Reporting from code/space on Lift12

For the second time I attended the Lift conference in Geneva this year. Last year it turned out to be one of the best conferences of the year, with some key talks, like the one of Kevin Slavin on algoworlds that was repeated often in course of the year. So expectations were high again. I cannot say of course if the conference will have the same impact, but it was certainly a great experience again with some great talks that mirror our next future.

My tweets on Storify give an overview of the complete conference. There were too many talks to discuss them all. Anaïs Saint-Jude, did a nice talk showing information overload is all times, Marcel Kampman made a successful attempt for the most smashing slides, Fabian Hemmert with some good insights in research driven design for mobiles, and the hilarious last session on extreme hacking.

For me the key talk this year was the one of James Bridle. I think his code/space story hits the central theme in the developments we are in now. There were more people that touched the subject. Sebastian Deterding mentioned code/space in his solid talk on gaming. And Ben Bashford did a great talk that set the context of our products with empathy. But the way James did peel down the concept was outstanding for me.

I saw James speak on Future Everything last year where he touched on the algoworlds ideas and saw online some presentations on the new aesthetic, a strong meme he coined. and it is interesting to see the story develop with new layers. The strong part is the way he makes the concept concrete in his project A Ship Adrift: where a ship that is lying on a building in London is enhanced with a life in code/space; every turn of the wind let the virtual mirror ship blow to that direction, in the meanwhile grabbing localized content from Foursquare, Wikipedia and fora turning it in a kind of Nordic polari when it starts to respond to people.

The code/space is all about the way we are living in this post digital context where our living space looses value as soon as the digital layer is disconnected. An airport is a clear example, but with us depending on our own digital context for our living, it is everywhere now. Bots are becoming integrated in our life. Two third of the editors on Wikipedia are bots.

The consequence of this code/space is more a complex systemic society. In the well curated game session on Thursday Tom Armitage showed us how we can deal with this society, how we can get system literacy by using games. The proces of actions and outcomes in rule based context shapes meaning.

Kars Alfrink took this a step further. Gaming is not a way to understand the systemic world, it is our mean to reach our sense of agency. We have to be aware at the same time that games are the same as life. We have simulation fever. But games can be performative like our language is. “I declare you husband and wife” changes a state in our life. We can make games that empower people, player-centric. In that sense games ca play an important role to a better world in our networked publics.

Sebastian Deterding turned it around and showed us what happens when we are in the end situation that our life is fully gamed. Gamification is the logical next phase in the code/space. The question is if we wanted to be manipulated like that. He showed us that adding game elements to the system, the intentions change. If you add incentives or goals to anything, you will get unintended behaviours. He quoted Foucault: “every technology that is used to control people, can also be used by the same persons to rule their ‘selves’”. It is all on how we relate to the rule system, whether we actively decide to make use of them or take a manual override.

It is interesting to connect this to the future scenarios of our financial system that David Birch very well sketched. The four scenarios for 2050 as build by the long finance showed different directions it can go. From a domination on virtual currencies to a barter based society (we are already see some examples). He expects the ‘Many Hands’ scenario as most likely, where cities dominate the world and competition between different moneys play an important role. How will we act in this new systemic context?

The talk of Tricia Wang gave insights in the way the social systems work here. In her high density talk full of research insights she showed for instance how trustworthiness + out circle + in network = participation.

The difference between you social circles and social network: Social circles is about the people you already know. Social network is about entities we don’t have a personal relationship with. It expands our relations based on common interest.
Your social graph is about trust. Sharing is a way to discover trust. This maps the possible roles of play.

Faride Vis gave us insights in the way twitter works with crowd control in her research to the relation between Twitter and the UK riots. What is interesting on her analysis is the way Twitter creates a new reality on the riots. As James Bridle tweeted; the analysis says nothing on the riots, only on the twitter behavior. On the other hand it could become an tool for crowdcontrol when people are reacting to the tweets. In that sense twitter is an important element of our code/space.

Another aspect is the way machines have place in this. Ben Bashford did great talk on the design of machines with empathy. With the embedding of social systems every computer is connected to people. If we see everything with a processor as computer, than a lot of the new products we are using are human. Think of this: as you cross an airplane with a computer, what do you get? A computer! Think of new products like Nest, Izon camera or Nike wristband. Still hard for retailers to categorize (miscellaneous).

Computers (and so all products) are going to talk back to us. The conversational UI. It is not anymore on what products are doing, but how they are doing it. Antropomorphism, system personas are important. The biggest challenge to avoid the uncanny valley. Clever designers go for the canny basecamp and go for the minimal viable person. How minimal you can go to become viably. Think pixar lamp, and light MacBook that simulate life by resembling a heartbeat in light.

Technology should create calm, not asking for attention all the time. We want to achieve the effect plants have. One plant is calm, more plants is more calm.
The beautiful seams. Telepathy between machines, agent centered design as computers are becoming agents. Don’t think we should make machines that empathizes with us, the empathy should be ours. Getting back to the talk of James Bridle: we should love our bots on the character they have, they will be an important part of our empathy with the products we use. They give us the sentience of our code/space.

So here lies the essence of this year’s Lift in my belief. Last year Kevin Slavin learned us how algorithms will define more and more of our life, and the disconnection we have with this world. This year we see a code/space that is much closer to us. We still need the literacy to deal with it.

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I am a design director at Structural. I curate and organize ThingsCon Netherlands and I am chairman of the Cities of Things Foundation. Before I was innovation and strategy director at tech and innovation agency INFO, visiting researcher and lab director at the Delft University of Technology coordinating Cities of Things Delft Design Lab.

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