Writing about talking


Last night I spoke at LDNIA. It’s the first time I’ve spoken at a thing for a while. Two reasons for that.

1) I haven’t had anything to say for a while. I wanted to wait until I’d made some things rather than just reckoned about them. I’ve been with GDS for a year and a half now, and I’m comfortable talking about what I’ve been up to (although, to be honest, you’re probably better off asking Sarah Richards to say something instead. Seriously. I’ll put you in touch if you want – she’s brilliant).

2) The last talk I gave was a eulogy for my Grandad. You know, I didn’t think that was a thing until I realised that it was, absolutely, a thing. The last time I spoke I had to fight very hard not to step away from the lectern – funerals are nothing like anything.

Hannah’s post the other day reminded me that stacks of energy goes into talking. Or, at least, that I try and put a lot in. They can wipe you out, when you put a lot of yourself into them. I haven’t been doing them all that long – often it feels like a novelty.

I get so much more out of them though. I work out what I think about stuff when I write a talk, and how I feel about things when I perform one. That’s a valuable thing.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying to those who came last night ‘Thanks’. You were lovely. It would have been my Grandad’s birthday yesterday, and it felt fitting to be exercising a bit of my brain that’s been dormant for a while. Thanks also to Matt for inviting me – much appreciated.


I’m heading to Hamburg next month, where I’ll be chatting to the local IxDA community about Storytelling.

I’ll be developing some of the themes that came up during my Playful talk, namely how the veneer of narrative is becoming increasingly important to even the sketchiest and most impulsive of hacks. Which is a verbose way of saying ‘I’ll be talking about words and whimsy’.

I’ve been invited by Birgit Geiberger, one of the wonderful people who made Utrecht such a delight last autumn, and the good folk at XING. It’s going to be fun!

Pocket Scale now online

Pocket Scale, my talk for dConstruct 2011, is now online. If you find yourself with half an hour spare you can spend it watching me wield a sonic screwdriver onstage in Brighton.

The other talks are a treat too (in particular I’d urge you to check out Kars Alfrink and Dan Hon if you’ve got time).

A massive Thank You again to all at Clearleft for having me.

Image nicked from Lanyrd‘s blog. Sorry/Thanks Nat!

Music face

On Friday, I’ll be in Utrecht at Design By Fire talking about data, storytelling and awesome photos of Jupiter in The data will improve rockets*. I’m on early, 9.30 in fact, so I’ll be able to soak up the other talks as the day rolls on.

I’ll also be projecting my ‘listening to music’ face on a screen much taller than myself (see below) and taking the sonic on another outing. It should be a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to yomping about a new city for a few hours.

(If you’re in Utrecht, or know it well, then do tweet any cafe recommendations to me – @mattsheret)

A few days later, back in fair old London town, I’ll be talking about NASA as Storyteller at sameAs Space. Much shorter piece this so hopefully I won’t have time to inflict the image above on the assembled crowd.

If you’re in London then come along; sameAs Space is free, just head along to The Driver near King’s Cross on Monday (17th October).

* This is actually a very different talk to the one I gave at SkillSwap Brighton with the same name. It is, however, a great name.


dConstruct was fabulous. Lots of fun with a few hundred lovely, lovely people, not to mention some really interesting talks.

I talked about design at the scale of pockets, and how we use the contents of our pockets to humanise huge networks. It went well, thanks in no small part to my prop; a sonic screwdriver that operated my slides.

My sonic is a blend of a wireless remote and a sonic screwdriver toy. The spring mechanism was stripped out of the screwdriver, with space made for the working parts of the remote. The ‘hidden’ button on the toy was removed, and replaced by one which triggered the remote. Meanwhile a new button was added further up the handle to make sure the glowing lights and sounds still worked. After that it’s just a matter of plugging the remote’s receiver into my laptop and hitting play on Keynote.

Simple! Well, not so much. Jonty‘s description of the fiddly wiring has left me gobsmacked at his patience, and the last thing he said to me was that a) the batteries might be quite low, and b) replacing them would be a nightmare. The expression on his face said ‘Matthew, this is going to fail during your talk’.

Luckily fear is a great motivator.

The genesis of the sonic screwdriver came from a few directions. Seeds were planted watching James and Russell talk, who have both used props in the past to tremendous effect (the Iraq War Wikihistoriography and the Big Red Button in particular), plus I’ve had some really warm experiences with the hacking community in London in the last year which really I wanted to surface in some kind of way.

Not only that, but it was important for me to ground what I wanted to talk about with a thing. I’m not a product designer or a maker, but I was talking to those disciplines, urging attendees to think about intimate contexts. The sonic channeled all of my enthusiasm and all of my themes into a grab-able, fragile, brilliant toy, helping me throw focus both onstage and while I wrote the talk.

So a huge thank you to Jonty Wareing, who worked on this when he’d have been better off sleeping. It worked like a charm sir (although I’m sorry I put this photo on a screen in front of 800 people).

Huge thanks also to all at Clearleft, who put on a brilliant show.


Playful is a one-day event all about games and play — in all their manifestations, throughout the contemporary media landscape. It’s a conference for architects, artists, designers, developers, geeks, gurus, gamers, tinkerers, thinkerers, bloggers, joggers, and philosophers.

…and I’ll be talking at it this year. I’ll be thinking out loud about frothing, the real world spillover from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay sessions GM’d by Kieron and – of course – Time Lords.

Come and watch; 21st October at Conway Hall. Awesome guests are already lining up, and you should join the awesome audience.

Telling stories

SkillSwap in Brighton is an irregular series of tiny, free speaking events which showcase diverse approaches to one area or talent.

After my spot at History Hack Day I was invited along to the next one, which will be all about stories. It’s next Wednesday night at Lighthouse, and my blurb goes a little something like this;

The data will improve rockets

Narratives shape our journeys through data, and those stories don’t have to be complicated to have a huge impact. All you have to do is think about your audience – your companions – and where you want to take them.

Needless to say, it’ll be chock full of words, pictures and Doctor Who references.

Also up are Phil Gyford, whose talk about Pepy’s Diary is a treat, and Gavin O’Carroll who’ll be sharing some insights into Spacelog, a site I adore.

Should be fun. You should come.

Tom‘s done some illustrations for my slides; more on these next week…


I spoke at History Hack Day this past weekend. It was a lot of fun! I ducked out before the presentations because I felt a bit poorly on Sunday, but by all accounts they were a fabulous bunch.

Many thanks to Matt Patterson for inviting me along and for kind words from the likes of Jeremy Keith. Here’s a version of that talk, but with less hand-waving, fewer post-it notes and less direct references to hacks…

My day-to-day job is as Last.fm’s Data Griot. The ‘data’ part of that isn’t so important; we have scientists who work with the algorithms at the heart of Last.fm and I don’t get hands-on with numbers. The ‘Griot’ part is though. Griot basically means storyteller; my job is to turn Last.fm’s numbers into stories that say something about the pop-culture they’re a part of.

Stories are what this is mostly going to be about, but I want to start with a confession; I’ve never really ‘gotten’ hack days. I’ve always been really drawn to them – the collective effort, the sense you’re breaking data sets apart to find toys inside, there’s a joy in that – but I don’t have the skill-set to take part. I felt that as a writer I’m technically useful to maybe eight people in the room, and only then if they include a button on their interface.

History Hack Day, more than the others I’ve been aware of, piqued my interest just a tiny bit more. I liked the idea that what people would be hacking has a real-world impact, and could shape our understanding of the past.

I really liked that History Hack Day might generate stories.

When I think of important stories in history I think of one man. His influence can be seen felt across history, oral and written, and his impact on contemporary culture is staggering. For the developer community the stories he’s a part of can take on a whole new layer of meaning. I’m talking about this man; The Doctor.

His adventures have been chronicled nearly continuously for the last 48 years. He’s been an observer – and a participant – in every world-changing moment in our time. He saw the fires start on Pudding Lane, saw Pompeii’s lava crack the ground, and he’s hidden in a bunker with Winston Churchill. He’s seen the beginning and end of earth, time, humanity and his own race; the Time Lords. And he’s awesome.

As a fictional construction he has repeatedly been dislocated from the times he understands and that his viewers, or readers, comprehend. In many ways I feel that time travelers and characters like The Doctor prepared us for the real-time web, by helping us understand temporal alienation in the context of entertainment. We came to fear not the process, but the enemies who exploit that process.

Whenever The Doctor exists his incarnations fixate on the now. When you or I can flit between archives or play games like Wiki races – when we can wormhole through history – feeling tethered to the present becomes incredibly important.

That’s where the power of stories comes in; if you’re a Time Lord then your perception and experience of the passage of time bears no relation to the human perception and experience of time. A narrative, a tale, replaces that. It provides the grounding that you might otherwise experience simply by living in linear time.

At the same time this has enabled us to see even more clearly just how the clues required to solve problems forty years in the future might need to be encoded in the walls and furniture of today. The archives we leave behind have impact beyond our wildest expectations. All of which sounds much more serious than it needs to, but stories are like that.

What we’re used to seeing, now, is the memeic nature of ideas and history playing out before our eyes. The degrees of separation between influencer and influenced are impossibly small, and I’m as likely to get a link to a cool music video from an economics editor as I am a band. As James Darling’s snapshot of tweets last week shows, this stuff happens really quickly, and very naturally (and degrades just as naturally/quickly).

But we’re terrible at matching up that kind of cross-pollination in historic terms. I’ve never known of the Library of Alexandria explained in such a way, as the product of collective thought and shared ideas. But now we’re starting to get access to disparate enough sets of information to be able to join those dots, and articulate history in somewhat less monolithic terms.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and these ideas are lost. I hope they’re not.

SpaceLog does something like this. It’s a project initiated at /dev/fort full of exposable, explorable stories that join up into grander narratives. You spend time with SpaceLog, you get a bit lost in it. Part of that’s the raw appeal of the stars – all that space – but a lot of it comes from casually laying bare the human facets of spacemen; from forgetting to file a tax return to wrestling a tiny craft back home. These are stores that might otherwise be untold – it takes hacks and tim-boxed projects to surface them.

Some stories surface in more abstract ways. James Bridle’s glanceable Romance Has Lived Too Long Upon This River is an elegant page that shows the height of the Thames at time of viewing. It’s pulled together to show, in about as graphic a manner as possible, what a body of water that defines a city is doing. I’d love to see it overflow. I’d love to see version that works alongside Peter Ackroyd’s Thames: Sacred River to illustrate to readers how deep the Thames was breathing through the ages.

Then there’s this; a recent data-vis from The Guardian about deaths in 2009, a very recent history. It’s less cheerful, less glanceable, less comfortable to dwell on, but it still packs an emotional thump. And it wants you to ask questions about it, it wants you to map your own stories to it. It makes the reader question where one’s number might fall. And, off to the right, there’s a strange and scary number. It’s small compared to the others, less than one four hundredth of the big number in the middle, but it’s context is terrifying. It says “unknown causes”.

What else in the timeline might shed light on these? What dots have we been so far unable to join up? What are the stories here?

That’s the thing about having all this history at your fingertips; you might want to poke it into some fairly alien shapes: I’d love to know if the Old Bailey has ever seen monsters through its doors; as bombs fell about London what plays might Londoners have been getting ready to watch; what correlation do alien sightings have with “gas leaks” or “commercial airliners traveling new routes”; where and when did the bees go?

Craig Ferguson, a Scottish-American chat show host, had Matt Smith – the latest actor to play The Doctor – on, and he came up with an incredible description of Doctor Who

It’s about “The Triumph Of Intellect And Romance Over Brute Force And Cynicism”

Who wants to leave this life without leaving something behind that sparkles with intellect and romance?

You have history at your fingertips right now, so think about the places you want to go. Think about the places you’ve been. Try to think about the companions you want to take with you; some of them will be Time Lords – expert travelers just like you – but some of them won’t be, and they might want their hands held a little. Think about all of those fascinating branches of history you’ve always wanted to explore, all those wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey bits.

Think about the stories you want to tell; think about the stories you want your companions to tell. Most of all just think about stories.

History Hack Day

This week has felt a little bit like running a marathon from a cold start, one of the downsides being that I’ve completely failed to mention that I’ll be talking at History Hack Day tomorrow.

It’ll be my first roadtest of some thoughts on stories and time; think of them as post-it notes towards something more joined up.

Hopefully it’ll be fun, fast and filled with ideas. On top of which I’m really looking forward to seeing what hacks come out of the weekend.

See you there!