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July 18, 2005

Witless waffle

I know it's the silly season for news, but a tech story on BBC News today wins my prize for the year's most witless tech waffle. Headlined "UK 'could become hi-tech titan'", the story refers to a report (unnamed and unreferenced) by consulting firm Deloitte that urges "swift action" (by who it does not say) "because overseas competition was threatening to eclipse the UK's advantages". And who is behind this blood- curdling warning of imminent danger? Fifty of the "UK's top technology opinion-formers", that's who. Utterly unswayed by the vast government subsidies that keeps many of them in work, this fearless 50 say disaster can only be averted if there is "co-operation and communication between all those involved in the UK's hi-tech sector - government, researchers, businesses and financiers".

Posted by John Thackara at 07:10 PM | Comments (0)

July 16, 2005

Spring cleaning

We're making made a number of changes and improvements to this site. (By "we" I mean Paul and Nique at Webtic in Amsterdam, and Kristi in France). Most of the changes are in the plumbing and designed to make existing stuff (we have a lot of stuff) easier to find. We're going live with the changes today and will spend the next couple of weeks cleaning up various dusty old rooms that nobody's been in for ages. If you run into an out-of-date text lying in a corner, let us know and we'll fix it: editor@doorsofperception.com

Posted by John Thackara at 08:10 AM | Comments (0)

July 15, 2005

Food that heats us up

Food 'miles' in the UK have risen dramatically over the past 10 years, are still rising, and have a significant impact on climate change, traffic congestion, accidents and pollution according to a report published yesterday, and reported in today's Guardian. Food transport accounts for 25% of all the miles driven by heavy goods vehicles on British roads. The use of heavy trucks to transport food has doubled since 1974 (in southern Europe, it's growing even faster). The dramatic increase has resulted in a rise in the amount of CO2 emitted by food transport: 19m tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted in the UK 2002 in the course of getting food to people, a 12% increase on 1992, the report says. Airfreight, the most polluting form of food transport, is growing fastest. Tim Lang, (one of the world's leading critics of industrialised food systems, and author of Food Wars ) is quoted as saying: "If the government doesn't take action to tackle this, all its proposals on climate change will be so much nonsense." A minister called Lord Bach, who launched the report in London, promised that the British government would "work with the industry to achieve a 20% reduction in the environmental and social costs of food transport by 2012". The words 'breath', 'hold', 'your', and 'don't' spring to mind: no British government is going to take meaningful action against an industry that combines food, logistics, massively powerful retailers, and spoiled consumers. We'll have to wait for a couple of massive eco-shocks before the policy framework will change. In the meantime, there's a lot of interesting service design to be done in support of the massive move towards sustainable food systems that is already underway.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:42 AM | Comments (0)

July 13, 2005

Watching the watchers

“The anthropologist starts by observing everyday life, with all its odd little patterns, and tries to work out how computers might fit into that”. (That was Gillian Tett in the FT). It sounds innocuous if you believe the insertion of computing into a daily life activity to be an ethically neutral act - but is it? In one of the livelier debates at Doors 8 in Delhi, some people found innovation enabled by anthropology to be neutral, others did not. I later ranted about amoral practices in adland. An opportunity to continue this debate is the first Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) which takes place in Redmond (hosted by Microsoft Research) in November. (The deadline for papers is 17 June, so don't delay if you want to contribute). The Epic website states that the conference will "promote the use of ethnographic investigations...in corporate settings" - and I found a picture of anthropology students at work in a particularly grim corporate setting in this paper. But the experience of our colleagues in South Asia at the Centre for Knowledge Societies (CKS) seems to be different. Their business clients usually ask them to look at 'ordinary' people on the street, or at home - not, per se, in offices.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:13 PM | Comments (0)

July 12, 2005

Back to normal?

Is this true? Gary Yonge reports from New York in today's Guardian that US newspapers are warning of threats to America from 'Londonistan'. "Articles on front pages of newspapers across the country describe the UK as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism that threatens global security" writes Yonge; (the newspapers report that) London has become a "feeding ground for hate" and a "crossroads for would-be terrorists" where Muslims exploit civil liberties to "openly preach jihad". I'm not going to get het up about this until I hear from someone else that it's a true reflection of US coverage. For now, I urge US readers here to read and pass around one of the most moving stories of the London bomings, yesterday's release of photographs of the missing. One of those missing, 20 year-old Shahara Akther Islam, is a young Briton from the East End of London, and a devout Muslim. The other faces represent the extraordinary variety of creed and colour that makes London such a great city. To me, as a wandering Brit, the real threat to civilisation comes not from radical muslims but from radical consumerism. Another UK story today is headlined "Bombs keep shoppers away"."The British Retail Consortium predicted £26m of losses since the bombs hit"the story intones gravely. "One retail analyst said the lower footfall, particularly on the day the bombs exploded, was not as bad as he had expected". Retail - what a charming industry. Not.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:53 AM | Comments (1)

July 11, 2005


The Australian writer Clive Hamilton is a terrific critic of consumerism. His books Growth Fetish and a new one called Affluenza describe a Western world "in the grip of a consumption binge that is unique in human history. We aspire to the lifestyles of the rich and famous at the cost of family, friends and personal fulfilment. Rates of stress, depression and obesity are up as we wrestle with the emptiness and endless disappointments of the consumer life". Australians, for example, are three times richer than their parents and grandparents were in the 1950s - but they are no happier. When asked whether they can afford to buy everything they really need, nearly two-thirds of Australians say ‘no’. Hamilton, arguing that "happiness comes from being content with what we have" suggests that governments should start to measure more of what really matters. In a Wellbeing Manifesto published out of the Australia Institute, which he runs, Hamilton argues that "we need a set of national wellbeing accounts that report on the quality of work, the state of our communities, crime rates, our health, the strength of our relationships, and the state of the environment. Governments should be judged by how much our wellbeing improves, not by how much the economy expands".

Posted by John Thackara at 06:27 PM | Comments (0)

Designers on the breadline

I like to keep track of the total I get when Googling "design" + "homeland security". The number six months ago was 1,310,000. Today, the score stands at 3,090,000. By a complete coincidence, the budget for Homeland Security rose to $41 billion by the end of 2004. Commenting on this paltry amount of money, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Christopher Cox said that the budget "represents good progress," but leaves some efforts "badly underfunded." Too true. After all, designers have to eat, right? If you're hungry, too, check out this list of design appetisers. Opportunities await sociologists,too.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:19 PM | Comments (0)

July 10, 2005

Locative infra in practice

The service design and art worlds are filled with amazing proposals for the civic use of wireless communications. But most of these will remain hypothetical unless efforts succeed to make wireless freely available - rather than a costly privatised utility. Esme Vos, Amsterdam-based editor of municipalwirelerss.com, is organising the first Municipal WiFi Conference in San Francisco in September. Vos, who has been covering the municipal wireless arena for over two years now, is uniquely well-informed about what it takes to deploy muni wireless successfully. Vos is putting together sessions on: Successfully deploying a mesh network; Calculating return on Investment (how do you identify and quantify the benefits of a wireless network to residents, businesses and local government?); How to get political and public support for your wireless network; Common applications (Meter reading. Public safety. Small business development).

Posted by John Thackara at 08:32 AM | Comments (0)

July 09, 2005

Street art pro and am

If you prefer interacting with people to gazing raptly at perspex building facades, you'll enjoy the amazing street art festival in Chalon-sur-Saône, 21-24 July. Later on (23-25 September) Label Rue is a B2B street art festival in Ganges, South of France. Label Rue, a smaller and more intimate event, brings together interesting artists and groups, with commissioners from cities where festivals and events are planned. In addition to a parade and performances in the old town on the Friday evening, there's a debate among the pros on the Saturday morning. You need to speak basic French to participate and/or to communicate with the organiser: lecalm@wanadoo.fr. (The reasons I bring these events to your attention are explained in this piece I wrote for Icon magazine about Arts De La Rue).

Posted by John Thackara at 11:15 AM | Comments (0)

July 08, 2005

Disruptive behaviour

A breathless email from Tony Perkins invites me to Stanford to watch lions eat Christians. Or so it sounds. Tony writes that his conference, Always On, is about “the sweet spots in the technology markets…where innovation is disrupting behavior and creating new business opportunities”. His website concludes, “come play in our spontaneous and uncensored arena”. The text does not specify whose behaviour is being disrupted, and whether we will all experience it as “sweet” when it happens. But something tells me the investors who dominate the AO roster don’t expect their own lives to be disrupted. For a moment I thought Chai Ling, former student leader at Tiananmen Square, was there to speak up for the forcibly disrupted masses; but it turns out she went on to do an MBA at Harvard and now runs a software company. Old-paradigm events like Always On don't matter if you regard disruptive innovation as inevitable, and therefore morally neutral. But if innovation - which used to be called modernisation - can make things worse, as well as better - should not innovators, and the guys who bankroll them, take responsibility for the consequences of their actions? Maybe I should stand outside the hall with a placard saying "Repent!".

Posted by John Thackara at 07:22 AM | Comments (2)

July 07, 2005

African response to G8

A range of African NGOs and organisations has expressed frustration and concern in response to statements from G8 that world leaders would solve Africa's problems with limited debt relief and increased aid. Writers and campaigners from a range of African countries have expressed their views in the Alternatives Commission for Africa report. For most of its contributors, the problem is that Africa needs less control by the IMF and the World Bank, not more. International financial institutions have failed Africa with flawed policies that centre on enforced privatisation and user charges. Blair's commission argues for an increased role for the private sector, and is focused on more input from Western transnational corporations.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:16 PM | Comments (0)

July 04, 2005

Dealing with good and bad news

Someone told me (offline) that my reaction to Live8 yesterday was unduly critical. Isn't it better for people to be charged up and optimistic about a big challenge, such as poverty, rather than overwhelmed and demotivated? It's a tricky call. I still agree with George Monbiot that Live8 will have done more harm than good if provides a smokescreen for governmental actions on aid that are so riddled with terms and conditions that they are "are as onerous as the debts it relieves". Gary Silverman made a similar point in Saturday's FT: "the trouble with feel-good weekends such as Live8 is the next day's political hangover: where do we go now?"(July 2 page W2). Is there a middle way between happy-clappy pop concerts, and cynical inaction? One answer is to educate ourselves better. The Worldchanging website, for example, does a brilliant job in publishing a stream of stories about "the tools, models and ideas for building a better future". The site's editors, Alex Steffen and Jamais Casco, have quickly built up a large readership by orchestrating intelligent discussions of the question: how do we create a future which is sustainable, dynamic, and prosperous? Supposing some among the Live8 masses get hungry for more knowledge, and find it in places like Worldchanging, the question then becomes: what do they (we) do with this information? The challenge for good ideas sites, like Worldchanging, is to keep the good stuff coming but without making us feel anxious that that we are not responding adequately to this flow of good ideas. This is where the need for kinds of institutions, and new kinds of politics, comes in. Of which, more anon.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:23 PM | Comments (0)

July 03, 2005

How good it feels to feel

"Everyone is, suddenly, globally, politicised" froths an embarassing article about Live8 by Euan Ferguson in todays Observer. Puleese.The atmosphere this morning reminds me of Princess Diana's funeral. The emotions released yesterday are heartfelt - but narcissistic. It feels good to feel. Watching a rock musician in a London park is not an optimal position from which to empathise with someone in Africa - let alone to understand the issues. I don't claim any expertise either, but I've been reading around. George Monbiot wrote last week, of the the debt-relief package for the world's poorest countries likely to be unveiled this week: "Anyone with a grasp of development politics who had read and understood the ministers' statement could see that the conditions it contains - enforced liberalization and privatization - are as onerous as the debts it relieves". The G8 meeting will announce this package, tell the Bonos and Geldofs of this world that "we listened" - and Africa will be screwed.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:32 PM | Comments (4)

Obscure but secure

If you're too damn mean to shell out a measly $4,400 to join those manly TED guys in Oxford, five pounds ($9) buys you access to Open Tech 2005 in London on 25 July. Organised by NTK (Need To Know), this event is about "technologies that anyone can have a go at, from Open Source-style ways of working to repurposing everyday electronics hardware". Among the programme highlights are Yahoo Troublemaker Jeremy Zawodny and "a look at the Dirac open video compression algorithm". If you know what the hell that is you'll presumably be impressed. Speaker Danny O'Brien explains: "On the Net, you can go from obscurity to slashdotting to global fame to obscurity without making a penny. You can have privacy or influence, but not both. You can be famous for fifteen people, but not keep a forwarded email a secret". O'Brien talks about "the decoupling of fame and fortune, and the new security of obscurity".

Posted by John Thackara at 08:55 PM | Comments (0)

July 02, 2005

The high cost of manhood

A ticket to the TED Global conference in Oxford next week costs $4,400. Nobody is forcing us to go, and the calibre of speakers is exceptionally high, but I can't help but notice that the provison of "really big world changing ideas" is very much a guy thing in TED-land: I count seven women out of 44 names in the programme - of whom (the women) I reckon two will get to talk; the others, though doubtless brilliant, are performing artists.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:10 PM | Comments (0)

July 01, 2005

Unexpected campaigners for privacy

A few days ago I commented that managers have not thought through the potential of RFID systems to give customers far more information about about a product's history than might be comfortable - at least, for the company selling it. A forthcoming book flagged by Institute For the Future, does include a chapter on RFID and Authenticity of Goods. But so far as I can see, the applications discussed will refer more to the protection of Louis Vuitton from knock-offs, than of ordinary folk from dodgy food. It suddenly dawns on me: we can expect the biggest, baddest players in agribusiness to come out strongly against RFID on the grounds of ....protection of privacy.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:22 PM | Comments (0)