Appy Land or Geekistan? The Open Questions of Open Data

Under Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s watch, the way we engage with government agencies is set to go digital by default.

Speaking via prerecorded video at the GovInnovate conference in Canberra last week, Minister Turnbull issued an unequivocal call to action to the Australian Public Service to improve the quantity of government services delivered online, and enrich their quality, depth and level of engagement with citizens.

“Government 2.0” is a key plank in the Coalition’s Policy for E-Government and Digital Economy. It puts technology at heart of citizen engagement and will accelerate Australian public sector efforts to “engage online, make agencies transparent and provide expanded access to useful public sector data”.

On a practical level we’ll be seeing the introduction of application programming interfaces (APIs) for government websites – which, in plain terms, allows software programs to talk to each other, allowing developers to turn data into handy apps – and a re-booting of efforts to release government data in open, machine-readable formats.

Having signed up to the Open Government Partnership in May of this year, Australia is committed to promoting open data-led innovation, following, albeit rather tardily, the example of the US which now boasts almost 200,000 open government data sets and a thriving digital marketplace in the repackaging of open data as software service.

Australia’s data.gov.au now has a paltry 50 data sets, the minister noted.

Data consumption

The Seattle-based data infomediary Socrata is a good example of the kind of company to have emerged from this open innovation agenda. For a fee, they’ll host open data for public sector clients, adding new visualisation and mash-up tools that let citizens or developers to mix and match data, adding different contexts to “socially-enrich” the data.

Want to see this data in a map? Choose this view. Add some local government boundary info? Add this set. Want to appify the data? Developer, here’s your API.

The company calls it “the consumerisation of data” and, judging by the volume of new recruits to the company this year, there are no shortage of government clients signing up for the services.

Australian Government Chief Information Officer Glenn Archer, also speaking at the GovInnovate conference, wants companies like Socrata and locals like Nick Maher (the developer behind Sydney public transport app TripView) to “build their own solutions for the way citizens can interact with government”.

Opening up government data sets means there are new marketplaces for the design of public services, which in turn means governments can benefit from the tech-savvy skills of digital entrepreneurs. Don’t leave it up to a risk-adverse public servant to navigate the digital ecosystem – let the tech experts to the job.

(To find examples of an open data driven marketplace at work in Australia today, look no further than your chosen weather app, which accesses its data from Bureau of Meteorology website and repackages it with nice graphics and the like.)

On the agenda

It’s hard not to get excited by the promise of a more enriched and open digital ecosystem that makes the way we digitally interact with governments a whole lot better. But as we stand at the cusp of this open data-driven transformation, we should also take a deep breath and consider how “openness” is being used to drive public sector change.

Belarusian Evgeny Morozov, author of To Save Everything, Click Here, is not convinced the benefits of the open data agenda extend much beyond the “Kingdom of Geekistan”. He worries the level of political debate around terms like “open government” and “open data” has sunk to such a level that “just carrying your phone around might be an act of good citizenship”.

Drawing on the work of American legal scholar Julie Cohen, Morozov suggests the “information-processing imperative” has become so dominant it’s now synonymous with a “single, inevitable trajectory of forward progress”.

One of the problems with the way “openness” is treated in the Gov 2.0 agenda is that it’s never quite clear whether “open” is a means or an end.

If it’s a means to an end – for example, the interoperability and therefore resilience of software systems – then clearly this is not the same openness as government transparency, and will have little effect on the process of reducing government secrecy or corruption.

An “openness” that lets digital entrepreneurs manage the design and delivery of government services may improve usability, but it’s also a radical revisioning of the role of the public sector – a shift towards what Irish tech guru Tim O’Reilly coined “Government as Platform”, or what others might simply call “privatisation”.

If the “open government” agenda has more ambitious goals like government transparency and democratic participation, then this will require more than a healthy digital ecosystem. Opening up data alone does not necessarily equate to citizen engagement, appified or otherwise.

Morozov, who visited Australia recently as part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, noted wryly in To Save Everything, Click Here:

For all we know, since the Nazis had an enviable train system, they’d be all for making their train data universally accessible.
While the influence of the “open innovation” agenda grows ever stronger, still the value and promise of “openness” remains an open question.

As our public servants and policy makers embark on this new phase of service design, reinventing government websites as platforms for co-creation, digital entrepreneurship and innovation, let’s not forget that citizen engagement is more than a double-click away.

First appeared on The Conversation, 3 December 2013


Open access to publicly-funded culture? A Retroflective post #TBLdownunder

Fatima Measham is today credited with the top tweet for the Tim Berners-Lee Down Under Tour (otherwise known on Twitter as #tbldownunder). It reads:

Aside from inventing the world wide web, that’s pretty much the core of Berners-Lee’s message, and undoubtedly the motivation behind Pia Waugh’s hard work in bringing him to Australia this month: to ensure the web stays open and accessible to all.

At his City Talks speech to a packed audience of nerds and wanna-be nerds at Sydney’s Town Hall last night, Berners-Lee explained how in 2009 he spent most of his time trying to persuade people to be more open with the way they were publishing their data online.

Why Open Data?

Scientists, he explained, shouldn’t just publish articles, they should also publish the data behind the articles, because then this data can be better used by others. A published journal article is, in the language of the web, not a very useful piece of data, unlike raw data which can be linked through open data protocols (which go by curiously impenetrable sounding names like ‘Triple RDFs). That’s the logic of the Semantic Internet, a set of standards promoted by the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) to describing common data formats that enable the contents of published articles, stories, media and so forth to be properly describable in common languages, and in other words able to be re-used, shared and connected to other stories, articles, media, data published online.

It’s a re-assertion of the fundamental values of the internet, and, as Berners-Lee has said, “it’s huge: When you link data, not just documents, you get this really huge power out of it”.

So Berners-Lee was brought to Australia to bring us this word: the word of open, sharable data.

Open data policy hits academia

The shift towards open publishing formats is now well under way here, with the Australian Research Council announcing in December that publicly-funded research needs to be available through an open access journal within 12 months of publication. The ARC’s Open Access Policy released in January this year, is huge. It is huge not because it is going to completely and immediately re-write the rules of academic publishing (it won’t), but because it acknowledges that work directly funded by the taxpayer should be accessible to those who funded it: taxpayers.

Note the underlying logic here: to maximise the benefits of Australian investment in research for wider public benefit.

At this point we can see how the open data movement is not only about machines being able to better read and re-use data from other machines, but also about giving the public access to the outcomes of public investment. It’s a kind of marriage of convenience between nerdy programmers who want to be able to build better programs, and advocates of good public policy in the digital age who want to promote Australia’s culture of innovation and learning (of course the two aren’t mutually exclusive).

Recognition that the public have the right to access publicly-funded works has all kinds of ramifications for public investment programs across many diverse spheres, not only university research. You may care to cast your mind over the many different ways in which government funding is explicitly provided for the objective of generating private gains for commercial enterprise.

But you may also care to wonder how this concept of the public accessing publicly-funded works might apply to our cultural and media organisations. The ABC, for example.

What about Our ABC?

In 2012 the ABC celebrated its eightieth birthday. For 80 years the ABC has been funded by government to create radio programs, and then also television programs, and then also digital programming, that informs, entertains and educates all Australians. It is our national treasure, and indeed it is the ‘public square’ of our digital life.

The public value of the ABC stretches not only to its central place in the contemporary media landscape, but also to the public value of its past programming: the documentation of Australian life over 80 years which has captured the extraordinary changes to Australia’s way of life during the twentieth century and beyond.

I’ve had the pleasure of researching Sydney’s history using the ABC’s archives, and I have experienced first hand the wonder of listening to the euphoric sounds of VP Day in 1946 as recorded by Talbot Duckmanton in Martin Place, the chants of the Vietnam protesters as they congregated outside the Commonwealth Buidling (now Chifley Square) in 1968, the crackling of John Curtin announcing a war loan campaign at the Sydney Town Hall in 1942; the thousands and thousands of voices of everyday Australians, now passed from this world. I’ve been able to integrate these sounds into new works, to reflect on their place in the contemporary spaces of Sydney today, to share them with others.

But this first hand experience of exploring, sharing and re-using recordings capturing moments in Australian history is not an option for most Australians. The ABC has no remit to make its publicly-funded content available to the public after its initial broadcast. In the majority of cases you need to be a producer working for the ABC, or you need to pay sums of money to access an archival program. If you want to use a piece of this public recording in another work (that’s most likely also been publicly-funded) you will usually not only need to get permission from the original creator of the work (fair enough) but you will also need to pay the ABC for the ability to access and license the recording. ABC Commercial will not give access to highly sought after recordings easily. The same process will usually apply to other publicly-funded ‘memory institutions’, so behind the scenes we get these situations whereby publicly-funded institutions charge each other fees to access each other’s publicly-funded works.

It’s not an ideal situation but it’s a state of play cultural producers and historians get used to, in a way. There are small scale initiatives designed to open up access but they lack organisational reach and, importantly, secure funding. But need it always been this way?

Digital Public Space: Towards a better cultural archive

The BBC has spent the last five years working hard to address this very issue with other UK cultural organisations like the British Library, the British Museum and the British Film Institute. Together these organisations have been collaborating to find the best way to provide the widest possible access to the complete range of digitised material that they create or curate. The initiative is called ‘Digital Public Space‘.

Just imagine: an online space in which much of our publicly-held cultural and heritage media assets and data can not only be found, but also connected together, searchable, machine-readable, open, accessible, visible and usable in a way that allows anyone – individuals, institutions and machines alike – to build new stories, add new material or context to or connect to other media, indexed and tagged to the highest level of detail. You can start to see in the image below that there’s been a little bit of thought put into how the public can access digital cultural content more easily.

The Digital Public Space initiative has been spearheaded by Tony Ageh, BBC Archives Controller and the man credited with the creation of the BBC’s iPlayer, the model for ABC’s iview. Like Berners-Lee’s Semantic Web, this is a hugely ambitious and is no less than about remaking the Internet. The work put into redefining access to our public culture today may be hard, but the public benefits are, to paraphrase Berners-Lee, limited only by our imagination.

We need to move beyond thinking about open access as destroying value, through lost licensing opportunities, and start thinking about how new open access models will create new value.

It may not be for everyone, this desire to not only read about the people and events of the past, to also have the sense of experiencing and engaging with them directly online, through original documentary recordings – with history as it has unfolded.

But we should have no doubts that our children will expect to have their history and their public culture at their digital fingertips.

Not taking steps to be more visible, sharable, re-editable and indexable by tomorrow’s digital natives surely risks diminishing the value of our cultural institutions for future generations?

Image credit: Rory Fink: Reflections in a Distorted Landscape. From the RetroFlective exhibition.

David Hockney, Foye Looking at Brooklyn, 1982. Sourced from Lawrence University Communications on Flickr.

Rewind: The Best of 2012

So it’s the end of another big year. With a view to stamping out any creeping amnesia about the year that was, I thought I’d set aside some poolside time in Sanur to reflect on the personal highlights of 2012. Some of my own making, some not so. And soon to follow, some ruminations on the year ahead, in anticipation of Mayan foibles. But if it is the end of the world as we know it, I’m feeling fine.

The Bests

1. Mapping Emergencies with the ABC

The year commenced with a fast and furious digital project at ABC, where I led a digital emergencies strategy across the divisions of ABC Innovation, News and Radio with a view to testing out the use of maps and social media to improve emergency communications. The summer of 2012 in Australia saw the tail end of the La Nina weather pattern, so it was a season of flooding on the East Coast, and bushfires in the South and West Coasts. Clearly the area of disaster communications is only going to grow in importance over the coming century, and working with the ABC to explore new reporting practices for digital emergencies coverage – addressing in particular the thorny issue of appropriate uses of social media and the trickeries of geo-spatial reportage – sparked new interests in fields I’d not previously known very much about: crisis communications & data visualisation, surely to be front and centre concerns for many a media organisation over the coming years. Working in digital emergencies at the ABC meant the stakes were high – you can’t afford to get too much wrong, even when you’re piloting new things, when you’re the broadcaster people turn to in times of need. Challenges were met with rewards, not least the chance to work again with some of my favourite people, and learning about Twitter not just as a micro-blogging medium but as a tool for mapping & analysing socio-spatial behaviours.

Website: ABC Mapping Emergencies

2. Bringing the Australia Hotel back to life

I first dreamed of re-inscribing the sites and sounds of the old Australia Hotel (1891-1971) back in 2008, when I was directed to some original ABC reportage of the Hotel’s auction in 1970 by documentary researcher Wendy Borchers. My fascination with this long gone hotel had less to do with wishing Sydney still had this gaudy old relic, essentially a rip-off of American luxury hotels constructed to attract cashed up tourists of the late nineteenth century, and more about practising new ways of experiencing historical moments in time using a range of spatial media platforms. Re-imagining digital archives in site-specific ways has long been a fascination of mine, and this project enabled a bunch of ideas I’ve been working with for many years make their way out of the dusty halls of the academy onto the public (though indeed rather dormant) stage that is Martin Place, Sydney.

Being Sydney’s premier tourist, entertainment and cultural centre for some eight decades, the Australia Hotel is today not a built artefact to wonder and wander about, razed as it was in 1970 to make way for the towering MLC Centre, but a rich archive of sounds, images, drawings, paintings, magazines, films, broadcast recordings and more. Working with this site provided the opportunity to pratice a public history in which it is the recorded heritage of a space that creates the frame for an encounter with the past. That was the idea anyway. So often (too often?) it’s only by ‘visiting’ monuments, museums, or miraculously preserved relics of the past that we allow ourselves to think about how previous lives were lived in a place; in a digital age this experience need not be confined to that which remains, through luck or otherwise, part of the fabric of everyday life. This needn’t, I hope, mean memoralising the entire landscape, but my hope is that different places of importance to the way we live our lives today might come more clearly into view.

Actuality recordings of Sydney’s changing landscape have, as evidenced by this website, been a fascination for some years now but Last Drinks was the first time I’d been able to re-inscribe many found recordings on such a public stage, through the City of Sydney’s Art & About Festival. The project meant not only mounting large scale projections onto the buildings in and around Martin Place, but also the opportunity to work again with the incredible treasure trove that is the National Film and Sound Archives (and yes, to get my hands rather dirty with that other Trove), to meet and work with lots of fabulous Sydney-siders young and old who shared important connections to the old Hotel, and to delver ever deeper into the often hidden cultural geographies of the city of Sydney, which I fell in love with all over again. The highlight of the decade, not only the year.

Project site: Last Drinks: One More Round at the Hotel Australia

3. Collaborating with MK.

Frankly, my husband Michael Killalea is one of the best designers I know. The good ones, I find, are those who are thinkers first, whose depth of engagement with an idea brings just the right formal expression to the original gesture of a thought or an inkling. Reminds me of that quote about contemporary art: ‘Modern Art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t.’ A good graphic designer makes you think you came up with that concept all by yourself. A not so good one thinks they know something you don’t know.

This year Michael and I formalised our collaborative inclinations through the creation of ESEM Projects, our platform for public installations and creative archives projects like Unguarded Moments and Last Drinks. The production skills Michael has been flexing on set with his creative agency killanoodle have geared him up to shift into installation design, giving my somewhat abstract ideas about experiential history a life out on the streets. Michael also has a background in film, clearly evidenced by his visual directing skills which saw the filmic sequences of these recent installations offer up more poetic than didactic experiences of the past. The best bit is I never know what trick this visual inventor is going to come up with next.

Project site: ESEM Projects

4. Listening to Julia Holter

Music accompanies everything I do; new music is like yoga, freshening the spirit and stretching the limits of the mind. Julia Holter’s Ekstasis spurred this mind into action (or was it spirit into flight?) more times than I’d like to admit; her way of pulling together different sound sources into beautiful constructed adventures is inspiring not just as a way of escaping the everyday-literal, but because the pathways she’s carving are being followed ever so closely by the big boys of the contemporary music scene, from Pitchfork to The Wire to Boomkat and no doubt beyond (but the beyond bit is pretty much unknown to meâ?¦). Listening to music likes this asks all of us: are we really doing the best we can do?

Julia Holter: Ekstasis

5. NZ National Digital Forum

I’d never been before, but I’d heard it was good. Now I know why. Delivering a Keynote at this most esteemed of conferences was a major highlight not just for the chance it gave me to pull a bunch of recent projects into a longer trajectory of thinking about the contemporary spaces of archival practice, but also for re-energising my interest in the potentials of cultural heritage in the digital age. Another perk: I realised during my stay that I’d adopted a bit of a depressed mindset about innovations in cultural heritage – a result, I’m all too well aware, of these days of fiscal austerity. Days of Keeping the Budgets Balanced; days when there is No Money for Anything Interesting to Happen in the Cultural Sector. While we are indeed living in lean times, the chance to get amongst a big bunch of good folk committed to making the most of digital collections for the public good helped revive my interest in the creative potentials of digital archives. I realised this year I’ve felt pretty alone on this path for many years now: if you’re into digital things you’re probably not thinking about the past, pre-1996 anyway, right? But now I know there are kindred spirits all around the world who aren’t only wanting to make as much money as they can out of their start up digital agency, but are actually interested in using these tools for something beyond their own hip-profit (ok that was a typo but it works no?). I suppose you could say this was the year I belatedly realised those digital types in the ‘GLAM’ (galleries, libraries and museums) sector are doing some of the more innovative work in digital culture, and that I’d very nearly fallen asleep at the wheel. Phew, thanks #NDF2012!

Website: National Digital Forum 2012

Other notables

Other notables include reading Thinking the Twentieth Century (Snyder & Judt) and wanting to dog-ear every page, finally getting around to reading Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian (thanks to an excellent second hand bookshop in Wellington), watching my baby Annika become a rock star dancer before my very eyes, seeing Lena forming letters all by herself, cycling around London with 40,000 others at the one intersection (yes! cycling roolz!), gasping at the tree-visions of David Hockney (in the book, sadly not at the exhibition). Likewise, there are disappointments & frustrations, skepticisms and tears, all of which make up a year of stubborn attempts to try to do things a bit differently. As Bjork said once “when you say one thing, you make another thing more hidden”, and along these lines I’m often struggling with the confounding limits of time (hours in a day); with juggling motherhood while wanting to Make Stuff Happen.

And finally: the awarding of the Turner Prize to Elizabeth Price for her video work The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979. ‘I’m interested in social, historical stories and think art is the way to remember them’, mused Price. To me the most compelling thing, from the short grab of the 20-min piece I’ve gleaned so far, is its use of sound: sharpening the vision into focus, then spacing, then refocusing again through a snap of the fingers, an all too personal, intimate gesture that allows for new meanings to form out of a bewildering, too-familiar sea of news footage. This gesture seems to me the best that art can be today; revealing the over-saturated medium of YouTube quality TV footage back to us as the very texture of our collective minds, not just abstract data or mediocre reality or terrifying horror but also, just maybe, the spaces of the sublime. That was how I experienced Christian Maclay’s The Clock too, a work that used the everyday – literally, as a 24 hour period – as a frame through which to reveal our televisual memories, shocking these hidden moments from our past into view, as familiar as the house you grew up in. ‘Rather than be seen as builders of digital interfaces, we should also be viewed as artisans of emotional experiences’ wrote Tim Wray when reflecting on the NDF, a sentiment strengthened for many by Courtney Johnston‘s moving presentation given at the NDF on the value of emotional engagement with digital collections, prompting tears and rapturous applause, both in the tent and across the Twittersphere for many days beyond (that’s years on earth right?). That this concept of emotional interfaces took such a strong hold on an audience of lifelong digital practitioners suggests to me that a world of big data and situational awareness ain’t only going to make us cleverer.

Best we finish off with Fran Lebowitz (with thanks to Jenny Diski:

If, while watching the sun set on a used-car lot in Los Angeles, you are struck by the parallels between the image and the inevitable fate of humanity, do not, under any circumstance, write it down.

Point taken.

Feature image reference: David Hockney, Foye Looking at Brooklyn, 1982. Sourced from Lawrence University Communications on Flickr. “Numerous individual images are collaged into one scene indicating multiple perspectives and the passage of time.”


At the National Digital Forum

New Zealand’s National Digital Forum has quite a reputation among cultural heritage & museum types internationally, for the quality of its speakers and the integrity of its focus – and for good reason. This is a place that values speculative thinking, applauds technical prowess as much as imaginative concepts, and celebrates the work of big institutions with big budgets as much as small, community-driven initiatives. Like, wow!

I was invited to give a Keynote Presentation to the 2012 NDF when I was doing some consultancy work for Historypin earlier this year. Given the Forum’s reputation this was a great honour, but it also gave me the chance to reflect on where my own practice is heading. One gets so caught up in the day to day busyness, it’s always a treat (and challenge) to step back and consider the broader currents of change and chance.

Having now completed two fairly large scale public installations for the City of Sydney’s Art & About Festival, I was quite conscious of how energised I’ve been by the chance to work in a more collaborative, community-oriented way, rather than being led purely by my own research pursuits. Working as part of this public platform makes you accountable in different ways – one needs to be able to speak to your city, not just your peers. It’s also become increasingly clear to me how archives-led installations can act as interventions for community-led urban activation and place-making, as much as they can help to showcase the possibilities of creative and digital archives innovation. More on this below.

In the end, attending and presenting at the NDF was inspiring in so many ways – probably the enthusiasm and commitment of the people I met was the biggest highlight, but also inspirational was the chance to witness just how much change is sweeping the cultural heritage sector, and how ripe this time is for new creative practices to emerge.

Having said that, it was also interesting to hear the war stories of some attendees and presenters who, it appears, seem to experience a fair amount of institutional malaise and perhaps downright disinterest from within their organisations about how audiences might engage with a museum or library through digital platforms. I’d like to hope this is not the predominant experience of the Forum’s attendees. The opportunity to present again at the Auckland Museum with Nate Solas from the Walker Art Museum in fact highlighted some really exciting digital strategies being developed or implemented at the present time.

Below are the slides alongside the associated notes I spoke to during the presentation. This was one of the first presentations I’d given to a very active Twitter audience (yes I’ve been quiet for awhile), so I’m embedding some of the commentary along the way as well, just for, umm, fun.

Past Forward: Speculative adventures in the city’s archive

Hello, Iâ??m Sarah Barns, I live in Sydney, and I work independently as a digital producer and researcher at the moment. ESEM Projects is the collaborative venture Iâ??m Co-Directing, partnering with visual artist and designer Michael Killalea. We make site-specific installations about the history of a place. We draw extensively from both public and community collections, we use lots of different platforms, some of them digital, some ‘post-digital’, we work sometimes for clients and sometimes initiate our own projects.

I realised the other day that Iâ??m one of these people whose professional lives has been completely shaped by the Internet. My first real job was working on policy advice for the Minister for Communications & IT advising on broadband applications. That was about 12 years ago and we were telling the minister about all the amazing things that were going to happen when people got smartphones and pdas and so forth.
Since then Iâ??ve worked for the ABC, the Arts Council and helped set up something called the Creative Industries Innovation Centre and more recently have been doing work with Arup.

Across all these areas Iâ??ve been thinking, researching and advising on how digitisation is going to impact our lives, our artists, our media landscape, our cities & regions. But while Iâ??ve been working and advising people on the near futures of technology, Iâ??ve become increasingly interested in how the near futures of digital technology is changing our relationship with the past, and specifically with how we come to experience a historical moment, in time and place.

Iâ??m therefore a bit of a different creature of person here in the sense that I donâ??t work for a museum or gallery or archive. Iâ??m an independent producer and researcher who approaches collections as active resources that help me to tell stories about the city, creating engaging and immersive experiences of place and space. I therefore have the pleasure of approaching archive collections not as objects to define; I donâ??t have to worry about meta data and promoting audience access. I am interested more in the experience of a particular recording, and how we use different mediums of today’s digital technology to creatively promote and encourage different interactions with past moments in time.

The notion that weâ??re living in the midst of a big data but also, dare I say, â??big archivesâ?? phase has been touched on a bit. We have this sense that we are living through a digital deluge â?? how do we we make our way through it?

I believe one of the points raised here at the NDF in 2011 was a paraphrase from Melvyn Bragg that â??the 20th century has released us into history through technologyâ?
Quote: â??We call what we do harvesting or cataloguing, digitising or preserving, data visualising or crowd-sourcing, community management or customer service, or whatever the latest round of restructuring has deemed our job to involve. But what weâ??re really doing is working with people to create and share back our collective and collaborative history.â?
Thereâ??s lots being said here, but one them surely is that we have a whole lot of new ways of interacting with the past. We we may previously felt a bit like we could peer through a window into another world, from a contemporary, fairly static vantage point, we now have this way of working with the past that is probably more akin to a remix, blending, curating, repurposing, re-using.
What this means, in some ways, is that we have this much more direct experience of a past moment in time – not only photographs made with incredibly high resolution – but actuality footage being made increasingly available. Not only is it available to see, we can also re-contexualise it in different ways.

An example is this original video footage of London just after the London Blitz, uploaded by the Imperial War Museum to YouTube.

Original video on You Tube

Here we have the same video geo-tagged on Historypin, capturing the London Blitz, to see it in Streetview.

The Historpin platform enables us to view the past within the present using Google’s streetview capabilities, fading in and out of time. This is free for anyone to use and publish to. Amazing. On one level it’s a great example of what can be done with Google Maps these days. On another level, I think it’s also this really quite incredible way of experiencing a past moment in time.

As well as actuality footage from the 20th century, we also have every kind of television show that ever existed becoming available. Along with this, we have this sense that we are making these kind of deep, emotional connections back in time with our former selves. The directness and immediacy of the platform encourages this idea.

Here we have Bert & Ernie, who want to say hi. Say hi to Bert & Ernie! They speak to that former you, as though you were still in that moment, at home watching television and eating peanut butter sandwiches. Hi Bert

Is there something also about the popularity of Instagram and particularly the nostalgia filters, that weâ??re playing out this archive fever and letting it shape the way we capture our present day lives? Iâ??m not sure â?? is it just that the colour filters are better?

All the scanning, geo-tagging, harvesting, crowdsourcing â?? itâ??s not only a digital practice, itâ??s not just pinning a recording to a google map, itâ??s also a quite altered way of engaging with recordings, not just as objects but as experiences, ingredients, resources for making things with.

Iâ??ve come to be thinking a lot about this increasing dexterity of time in the digital age, as a kind of Past Forwarding through and within time-spaces. Is this experience of the past in the digital age that fascinates me and has driven much of my work these last few years.

Today I’ll be presenting on these projects, but before I do I just wanted to give a bit of background about the different approaches I combine here.

In terms of the conceptual terrain, there are these four key areas – essentially questions for interrogation.

1. Archives. As I’ve been saying, I approach archives as a kind of landscape of noisy events, and as a way of trying to get inside and experience a past moment. I use actuality recordings to try to create an approach to the past that is less about telling an overarching narrative and more about providing experiential interactions with a particular moment in time. When it comes down to it I suppose Iâ??d like to create a more affecting, emotional sense of a space in time, rather than a more objective view of time.

2. Digital A particular orientation towards the digital. Specifically interested in how the digital impacts our experience of space and place. This connects to a whole lot of location-based technologies, locative arts and also the concept of responsive environments.

3. Place. A lot of the projects Iâ??ll be talking about have been led by the meaning of a particular place. More often than not theyâ??re driven my an interest in telling a story about a particular place itâ??s broader meaning, to a person, to a city, to an idea. Iâ??m one of these unfashionable people who thinks that places actually define us in important ways, Iâ??m not only a global citizen, Iâ??m also someone who lives in Sydney and is from a place called Fremantle and these are not incidental to my character. This interest in place means I tend to bring a geographic angle to my interest in historical collections.

4. Public space. Pretty much all of these projects have been created to be experienced in the public domain. I’m interested in doing things in public. I have post graduate degree in urbanism and mostly I gravitate towards sites that tell something about the history of urbanism in the 20th century. And I’m interested in how it is that we define the ‘digital public space’ of today’s media age.

I have a lot of favourite quotes, and a lot of people inspire me, but this one is one from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974) reflects pretty fundamentally what Iâ??ve been trying to do with place and archives.

Calvino when he wrote this was interested in how cybernetics was changing thought, there is a theory that Invisible Cities was exploring a kind of hyper textual version of the city. Apt in so many ways. I think of this quote as a reminder that while we may try to map objectively the dimensions of a place, we will always be caught out by what we miss when we miss the temporal shifts and dimensions of a place that give it character.

Today this idea of invisible cities is oftentimes expressed in terms of the language of visualisation. We live in a world that is part physical, part digital. What are the kinds of visualisations techniques we can use to engage us differently in the world around us – here we have some speculations from urban engineering firm Arup.

Iâ??m interested in the different kinds of approaches to highlighting what we canâ??t see about an environment â?? not always using visualisation techniques, but other forms of experiential interaction.

For the next little while I’m going to introduce the practice I’ve been creating and how I came to be interested in this. My interest in location services and archives goes back a few years now, I thought I’d walk through some of the terrain I’ve covered.

In about 2003 I was working at the ABC in the digital services area. We were trying to work out what people might do with something called 3G phones.
I was going to conferences where people would be getting up and talking about how exciting the world was going to be when they could watch TV on their phone. Quite frankly, It made me want to scream. Clearly the networks were keen that we see this new technology as something to push their product on. Having studied my media history, I knew the press titans had done the same during the early days of radio, as did the early opera performers when the telephone first arrived in the late nineteenth century.

Just to let you in on a bit of media history, when the telephone was first introduced such things as â??telephone occasionsâ?? were common â?? when telephones were used to broadcast theatrical and political events. The â??theatrophoneâ?? was a smash hit at the Paris Exposition of 1881, enabling listeners to hear live performances of the Opera.

In this slide we can see a musical program being transmitted over the Hungarian â??Telefon Hirmondoâ?? network from Budapest in 1901. People would listen to Hirmondoâ??s â??telephone occasionsâ?? through small earpieces mounted to the wall. In the end the financial models of this form of broadcast service didnâ??t stack up, and the telephone occasions made way to wireless radio broadcasts.

This knowledge suggested to me that the TV networks might have gotten it wrong, and that how people might use smartphones could be as yet unknown to us. At this time, mobile platforms became an exciting conceptual terrain for me to start thinking about new forms of communication and experimentation.

Around this time I discovered that a bunch of people were making various kinds of art using these early mobile devices.

I met someone called Fee Plumley visit from the UK, and she was working on something called a ‘phone book project’, which was basically encouraging people to write little text message stories with their phone. The project was exploring the potential for mobile technologies as a creative platform. There was a crazy sound artist called Nigel Heyler who was using a GPS sound platforms to get to know graveyards.

I discovered there were artists who called themselves â??locative artistsâ?? and they were interested in how they might be able to use location-aware devices equipped with GPS tracking to create new kinds of public experiences of space. The slides you see (above) are from a group called Proboscis in the UK, public authoring platform using smartphones.

Oftentimes these artists were working with some fairly clunky technology, by todayâ??s standards. Here is Jeremy Hight working on his PDA project called Narrative Archaeology in LA.

In this work, participants walk the streets of Los Angeles with a GPS device attached to a TabletPC. It is a sort of “narrative archeology” unearthing the stories of forgotten lives in the urban space. Visible on the screen is a map with easily identifiable trigger points for story segments performed by voice actors. Trigger points for sound effects are hidden, left to be discovered as the user walks through the city. In this way, the landscape becomes the interface and the participant’s movement becomes input.

“Imagine walking through the city and triggering moments in time. Imagine wandering through a space inhabited with the sonic ghosts of another era.”

These artists opened up this new horizon of experimentation for me, particularly in the way they encouraged new ways of interacting with a physical space, combining an existing environment with layers of peopleâ??s own contributions, stories, histories.

But the more I got interested in this kind of location-based art, the more perturbed I became, about two things.

Firstly, while the focus was on the street, the actual experience of interaction was very device centric. You can see this in the picture. Were these projects doing enough to really engage with the user experience as you found yourself out on the street. Did people really want to walk around with these things? Would they learn more that way than they would by simply buying a guide book?

Subsequently, the focus of what participation meant was often the specific data that people had contributed. I wasnâ??t so sure that the assemblage of meanings, traces and stories built up over time in this kind of place were necessarily less worthy of attention that what people might contribute using one of these platforms. There seemed a kind of deafness to the existing resources of the street, and a new kind of forgetting, which said that only the contemporary data was worth listening to. Coming from the art world, works often generated their own new meanings, stories and artworks.

I realised I wanted to do something quite different. Taking these ideas from locative art, I wanted to find out if I could listen in to the cityâ??s archive. I had this image in my mind of one day the phone being some kind of homing device to the history of a place.

I wanted this experience to be very open to the world, not device centric but an experience that might frame, rather than dominate. Using sound on a mobile device, I imagined that a site specific recording could enable this truly unique interaction with the past, where the sound of another time frames a visual experience of the present.

As I learned more about this area I found I wasnâ??t alone, and that there were lots of people interested in using sound to create a different experiences of a place.

Hildergaard Westercamp â?? A walk through the city (1981)

A Walk through the City is an urban environmental composition based on Norbert Ruebsaatâ??s poem of the same name. It takes the listener into a specific urban location â?? Vancouver B.C.â??s Skid Row area â?? with its sounds and languages. Traffic, carhorns, brakes, sirens, aircraft, construction, pinball machines, the throb of trains, human voices, a poem, are its â??musical instruments.â? These sounds are used partly as they occur in reality and partly as sound objects altered in the studio. A continuous flux is created between the real and imaginary soundscapes, between recognizable and transformed places, between reality and composition.

Janet Cardiff â?? uses a layered narrative that deals with the physicality of memory in different places. Well known for her work in the 1990s The Missing Voice. An aural dream through the back streets of Whitechapel and Brick Lane. In no way obsessed with historical details but instead a journey into the memories of the female narrator and the sounds of East London. Cardiffâ??s work is filmic.

None of this particularly technologically advanced, but more about using the properties of mobile audio, which has been with us for a few decades by now.

So I set off on this speculative adventure, to explore sound archives as a medium to promote new kinds of interactions between the built and recorded history of a place

I came to this understanding of the potential of a medium: that listening to a recorded event as it was originally documented in-situ could affect a certain displacement â?? being from another time and capturing what can no longer been seen â?? just as it revisits the event â??hereâ?? as it â??really happenedâ??.My approach aimed to exploit the qualities of listening as a framing device, creating a sense of presence in a place, and giving a more experiential version of the past.

So this was coming up to 2005, I enrolled in a PhD to explore this proposition further, while working at the Australian Arts Council. From there I went on to undertake my speculative adventure #1, in the form of a research residency through the National Film and Sound Archive’s Centre for Scholarly and Archival Research.

Through this research I wanted to help create encounters with a siteâ??s documentary history that enabled a very strong sense of ‘co-presence’ with another time. This wasnâ??t about me doing something using sound effects, I wanted the direct contact with ambient recordings of the streets, capturing different moments in time.

When I commenced my research with the NFSA, I thought Iâ??d find a lot of recordings. But I quickly came to understand sound archives didnâ??t exist in the way Iâ??d expected – recorded on the street, that is. I honed my focus to period of development politics when documentary makers were active, and much change was occurring to Sydney’s built environment.

Competing visions of the city produced a great deal of urban unrest, of which lots of documentation exists. In particular, documentaries such as Wooloomooloo and Rocking the Foundations produced by Pat Fiske provide intimate insights into what the experience of this time was like, on the streets of Sydney.

Rather than focusing on better known locations, such as the Rocks, I ended up working with Victoria St, Potts Point (you can read about the events occurring on this street in the 1974 elsewhere on this site), and drawing extensively from the recordings made by Pat Fiske to produce a soundwalk down the street. More on the soundwalk can be found here.

At this point, I then approached the ABC to ask if I might be able to research their collection in this same way – as a kind of recorded archeology. The ABC had at this point been thinking about what they might be able to do with Google Maps which had recently been released, and so they suggested I could produce a maps-based platform for them rather than simply undertake a research residency.

The outcome was ABC Sydney Sidetracks – a cross-platform experience of Sydney’s history through its broadcast archive. You could access recordings via mobile and interactive maps. There’s lots more about Sidetracks on this site.

The ability to access the ABC’s archives meant I could locate many more actuality recordings of the particular moments and events in Sydney’s past. One in particular stood out, capturing the sounds VP Day 1945 in Martin Place, recommended to me by ABC Radio archives researcher John Spence. I have since cleared this recording for creative re-use through ABC Pool. This was in fact the first ‘post-war’ example of a mobile recording studio in action; recordings like this were really emphasising the new ability to record on location and distribute the sounds to listening audiences at home.

While the Sidetracks project was a success in many ways, and indeed won the ABC’s Best Multi-platform Content Award for 2009, at the time I felt it had many shortcomings. It was released prior to the iPhone being released which meant people had to sideload the mobile content to their phones – I had thought basically no-one had done so, however at the NDF discovered that wasn’t true!

Ultimately at the time there was a relatively limited audience for the mobile experience. (Sadly the ABC has not yet updated the platform, despite the increasing popularity of mobile as an urban history platform). I realised at this point that perhaps we needed a more spectacular way for people to engage with the recordings, and so in 2008 began to explore ways to project archival images onto the surfaces of associated buildings. After a few failed funding bids I partnered with Michael Killalea to lodge a successful application to mount a project for the City of Sydney’s Art & About Festival.

Hooray! Speculative Adventure No #3 was now underway!

These recent installation projects have been very focused on creating site-specific experiences of a location’s history using archival recordings. They extend the methodology I developed through previous projects such as Jaywalking and Sidetracks, by not only including the element of projections but also by including the community in sharing and development stories and content for the installations. For both installation projects we have received support from collecting institutions, in particular the National Film and Sound Archive. But it’s the ethos of the Art & About Festival, as led by Director Gill Minervini, that has encouraged us to work with the community to not only create works of art in the public domain, but to also work with the public in a collaborative way.

This has introduced a new dimension to working with archive collections in public environments, helping to foster what might be described as the ‘living archives’ of a community.

(For the purposes of this web version of the publication, I am not covering the two installation projects in detail as I did in the presentation. You can explore these projects through their respective websites: Unguarded Moments and Last Drinks – One More Round at the Hotel Australia).

Prior to the launch of these installations we ran call-outs inviting people to share their own archives – images or stories – for incorporation into projections, as captured below.

These contributions were then used alongside recordings I’d located through partner organisations. The outcomes were both a web platform containing ‘hyper-local’ collections and recordings about a place, sourced from a number of different cultural collections, loungerooms and basements, as well as a series of site-specific installations. Installations include large scale video projections and sound, which are featured out and about in the streets after dark for the month of the Art & About Festival. For Last Drinks, we also included a mobile site and additional print based signage, and a tie-in with the Sydney Morning Herald’s AirLink service.

Here are some of the Flickr slideshows from these projects. You can also explore more video, soundscapes and more through the ESEM Projects website and associated project websites.

Unguarded Moments Slideshow, Art & About Sydney 2011.

Last Drinks Slideshow, Art & About Sydney 2012.

Closing Reflections

The different ‘speculative adventures’ I’ve been discussing with you today have all been a lot of fun, and the experience of being able to uncover and explore recorded archaeologists of place in the way I’ve been doing is hugely rewarding. Perhaps I was a private detective in a former life, who knows. I’ve received a lot of support from particular institutions, not least the National Film and Sound Archive, the State Library of NSW, the City of Sydney and the ABC.

But I should warn you, should you be interested in navigating such a journey through your own city’s archive, the path is rather convoluted and remains full of obstacles.

Not least, mounting a project in the public domain isn’t easy. Building owners may be happy to support you, but they have less ‘skin in the game’ than one would sometimes wish for. You can’t measure your audiences, who are often incidental passers-by, like you might at a gallery or museum. But perhaps the biggest of these obstacles remains the thorny matter of digital access.

At the beginning of this presentation I spoke about the sense of ‘big archives’ – that we are overwhelmed by archive fever – but in fact we are still a long way away from being able to seamlessly navigate an urban historical environment through its digital archives. This is partly because many collections items, in particular broadcast recordings, are not usually valued for their ability to document a changing city, and are usually catalogued for their relevance to media history, not urban history. So this means there is a lot of auditioning involved!

But there remain a number of obstacles to actually being able to view, audition, and re-use these recordings for public installations. I can be tenacious and stubborn but others less so would give up on trying to create a ‘cross-collection’ archive based on the history of a place. And so I do find it interesting to say the least that our collective past â?? as captured by our public media, and preserved by our collecting institutions â?? can be so inaccessible at times. Many of the recordings of the past â?? as captured on film and publically funded television and radio â?? do remain mostly closed to the ‘woman on the street’ so to speak.

When we live in a digital age, when our expectations of learning and experiencing a sense of the past involve not only books but media recordings and artefacts, YouTube and StreetView, I think we also need to consider a broader concept of what public space means, to include considerations of how it is that we access and participate in sharing and re-using our ‘digital public spaces’. What might the different forms of access be for different kinds of uses, whether as a student, a historian, or a documentary maker, or a city council, and how might we define the public values of our digital archives in the future – not just as ‘memory institutions’ but also as resources for future creativity and innovation?

That’s a near future I’m speculating about right now.

Thank you.

Some Twitter love…

Rowe St. Last Drinks, Art & About Sydney. 2012.

Last Drinks

It’s been awhile between drinks. So a few updates to follow with news of what I’ve been up to and projects a’happening. Most noteworthy for now is the latest installation featuring as part of the City of Sydney’s 2012 Art & About Festival. The success of Unguarded Moments in 2011 led to funding for a major project for the 2012 Festival.

Last Drinks – One More Round at the Hotel Australia

Imagine a hotel so grand that famed French actress Sarah Bernhardt performed at its opening night in 1891; an establishment so glamorous that it was the hotel of choice for Hollywood heavyweights Katharine Hepburn, Shirley Bassey and Sir Robert Helpmann â?? and you will be recreating the famed Hotel Australia.

The video and sound installation project, Last Drinks: One more round at the Hotel Australia, is part of the City of Sydney’s 11th annual Art & About Festival running from 21 September until 21 October 2012. A series of night time installations will re-inscribe the hidden history of the precinct back onto the buildings and laneways of the precinct, enabling memories of sophistication and style to collide with the present day.

Visit the Last Drinks website to find out more.

Here’s a selection of videos from the project.

Last Drinks: Australia Hotel, Commonwealth Bank, Martin Place from sarah barns on Vimeo.

Last Drinks video installation, Commonwealth Bank, Martin Place Sydney from sarah barns on Vimeo.

Rowe St video projections for Last Drinks, Art & About Sydney 2012 from sarah barns on Vimeo.

Lees Court video projections, Last Drinks project, Art & About Sydney 2012 from sarah barns on Vimeo.

If you plan to make it along before the Festival finishes – do consult the map before you go. There are also signs and maps around the site and an msite to help you around. But to be sure, here is a map of the installations.


Book Chapter: From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen (MIT 2011)

A new book on urban informatics hit the bookstores last December: From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen (MIT 2011) edited by Marcus Foth, Laura Forlano, Christine Satchell and Martin Gibbs. Congratulations to everyone involved in the creation of this impressive collection of case studies, reflections and stories from the front lines of the ever-expanding set of practices that is urban informatics. The collection comes as a result of an HSCNet symposium held in 2009 by QUT’s Urban Informatics Lab .

Strange indeed how different are the time scales inhabited by online vs print publishing, meaning that a ‘new’ book in fact features research outcomes that are two years old, obviously a long time in internet years. And yet while much may have changed since the symposium itself, when the likes of Adam Greenfield shared with eager onlookers his disruptive, eclectic thoughts and musings relating to The City is Here for You to Use, the tangibility of a printed book certainly retains its special charms.

My chapter, ‘Street Haunting: Sounding the Invisible City‘ features in a section dealing with what is called ‘Creative Engagement’.

As the Abstract reads:

Web 2.0 tools, including blogs, wikis, and photo sharing and social networking sites, have made possible a more participatory Internet experience. Much of this technology is available for mobile phones, where it can be integrated with such device-specific features as sensors and GPS. From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen examines how this increasingly open, collaborative, and personalizable technology is shaping not just our social interactions but new kinds of civic engagement with cities, communities, and spaces. It offers analyses and studies from around the world that explore how the power of social technologies can be harnessed for social engagement in urban areas.

Chapters by leading researchers in the emerging field of urban informatics outline the theoretical context of their inquiries, describing a new view of the city as a hybrid that merges digital and physical worlds; examine technology-aided engagement involving issues of food, the environment, and sustainability; explore the creative use of location-based mobile technology in cities from Melbourne, Australia, to Dhaka, Bangladesh; study technological innovations for improving civic engagement; and discuss design research approaches for understanding the development of sentient real-time cities, including interaction portals and robots.


Unguarded Moments.  Hickson Bay. Art & About Festival 2011, Sydney.  2011.

Unguarded Moments: In full view

WHAT IF faces from the past were visible again, watching us in our streets and laneways?

This question was the premise of Unguarded Moments, a series of site-specific video installations featuring in selected locations throughout Walsh Bay and Millers Point during Art & About Sydney 2011. The project was supported by the City of Sydney and the result of a collaboration between designer Michael Killalea of killanoodle and myself as researcher and producer.

Projections drew from documentary films and photographs, featuring past & present residents and workers. In this way, the history of the working port, its waterside workers and its residents were re-inscribed back into its present day environment – exteriors of buildings, interiors of shopfronts, sandstone walls, and even the underside of a wharf. The website was also developed to provide more in-depth coverage of the many different films, photographs, and people that featured in the film projections. An intensely fascinating project, with incredible support from the City of Sydney and past and present residents of Millers Point.

Here’s a selection of videos projected as part of the installations. Produced by Michael Killalea and edited by Gabrielle Dowrick. Generous support from the National Film and Sound Archive.

‘Views’ – excerpts.

This projection features landscape imagery of Millers Point, rear projected through the front window of 44 Argyle Place Millers Point. Projection one of nine featuring as part of Unguarded Moments Millers Point, for Art and About Sydney 2011. Original photos sourced from a number of collections including the City of Sydney archives, the State Records Authority and the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority.

Local Lives – Abraham Mott Hall.

Projection featuring community photos featuring as part of Unguarded Moments Millers Point, featuring as part of Art & About Sydney 2011. This is a close-up of the projection shot from the roof of the Abraham Mott Hall.

Girl Eating a Sandwich – Walsh Bay

Video loop, 2011.
Rear projection
Shop 12, 23 Hickson Rd.Video loop, 2011.
Sourced from Rupert Kathner’s Australia Today: Customs Officer’s War Against Drugs (1938).
With support from the National Film and Sound Archive Australia.

Big Industry – Hickson Rd Millers Point

Video loop, Hickson Rd, Millers Point. Sourced from archival film footage shot on location. Credits include Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit The Hungry Miles (1955), Pensions for Veterans (1954) and November Victory (1953).

Power, Pickups and Protest
Projected onto Pottinger St, Walsh Bay.


Intangible Presences

Intangible Presences was a presentation I delivered to the bi-annual gathering of Museums and Galleries Queensland in August 2011. This provided a wonderful opportunity to connect with practitioners, curators and historians working in galleries and museums both large and small. The presentation is below. Museums and Galleries have also published videos of presentations here. Many thanks to M&GSQ for the opportunity to participate.


Unguarded Moments – Art & About Sydney 2011

Unguarded Moments is a new project I’m working on as part of Art & About Sydney 2011. The project has been selected as the ‘City Villages’ project and will be based around the wharves of Walsh Bay and up through to Millers Point.

For the project’s accompanying website, I’ve been able to set up some useful hyperlocal services, using Channels on Flickr and YouTube to aggregrate and re-publish a number of images and films relating the area. It’s amazing how much the web has changed since I worked on Sidetracks only 3 years ago.

Check out the website here.

More to come on this project.


Remembering the Green Bans

I had the pleasure of attending a great forum at the Institute of Australian Geographers Conference on Tuesday on the topic of the Green Bans. This year we are seeing a number of events and articles on the topic, marking the 40th anniversary of this particularly intense period of urban activism in Australia.

Bob and Margaret Fagan opened the first session with song – Margaret sang ‘City of Green‘ and Bob gave a heartfelt rendition of ‘Monuments’. Both were written by the godfather of Australian union songs, Denis Kevans.

Excerpt of the Green Bans Mural, Woolloomooloo. Image by Sarah Barns, 2008.

It was hard not to be moved by the sentiment of these songs – and be reminded of the potential for academic inquiry be not only of the head but also of the heart. Having used an excerpt of ‘City of Green’ at the end of my 2007 soundwalk I was particularly moved to hear it performed in person by Margaret. We closed the session with a screening of Denise White and Pat Fiske’s Woolloomooloo, taking us back to the hectic days on Victoria St in 1974, days when the wharfie Mick Fowler lambasted the developers for kicking out low income people from their homes, when Wendy Bacon squatted with the rest of them and promoted the values of alternative community living, when council aldermen sounded like Andrew Briger – see below. I fear people of such poise no longer walk this earth…

Many thanks to Kurt Iveson and Nicole Cook for organising the session.


James Gleick on the Future of the Book


Image credit: Bob Brown’s confident prediction was made in 1931. Sourced from James Gleick’s blog.

Originally written for the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, 2011. 

Closing the 2011 Sydney Writers’ Festival was a plenary address by author James Gleick, whose book The Information has been recently described by the ABC’s Robyn Williams as the ‘best science book ever’.
Detailing the modern history of information technology, The Information tracks how it was that ‘information’ came to be conceived as an abstract quantity, giving rise to terms like ‘bit’ to describe a unit of data. It’s obvious to us now, but it took people like Bell Telephone Labs engineer Claude Shannon to imagine that everything from the morse code to thermodynamics to jungle drums might have a measurable scientific quantity, before the information age we now live in could emerge.

But while The Information offers readers insights into how the abstraction of data has created what he calls an ‘information flood’, Gleick’s SWF address, titled ‘Perish the Thought’ was far less inclined to treat books as mere ‘containers’ of ‘content’.

“The separation”, he suggests, “is not entirely satisfying – we interact with a book in a more complex way”. A book is not merely a container for content, in the way that a wine bottle holds the wine. It is, he suggests, a “peak technology – one that is ideally suited to its task”. That means, contrary to the deafening roar of technology boosters and bloggers, the book will never die.

To support his case, Gleick took us on a journey through the many moments of the book’s anticipated demise. In the 1930s, for example, a relatively obscure American author Robert Brown wrote a manifesto declaring books “antiquated word containers”. We were reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s impassioned embrace of print’s demise in the early 1960s – the potentials then offered by fuzzy black and white television were, to MacLuhan, portents of new participatory forms of literacy in the coming ‘electric age’. Nicholas Negroponte was calling for an end to the book back in 1996, just as he claimed in 2010 that “the physical book is dead” – that digital books will replace physical books as the dominant form.

So it’s not that the claims are new. It’s just that the e-book is now a reality, and what’s more it’s splendid. Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate in 2009 how much he loves the Kindle as his “cool new literature delivery system”. Audiences agree: last week Amazon announced a new milestone, now selling more Kindle versions of book titles than print. Forget the future – the death of the book is clearly happening right now.

Not so, says Gleick. As someone who has thought a lot about the relationships between ‘containers’ and their ‘content’, Gleick is more inclined to think of the value of the book as lying in its print form. It’s the human instinct to collect objects of value that makes us love the book as an object, he suggests, and he quotes I.A Richards, who thought of the books as ‘a machine to think with’.

Like other treatments on the subject, such as John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture, Gleick tends to think the bigger problem at hand is not in fact the demise of the book – after all 2010 saw the publication of 316,000 new titles, and that’s not including the nearly one million titles borne of ‘internet-driven’ non-traditional publishing – but rather the publishing industry itself. Gleick contends here that the trouble may be less about digital formats and more to do with the short-termism of publishers and their insatiable greed, chasing after block busters and leaving the backlists for dead.

It’s these characteristics that are only letting the e-books down too, he claims. Sloppy editing, too many widows and orphans, charging readers too much, paying writers too little – they all stand in the way of creating a satisfying e-book experience. ‘Enhanced’ e-books offering readers embedded video and applets may be well and good, but don’t, he pleas, start embedding hyperlinks into text, and don’t start introducing social bookmarks! In other words don’t introduce anything that will take the reader out of the book.

This may be a fanciful desire on Gleick’s part, but it also goes to the crux of the matter. The word not mentioned in this address was ‘narrative’, and it seemed a strange omission – after all, isn’t the only thing distinguishing ‘the book’ from ‘the internet’ in an age of e-publishing the coherence of the narrative perspective? And that old authorial voice?

In the end, for Gleick, it came down to a bit more than narrative consistency, and the trusted authorial voice nourished by publishers committed to the task of connecting writers with their audiences. The book as a ‘peak technology’ was key. Technology barriers limit the time horizon of video to around 100 years. For the internet, the time horizon is around 20 years; Facebook give or take a couple of years. The genius of the book as a peak technology is its ability to break through the technological barriers of the past, with a time horizon dating to the beginning of human history. In the antiquity of the book, then, lies its future. To Gleick: “When we find ourselves living in the perpetual present, books become the furniture of eternity”.

James Gleick is an author, journalist and biographer whose books explore the cultural ramifications of science and technology. His most recent book, ‘The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood’, is being hailed as his crowning work. Gleick is also the author of the bestselling books ‘Chaos’, ‘Genius’, ‘Faster’ and a biography of Isaac Newton. Three of these books have been Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalists, and have been translated into more than 20 languages. James divides his time between New York City and Florida.

Originally published at Creative Innovation.

Sarah Barns gets excited by digital publishing, but judging by the unwieldy pile of books stacked up by her bedside, remains stuck with the antiquated habits of what Ben Ehrenreich would call a ‘biblio-necrophiliac’.

Listen to Robyn Williams interview James Gleick at the 2011 Sydney Writers Festival.

Exeter Place Surry Hills, c1906.

Street Haunting: Sounding the Invisible City

I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the
arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know that this would
be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between
the measurements of space and the events of its past.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1974

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities fluid assemblages of signs and images litter a subterranean landscape which mark the destinations to which Marco Polo has travelled. Polo recounts these destinations to his Emperor Kublai Khan without recourse to a map or a wayfaring guide; we are given little by way of their geography, or any sense of the spatial connections between each recalled location. Instead there are only fragments, the improbable exceptions of remembrance and experience. Calvino’s invisible cities are all given names, women’s names like Irene, Chloe, Raissa, Adelma: Irene, for example, “is the city visible when you lean out from the edge of the plateau at the hour when the lights come on” (1974: 112). There are many cities, but always the one: Venice. This is the Venice collapsed or hidden behind its contemporary, over-exposed tourist façade, whose ‘invisibility’ is cultivated as the imaginative potentiality of everyday encounters with a familiar space. Of this Venice there are no general claims made, instead, from the singularity of this one city, are teased provisional cities that capture a mood, a memory, a fleeting gesture, the tracery of a half-glimpsed pattern…

What might Calvino’s peculiar treatments of urban spatiality offer to today’s practitioners of urban computing? M. Christine Boyer (1996: 142) has noted the way Invisible Cities represents a network “much like the matrix of a hypertext, in which the reader can select multiple routes and draw a variety of conclusions”. During the 1960s Calvino was interested in what the combinatory complexities of cybernetics meant as a way of perceiving the world, one that could divide it into a series of discrete, divisible parts, rather than continuous in form, a shift he considered radical in the way it altered the theoretical image of our mental processes. Invisible Cities sees this recombinatory logic of cybernetics in action, allowing for an imaginary projection of urban space via a set of algorithmic relationships that enable places to exchange their form, order, and distances, as qualities assorted “like the letters in a name” (Calvino 1974: 164).

In Invisible Cities this recombinatory logic incorporates not only discrete spatial entities, but also “the measurements of space and the events of its past”. An imaginative projection of the city’s spatiality is thus evoked as intimately temporal – but again, this temporality is not continuous, as in the steady passage of time, but is rather experienced as discontinuous and elliptical. Just as there is no clear linear passage through the spatial environment of the city of Venice, so too there is no clear passage through its shifting temporalities, or the discrete stages of Marco Polo’s journey: “all the future Berenices”, for example, “are already present in this instant” (1974: 146). For this is a temporality that figures like the experience of memory, in which recollections emerge without warning, as discrete, embodied moments, which might flash up at any given time – such as, perhaps, when you lean out of a window in the early evening.

In this way Calvino animated invisible cities as topologies of moments, whose recombinations and recollections continue to haunt imagistic projections and abstract modes of knowledge. Released two years after the publication of Invisible Cities, Jonothan Raban’s Soft City (1974) offered a similar treatment of the urban terrain as intimately personal, and therefore malleable and indeterminate: “Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you” (Raban 1974: 1). The fractured identity of the modern condition was mirrored in the malleability of urban space, as Raban’s narrative itinerary teased out the many from the singular, navigating agitated spaces of illusion, myth, aspiration and nightmare. The dynamic of cities was presented as “plastic by nature”, criss-crossing both the real and the imagined, the voice of commentary mixing it up with the musings of a wondering, wandering traveler. Dense with labyrinthine alleyways of possibility and happenstance, Soft City presented urban spaces “in our images; they, in turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them” (Raban 1974: 1-2).

Both writers offered their accounts of the city not as scholars of urbanism but instead as conjurors of stories. Jeannette Winterson (2001) has written that “[r]eading Calvino reading Venice is a reminder of how often the controlled, measured world of knowledge fails us. So much of life resists the facts. Imagining Venice is imagining yourself, as Khan discovers – an unsettling exercise, but necessary, perhaps.” At one point in his account of invisible cities, Calvino describes the way Kublai Khan had focused so narrowly on a chessboard of black and white squares that the game’s meaning had eluded him, as it had simply become an abstract piece of wood (Boyer 1996: 143). But when Marco Polo reminded him that this chessboard was “inlaid with two woods, ebony and maple” Khan’s imagination took flight. As Boyer has suggested, in this way Calvino teaches us a lesson: we might reduce events to abstract patterns that facilitate the procedures of logical operations, or we can work to engender or revive imaginary projections – in this case, making words reveal the very tangible qualities of a given object – which in turn might allow for the continued presence of the unfathomable, the invisible (ibid).

This Chapter considers some of the ways in which we might continue to encounter the elliptical invisibilities of contemporary ‘real-time ‘ cities. Today, the ability to graphically enhance our imaging of cities as multi-scalar, networked environments offers profound potentials, introducing an array of new urban management and design techniques using more detailed, real-time urban data. Just as a shapeless dust cloud invaded the continents of Invisible Cities, today’s real-time cities are underpinned by an information architecture of sensors and applications, whose databases express the mutating, multi-scalar complexities of the material world. The ability to visualize these interactions in real-time radically disrupts our conception of the city, by representing urban spaces according to their everyday uses as much as by their physical, built structures. Real-time usage patterns can, for example, be applied to predict the impact of new developments, replacing of out of date census data with predictive models more closely attuned to the complex interactions and spatial flows of the city. Embedded sensor networks reveal that which might otherwise be invisible to the naked eye; like coins rubbed over waxpaper, they make visible a myriad of fluid, complex exchanges between material, social and informational universes.

For many, this computational intensification of the material world retrieves hidden, hitherto banished possibilities, and can be put to disruptive uses (Foth 2008: 19). To Foth, practitioners of urban informatics can act as ‘urban anatomists’, dissecting urban environments and infrastructure by “trying to microscopically uncover the connections and interrelations of city elements”, seeking to “picture the invisible and to zoom into a fine-grained resolution of urban environments”. Peter Hall and Janet Abrams have suggested “[m]apping has emerged in the information age as a means to make the complex accessible, the hidden visible, the unmappable mappable” (2006: 12). The application of hyper-local, multi-scalar and real time mapping techniques, it is argued, present opportunities to expose ‘hidden’ or hitherto invisible relationships, including the relationships between centre and periphery, power and influence (see Sassen 2008; Boyer 2006).

For Dan Hill, there is the potential to avoid grand infrastructural interventions which become “hardwired into the urban fabric” for subsequent generations, and to instead develop a more “iterative, responsive field of ‘urban acupunctures”. Location-aware computing has in such ways been seen to greatly expand the range of possibilities for artists, architects and designers to “re-enchant the world”, offering “a way of making visible all these hidden stories of place” (Crang and Graham 2007: 815). The embedding of microprocessors via sensor web networks in physical environments also enables the informational life-worlds of millions of ‘users’, human or otherwise, to be made visible, such that needs not only of humans but also natural environments can be revealed as diffuse, complex systems of interaction.

But as practitioners of urban computing seek to actively to disrupt established views of the city, visualizing that which has hitherto remained hidden from view, a return to Invisible Cities also prompts us to reconsider the enduring presence of that which still remains out of view in today’s real-time cities. In a sense, many of the potentials associated with real-time mobile networks are predicated on making visible that which might otherwise remain unseen. But the twentieth century has already witnessed many costly lessons associated with relying too heavily on technologies of visual abstraction and representation as a means to progress urban reform. So when we today assess the potentials associated with enhanced, contextually-aware spatial representations of the real-time city, Calvino’s writing reminds us of the need to be remain mindful not only of what this capacity for spatial measurement reveals, but to consider also how we might continue to enfold the ‘the events of its past’ within these emergent, distributed networked configurations.

READ MORE: Chapter in Digital Cities publication From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen. By by Marcus Foth (Editor) , Laura Forlano (Editor) , Christine Satchell (Editor) , Martin Gibbs (Editor) , Judith Donath (Afterword).

Street Haunting SBarns Final-1

The title for the chapter was inspired by reading Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting, in which she takes her readers on a walk through London one winter’s eve in search of a pencil. Happily, it’s available online now, and can be read below.

Another inspiration for the piece are the Lost Laneways of Sydney – one of the images from this fine collection is below. It captures a man walking down Exeter Place in Sydney, 1906. Exeter Place was obliterated as part of the Wexworth St Resumption.

Exeter Place Surry Hills, c1906.