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The satellite lamps show the behaviour of the GPS network. Each lamp shows how certain the network is of its position by changing the brightness; the brighter the lamp the more certain the position. That means interacting with a system of 32 satellites orbiting just under 16,000 miles above our heads.

In my understanding of the objects there’s no translation into metaphor. They tell no stories and, presumably, tell no lies. They make visible a thing I cannot see, even if I traveled to a satellite to take a look.

07 September 2013

After seeing these at the Immaterials opening in Brighton on Wednesday night I spent a good few days by the beach thinking about the legibility of pervasive, invisible, essential networks. A well-placed reference to the Eames Office by Timo at Improving Reality meant I spent the rest of the weekend thinking in narrative terms about the things we could do at GDS to describe the infrastructure we’re linked to.

(I’m not convinced that it’s work that should be of GDS, but we’ve got access to some of the best people in the world at making things on-, with-, and of-the-web, so we should ask them how they’d describe it.)

To do that probably means abstraction though. It probably means metaphor. And that’s a troubling place to have to go because these things are so important. Whose metaphor? Whose abstraction?

(That was another big theme of Improving Reality; the systems we’ve built are the product of choices, choices borne by those in positions of knowledge and power and privilege.)

Objects like the lamps avoid some of those problems. As with any good visualisation of data, they don’t need the functions of story to make a reality evident. They simply are.

I hope there’s a model for talking about this stuff tucked into the GOV.UK style guide: “Always avoid metaphors…¬†you can generally get rid of them by breaking the term into what you are actually doing.” That’s hard when we already describe the network by borrowing terms from systems developed over thousands of years, but it’s not impossible.

BERG London fetishise industry like no-one else I know. From the lab coats to the project codenames they attach the significance of broadcast towers to whimsy and product design, all laced with the kind of operational security that would make J. Edgar Hoover proud.

Which laid the groundwork for a lovely combination of split-screen viewing in the early hours of Friday morning. I went into the office early to prepare material for Interesting (more on that over on the We Are Words + Pictures blog) and set BERG’s talk ‘Immaterials‘ going on my laptop while my ‘second screen’ was tuned to broadcast footage from the Hurtigruten passage.

Norwegian channel NRK have been broadcasting the 134 hour passage of the Hurtigruten around the coastline this weekend (which Chris Heathcote writes about nicely here), and it’s a journey I’ll be joining part of in July. The sight of the cliffs, ports and passengers made for a perfect foil to the photons and plastic injection of BERG’s talk.

NRK’s broadcast is a reminder that we’ve been operating over tremendous distances and scales for hundreds of years, chasing the midnight sun across oceans and coastlines that should have broken us.

And while BERG’s Matt Jones and Jack Schulze cultivate a sense that they might not always be operating in the same timespace as the rest of us their articulation of BERG’s work to date hinges on physicality, on the constant brutality of particles, even when the objects they work with (RFIDs, Wi-Fi, touch screens, ultraviolet light and the abstract concept of happiness among others) appear to leave no trace.

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