bring people together and discuss the ideas was focused. In addition to the 3 templates we had prepared before coming, we co-designed with Porer, Pinbin and several others with a keen interest (such as Peter Nombo and Katak Pulu) another 4 different styles of notebook for a range of different themes and types of ‘stori’ that people wanted to record. Overall, 63 books were completed by around 42 people during the fortnight we stayed in the village. The major difference in this project was that, rather than taking the books away to scan and return, the portable scanner meant that we could scan everyone’s book in the village itself. Thus we could store a digital copy (and print out another if needed) and leave the original in its author’s hands in the village. This was an important step, partly to underscore that the books were by and for people in the village, not for us, and also to counter ideas that we might be taking knowledge away from the village to profit from selling it. For us, the digitisation of the books is a critical component for transmission to the future as it means that the unique books, which are hand written and drawn in by their authors, can be retrieved and printed again if lost or damaged. We explained this to everyone in several meetings – both smaller ones within the house we stayed in, and a larger public meeting about halfway through the project.

Porer Nombo demonstrating making a traditional stone axe to James Leach

Porer Nombo demonstrating making a traditional stone axe to James Leach

As in our previous experiment, we designed the front cover of each book to include a photograph of the author (which we took using digital cameras and our smartphones and printed out on the sticky-backed photo paper of the PoGo & LG Zink printers). As well as describing the general themes of the prompts inside each book, the cover also includes the simple statement that the author has been told about and understands the project, as well as statements (which they can cross out if they don’t agree to) that the book can be scanned onto computer, and shared online. As it turned out, the excitement that people’s work would appear on the internet was palpable and a significant impetus behind participation. Having something they had made, with their picture on it, on the internet had real value – suggesting that the knowledge they have could both be seen by others around the world and known about across PNG too.

A gathering of people to discuss the books

A gathering of people to discuss the books

Public meeting to discuss the project

Public meeting to discuss the project

What became one of the most important aspects of the fieldwork was the way that the local primary school (St Monica’s Reite) adopted the books wholesale and wove them directly into the curriculum around social science and environmental studies. We met up with Mr Jonathan Zorro, the school headmaster, in the first days of our trip (I had met him on my previous trip and James again last October) and he confirmed that he was very keen for the school to become involved. It turned out that the school has a desktop PC with a laser printer and scanner, so it became clear that not only could the school print out copies of the books on standard A4 paper, but they could scan them in and store them locally on the school computer. We agreed to spend a day at the school to introduce the project to all the students and then to do some practical book-making demonstrations and workshops with each class. James also agreed to give each of the Upper school classes (years 5-8) a short lecture on the importance of traditional knowledge and how it relates to environmental studies and preserving the community’s way of life. Mr Zorro organised for 290 books to be printed at the school, with one of the key emphases being that the students should use both the Tok Pisin versions and the English versions to improve their language and descriptive skills. Mr Zorro kindly shared with us the assessment criteria which he also developed for the students’ work : assessing their English language skills, their artwork (drawing), narrative ability, use of social science and environmental studies knowledge. Within a week of our first presentation at the school many of the students had submitted books of their own and we ended up digitising 55 of the best ones.

Scanning in a handwritten & illustrated book

Scanning in a handwritten & illustrated book

We had planned for a visit by to Reite by Catherine Sparks (who is based in Vanuatu) and Yat Paol (based in PNG) from the Christensen Fund’s Melanesian programme, but Cyclone Pam intervened and our own visit to the village was cut short by a few days (due to some health and security issues) so we have ended up completing our fieldwork from a base in Madang. There we presented the work completed to Yat Paol and were also able to arrange a meeting for him with the school headmaster plus Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau who have been our steadfast colleagues in this project. Now we have scanned the 118 books we have been indexing their contents and details of the authors to prepare a specially designed website to act as an online repository of library for Reite, and beginning to analyse and work with Porer and Pinbin on some indigenous classifications for the kinds of knowledge and experience that they contain. As our time here draws to a close we find that we have a wealth of stories to develop new parts of the toolkit from, and a clear sense of direction for the project’s second stage.

TEK_Anip_Asawi-book2-page1 TEK_Anip_Asawi-book2-page3 TEK_Anip_Asawi-book2-page4 TEK_Anip_Asawi-book2-page2

Lifestreams at Mosaic3DX

October 31, 2013 by · 3 Comments 

IMG_0445

This week we exhibited the Lifecharm shells, datalogger and Lifestreams film at the Mosaic3DX conference, held at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. The exhibition was organised by Karen Jinks of Cambridge Creative Network and also featured Jenny Langley, Gareth Wild of Apropos, Nick Edwards, Jon Heras of Equinox Graphics and Circuit Cambridge.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Indigenous Public Authoring in Papua New Guinea

October 2, 2013 by · 10 Comments 

tek-books-spirits-cover

Towards the end of October 2012 I boarded a flight to Sydney on the first leg of a journey to Papua New Guinea, where I was to give a presentation about public authoring and the Shareables we have created over the past dozen and more years. Through my friend, the anthropologist James Leach, I had been invited to participate in a symposium at the University of Goroka in PNG’s Eastern Highlands to share my thoughts and experiences of using hybrid tools and technologies with different communities to record and share their knowledge, stories and experiences – a process we have called public authoring since developing our Urban Tapestries project back in 2003.

I first got to know James at the University of Cambridge at a symposium he, Lee Wilson and Robin Boast co-organised for CRASSH where I was an invited speaker. We then began collaborating in 2009 when two Reite villagers, Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau, came to the UK to participate in a project at the British Museum Ethnography Department. Porer and Pinbin were invited to help identify hundreds of objects from the Rai Coast area of PNG that the BM has in its collections, but about which very little was known. In addition to the audio recording and photography of the objects, James wanted to capture something about the process of encountering and engaging with the objects; he turned to me to explore using the Diffusion Notebooks format we had previously discussed. Over the week or so of Porer and Pinbin’s visit to the BM Ethnographic Store in an east London warehouse several notebooks were made and shared online (these are also browsable on bookleteer and downloadable – Melanesia Project Notebooks). This small project was a personal turning point in several ways and when the opportunity came to visit PNG and to travel to Reite village itself with James I had no hesitation in accepting.

Lissant Bolton, Porer Nombo, Pinbin Sisau, James Leach & Liz Bonskek at BM Ethnographic Store

Lissant Bolton, Porer Nombo, Pinbin Sisau, James Leach & Liz Bonskek at BM Ethnographic Store

The Saem Majnep Memorial Symposium on Traditional Environmental Knowledge took place from October 31st to 2nd November and featured both local as well as international researchers. James and Porer Nombo presented their book, Reite Plants, as a potential model for sharing local traditional knowledge. I gave a presentation about how we have used the Diffusion eBook format and bookleteer in our work with different communities to record and share their stories, experiences and other things that they value. Prior to visiting PNG James and I had spent a few days discussing and sketching up some possible notebooks to take to Reite village. I had also researched a waterproof paper stock that could both be printed on and written on using universally available pens (such as biro and also Sharpie pens) – which was crucial in the hot and humid climate of PNG where ordinary paper is highly susceptible to mould, damp and disintegration. Taking a small amount of this paper with me, and some test printed waterproof eNotebooks, we made our way via Madang to Reite village.

Porer Nombo at University of Goroka [photo: J. Leach]

Porer Nombo at University of Goroka [photo: J. Leach]

Once in the village, we realised that the sketches for notebooks that we had planned before were not quite right and that there was a unique opportunity to co-design a simpler approach that reflected local sensitivities to knowledge sharing. Working with Porer and Pinbin again, we devised a new formulation for the wording of the notebooks about the kind of subject matter we would be asking participants to record and share, as well as the provenance of their knowledge. A key ingredient was the informed consent statement that appears on the front cover of each notebook below the space for the participant’s photograph, which was printed and stuck on using a Polaroid PoGo printer, and beneath which each participant wrote their name after reading and agreeing.

Having just a limited supply of materials I was able to create 16 notebooks – far less than the number of people who wanted to take part – which were all handmade and written out in the village itself. At a morning meeting, the aims of the project were explained to the participants by Porer and James whilst I took their photos and printed them out to stick on the cover of their notebooks. As a simple pilot, we asked the participants to write about just one thing in their environment about which they had specific knowledge – knowledge that was their’s to share (i.e. not taboo or magical knowledge, hap tok in Tok Pisin). It was important that everyone taking part understood exactly what we were doing and why – that this was intended and an experiment to explore new ways for their community to record what they know and to be able to pass in on to their descendants as well as to share with others.

By the end of our week in the village all 16 notebooks had been returned, filled with stories, drawings and information – the first time I have had a 100% return rate in any participation project! Disassembling each of the notebooks back into flat sheets, I used a cheap portable hand scanner to create our very first digital versions of the notebooks, which were saved as multi-page PDF files for immediate sharing. Once back in our London studio I was able to take more accurate scans on a desktop scanner, but the use of the portable scanner to capture and immediately share (via SD card) digital versions of the notebooks was another useful demonstration of the simplicity of the whole process for sharing in the field without access to mains electricity and the usual infrastructure required for file sharing.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

James provided some English translations to the notebooks, which we then incorporated into new versions made and shared on bookleteer – all of which can be browsed online or downloaded as A4 PDFs for making into handmade books in this collection – Reite and Sarangama Notebooks. We also combined the 16 notebooks into three larger bookleteer books grouped together according to subject matter accompanied by a book written by us (in both Tok Pisin and English) browsable or downloadable (as A3 PDFs) in the collection – TEK Pilot 1. Two of these books were recently printed in a small run using bookleteer’s Short Run printing service and sent out to subscribers of the Periodical – read about them here. We are sending handmade versions of all the books and notebooks back to the participants in Reite and Saragama villages, laser printed on another waterproof paper stock for durability.

Our longer terms aims are to expand this process for simple tools and techniques for recording and sharing local traditional cultural and ecological knowledge into a toolkit that could be used in different contexts and situations, and which is, as far as possible, technology agnostic. To do this we plan to return to Reite in 2014 to continue our co-design and collaboration with the villagers there, and to then devise a basic toolkit which can be shared with other people and communities in PNG, then potentially further afield. I would love to hear from others working with traditional or remote communities who’d like to share ideas and perhaps experiment with the process and tools we’ve developed so far.

On the trip to PNG I kept a diary of my experiences for my then 8 year old daughter, which I digitised using bookleteer. It is personal and written with her in mind, yet it is probably the best way to communicate some of the intense experiences I had in the village – with a culture and society that is so very different to my own yet offered so much to me in generosity of welcome, food, gifts and in spirit.

Digital Alchemy

September 25, 2013 by · 17 Comments 

Digital Alchemy – transforming data into poetry

“The real nature of matter was unknown to the alchemist: he knew it only in hints. In seeking to explore it he projected the unconscious into the darkness of matter in order to illuminate it.”
Carl Gustav Jung, Psychology and Alchemy

visualise-best-pics---27

From the late Middle Ages alchemists were frequently depicted as seekers of eternal life and unending riches, a wholly materialist set of objectives that would be facilitated by discovering the philosopher’s stone and being able to transmute lead into gold. However, in the twentieth century, an entirely different interpretation of alchemy gained ascendance due, in large part, to the writings of the Swiss psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung. Jung interpreted alchemy as a symbolic process that aimed at individuation, the psychological assimilation of opposites whilst retaining their separateness, leading to the psychological (or even spiritual) transformation of the alchemist. The use of symbols and materials in the alchemical process function as archetypes of mythological images that reside within an individual’s unconscious, triggering an internal transformation as they pursue the Work. This likening of alchemy to the esoteric and spiritual traditions of East Asia (such as yoga and meditation) as well as its own Western roots in Hermeticism places it clearly within a framework for reflection, revelation, transfiguration and enlightenment.

In January 2012 a team from Proboscis (Stefan Kueppers and Giles Lane) was invited to collaborate in a critical and creative dialogue with scientists (David Walker and Steffen Reymann) from Philips Research Laboratory in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise public art programme (commissioned by Andy Robinson of Futurecity with Dipak Mistry of Arts & Business Cambridge). Our collaboration was one of several initiated between artists and industry in Cambridge that were aimed at helping to communicate the benefits that could come from such partnerships. Philips proposed that the theme for our joint dialogue would focus on personal health monitoring. Specifically our colleagues at Philips were interested in exploring new ways to engage nominally healthy people in monitoring their own health and lifestyle as a preventative measure, rather than waiting for a medical condition to arise and then find themselves having to adopt biosensor monitoring as part of a recuperative regime. The aim would be to think of emerging biosensor systems as part of a continual, holistic process of healthy living and wellbeing, rather than just as technological aids for post hoc medical intervention. The problem was that the statistics concerning the use of commercial biosensor products and related smartphone apps demonstrated that the vast majority of users tended to abandon the devices and ignore the data visualisations within weeks of first using them, undermining any potential beneficial impact they could have.

Over the next six months through a series of intense monthly meetings, rapid conceptual development and iterative prototyping we developed an experimental response to the problem. Our project, Lifestreams, proposed a novel way of thinking about the nature of biosensor data and its relationship to how we live our lives. We sought to move beyond the simple graphs and number counting that pervades so much of the ‘quantified self’ meme towards the poetic and numinous; to capture something of the epic in everyday life. Our aim was to transform our relationships to digital data from the ephemeral of screens and interfaces into something that encompassed the tactile and material producing a more subconsciously emotive and emotional experience – an artefact or Lifecharm.

Having developed the basic concept we grappled with the form that such an artefact should take asking ourselves, “What physical form could be mathematically driven by data to create dynamic and interesting shapes that could also communicate some sense of the whole person?”. The answer was to reflect on and revisit nature for archetypal forms and generative principles. In listing the attributes that an artefact generated from information would likely have, we found ourselves describing the growth patterns and expressiveness of shells. The patterns in their growth are determined by the health of the creature (such as a mollusc or snail) making them; what they consume, stress factors and the environmental conditions they exist within. Shells have a near universal fascination so the idea took hold of using contemporary technologies to artificially allow a human to ‘grow’ their own shells from data generated by monitoring their own health and lifestyle patterns.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The lifecharms were created by capturing a range of personal biosensor data types (heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, step count, sleep pattern, exposure to air pollution) and applying the data to a workflow using algorithms to extend the principles of the helico-spiral with time-based rules. These allow us to ‘grow’ the shell in the Groimp 3D modelling environment producing the initial 3D model surface which we then post-processed using Meshlab software for export as a stereolithographic file. The file can then be sent to a 3D printer to generate the physical artefact in a variety of different materials such as plastic, metals, glass, resin and ceramic. What makes the lifecharms unique is that they are not just parametric or formulaic transmogrifications of the raw data but generative because time as a key element informs the variations in the growth grammar that evolves the shells. Each of the biosensors’ time-series data drives one of the parameters governing the shell’s growth form. The data points are iterated through time intervals and become parameters altering the shell’s growth rules as more data is fed into the model. This gives each shell a non-deterministic morphology somewhat akin to the way a shell would be grown by a living creature.

Our own research into and experiences of using more common screen-based interfaces for visualising biosensor data had left us feeling that they were somehow inadequate. Their frankly mechanistic approach to relaying the data back to the user seemed to lack the kind of poetry that would allow someone to weave the process into the daily narrative that people construct about themselves. Unlike data visualisations the lifecharms are generated through a process of non-deterministic spatial data transformation. It does not confine them to such an instrumental purpose as merely relaying the original data back to us as information in a simplified and easy to comprehend manner. Instead, they are embodiments of the data, transformed from the abstract and ephemeral into the concrete and present. They establish the potential for uncommon insights to be perceived into the health conditions and lifestyle patterns in which the data was collected. Such insights are prompted by tactile and intuitive reflection.

Over the past decade Proboscis has been exploring tactile interfaces and tangible souvenirs as a key part of our research into the way people create and share knowledge, stories and experiences – what we call public authoring. An element of the handmade often features in the outputs we design, but here the imprint of the person about whom the data being shared is directly embodied in the object itself. A Lifecharm shell synthesises the intrinsic qualities of the data within its morphology; visualisations, on the other hand, make extrinsic interpretations of such data. It is, at one and the same time, both an informational object – representing a state gleaned from sensor data – and also a philosophical thing triggering intuitive reflection. It unites different traditions of investigation and meaning making: the scientific and the mythic, or magical, both being and becoming. However, a lifecharm is neither an icon nor iconic, nor yet an implement or tool – it embodies a state without representing it banally. What it exemplifies is not knowledge in the form of a ‘transactable’ commodity or product but a path to knowing that arises from an ongoing process of continuous interaction with and intervention within everyday habits, in this case practiced daily through touch.

“Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as “the art”. I believe this is completely literal. I believe that magic is art and that art, whether it be writing, music, sculpture, or any other form is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to achieve changes in consciousness.”
Alan Moore

The Lifecharms are not rational, functional objects, they are magical, irrational, indeed talismanic things by which, through tactile familiarity, we may come into knowledge or understanding by way of revelation. Like poetry, which is much more than the sum of words and their arrangement on a page, they are more than the sum of the data that drives their growth parameters.

Carrying a lifecharm and touching it everyday, both consciously and even as a displacement activity, causes you to develop a relationship with it over time. You become familiar with its materiality – the feel of the shape in your hand; the weight of the material it is made of, the textures of its surface. None of these reveal the patterns in the data that generated it directly, however this is precisely the point at which the lifecharm begins to operate in a mythic or magical capacity – as a performance of patterns of being and of behaviour embodied and reified into a talisman. Its magical power could be defined as the potential for revelation that it holds for you to come into an uncommon insight by handling it over time. In this way you might come to perceive new possibilities for change and adaptation in your own patterns and behaviours – triggering your own process of subjective transformation. The lifecharm is thus not just a thing of being but a thing of becoming. Their role in the personal narratives we construct around our daily lives is revealed as much through our continued interaction with them as by their thingness.

Like poetry, the lifecharms are also diachronic – meaning that we can experience and relate to them across time, whilst the meaning or data they embody is fixed in time (i.e. the shape of the shell or the words of the poem do not change). Dynamic data visualisations may often be synchronous – i.e. driven by live or recent data streams – but the way we experience and relate to them is likely to be mediated (through devices such as smartphones, tablets or computers) and determined by our behaviours and patterns of using those devices they are mediated through. This makes the lifecharms intrinsically different to screen-based visualisations of data. The information that we may glean from them is less to do with an instrumental replay in visual form and much more to do with how we begin to learn about the patterns they embody through a growing tactile familiarity with their physical form. This difference becomes an opportunity to augment our means of understanding the phenomena recorded in the biosensor data – an opportunity to explore meaning making through a relationship to complexity and intersubjectivity.

About six months after our initial three generations of shells were created and 3D fabbed I came into my own uncommon insight – that the shells were in fact, tactile poems. This happened partly as a result of my stay in Reite village in Papua New Guinea with anthropologist Professor James Leach (University of Western Australia/CNRS) during November 2012 and our conversations since, as well as those I have had about my experiences there with poet Hazem Tagiuri (a Proboscis associate). The villagers of Reite lead a traditional ‘kastom’ lifestyle in the jungle with a fairly minimal exposure to a ‘modern’ existence predicated on patterns of consumption and mediated sociality. (Although the modern world of industrially produced goods and telecommunications is slowly but surely encroaching and making an impact on their lives and culture). Reite people were traditionally non-literate and remain highly skilled makers, carving and weaving many of the things they use. Touch is a powerful sense through which they acquire information about their world, as indeed it could also be said to be with highly skilled artisans and craftspeople of our own society. However, the incredible sense of presentness in everyday Reite life and the intensity with which they conduct continuous social relations is vastly unlike our Western culture of discontinuous being, mediated as it is through patterns of dislocation, telecommunication and distraction. I felt that their physical knowledge of materials connects at a deeper level and is more attuned to detail and granularity than ours. Looking at our own society and culture, such physical, traditional knowledge has been debased as a lower form of skill and social standing – for instance in the negative way manual labour is contrasted with intellectual work, or how craft is ‘lesser’ than Art – for centuries.

Since returning from PNG my conversations with James have often focused on this intensity and presentness – a kind of radical continuity with being that life in the village feels like. This intensity has also been the subject of my many attempts to describe what life in the village feels like to others. An enduring memory I have, and which I described to Hazem, was watching a man ‘conjure’ fire from cold sticks in a firepit without using any form of tinder, or ember or fire-lighting materials. What seemed like magic or an illusion was an everyday demonstration of the uncanny power and knowledge this man possessed. He knew just how to feel for residual warmth within the sticks and arrange them in just the right way that would amplify the heat enough to stimulate combustion, a skill and power I have neither witnessed nor even previously heard of. The poem Hazem subsequently wrote helped me to connect the lifecharm’s talismanic nature to poetry. It helped kindle the spark of revelation that, like the way we come to know a thing through poetry, so the kind of knowing that resides within our hands and sense of touch is not just symbolic knowledge, but actual; that we may truly come to know something through touch alone. And that, like in poetry, the precise, elusive moment in which we come into the knowledge that the lifecharm offers us remains on the edge of conscious thought; a sensation we intuitively call revelation. Perhaps such a thing might also be described as the Work of digital alchemy.

Giles Lane
Loch Ard, Scotland August 2013

This essay was first published in Tasting Notes, a book accompanying the exhibition, This New Nostalgia, curated and published by InspireConspireRetire, September 2013.

Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange Toolkit

September 16, 2013 by · 28 Comments 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Last year we collaborated with the Possible Futures Lab of the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London to assist local people in Pallion, Sunderland develop a way to come together and help each other map out the skills, knowledges, resources and capabilities for responding to and effecting change in their community. The outcome of this was the establishment of a regular group of people working out of the community centre Pallion Action Group. As part of our work with them we co-designed a series of simple ‘tools’ that could be used to help them do things like identify problem and solutions and share them online confidently and safely.

The tools use very simple paper-based formats – wall posters, postcards and notebooks – that can either be printed on standard home/office printers or cheaply printed at larger sizes at local copy shops. The notebooks are created with bookleteer and can be downloaded direct : http://bookleteer.com/collection.html?id=9

To make these tools available to anyone for use in their own communities, we have now designed generic versions and collected them into a Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange Toolkit. The toolkit is free to download and everything in it is free to adopt and adapt under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share-Alike license.

Download the Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange Toolkit (zipped archive 48Mb)

We would love to hear of anyone’s experiences using or adapting these tools for their own purposes and keen to hear of suggestions for improvements or additions to the toolkit. One of the items we feel is currently missing is some form of simple self-evaluation tool for communities to use to determine how successful (or not) they are in achieving their aims and objectives. We are also working on a special set of StoryCubes designed to help both organisers and communities work through common issues and to devise solutions and activities that help them set up their own Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange.

Where possible (time and resources permitting) we are willing to develop new or customised versions of specific tools, such as the notebooks or worksheets. Please get in touch with us to discuss your ideas or suggestions.

Creative Commons Licence
Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange by Proboscis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Hidden Families at AHRC Connected Communities Showcase

April 5, 2013 by · Comments Off on Hidden Families at AHRC Connected Communities Showcase 

Lifestreams : Tactile Poetry

March 21, 2013 by · 14 Comments 

shell-1

Since early December last year I’ve been carrying around one of the Lifecharm shells with me every day. It was generated from personal biosensor data gleaned not just from myself but from two other studio members last summer when we were capturing a range of experimental data sets to generate prototypes with. Using the data, Stefan generated this particular lifecharm as part of our third iteration of prototypes in late July. This shell was one of several that we later chose to have 3D printed in different materials at Shapeways – this one in sterling silver, the others in glass, ceramic, resin and steel.

I have been carrying it around to see how I feel about it, what it means to me and how I weave it into my everyday life. Our original concept for the lifecharms was that they might trigger an entirely novel way of developing meaningful relationships to the kinds of personal health data gathered by sensors (such as Fitbit, Fuelband etc) that people are now adopting as part of the ‘quantified self’ meme. Our colleagues at Philips Research, David & Steffen, told us that the statistics of use of these kinds of sensors by healthy people tended towards abandonment after just a few months as interest and engagement fades. Their interest was in exploring motivations that might make self-monitoring of wellbeing and healthy lifestyle a thing someone would choose to do before they discovered a health issue that required monitoring.

Our approach to this was to think about the way such sensor data is relayed back to users – most commonly in the form of screen-based visualisations. We wondered if perhaps these simply aren’t arresting enough to weave themselves into the narratives of everyday life that people construct for themselves. I’ve long been interested in touch as a form of knowing and sharing, and Proboscis have been exploring physical outputs from digital experiences for many years (such as tangible souvenirs) so we started out by thinking about how we might embody the data in a physical form that could be carried around and used like a charm or talisman. Stefan has written previously about our research methods and the journey that led us to devise the lifecharm and its inspiration from nature. His Lifestreams film also explains the various technical processes we adopted and adapted to create the results.

diagram-v4

What’s so special about these ‘data objects’?
Unlike data visualisations the lifecharms are generated through a process of data transformation that does not confine them to an instrumental purpose such as relaying the original data back to us as information in a simplified and easy to comprehend manner. Instead, they are embodiments of the data, transformed from the abstract and ephemeral into the concrete and present. They establish the potential for uncommon insights to be perceived into the conditions from which the data was collected (i.e. someone’s health and lifestyle patterns), prompted through a process of tactile and intuitive reflection.

A Lifecharm shell synthesises the intrinsic qualities of the data within its morphology (visualisations, on the other hand, make extrinsic interpretations of such data). It is, at one and the same time, both an informational object – representing a state gleaned from sensor data – and also a philosophical thing triggering intuitive reflection. It unites different traditions of investigation and meaning making: the scientific and the mythic, or magical, both ‘being’ and ‘becoming’. However, a lifecharm is neither an ‘icon’ (nor iconic) nor an ‘implement’ (tool) – it embodies a state without representing it banally. What it exemplifies is not knowledge in the form of a ‘transactable’ commodity or product but a path to knowing that arises from an ongoing process of continuous interaction with and intervention within everyday habits, in this case practiced daily through touch.

shell-3shell-2

Tactile Poetry?
The Lifecharms are not rational, functional objects, they are magical, irrational, indeed talismanic things by which, through tactile familiarity we may come into knowledge or understanding by way of revelation. Like poetry, which is much more than the sum of words and their arrangement on a page, they are more than the sum of the data that drives their growth parameters.

Carrying a lifecharm and touching it everyday, both consciously and even as a displacement activity, causes you to develop a relationship with it over time. You become familiar with its materiality – the feel of the shape in your hand; the weight of the material it is made of, the textures of its surface. None of these reveal the patterns in the data that generated it directly, however this is precisely the point at which the lifecharm begins to operate in a mythic or magical capacity – as a performance of patterns of being and behaviour embodied and reified into a talisman. Its ‘magical power’ could be defined as the potential for revelation that it holds for you to come into an uncommon insight by handling it over time. In this way you might come to perceive new possibilities for change and adaptation in your own patterns and behaviours – triggering your own process of subjective transformation. The lifecharm is thus not just a thing of being but an thing of becoming.

Like poetry, the lifecharms are also diachronic – we can experience and relate to them across time, whilst the meaning or data they embody is fixed in time (i.e. the shape of the shell or the words of the poem do not change). Dynamic data visualisations may often be synchronous – i.e. driven by live or recent data streams – but the way we experience and relate to them is more likely to be mediated (through devices such as smartphones, tablets or computers) and determined by our behaviours and patterns of using the devices they are mediated through. This makes the lifecharms intrinsically different to screen-based visualisations of data. The information that we may glean from them is less to do with an instrumental replay in visual form, and much more to do with how we begin to learn about the patterns they embody through a growing familiarity with their physical form. This difference becomes an opportunity to augment our means of understanding the phenomena recorded in the bio sensor data – an opportunity to explore meaning making through a relationship to complexity and intersubjectivity.

I came to my own uncommon insight – that the shells were in fact, tactile poems – partly as a result of my stay in Reite village in Papua New Guinea and the conversations I have had since with anthropologist James Leach, and also with poet Hazem Tagiuri. The villagers of Reite lead a traditional ‘kastom’ lifestyle in the jungle with a fairly minimal exposure to a ‘modern’ existence predicated on patterns of consumption and mediated sociality. (Although the modern world of industrially produced goods and telecommunications is slowly but surely encroaching and making an impact on their lives and culture). They were traditionally a non-literate people and remain highly skilled makers, carving and weaving many of the things they use. Touch is a powerful sense through which they acquire information, as it could be said to be with highly skilled artisans and craftspeople of our own society. But coupled with the incredible sense of presentness in everyday Reite life and the intensity with which they conduct social relations that is so unlike our own society of discontinuous being, I felt that their physical knowledge of materials connects at a deeper level and is more attuned to detail and granularity; whereas in our own western culture it has been debased as a lower form of skill and social standing – such as the negative way manual labour is contrasted with intellectual labour, or how craft is ‘lesser’ than art.

Since returning from PNG my conversations with James have often turned on this intensity and presentness – the form of radical continuity with being that life in the village feels like. I have, in turn, attempted to convey my experiences to friends, to describe how utterly different I felt whilst in the village. During the course of one conversation with Hazem I described watching a man ‘conjure’ fire from cold sticks in a firepit without using any form of tinder, ember or fire-lighting materials. What seemed like magic was a demonstration of the uncanny power and knowledge this man had in knowing how to feel for residual warmth within the sticks, and arrange them in just the right way that would amplify the heat enough to stimulate combustion. A skill and power I have not witnessed nor even heard of before. Hazem wrote a poem about my description of this act which he sent me as I was grappling with writing about the lifecharms and what they are. His poem helped me to connect the lifecharm’s talismanic nature to poetry. It helped kindle the spark of revelation that, like the way we come to know a thing through poetry, so the kind of knowing that resides within our hands and sense of touch is not just symbolic knowledge, but practical; that we may truly come to know something through touch alone. And that, like in poetry, the precise, elusive moment in which we come into the knowledge that the lifecharm offers us remains on the edge of conscious thought; a sensation we intuitively call revelation.

Invoking Fire by Hazem Tagiuri

We talk of his time in the jungle.
He describes one marvel in particular:
how a fire was conjured from cold sticks,
as if heat swelled in their fingertips.

No tinder, hot coals; embers a day dead.
“It’s not that it seems like magic, it simply is.
Their magic. These are not illusions.”
No sleight of hand. Smoke, but no mirrors.

What we mimic through tools,
these men of power can summon,
with quiet majesty. No incantations;
they save their breath for the flames.

Hidden Families Films

March 12, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

Some films made as part of the Hidden Families project :

“The Loneliness Group” by John, Donna and Jonny from StoryWorks on Vimeo.

“Hidden Families” by Cath Chesterton from StoryWorks on Vimeo.

Next Page »