Constellations are a kind of necessary pareidolia, concentrating infinity into a human-scale narrative. The Babylonians, Greeks, Chinese and Arabs all sought to make sense of the world by projecting their cultures onto the heavens and their narratives still permeate our culture.
Our recently born near-constellation of robots – Hubble, Spitzer, Fermi and Kepler – have furnished us with a hi-def and precise understanding of the cosmos. But the retreat of the night sky, driven by our 24-7 artificially-lit civilisation, has robbed us of the imagination to create a contemporary astral mythology and project our newly globalised culture onto the heavens.
Two years ago, Oscar Lhermitte's Urban Stargazing project, sought to create artificial constellations above urban London, observable only at night. Lhermitte's twelve new constellations were in reality lights strung from high cables, but at a glance provided Londoners with new mythologies – The Guitar, The Irish Giant and The V2.
Lhermitte's project requires significant construction and obstruction and is as much about zoning laws and planning permission as the creation of playful mythology. Perhaps the urban constellation is poised to become more commonplace…
I take comfort in the fact that there are two human moments that seem to be doled out equally and democratically within the human condition—and that there is no satisfying ultimate explanation for either. One is coincidence, the other is déja vu. It doesn't matter if you're Queen Elizabeth, one of the thirty-three miners rescued in Chile, a South Korean housewife or a migrant herder in Zimbabwe—in the span of 365 days you will pretty much have two déja vus as well as one coincidence that makes you stop and say, "Wow, that was a coincidence."
The thing about coincidence is that when you imagine the umpteen trillions of coincidences that can happen at any given moment, the fact is, that in practice, coincidences almost never do occur. Coincidences are actually so rare that when they do occur they are, in fact memorable. This suggests to me that the universe is designed to ward of coincidence whenever possible—the universe hates coincidence—I don't know why—it just seems to be true. So when a coincidence happens, that coincidence had to work awfully hard to escape the system. There's a message there. What is it? Look. Look harder. Mathematicians perhaps have a theorem for this, and if they do, it might, by default be a theorem for something larger than what they think it is.
What's both eerie and interesting to me about déja vus is that they occur almost like metronomes throughout our lives, about one every six months, a poetic timekeeping device that, at the very least, reminds us we are alive. I can safely assume that my thirteen year old niece, Stephen Hawking and someone working in a Beijing luggage-making factory each experience two déja vus a year. Not one. Not three. Two.
The underlying biodynamics of déja vus is probably ascribable to some sort of tingling neurons in a certain part of the brain, yet this doesn't tell us why they exist. They seem to me to be a signal from larger point of view that wants to remind us that our lives are distinct, that they have meaning, and that they occur throughout a span of time. We are important, and what makes us valuable to the universe is our sentience and our curse and blessing of perpetual self-awareness.
Late last Summer, Marketing Leeds' then CEO Deborah Green invited me to contribute a piece on Leeds' technology ecosphere for the 2012 edition of Live It, Love It: A Style Guide To Leeds. The guide is the official publication for marketing the city and distributed freely to visitors and residents.
Leeds isn't understood to be a technology hub, but its history of innovation and invention spans both the industrial and information ages, modestly contributing machines and minds to humanity. I wanted to ensure these stories were known and to deliniate the arc of the city's inventiveness into its future.
You can find a somewhat clunky electronic edition online, with my contributions at page 106 and page 6. It's worth seeking out the print edition beautifully designed by David Simmonds, but I've chosen to reproduce my piece below too…
The relics of Leeds’ Victorian industrial past became inhabited by the entrepreneurs of the new millennium’s dotcom boom, and as Britain entered a period of austerity, the city’s burgeoning ‘netroots’ class of activists, bloggers and citizens of the Web 2.0 age, have inherited the city itself as a platform to invent and imagine the distributed, networked institutions of the 21st century.
Cities are humanity’s most characteristic and complex inventions — almost everything that we consider to be culture arose within cities. The notion of cities as simply a place is being displaced by the idea that cities are organisms, mindsets and platforms for democracy, civilisation, technology, arts and sustainability. Cities have a character and a persona, one we collectively craft as citizens.
When considering Leeds’ technology, media or digital industries, there is no institution, company or individual that stands apart. The city’s universities, its vibrant culture, its connectivity to European capitals, the presence of investors, capital and entrepreneurs all combine to make Leeds an engine of invention.
The idea of Leeds has become its most profound creation; its entangled past, present and future, the source of its novelty. So who are those inventors and creators?
The industrial revolution saw Leeds at the heart of the Victorian era’s Silicon Valley, a constellation of Northern ports, mills and mining towns that powered imperial Britain.
In 1767 Joseph Priestley invented carbonated water by experimenting with bowls of water suspended above beer vats at a local brewery. The process was later adopted by the Schweppes company and – after leaving Leeds – using these experiments, Priestley went on to discover oxygen, encouraged by one of the founding fathers of America, a certain Benjamin Franklin…
Between 1758 and 1792 John Smeaton, a prolific local engineer of mathematical instruments became “the father of civil engineering” through his many commissions, including bridges, waterways and the innovative Eddystone Lighthouse.
Matthew Murray’s Round Foundry – now home to the city’s “Silicon Shore” – was one of the first engineering works in the world – and the source of early industrialised production of steam engines. Built in 1797 by engineers and financiers, the Foundry exported textile machinery, steam engines and locomotives across the planet and indeed the building’s unique rotunda itself innovated access for machinery.
French inventor Louis Le Prince, shot the world’s first moving pictures in Leeds: Roundhay Garden Scene and Leeds Bridge, planting the seeds for a new medium of cinema.
The Micro Age…
The 1980s saw the rise of personal computing across the planet along with the nascent UK videogames scene, largely driven by solitary bedroom coders. Leeds was home to the emerging studio structures that began to professionalise the games industry.
From 1980 to 1987, Micro Power was a prolific publisher of numerous games for the ‘8-bit’ platforms of the day - the BBC Micro, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. For many British children, their first experiences of videogames were Micro Power titles.
By 1982, Micro Power was joined by Superior Software, founded by graduates from the University of Leeds. Superior focussed on adapting titles from other platforms as well as developing original franchises like Repton, recently re-released for Apple’s iPhone.
The Dotcom Boom…
More recently, the millennial period saw Leeds as an epicentre of the dotcom boom and the beginning of the internet era. By laying down the media and infrastructural backbone for another new medium, the internet began to disrupt everything before it — industries, culture, commerce and media. Leeds found itself directing 40% of the nation’s internet traffic through its radio, fibre and copper networks…
In 1995, Planet Online was launched, connecting over two thousand businesses to the internet within their first year. In 1998, Planet joined electronics retailers Dixons to create…
Freeserve, the world’s first free internet service provider, bringing affordable internet connectivity and online services to millions of Britons, pioneering consumer broadband services and pushing tech giants such as AOL into a distant second place. Freeserve coupled Leeds’ expertise in network technology with Dixons’ retail network to bring the internet to millions of Britons’ homes.
Elsewhere, in 2000, Ananova created the world’s first virtual newscaster and Leeds-based TEAMtalk capitalised on Britain’s obsession with football by quickly adapting its premium phone services for the internet era, providing sports content to a network of mobile and web channels.
This growing fluency with the city’s growing internet expertise caught the attention of larger powers, with BSkyB, Orange and Cable & Wireless snapping up the city’s startups for their global portfolios. Freeserve‘s £1.65bn sale was the largest British deal of the dotcom era.
The Great Reset…
A decade into the new Millennium, the city’s great civic institutions – finance, universities, newspapers, TV production, local government — are all experiencing the effects of the post-crash age of austerity, what American urban theorist Richard Florida calls the Great Reset. Government is shrinking, whilst media is disrupted and overturned by nimbler social networks.
Amongst this creative destruction, a post-digital creative class is beginning to capitalise on the collapse to innovate and invent what comes next…
In 2009 Leeds was selected as one of The Guardian’s charter cities for its “beatblogger” experiment, rebooting local news for a networked culture, to great acclaim.
Since 2007, the University of Leeds has spun out 18 ventures worth £160m, ranging from oil exploration and embryology, to cancer treatment and transport software.
During the 1980s, Jimi Heselden, a former miner, used his redundancy payment to invent a patented flood control and military fortification device, deployed in disaster and conflict zones including New Orleans and Afghanistan. By 2009, Heselden had grown into a philanthropist and found new success in acquiring the iconic Segway company.
Rockstar Games has brought videogame franchises such as Max Payne, LA Noire and Grand Theft Auto to millions around the world. Elsewhere, Double Eleven will be developing some of the first titles for Sony’s new Playstation Vita handheld.
Multiple creative hubs are emerging around the city – Old Broadcasting House, The Round Foundry and Duke Studios are all enabling technologists, activists, investors, artists, entrepreneurs and the curious to find loci of serendipity.
Innovative works that cross artistic, cultural, technological and industrial boundaries are emerging as a result, from the ground breaking Our City Our Music project, to urban games such as 2.8 Hours Later and a network of festivals that act as living labs for prototyping new ideas, including Leeds in Barcelona, PhotoCamp, Live at Leeds, LSx and Thought Bubble.
Leeds Keeps Inventing…
Amongst the economic and political turbulence of the crash, Leeds is surfacing new opportunities to invent. The era of large industries as temples and guardians of innovation has passed and the monopoly of civic services concentrated in local government is also receding.
What remains is a city thriving on synthesising ideas and inventions from a culture that demands architectures of participation. Crafting new experiences that nurture collaboration — across music, technology, fashion, sport, literature and commerce — is enabling Leeds to creatively assemble the future from pieces of its past. Any city with a giant-walking suburban robot called Oddball, has one eye on the future.
Leeds is a city of hackers and makers… a city of inventors.
A friend of a friend he got beaten He looked the wrong way at a policeman Would never of happened to Smeaton An old leodensian I predict a riot Kaiser Chiefs
'The human being is a truly remarkable creature,' he tells us.
'He has discovered fire, built cities, writen magnificent poems, interpreted the world, invented mythologies, etc. But at the same time he has never ceased waging war on his fellow humans, being totally wrong, destroying his environment, etc. This mixture of great intellectual powers and base idiocy creates an approximately neutral outcome.
So when we decide to explore human stupidity, we are somehow paying tribute to this creature who is part genius, part fool.'
Perhaps its not a good thing for conference programmers to reveal their favourite speakers and sessions, but James Bridle's Where The Robots Work was my personal highlight from our programme at FutureEverything 2011.
James' keynote explored how cities were reorienting themselves around our emerging information infrastructure, notably how the built environment was now as much designed for machine habitation as it is for human occupation.
One of the session's more fascinating anecdotes illustrated how the price of real estate in Manhattan is dramatically affected by proximity to supernodes of connectivity; proximity that can shave fractions of seconds from Wall Street trades.
60 Hudson Street's art deco motifs underline its role as a communications hub that originates prior to the era of copper lines and early telephony. Its physical architecture is fitting, given its centrality in civilisation past and present.
However, it's somewhat strange that 60 Hudson Street's modern equivalents are so innocuous and prosaic. Given how crucial these facilities are to humanity, shouldn't we beatify and exalt them with the very best in modern architectural practice; aren't they the modern temples of our civilisation?
Though there are pragmatic reasons to avoid drawing attention to these facilities, perhaps their elevation to templehood would put them beyond humanity's destructive impulses. Indeed, could future generations venerate the temples of machine gods as did the surviving humans of Beneath the Planet of the Apes and their veneration of atomic weapons.
Perhaps we wish our machines to remain anonymous and mundane, not only to confine their magic to the Elysian cloud, but also to remind ourselves that humanity remains in charge and they inhabit prisons of our making.
This weekend sees the UK's first DIYbio summit take place at Manchester's Madlab, founded my good friends - Hwa Young and Asa Calow.
The DIYbio movement intends to democratise biology and enable "citizen scientists, amateur biologists and biological engineers who value openness and safety" and the summit is part of Manchester's Science festival and includes speakers from Genspace, Hackteria and Transit Lab.
I've been following the work of synthetic biologists like Drew Endy and the Open Wetware Lab for many years, but it was back in Spring 2009, when Asa and I attended the Real Hackers Program RNA workshop at ETech in San Diego, that I saw that Asa had the bio bug too. Over the course of a couple of hours, we were taught how to hack E.Coli into various bio applications, by Ginkgo BioWorks' Reshma Shetty.
Through Hwa's been running various DIYbio meetups recently - includng an octopus dissection workshop! - it's great to see high impact work like the summit being concieved and delivered by the Madlab crew. Indeed, as Monica starts to formulate the 2012 edition of LSxJunior, Asa and I are keen to run a workshop on 'genetics and DNA sequencing for kids'.
My good friend Matt Maude has been shortlisted for the Virgin Media Shorts 2011 prize, with his piece The Dreamers…
A woman rises from her bed in the middle of the night. As she crosses the city, we see other sleepwalkers congregating to one place.
Matt tells a great story, with few words and some lovely expressive actors - but his talents aren't limited to the screen; check out the story of how he cleared the rights for the use of Sigur Rós in The Dreamers.
With almost daily trips to the post office to despatch these used books, I began to wonder about the journey each book was taking to its new home. Were there any patterns or correlations in the places they were headed? Here's a simple BatchGeo map of their destinations…
Unsurprisingly, most titles (largely graphic novels) ended up in London, with the furthest (Y: The Last Man - Safeword) travelling 240 miles to Londonderry, and the closest (Head First HTML) travelling 16 miles to Oldham. Curiously, most of the comics headed South, whilst textbooks and novels headed North!
Really, I should have spimed every title by adding it to BookCrossingand hopefully been able to trace it's lifetime of ownership. Sadly, my nerd prescience wasn't so acute.
What's to be learned from this? There's no social graph here, or recommendation algorithm, just some geo-sprayed representation of my tastes.
However, it returns me to the notion of books as social objects, objects that have lives beyond a single owner. How do we gift or sell ownership of digital artefacts to others when we no longer own, but are simply blessed with access; access mediated by corporations that won't always have your interests at heart. The only reason I'm comfortable buying Kindle editions, is because I know I can break the digital locks if I need to - illegal yes, but by no means immoral.
My shelves are experiencing an accelerating half life - a shelfular singularity if you like. Books, photos, movies, music and games now inhabit the clouds, pixellated, digitised and discless. My media genome is now scattered across many heavenly shelves…
Moving pictures took almost two years to turn from these…
into this: (their corporeal forms now grace the shelves of charity stores)
Then came the kindling of the pages, turning most of these…
…into things that could be in many places, but mostly intwo.
The most precious, began as atoms, then light, before becoming embalmed in silver hallide…
… and now existing as blocks of light, coarsing through slices of silcon, behind sheets of glass:
My shelves will soon be emptied and no longer required. I don't own those in distant clouds, but I do own those in the computers that belong to me. I have one, where I own none of the contents, nor the shelf itself… and it hurts when it's altered without consent.