“There is a great deal to be done before the objects in daily use
reach a standard of enlightened design of which we need not feel ashamed”
James Stead, my grandfather, maker of things (1901-2008)
This, the first of my updates, went out to 123 people last week.
If you want to sign up to future digital and physical mailings, please sign up here. Note that mailings will contain additional details that aren’t appropriate for public-web posts.
This is my new experiment to try and create positive impact in the world with the shared expertise of the wonderful people I know, to talk about impact at web-scale, to talk about music and science, and to start conversations that might encourage serendipity. And so it’s not just me shouting into the void, every section has actions. A keyword here is ‘do’ not just talk.
I’d also like to send you the limited-run print edition: please let me know which address to send it to (nb: still in design, but the point is that it’s slow). The idea is to keep updating this site and do occasional emails, prints and other media, to fit with the fact that we all absorb things in linear and nonlinear ways, and remembering the fact that all media is social media.
This is the long version [a 22 minute read, if you don’t follow the links]. You can jump into sections below.
1. Perfect storms: cheerio 2016, hello 2017 [4 min]
2. About that whole data thing [6 min]
3. Escape into the multiverse – acoustic cosmology [10 min]
4. Links that you might find useful or weird (aka memepool)
[2 min + the rest of the week if you follow the links]
1. Perfect storms: cheerio 2016, hello 2017
Personally, professionally and societally 2016 was, by all accounts, not a good year.
You know I’m not normally one to shy away from difficult situations or complex challenges, yet a combination of things that felt like ‘death by a thousand cuts’ (including literally 1,000 stings thanks to a box jellyfish) created a vertigo-like ‘perfect storm’ for me, and I’ve taken a big step back to reassess what I want to spend time & energy on.
I’ve been reading, learning, listening and discussing many things with many people: from refugees to extremist murderers; from quantum computing to political communication; from mental health to war; from artificial intelligence to the nature of work; from disillusionment in the social impact of the web to climate change.
And looking at the structures, roles and actors that exist today, and those required to affect positive change. Looking forward, the challenges that face us are increasing not diminishing.
From a period of sustained belief, events around the world (including the elections in the UK, USA and beyond) seem to have eroded general feelings of hope in a way I’ve not experienced on such a scale before.
And whether expressed as anger, bereavement, guilt, despair or action, my media feeds are filled with fear. Individual and group conversations contain sentiments of grappling how to combat the insidious forces of disenfranchisement (political or otherwise), financial pressures and related anxieties (from the price of property to the ability to remain in the UK); all are underpinned with a fragile sense of self-worth, and a low sense of agency in making any difference that will create meaningful impact.
At the same time, the ‘HR PR’ in companies claiming they are changing the world has gone beyond saturation: everything is now a ‘mission’, ‘platform’, ‘ecosystem’, ‘environment’ and not just a ‘thing’.
And it feels like we might be over ‘tech’ (at last!), learning that unicorn-chasing is bad for the economy, and there are now so many incubators and accelerators I think we can just say that ‘tech’ is like other sectors: there are a lot of ambitious people running ambitious small-medium sized businesses. But it also feels like the ‘long tail’ is just ‘zero hours contracts’ at-scale.
Together, perhaps we’ve even reached beyond ‘peak peak’ and ‘peak bubble’?
At the same time we have the most remarkable people, knowledge and tools to hand. A startling number of wonderful people I know have quit their jobs in the last 3-4 months and I’ve been wondering what might be possible if we all gathered together to do things.
We may have a set of perfect storms to tackle, but perhaps we also have a moment to capture?
It seems like we have a choice to go high or go home. It’s not entirely clear to me what ‘go home’ might look like, so it feels to me like we need to step up a gear in being the change.
“This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.”
Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit
Our language is important (it was Brexit, not Brit-in). I’ve tried to distill many, many different ideas, ideologies, opinions, facts, to crystalise a starting point. One word that we could start to build from.
That word is: dignity.
From this word, I’d like to find ways of building respect and trust, plurality and structure, hope and empathy. I’d like to help us take the remarkable tools that we have to hand, that billions of people use and billions more will have, that capture the minds of a generation. And harness the fact that we have the most remarkable opposing forces at play right now: the ability for everyone to communicate at-scale and ‘for free’ the first time in history, paired with a fear-driven response that many simply do not want to listen or engage in that, or any, conversation.
Today, I’m starting a conversation, with you, and those you choose to connect into this, to work out how we create positive impact at web-scale. It’s not a new idea, not at all. But it is a new time to begin, and we have new tools and skills around us. I don’t think it’s a new organisation, not a campaign, nor a movement (they all seem too old-world). ‘Web-scale’ can mean large as well as small: it’s connectedness that counts.
It feels like this is a collective. A collective based on actions-not-rhetoric, impact-as-delivery, for those hewn out of the digital generation, data-driven, decentralised: a d-generation. It needs to embrace organisations (large, small, commercial, non-profit), governments and individuals (whether inside or outside those structures). Fifteen years after I registered this domain, I think I might be working out why.
It feels like this is a time to pick a small number of issues, a target, a team, and a timeline for each one. To bind us to delivery, I’m setting one year as the timeline for impact. The next questions (for you) are;
- Which impact target(s)?
- Who’s in?
I’ve created drafts: a statement of intent, communications tactics, rules of engagement and structure that I’ll obviously make open when they are vaguely coherent.
I can’t promise to make a difference, but I can promise to spend my time and energy to create impact together.
Please reply if you can, and forward this to anyone you think might be interested in getting involved.
2. About that whole data thing
Our radically transparent, connected, globalised world is part of the problem. As with the early days of the web, we didn’t put enough energy into helping ourselves deal with its cultural, commercial, emotional and social impact.
After exactly four years building the ODI, I left it in October. Its work is far from done — and there are great people there who will do great things. Equally, there are different winds blowing. We budgeted for an ‘open data winter’ but no one could have predicted the seismic shifts in the national and global political landscapes.
At the ODI, we invested a lot of energy and focus on cultural change (Data as Culture created stories using data as a raw material; Evidence and Events programmes made human stories using data). We invested more in communication than in R&D. In some ways propagating culture change was much harder than I expected; in others, it was exactly what I expected (especially with incumbent communities). It took three board meetings (and bear in mind who’s on its board) before it was explicitly reflected that “culture was always left to the end” in technology revolutions. And make no mistake, the web of data is a revolution: but it has very little to do with new technology breakthroughs.
The ODI was never a ‘tech’ company to me. I spent years helping people in organisations (from govt to business) understand that ‘tech’ is 10% of the change: it’s the impact that this 10% unlocks that is critical. Changing the way people think, changing business models, changing people’s skills, and changing the processes that support individuals – while keeping focus on material impact – are the hard bits.
When confronted with an economically-driven, command-and-control mindset for which network thinking represents a genuine threat as well as an opportunity, trying to convince anyone “what’s in it for them” is especially hard.
Everyone loves ‘open’ as long as it’s everyone else that is being open,
and they are the ones reaping the benefits.
I have heard this (literally and tacitly) from hundreds of sources (govt, commercial, startups, NGOs) and it signals the size of the mountain we still have to climb to reach an open, networked data economy.
Nothing brought this home to me more clearly that helping to bring the Open Banking Standard into existence. This completely ground-breaking and world-leading initiative was understood as such by many and yet, somehow, collectively its publication was seen as an endpoint of innovation rather that the starting gun. We got the ‘stick’ part really right – it’s now regulation – but missed a huge opportunity for innovation along the way.
On one level I reflect on that experience as the UK matching its stereotype of being inventors but not innovators: as if government had intervened immediately after Tim published his famous paper to say “let’s wait until everyone is ready”. We’re now 12 months behind, and the rest of the world has noticed. This is not a new story.
We also need to figure out how an open approach: a fundamentally a democratic, free-market mechanic, can minimise the impact of demagogues and monopolies. It feels like the natural geek-response of more free, and more open is part of the solution. It also feels to me like this isn’t nearly enough. We’ve won many battles, but it feels like no where near winning the war.
Networked Data ⇒ Collective Action
Big Data. Blockchains. IoT. WoT. AI. AR. VR … we fetishise technical language for commercial gain at our peril. I’d like to know what we can do with new tech that we can’t do already with the astonishing tools that we have now.
Descriptions that try to co-opt the web of data range from “linked data” to “blockchains” to “big data”. None of them speak to the fact that we need to think, as we did for the web (of documents), that “this is for everyone”, not another way of selling the same old models or same new snake oil. It feels like we’ve sold past the close on tech and need to rewind to the ‘why’.
We need to accept that data is not “the new oil”. It is not scarce. It does not reduce in impact the more it is used. It does not create catastrophic climate change (and yes we need the Cleanweb as much as we ever did).
Data in a networked age increases in value the more it is connected
Data that isn’t connected is valueless. We must start thinking instead of data as infrastructure. Here’s a simple reference that I hope will help.
- Our physical infrastructure enables our physical economy
- Our digital infrastructure enables our digital economy
- Our data infrastructure enables our knowledge economy
I use the word economy deliberately. It doesn’t matter if you can list non-economic benefits, no one pays attention (at-scale) unless there is an economic impact. In addition, we need to finally, properly embrace thinking of our economy as far more than ‘financial’. Our knowledge economy is where we can deliver triple-bottom-line thinking. It’s where we can make better longitudinal decisions. It’s where open data destroys [the need for] CSR. We also need to address the actual data economics of a global marketplace: define import, export, GDP (Gross D̶o̶m̶e̶s̶t̶i̶c̶Data Product)?
We are very, very far away from this. I’ve been to countless meetings where blind faith in technology-for-technology’s sake is still seen as some kind of unquestionable good. That because we have the tech, that somehow the problem is solved and magic money will fall from the sky. This is deeply broken — anyone with any power to act to connect people to impact needs to do so; today.
My trend-watching often starts with how the web has impacted media (publishing, music, radio, TV). There are many useful lessons in those domains.
We need to think about what the new 47% of jobs might be in the same way that the lamplighters didn’t foresee television. I met my first professional drone pilot last year: he was a seven-year veteran, aged 15. Over the last 20-years I’ve experienced countless examples of people expecting that old models of thinking will translate into the future. That it’ll “be okay”.
Now is not the same as before. It’s not the same as pre-web. It’s also not the same as post-web. And, to quote EFF, your threat model just changed. I also believe we need to go much further than ‘just’ do no harm (even if Francis is spot on here too).
We can learn from history that we had similar technocratic utopian visions for TV and Radio (btw—TV came first). If you haven’t seen it, go watch Dreams Rewired: one of the most important and timely pieces of film I’ve seen in a long time (email me if you want to come to a screening on Hans).
1. Ask how you might communicate the impact of your work to me and to people that might be reading this
2. Send me that story the way you want to tell it, and I’ll include it in the next newsletter
3. Ask your colleagues how they might embrace network thinking in solving something
Definition — network thinking
Network thinking is what you did in the 1990/2000s to solve a problem: you Googled the answer.
Network thinking in 2017 is when you remember that humans exist too and ask them and collaborate.
Especially if they are outside of your company/filter bubble/comfort zone.
Network thinking in 2017 must reduce transactional friction (e.g. ‘traditional commercial consortia’ need to reboot. Contractual and IP-related issues need a hybrid of social-contract and legal framework embedded in a culture of open innovation).
**** And now for something completely different ****
3. Escape into the multiverse – an acoustic cosmology
When I first stumbled into the methods of creating this highly textural form, I knew I’d laid the foundations for all the music I would write in the future. It was a moment I found so exciting I had to immediately find a phone box (yes, that long ago) to call my friend Andy to tell him. We have collaborated ever since.
For me, music, like mathematics, is a non-verbal language. It is experiential.
A theme for me seems to be to begin with creating common languages. This work has evolved to explore the articulation and progression in musical language, one that has mirrored our understanding of the universe for centuries. I’ve tried to show this evolution, in broad terms, in the image above.
We used to believe there was a fundamental relationship between the distances between the planets and music. We called this Musica Universalis or ‘Music of the Spheres’. We know now there isn’t a causal relationship, but our emotional relationship with this idea remains profoundly powerful.
My question was ‘is there an equivalent in contemporary physics and electronic music?’. Is there a ‘Music of the Hypersphere’? Or, bringing in more specific language, is there an ‘Acoustic cosmology in Hilbert Space’. You might also ask ‘What is the shape of music?’.
My explorations led me to try and find relationships (mathematical, or experiential, not causal) between the mathematics used in astrophysics (specifically cosmology and quantum mechanics) and the codified mathematics-as-algorithms in the realms of computer- and electronic-music. For those who understand science and/or music, some of this will make no sense in either of those domains. This is intended: we are exploring. This isn’t a small project.
We can draw interesting parallels between the macro-languages of music over centuries and the evolution of our understanding of the complexity of the universe.
Starting about a thousand years ago, with PITCH and DURATION in monophonic music (polyphony was considered ungodly), through to the development of HARMONY in baroque to the ROMANTIC and COMPLEX symphony into REDUCTIONIST music-concrete, and the ATOMISED computer-music to the contemporary GENERATIVE algorave, we can see clear parallels between the language used to describe our perception of the universe and the words used to describe music.
Our latest iterations can reduce the sonic universe (soniverse) to a set of fundamental equations (the equivalents to Maxwell’s equations) from which all other sounds can be produced. From additive synthesis to neural network-generated chart hits, it seems to me that these very different worlds form part of our convergence of understanding: art and science are reconvening.
This had led me to ask: is there a musical equivalent to the CURVATURE of space-time? Can we operate natively in a frequency, rather than a time-based domain? What might DIMENSIONALITY mean in a wave-time cosmology?
My hypothesis is to test if there exists and/or if we can create a soniverse in which the language of science is relevant. It may be relevant in a causal sense (for example, the physics may be self-referentially consistent). It may be relevant aesthetically (for example, it may describe a subjective musical construct). Our first principle is to create a fundamental particle, which I will call a sonon — the equivalent to a photon in this sonic universe (and not to be confused with a phonon). Our next challenge is to start to define its properties, and then to define the physics that may apply to this universe.
Our single sonon is one wavelength. Time is, as-yet, undefined.
There is a lovely visual similarity between how navigators and astronomers have been mapping the heavens for centuries (the Celestial Sphere), and the way scientists model quantum mechanics (the Bloch Sphere).
Whereas a Celestial Sphere helps us map the entirety of the heavens by imagining you as the observer (O) at the center of the universe, a Bloch Sphere is a geometric representation of the complex mathematics of qubits, used in quantum computing. In ‘normal’ computing, a bit is either a one or a zero. A qubit can kind of be both at the same time (see “you guys put complex numbers in your ontologies?”). And if that sounds beautifully confusing, it is.
As I’ve been looking at these ways of viewing the universe at such wildly different scales, and how Bloch Spheres are used to help describe photons, I wanted to attempt to create an equivalent of a Bloch Sphere to define dimensions of influence in our sonon. As I’m also trying to bring in the large-scale cosmological mathematics, it seemed to fit to deal with these confusing extremes in parallel.
We begin with phase in a classical sense. We then consider amplitude to be defined by the number of sonons counted (as classical physics, we’ve not yet considered quantum state probability amplitudes). In sound, as classically defined in our universe as a pressure wave, there is no polarisation. This makes it hard to create any mapping that might lead to concepts of entanglement, or that captures the strangely observer-centric nature of photons.
Instead we create the notion of temporal musicality. A sonon is and is not musical if it is embodied in an observable frame of reference that is musical (e.g. an observable frame of reference could be a piece performed in a rendered space for a listener). We define ‘musical’ as ‘an emotive response’ over a period of time (performance time). A sonon may be considered musical if it lies on the surface of the Bloch Sphere. Inside the Bloch Sphere we admit that we are not sure if it is.
Whether or not it is, is dependent on its observation—which embodies the entire context and structure in which it is heard, and the listener. It is impossible to recreate a sonon since it is, by definition, only rendered in a temporal space as an auditory event.
We may or may not be able to model context: a combination of sonons in an acoustic environment. We may or may not be able to model the listener: which could range from a microphone to a human, from a bird to a black-hole, and therefore may be unknowable. We may be unable to differentiate between a sonon and a rendered sonon (e.g. if time runs backwards, is it a different sonon?).
We create a parallel of wavefunction collapse as this temporal rendering. A sonon can exist in many states prior to being heard. It is only the act of hearing that renders it as having a musical response (cf. in quantum mechanics it is not possible to know the state of a photon until it is observed). (I leave the idea that consciousness is prerequisite for ‘hearing’ as an exercise for another day. It’s also interesting to think about how you might render Cage’s 4’33” in this context and whether a sonon could be considered musical without any other context.)
Having defined a fundamental particle, we then consider what physics may exist in this soniverse. We first must create time. We are drawn to ideas of ‘causality’: in this context causality is only rendered by the listener. Our soniverse may end up only being rendered temporal through experiencing it. It is multi-directional: conversations can be run backwards as well as forwards.
Our big-bang event is the spontaneous creation of all sonons that can exist. We expand the event horizon of the soniverse exponentially and introduce spontaneous random variations. Our parameters of expansion are time, phase and wavelength. We do not define any physical space (there is no space-time). In our initial model, distance is only measured in sonon wavelengths. Analogous to the relativistic perspective of a photon, its position is ‘everywhere’ and its ‘distance’ is ‘nothing’ in between. It may be that we begin in zero or one dimension.
We define Time to have three independent dimensions: the individual sonon wavelength (=1?), the duration an individual instrument as rendered (the instrument time), and a duration equal to the length of an individual piece (the performance time). An instrument time can be longer than a performance time (for example, the 1000 year piece Longplayer, could be considered transitory: an individual’s snippet of conversation could be considered a shard of the instrument that is every word they ever utter).
In our wave-time, wavelength, phase and Time may vary over time. We define an equivalent of the inverse square law: sonons diminish to the square of their wavelength. We define a temporal gravity whereby harmonics may cluster at intervals proportional to their relative density at temporal wavelengths (ie. repetition of sonons within a localised event horizon may cause clustering—’mass’). This could, for example, be an equivalent to a ‘rhythmic or musical phrase’ in classical music. Sonons attract if there is a temporal ‘harmony’.
We define an Epoch to be the finite age of this soniverse. It may be equal to, or longer than, the performance time.
We define a curvature of wave-time. This curvature is in frequency space (Sμʊ;ג) and is time-variant based on where we are in this epoch.
We can also attempt to visualise the soniverse in our four dimensional physical space-time. We can develop new modes of listening, and new modes of interaction between these two universes.
We can take an individual sonon cluster and redshift it. We can take clusters of our virtual sonons and vary their localised gravity based on where our ‘projected hand of god’ creates motion in a sonon cluster.
We can enquire if there is a concept of ‘aubit’ — the equivalent of a physical orbit. For example, if we can define the notion of ‘clustering’, then we can define clustering in relation to a notion of gravitation that operates in a cosmological context (the wave-time is bent in the soniverse as space-time bend in the universe).
We can create singularities: supermassive, hyper-localised gravity that acts to distort the surrounding wave-time akin to gravitational lensing. A listener may traverse a timeline in any direction.
We can define entropy, and declare it to increase and decrease as the soniverse expands and contracts. Entropy does not really derive from the expansion/contraction of the universe (they are related, but not consequential) but I have always assumed them to be quite deeply linked. I couldn’t explain to you why, but I like the idea of either decay-to-noise, or crystallisation-from-noise, and to me these are linked to the idea of big bang and big crunch in an oscillating universe.
In the beginning there nothing. And a god said, “Let there be noise”.
We have yet to define other particles, such as electrons or quarks, or other atomic structures. If I was an academic, at this point I would say something like ”we leave molecular interactions as an exercise for the reader”, however I’m much more interested in the actions below.
We’ve started modelling this here: http://www.astro.ljmu.ac.uk/~amn/Soniverse/demograph.html
- If you have no idea about any of the science, I’d love to hear your feedback about the ideas you took away from reading this. Over time I want to find ways of trying to write about this in an accessible way. Just before Patrick Moore passed away, I was preparing an article for the Sky at Night on some of this. I’d like to explore the language that helps people feel curious to learn, and I need your help to do that.
- If you have any idea what I might be talking about, I need your help. Andy and Libby are helping me to understand things, and we will continue to explore and make things. And I know some of you are experts in cosmology, quantum mechanics, electronic music and/or in art-science cross-over projects.
4. Links that you might find useful and/or weird (aka memepool)
[2 min, without clicking]
For all you click-junkies (yes, that’s you): here be your dopamine triggers all in one massive non-random, denial-of-synapse-recovery inducing matrix-hit. Enjoy.
First, do no harm; But stay angry; Ginsberg goes BEEP; There’s a league of pragmatic optimists, who knew?; Needs!Maps!Think! again again; Your Whiplash compass; The ethics of qubit weapons; Tesla has a City Problem; Who’s cronies?; This report is a declassified version of a highly classified assessment; No democracy emergent; If lighting is 10% of UK household energy, could we spend £18bn replacing light bulbs instead of adding 7% capacity?; Photon theft; All praise our Guardian of future jobs; “Our service is cyber-hardened’’ synonymous with “Our service is weak”; “It’s not the size that matters it’s the rotation through complex vector space”; Make data GREAT again; Are your Dreams Rewired?; EFF threat model changed; “They’re like monsters hiding under your bed”; Already going back and forth in 2017 truthiness; Brain hacking with architecture; Anyone who says they can’t be more efficient by >10% is lying; data infrastructure sustainability; unimaginable refugee crisis; what are the second and third order impacts of open APIs, AI and robots?; Dangerous planet; New power fantasy; Judgement will become more valuable; The game is over; Eno jumps out of a saucepan; “TV snow” was partly CMBR; open is better for resilient cities; NASA’s electromagnetic drives?; Auto-generate music via a single tweet; the 2016 EU tech scene; Neural networks knows sounds by looking; #transparencyTech; Rogue One is just military propaganda; Synaptic fatigue; Modular contracting; Is it a bird?; Leaders eat last, in some places at least; Prince Charles says that new technology could be the “eventual murderer of the soul of mankind”; Quantum computing is real; Measuring impact latency with cricket; The strategy is delivery again again again; Design for the distribution of power; BitTorrent Now and again; The economy’s hidden illness; Did a murder echo?; Goto Open 2017; NOON states; Joi pollutes the Sex Pistols with Trump; there is no official measure of quarterly growth in London’s economy; How to get to next?; Alternative quantum is there not there; Surveillance self defense; Post-truth truth: junk in junk out.
- Send me links by whatever means you like
- Share a coffee to discuss one of these things with someone else
And, lastly, your starter actions.
- Stop and look deeply
- Work together to build a generative future
- Don’t pretend we know; be open and learn
- Bear witness to what is happening and take informed, compassionate, and courageous responsibility
- Reach through differences, listen deeply, and empower.
[words adapted from Roshi]