#futr Day 1: FutureEverything, Manchester, May 2012

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It doesn’t become a conference to be too modest in its name, a little ambition goes a long way: future… everything! If it’s yet to happen this conference is interested. I’ve not been before, but I know of their work and didn’t dare pass up the chance to visit (exam marking would have to wait).

I’m going to split the event into a different blog posting for each day, though I suspect this will result in some long posts and I may abort the tactic ??? there’s a lot to write about.
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The theme of the festival (sorry, conference) was introduced as ‘future people’, discussing the ways and means by which we mix online and offline connections and communities. This has relevance to my research, so my trip funding is hopefully justified and I’m very grateful to Edinburgh Napier for supporting me. What the event organisers have attempted to do this year is take the conference out into the city, to touch the people of Manchester and make it relevant to them. As luck would have it they decided to use social media to do so ??? this kicked off with an army of Little Clay Men that spread through the city the night before, which were then tweeted by commuters, workers and lots of people who encountered them on the streets and gave them stories of their own. Quite how you evaluate whether this project met the objectives of its producers I’m not sure, but as the little men live on in people’s homes and offices perhaps their story has barely begun…

Some links:

I first sat in on a presentation from Jennifer Jones (@jennifermjones) all about #media2012 and related projects, though I’ve written about that elsewhere and I’m sure I’ll do so again, so I won’t go into detail here. The morning also welcomed a panel discussion about Mass Observation and how material should be archived in the 21st century: what impact does editing have, can it be limited, what will people be interested in in the future (we don’t know) and what part should be played by museums, archives, the BBC and Mass Observation themselves? Both of these sessions touched on themes of power and access: the relative power of mainstream broadcasters and regular citizens to tell their stories, such as those wrapped up in the Olympics as the biggest media event the world will have ever seen. Who are the gatekeepers to these media and these archives, and thence to their audiences, and what chance do citizens have of gaining a foothold to access such resources? Museums and archives can only display and hold so much material, while Facebook and other social media organisations will not be quick to open up their treasures to archivists. Meanwhile the BBC has a pretty clear idea of what its role is during these Games (and there’s more on that to come on this blog).

Moritz Stefaner spoke about his work on data visualisations, a job he has styled to give himself the title ‘Truth and Beauty Operator’. So there. He talked us through the process of creating a couple of visualisations, which look stunning and were generally accessible as sources of information. As if to reaffirm a point made by Farida Vis at #enubs12 however, Stefaner also made the point that visualisations are good for the big patterns, but not so much the data points themselves… there are other ways of representing small data in greater clarity and detail.

So how does that link to the next talk, from Caitlin O’Riordan and Ben Gallop of the BBC who talked about their work covering the London Olympics? They are wrestling with the need to cover the big events, to provide the mass moments when we all (possibly) come together, as well as enabling us to curate our own Olympic experience. The point was made that the Games are regularly catalysts for advances in media technology and practice; this year some 2,500 hours of sporting action will be available online in glorious HD. Choice phrase of the day also came from this talk when Gallop proclaimed that ‘We’ll be telling the truth about the Games’ …it’s just as well that Jennifer Jones was present to make the point that #media2012 can help them in that endeavour.

Onwards, to building communities online around a real world cultural institution, which in Richard Ayers???s case is Manchester City Football Club (@richardayers). Where Man City is viewed as a brand, as with many a football club it???s one that you don???t have to persuade people to engage with ??? there???s a fanbase who want to know more about you, but the challenge now is about granting access. Ayers discussed the comparative success of providing behind the scenes video clips, which people loved seeing, against the poorly received ???bluffers??? guide??? to supporting the club ??? this didn???t go down at all well with the fans. So an open access approach is now informing the club???s strategy, one tailored to different groups of fans responding to differing degrees of detail and complexity. A digital journey was described that may start by ???liking??? the club on Facebook, then commenting on an existing post somewhere, moving on to tweeting about the club and over time engaging more and more deeply with the online community. Each person???s place within that community is shaped by their own level of interest and knowledge, alongside the level of acceptance granted by the rest of the community: how long are your comments shot down and your contributions dismissed before you???re accepted? This is the fans organizing themselves, much as they do within the stadium itself ??? perhaps starting their journey in the family section, moving round to the most vocal sections and onwards until they sit amongst fellow veterans talking about the good/bad old days.

The discussion moved on to ask which cultural forms tend to generate tribal tendencies, from sports teams to film genres and activities such as food blogging. Where do these groups sit within the wider society and what are the implications for resource allocation to serve these sub-groups? What happens when that takes place alongside a desire to reach new markets, as Man City are trying to do in a number of places around the world? It???s partly about meeting expectations and wholly to do with being culturally sensitive, which goes back to recognising the demands of different groups of fans and what they???re after from a modern football club. Ayers finished his talk by pointing out that the executives who are funding and enabling the club???s digital investment were once players out on the pitch??? it has taken a cultural shift for some to accept digital methods and become a ???hybrid organisation???.

To round off my first day at FutureEverything I greatly enjoyed the talk by Juha van???t Zelfde on ???The City and The City???. At its heart was the idea that we are recreating ideas of what cities mean to us as citizens, inhabitants, networked communities and people figuring out how to handle shifts in what notions of private and public actions mean. Juha is behind organisations such as Non-fiction (???office for cultural innovation???) and VURB (???policy and design research concerning urban computational systems???). The talk was partly a personal reflection, whether it be the evolution of the online availability of music or the rise of geolocation on the web through smartphones. It was also a recognition that ???with all these technologies the notion of what my city is has changed??? ???we don???t lose touch with people simply because they move away from our city, instead technologies allow us to bring their experiences into our own world ??? their new home city becomes part of our lives and we exist in numerous places. To quote a couple of phrases: ???a new kind of spatiality is senseable???, because we live in ???the continuous partial everywhere???.

Juha asked what this means for the infrastructure of our cities, and what would we do now if we were to build our cities from scratch. What are the implications for individual objects, and what does it mean for whole societies and governments operating at a macro level? Do we become part of what???s happening elsewhere because of our connections and what does that mean if we want to play a part in the governance and management of those locations? Perhaps our very notions of what a ???city??? is have to change ??? ???there is another city: an informational one??? you are the city???.
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After 1,400 words on just a single day???s activity I don???t want to stretch this post out any longer in the search for connections between these speaker and my own work. Nevertheless it was pretty clear that the there are plenty of people working on the links between technology, community, networks, cultural identity, governance and the lived experience. If ever I???m to find a conference/festival that brings together real life shared experiences and the virtual community this would surely be it, and yet to what extent did the people in the room have an attachment to the event beyond the short term coming together of people and ideas? Did they have a sense of ownership over it the same way cultural festivals gather an army of supporters? Just how important were the FutureEverything coffee breaks in forging a community spirit, or were they all about old fashioned networking and working out where to eat before going to see Metropolis?

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Top image: ‘Deirdre_BlueOrange_Futr’ / flickr.com/photos/stuartchilds/6998237316 [This is the FutureEverything logo.]
Bottom image: @jennifermjones discusses London 2012 as a media spectacle [Taken by me.]