RCA CX Lab Modelling the Digital Public Space

Modelling the digital public space by Kevin Walker

Giant insects were projected onto the wall, along with a diagram of a rabid raccoon biting a dog, showing how infection spreads to the brain.

Tabletops were covered with maps, drawings, schematics. Hanging sculptures and plasticine forms represented network structures. An entire room was transformed into a semi-permeable, walk-in database. Someone wore a paper hood, calling it an invisibility cloak.

This was what happened when leading designers, technologists, scientists, broadcasters and academics came together to model 'digital public space,' on 19 February 2013 at the Royal College of Art, London, in an event organised by the Creative Exchange, a network funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. A longer-lasting result of the day will be three funded projects investigating what happens when people, place and technology meet.

Setting the space

The day was led by Professor Neville Brody, and set in the RCA's School of Communication in which he serves as Dean. A recurring theme was the meeting of physical and digital, old and new, which was appropriate to the grand visions discussed and projected onto the walls of the School's Victorian-era drawing room, now called the Performing Arts Lab. Prof. Brody began the day by discussing with the BBC's Bill Thompson new notions of a digital archive, which as Brody said includes things that happened a fraction of a second ago. Thompson agreed, noting, "I'm helping to make the BBC make the transition fm being a broadcaster to being a publisher."

In envisioning the structure of digital public space, biological metaphors prevailed. The concept of digital public space began with Brody and Thompson dreaming of ways the BBC Archive – every TV and radio programme ever broadcast, with associated scripts, location information, metadata, outtakes etc – could best be made public. They soon realised that what they were talking about was much larger – a kind of living, evolving cultural genome of the UK.

It was entirely appropriate, therefore, that Geraint Rees was invited in to pose a few provocations for the day. Rees is a Professor of Cognitive Neurology at University College London, and he likened the digital with the neuro-physical. Yes, the Internet might be affecting our brains, he said, but no more than anything else does; all those damning claims that the net is making us dumber are entirely unsupported by evidence. In his own research, he found he can predict the relative number of Facebook friends someone might have just by looking at pictures of their brain. But this, he said, says nothing about causality – someone with lots of Facebook friends is just as likely to have a lot of real-world friends.

Thus, noted David Saxby of Architecture 00, attempts to impose a top-down structure on digital systems, such as digital rights management and other forms of copyright protection, were doomed to fail – due simply to the massive processing power of titans like Google, as well as the smartphones we all carry in our pockets. Professor Jeremy Myerson, who co-leads the Creative Exchange (CX) hub at the RCA with Prof. Brody, described an incident a century ago, in which a woman, upon seeing her first automobile, attempted to fend it off with her umbrella, as she would a horse. Like her, he said, we don't know what's coming toward us.

Given that, Prof. Brody suggested, perhaps 'digital public space' wasn't the right name. After all, he mused, the Industrial Revolution wasn't called the Steam Revolution. Maybe we should call it The Common Good, he said.

No matter what it's called, it's already filled with stuff. Objects, according to BBC's Bill Thompson – described objects. Ideally, the objects should be well-formed and the descriptions adequate enough that they constitute objects themselves. And, Prof. Brody added, these objects can be self-aware, knowing where they are and have been, what's around them, who interacts with them and when.

Digital space, physical models

There were objects aplenty, created in a series of breakout sessions in which participants explored different takes on the topic. Isabel Froes of IT University Copenhagen led one of these, teasing out the public and private, personal and social aspects and having people render them physically in plasticine and paper. CX PhD student Veronica Ranner displayed a sort of data organism, expanding outward in several directions. David Saxby came up with a time series of village, flat earth and globe. It was Mike Stubbs, Director of FACT, who donned the paper 'invisibility cloak.'

Ben Dalton, another CX PhD candidate, was responsible for the provocative images of bugs and rabid raccoons; his session resulted in an assortment of 2D and 3D maps of the amorphous digital public space, as well as some useful analogies. Ed Baxter of Resonance FM prompted discussion about radios as an interface to the digital – What would the new radio be? What was the spectrum comprised of. And who would own the antenna? Max Van Kleek of Southampton University came up with something intriguingly called the 'floordrobe.' Phil Booth of Mydex said as he fashioned something out of plastic, "I'm working on the range from the quantum foam all the way up to complex adaptive systems."

In another session led by Prof. David Gauntlett of Westminster University, participants fashioned tiny, conceptual versions of themselves out of Lego, then made a (literal) model of digital public space with input, output and data storage. The group led by the RCA's John Fass did the same thing – but at walk-in scale.

Curation & navigation

Two recurring themes that emerged were curation and navigation. (The day itself was expertly curated by the RCA CX Hub's Bronac Ferran.) Referring to museums, Bill Thompson wondered if the equivalent of Facebook graph search was available for the entire catalogues of every cultural institution, what that might do to the work of curators? What might emerge? Cultural institutions differ, Thompson said, from institutions like the BBC in that the former conduct scholarly research. A scholar making a discovery, for example, in a text at the British Library might not want to immediate trumpet this on Twitter until he established provenance and published his findings for rigorous scrutiny by peers.

Sam Leon of the Open Knowledge Foundation was already engaged in various forms of digital curation, and showed some use cases for building a digital commons. For example, the Public Domain Review which presents curated content that's been freed from copyright – including Charles Babbage's brain; Textus, an open-source tool for collaborative annotation of electronic texts; and Crowdcrafting, making it easy to solve problems that people, not computers, are good at.

How should people navigate the digital public space? Priya Prakash – who helped design the BBC's iPlayer among many other things – quoted designer Raymond Loewy: "If you design the car, you design the car accident." Indeed, Isabel Froes pointed out that navigation, too, is not the right word: in the digital world there is no north. David Saxby suggested paragliding as a useful source of inspiration, in which navigation is all relative to the user. UCL neurologist Parahksev Nachev said that there is an often unstated assumption by technologists that the user knows what she or he wants, and personalisation and recommendation systems are often too simplistic because sometimes we aren't simply looking for things closest to our interests. That's why he's using cluster analysis on high-dimensional datasets to help bring people different perspectives. Suki Rai of M&C Saatchi Mobile, too, envisioned something like an exploration engine instead of a search engine, which could harness location and other automatically-generated data to aim for serendipity instead of precision.

Putting it into practice

There is clearly already solid groundwork for the projects that will emerge from the CX Lab event. In addition to those already mentioned, Big Art Mob was represented by Kai Turner; its mobile app and online database of public art has gone hugely international, and is now looking to become a platform for research – imagine exploring the history of public art over time in the location you're at right now. Archaeologist Gareth Beale of Southampton University specialises in 3D data and virtual spaces, but is aiming for real people in real spaces to take part in crowdsourced archaeological interpretation. And Priya Prakash's latest venture is Changify, making people into citizen journalists, translating stories into action. This kind of citizen-led innovation, said the RCA CX hub's Jo-Anne Bichard, will lead to projects that are novel, innovative, relevant and have lasting impact. Watch for announcements soon.

Kevin Walker leads the Information Experience Design programme at the RCA