Energy Babble: networked radio broadcasting internet content

A series of figures presented in the NORDES paper about Energy Bubble.

A series of figures presented in the NORDES paper about Energy Bubble.

Matthew Plummer-Fernandez – who leads a workshop at ECAL this week for the IIClouds project – pointed me to this intriguing project he was part of, with fellow colleagues at Goldsmith (Tobie Kerridge, Liliana Ovale, and Alex Wilkie). It's called "Energy Babble" (see the paper published at the Nordic Design Research Conference 2013). It's a networked radio appliance drawing content from online sources:

"Synthesised speech files are published from a server for immediate playback by the devices. These sound files are derived from texts from a range of sources, including twitter accounts and policy and activist news publishers. Speech files are also algorithmically generated by the system drawing on historic utterances, also triggered by energy events, and taken from user contributions via the devices’ microphones."

Why do I blog this? Matthew's currently leading a workshop about "botcaves", the hardware required to run bots. He mentioned this project that I find interesting as a way to materialize the aggregation of digital content.



“Real Prediction Machines”

Real Prediction Machines (Auger-Loizeau with Alan Murray and Subramanian Ramamoorthy, 2014) is an intriguing design project about prediction and anticipation based on the explosion of digital data. As explained by Auger-Loizeau:

"This project explores how data and algorithms could be reclaimed for personal use - individuals can select a specific event to be predicted such as a domestic argument; the likelihood of ones own death or the chances of a meteor strike. A service provider then determines the necessary data/sensory inputs required for an algorithm to predict the event. The output from the algorithm controls a visual display on the prediction machine, informing the owner if the chosen event is approaching, receding or impending."

Why do I blog this? I find it relevant to wonder about how specific products and objects can reflect and make tangible the so-called predictions algorithms can provide based on digital data. That's the point here with Auger-Loizeau's project and I'm intrigued by the "modern-mechanical" aesthetic and the absence of a screen; which is an important aspect I think.

New book about 8-bit reggae

Photo by Ferdinand Dervieux.

Photo by Ferdinand Dervieux.

A new dispatch from the Near Future Laboratory: this book that documents the curious collision between video-game culture and reggae music. It's called "8-Bit Reggae: Collision and Creolization" and it's co-published by Volumique (Paris) and the laboratory. As described on their shop:

"it's a book about the unexpected and intriguing culture collision between video game culture and reggae/dub. Why were 8-bit machines like the Commodore 64 or the Nintendo NES used to recreate Jamaicans riddims ? How did such a curious assemblage of rhythms, objects and game systems happen ? Was it because of the nature of the various sub-cultures ? Or was it just a fortuitous exchange between reggae music and 8-bit computing ? This book answers these questions and address the unlikely encounter of Jamaican music with the video game world."

Photo by Ferdinand Dervieux.

Photo by Ferdinand Dervieux.

Although this kind of topic is super niche, it's part of an ongoing effort at the Near Future Laboratory to document intriguing digital practices. After an earlier project about game controller and their evolution, this one's more focused on a niche community that tells a lot about cultural production/consumption.

Photo by Ferdinand Dervieux.

Photo by Ferdinand Dervieux.

Thanks a lot Etienne Mineur for the support/art direction/interest, Julie Chane-Hive for her design contribution, Michèle Laird for the proofreading. Special thanks to Joël Vacheron and Basile Zimmermann for their insightful comments and discussions about this work; the project would have never ben possible without you. Big up to Dubmood, Goto80, Disrupt, Blaise Deville, Paul-Edouard “LEGO Sounds” Mias, Pupajim, WellWell Sound, and Takashi Kawano for their time chatting about 8-bit reggae music.

The Internet of Things at the flea market


I think it's William Gibson who said that part of his speculation process was based on thinking how a piece of technology might end up on the dusty shelves of a pawn shop. That thought came up this morning while running across these two boxes of the Nabaztag. It's intriguing to see "the second first wireless rabbit" (that is, the 2.0 version of the Internet of Things posterchild) in a crappy box along with an air blower, a set of glasses, a polaroid and a deck of playing cards.

Coincidentally, I've heard that the Nabaztag, after almost ten years of bons et loyaux services, is going to be discontinued. So long and thanks for all the fish!

Green background for VFX?

A blank billboard seen in Paris.

A blank billboard seen in Paris.

The green (and sometimes blue) blank billboards in the corridor of the Paris subway are always fascinating to me. It feels like the sudden backdrop for virtual effects. I guess there's a reason for this but this possibility leaves me curious about its potential.

Possibly more intriguing than boring Augmented Reality apps.

Futures? An interview with Sophia Al-Maria

After the interviews of Warren Ellis and Bruce Sterling for my book about the disappearance of "big futures", design fictions, the role of science-fiction, etc. here's the discussion with Sophia Al-Maria on Gulf Futurism:

Nicolas Nova: Gulf Futurism, as I understand it, corresponds to a clash between traditions and modernity in the Gulf, related with the pervasive influence of various sorts of technologies (smartphone, camera, networks among others). What makes it unique (considering other places experienced a similar influence)?

Sophia Al-Maria: My original thinking around Gulf Futurism as an umbrella term for a wide array of things happening to the people and the places around me was to do with the quiet tragedy occurring. People were losing freedoms and a grip on reality. They were narritivizing a history that never really happened. I guess I was also reading a lot of Baudrillard at the time and it all made sense, this sort of exodus from reality into something climate controlled and out of touch with ‘nature’ and truth. There was/is  an abdication of control to circumstance. An easy adoption of technology is also key. When I was 16 for a girl to have a mobile was shameful. Now my 12 year old sister has an ipad but barely enough to eat every day from the rations divvied out between 14 people in a on-salary household. The focus is totally upended. Survival = being on the next level. Not sustaining your body.

NN: How do you see the situation evolving in the coming years (because of social/political/technological change)? Do you see this kind of aesthetic evolving?

SAM: I’m wary of aesthetics. They are a distraction. And seem to be everywhere these days. Maybe that’s why I’m not a very good visual artist. Of course there are people forging an ‘aesthetic’ out of the cultural specifics of the region. See the GCC collective.

NN: How does this notion of Gulf Futurism translate into everyday life/culture in the Gulf? (I'm thinking about music, visual arts, everyday products, packaging)

SAM: The mall is the stage for the transitions taking place and so the most important symbol of Gulf Futurism next to the mobile phone.

I think there is a global alienation becoming clear in the sort of hyper-refined and homogenated corporate omni-presence. There was a charming sort of … amateurism – maybe that’s the wrong word but – yeah- something unperfect in local products or at the very least a cultural specificity in imports like Miswak toothpaste from India or dairy from Saudi which is almost gone. Now it’s the mallmentia effect. I can’t tell if I’m in Hong Kong or LA or Dubai half the time I walk into a mall and that happens more and more these days because the mall is the dominant structure of a certain class group of which I am part. I literally find myself in malls whether on holiday or on my way home from work or on a weekend even and I am frequently confused as to how I even got there. It’s a place of weird pilgrimage in an era where to consume is to absolve yourself.

Joyce Nelson compared the mannequins in store fronts to statues of saints and apostles at the entrance of a cathedral and the  changing room to a confession booth in her 1991 essay The Temple of Fashion and I think it’s true. An insidious evangelism has taken place without us knowing.

I observe this in the Gulf but it’s happening globally. Perhaps it’s more visible in the Gulf due to obvious cultural signifiers. And the darkness of things like segregation and the ‘public’ space of a mall becoming changeable.

futNN: Why "Futurism"? What's the future component of these phenomena?

Originally I threw that word out there because of the speed. The acceleration with which money has forced us to change, the speed of the hideous youth-in-car crash which is a daily sight. Bodies in the road. Casualties from our tiny local population lie on the side of the road in my daily commutes, thrown through their windshields, indifferent. There is a really bleak nihilism in youth culture. Also, I was thinking about the sort of basic concepts of ‘futurism’ in the classical sense before I had truly understood how dead the future is. I’ve gone through the process of grieving the ‘future’ as the 20th century imagined it. The Gulf is just a location where it experienced a brief flurry of possibility.

SAM: I'm generally intrigued by how cultural trends influence people's representation of the future. This is why I'm curious about Gulf Futurism. I wonder: how do you think such aesthetic and cultural phenomenon can be important or relevant for Westerners (let's assume there is such thing as "Western people")?

Assuming that, I think whatever aesthetic one might align with an idea of Gulf Futurism is again, a culturally non-specific one. A corporate one. An isolated one. A shiny, glitzy version of the dystopia rising elsewhere. Here you don’t have to experience suffering. It will be regulated, medicated etc. You don’t have to see the grist of the mill, they will be hidden as is the case with labor in the region. That’s not to say there isn’t a cultural stamp of Arabness on this. But I find it to be much more to do with corporate culture and aspirations and very occasionnally what shards are left of the failed utopic dream of pan-Arabism which sometimes rears its head in the Gulf in strange places.

“Computational journalism”

This idiom is new to me but I guess it makes sense these days. It's also an event ("symposium") with a live coverage here. The material in there is impressive and curious, see for yourself:

"Journalists and computer scientists increasingly are working together to develop innovative methods of reporting and telling news stories. Consider:

Why do I blog this? Im polishing a manuscript on algorithms and cultural production, which is strangely orthogonal to this set of examples.

IICloud(s) – Inhabiting and Interfacing the Cloud(s)

CERN, Geneva.

CERN, Geneva.

Update from the front here: a new project I recently started at the Geneva School of Art and Design (HEAD – Genève) with my colleague Charles Chalas, along with Patrick Keller, Christophe Guignard, Christian Babski (fabric/ECAL) and Lucien Langton from ECAL, as well as the architecture team of Dieter Dietez (EPFL) and EPFL-ECAL Lab (Nicolas Henchoz) in Lausanne.

Funded by the RCSO (a local research body here in Switzerland), it's called "IICloud(s) – Inhabiting and Interfacing the Cloud(s)" and it addresses the design and the user experience of personal clouds. Here's the project proposal abstract:

This design research project explores the creation of counter-proposals to the current expression of “Cloud Computing”, particularly in its forms intended for private individuals and end users (“Personal Cloud”). It is to offer a critical appraisal of this “iconic” infrastructure of our modernity and its user interfaces, because to date their implementation has followed a logic chiefly of technical development, governed by the commercial interests of large corporations, and continues to be seen partly as a purely functional, centralized setup. However, the Personal Cloud holds a potential that is largely untapped in terms of design, novel uses and territorial strategies. Through its cross-disciplinary approach, our project aims at producing alternative models resulting from a more contemporary approach, notably factoring in the idea of creolization. From a practical standpoint, the project is intended to produce speculative versions of the “Personal Cloud” in the form of prototypes (whether functional or otherwise) of new interfaces, data processing, reactive environments and communicating objects. To do this, the project will be built around three dimensions forming the relevant pillars of a cross-disciplinary approach: interaction design, the architectural and territorial dimension, and the ethnographic dimension.


Our intention is to address the following questions with a series of workshops:

-    How to combine the material part with the immaterial, mediatized part? What functions are given concrete form through physical means and what others through digital means? Does physical concretization involve nearness to the Data Center? Can we imagine the geographical fragmentation of these setups? (Interaction design, architecture).

-    Might new interfaces with access to ubiquitous data be envisioned that take nomadic lifestyles into account and let us offer alternatives to approaches based on a “universal” design?[v] Might these interfaces also partake of some kind of repossession of the data by the end users? (Interaction design, ethnography).

-    What symbioses can be found by occupying the ground and the space between men and machines? Where and how is this ground, are these “expanses”, to be occupied? Are they to be camped in, to maintain mobility? Settled on a long-term basis? How do we factor in obsolescence factors? What setups and new combinations of functions need devising for a partly deterritorialized, nomadic lifestyle? Can the Cloud/Data Center itself be mobile [vi](Architecture, interaction design, ethnography).

-    Might symbioses also be developed at the energy and climate levels (e.g. using the need to cool the machines, which themselves produce heat, in order to develop living strategies there)? If so, with what users (humans, animals, plants)? (Architecture, ethnography).

More about it here.

“How you can hack your blood pressure implant to provide fake and healthy data to an insurance company”


"how biomedical data sent wirelessly from a human body, might be re-appropriated by services other than the remote healthcare. This discussion about data monitoring was developed in Nelly Ben Hayoun’s project Cathy the Hacker. Hayoun designed props and made short films documenting “how you can hack your blood pressure implant” to provide fake, healthy data to an insurance company that is monitoring the fictional Cathy’s lifestyle in order to make decisions on the premium she should pay on her health insurance. Through an interview and follow up conversations with Murphy, Hayoun devised hacks which included attaching a sensor to an energetic pet cat, in order to generate a surrogate data set, while “The closing spin cycle of the washing machine also does a good job”

Find in: Kerridge, T. (2009). Does speculative design contribute to public engagement of science and technology? Proceedings of Swiss Design Network Symposium‘09, Lugano.

Why do I blog this? A good example of a phenomenon that may or may not happen in the near future.

Networked lingerie for book reading

Paris, 2014.

Paris, 2014.

Some people are never short of good ideas, so to say. I run across this ad in Paris the other day. The notion of a networked pyjama seems slightly odd (slightly in the sense of "everything's can be connected to the network these days I'm not surprised). So I typed different combinations of keywords into a common search engine and I discovered that Etam – a French lingerie company – decided to create a weird contraption: a QR-code-enabled (this is the "networked" bit) panty/nuisette/pyjama that allows the owner to read short stories on a smartphone. Because yes, it's the rentrée littéraire these days in France (the period of the year in which more than 600 books are released) and people may find it fun to read stuff by scanning underwear... which is why this is the first collection of networked PJs. This thing is designed by Smartnovel, a company focused on new reading experiences.

Why do I blog this? Well, I didn't expect this kind of networking ability, I originally thought this would be some sort of huggable pyjamas but it seems far weirder. It would intriguing to know who actually used it this way (a common question with QR codes these days) and whether anyone conducted a focus group to ask what people may think about when told they can have a connected piece of lingerie. What's next? I mean, the kind of stuff we've put in the TBD catalog is definitely not far-fetched compared to this.

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