Apart from Joshua Davis' talk, the other main highlight of OFFF, the software and visual communication conference which took place last week in Lisbon, was the panel on Data Visualization curated and moderated by the European evangelist of the discipline: Jose-Luis de Vicente.

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Lounge at the LX factory where OFFF took place this year

As the abstract of the panel reminds: data visualization is a transversal discipline which harnesses the immense power of visual communication to explain, in an understandable manner, the relationships of meaning, causes and dependency found among great abstract masses of information generated by scientific and social processes.

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Aaron Koblin, Manuel Lima, JL de Vicente and Santiago Ortiz (image JL de Vicente)

Interaction designer, information architect and design researcher Manuel Lima discussed the story of the website Visual Complexity and the lessons he learnt since he launched it 3 years back. Visual Complexity is not a blog, it is a collection of (so far) over 570 projects of data viz, it is also a space for people to discuss about what is happening in this area.

The project started while Lima was following an MFA program at Parsons School of Design. While working on his thesis project Blogviz: Mapping the dynamics of information diffusion in Blogspace, he had to research extensively the visualization of complex networks, and found out that there was a need for an integrated and extensive resource on this subject.

Lima's presentation was very very fast with a lot of information crammed in a small amount of time. But here's a few elements from it:

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South-East Asia detail from Ptolemy's geography. Redrawn in the 15th century

The transmission of information started with the wall paintings, got more sophisticated with the oldest registry of a written language (the Sumerian cuneiforms) and later with Ptolemy's world map. More key landmarks for data viz can be found in Alfred W. Crosby's essay The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600.

One first important factor for the development of data viz is computer storage.
Our ability to generate data has by far outpaced our ability to make sense of that data. As someone at Razorfish said, everything that can be digitalized will be. When Lima started Visual Complexity, data viz blogs were just a handful. Today there are dozens of them. Kryder's Law draws from Moore's law and declares that magnetic disk areal storage density doubles every 18 months. In 2001, iPod storage capacity was 5 GB, in 2007 it was 160 GB.

A second key factor for the development of data viz is Open Databases. Data has never been so widely available at minimal cost (not to say free).
See Swivel and IBM's Many Eyes.

A third factor is online social networks.
Not as tools for mapping relationship between people but as instruments which help disclosing patterns within the abundance of shared content. Examples: uncovering music affinities like TuneGlue does; discovering how humans categorize information del.icio.us-like; human curiosity.

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Over his three years observing dataviz, Lima spotted a number of trends: mapping blogosphere relationships, visualizing del.icio.us tags, terrorism, air routes, gps data, etc.

Next spoke Santiago Ortiz who started by presenting the spectacular website that Bestiario has put online a few days ago. The website gets a third dimension as you can "twist" and manipulate it in order to see its full length. The nicest feature is the navigation: you can browse Bestiario's projects anti-chronologically of course but also according to the number of hours they spent working on the projects, by keywords, combination or exclusion of keywords, etc.

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Bestiario's brand new website

Founded 2 years ago, Bestiario is a small Barcelona/Lisbon-based company with a very impressive portfolio. Combining art and science (Ortiz is also a mathematician) they design interactive information spaces which follow their own moto: 'making the complex comprehensible.'

It wasn't the first time that i got to be impressed by Bestiario's work and Ortiz' thoughts on dataviz. One of Bestiario's project was exhibited recently at LABoral as part of the Emergentes exhibition which closed a few days ago. The imaginary biological universe Mitozoos encodes and creates virtual organisms called "mitozoos" which interact among themselves. You can watch their life in a 3D environment that simulates birth, existence of a genetic code, the quest for food, energy dissipation, reproduction and death. Each variable and parameter of the model has a graphical representation.

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Mitozoos

One of Bestiario's latest projects was developed together with Irma Vila and JL de Vicente. The Atlas of Electromagnetic Space is an interactive representation of the services that use our electromagnetic radiospectrum, ranging from 10Khz "radio navigation" to 100Ghz "inter-satellite communication". The activities which unfolds throughout the spectrum (e.g. mobile, satellite, wireless internet, broadcasting) are sorted by electromagnetic frequency. What totally won me over was the features showing the artistic interventions that are commenting on and/or taking place in the spectrum.

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City Distances illuminates the strength of relations between cities from searches on google. The main idea is to compare the number of pages on internet where the two cities appear one close to the other, with the number of pages they appear isolated. This proportion indicates some kind of intensity of relation between the cities. The "google proximity" is then divided by its geographical distance. The result indicates the strength of the relation in spite of the real distance, a kind of informational distance between cities.

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Finally, Aaron Koblin took the stage to present his own work. Crap! this guy is so talented it's scary. Aaron studied Design and Media Art with Casey Reas at UCLA and used processing a lot in his projects which not only represent huge amounts of data, but are also producing data to raise questions about a series of issues.

Narrative made sense for cultures based on tradition and a small amount of information circulating in a culture - it was a way to make sense of this information and to tie it together (for instance, Greek mythology). Database can be thought of as a new cultural form in a society where a subject deals with huge amounts of information, which constantly keep changing, said Lev Manovich whom Aaron quoted to further ask the audience:

If the database is the new narrative, then what is the role of visualization?

A first answer is that visualization help us understand what it means to have dozens of thousands of planes flying above North America every day. Video demonstrating how Flight Patterns does exactly that:

Data from the U.S. Federal aviation administration is used to create animations of flight traffic patterns and density.

The Sheep Market is one of my favourite projects ever. The very Petit Prince work manages to be critical and poetical at the same time. Thousands of workers on Amazon's Mechanical Turk webservice were paid two cents to "draw a sheep facing to the left." Their sheep drawings were collected over a period of 40 days, selected and printed on stamps. You can also head to the project website and spend the evening counting the animals.
Video showing Aaron Koblin explaining The Sheep Market:

Aside from his purely artistic works, Aaron also works for Yahoo and collaborate on research project. For example, he developed the visualizations for the New York Talk Exchange, a project by the Senseable City Lab at MIT.

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Based on a principle similar to The Sheep Market, Ten Thousand Cents has thousands of individuals working in isolation from one another painted a tiny part of of a $100 bill without knowledge of the overall task. Workers were paid one cent each via Amazon's Mechanical Turk distributed labor tool. The total labor cost to create the bill, the artwork being created, and the reproductions available for purchase are all $100. The project, which has been developed in collaboration with Takashi Kawashima, explores the circumstances we live in, a new and uncharted combination of digital labor markets, "crowdsourcing," "virtual economies," and digital reproduction.

Video of Ten Thousand Cents:

The panel ended with JL de Vicente reminding the audience of the Visualizar workshops he periodically organized at Medialab Prado in Madrid. A new call for project proposals will be launched later this year.

Related: Coverage of Visualizar workshop.

Sponsored by:





The documentary i was dying to see at the Homo Ludens Ludens exhibition at LABoral in Gijon was Gold Farmers, by Ge Jin.

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Image courtesy of Ge Jin

Gold Farmers are young people who earn their living by playing MMORPG games. They acquire ("farm") items of value within a game, usually by carrying out in-game actions repeatedly to maximize gains, sometimes by using a program such as a bot or automatic clicker.

They sell the artificial gold coins and other virtual goods they've harvested to players and/or farming organizations and get "real" money in return. Players from around the world will then use the golden coins to buy better armor, magic spells and other equipments to climb to higher levels or create more powerful characters.

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World of Warcraft, image gameslander

Many companies have attempted to block the use of gold-farming services by specifically stating in their End User License Agreements and Terms of Service that any and all game assets (from the player's characters themselves, to any items that they may be carrying) remain the sole property of the company itself, and taking aggressive action to close the accounts of any that are found to be using gold-farming (or similar) services.

Although there are gold farmers or gold farms in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Mexico, Chinese are by far the most dynamic. There, young players typically work twelve hour shifts, with just a lunch break somewhere in the middle.

There are gold farmers or gold farms in other countries as well, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Mexico. However, they do not approach the scope and scale of the Chinese farm industry.

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Image courtesy of Ge Jin

Ge Jin, a 30-year-old Shanghai native and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, San Diego, has shot a Gold Farmers, a documentary that delve into the background and lives of Chinese gold farmers.

Gold farming puts down the mechanisms that govern a universe in which everyone starts at the same level, no matter how rich their parents are, no matter how many degrees they've collected at the university. Players trying to work their way up according to the rules and in all fairness are the ones who get hit hardest by the practice of gold farming.

Watching the documentary, you can't help but feel some compassion for the gold farmers: they have very little free time, they are paid quite poorly to feed the whims of the Western consumer, they have to deal with the ire of a family who doesn't approve of what they do for a living, they must face the hostility of other players as soon as these realize that gold farmers are on their turf, their english is not good enough to enable them to communicate with other players, and they work hard. Don't be fooled, they don't sit there for hours just for the fun, most of their activity is extremely repetitive. In fact they would sometimes end their day at the "factory" by playing a real game in WoW. Just for the fun.

Chinese Gold Farmers Preview video (Ge Jin has uploaded more video previews):

I asked Ge Jin to discuss his documentary for the blog:

First of all, is the video on show at laboral only part of the documentary you are making or is it the full version of it?

I have another 40 min. long version, but this one is complete in itself as a short version.

Gold farmers have the challenging task of constantly navigating between clandestinity and the need to advertise their service. i suspect that finding and getting the "gold farmers" to talk must have been difficult. how did you locate the players and how did you gain their trust?

It is indeed difficult to get into the exclusive "gold farming" circle. But I was lucky to have an old friend in Shanghai who was running gold farms from 2003 to 2005. This friend introduced me to some gold farm owners. But the reason that the gaming workers/gold farmers trusted me was mainly because I treated them with respect. They face discriminations from non-gamers who see them as game addicts who are losers in real life as well as discriminations from gamers who think they care about more about money than gaming itself. I tried to be a good listener for them and they can see I didn't approach them with many assumptions.

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Image courtesy of Ge Jin

How much has the phenomenon evolved since you started working on this documentary in 2005 (it think)?

Yes I started following this phenomenon since 2005. I think the market become much more competitive and the profit margin for gold farmers are much smaller now. Meanwhile, more sophisticated services like power-leveling have become the mainstream of real money trade. Also, the domestic demand for in-game goods in China has risen so much that Chinese gold farmers no longer just work in foreign games.

In your documentary, you are neither pointing the fingers to gold farmers and saying "look this is evil!", neither are you saying that this is kind of labor embodied in play is the best thing that happened to the gaming scene. I had the feeling that you are not taking a stand. Am i right?

You are right that I'm not taking a stand. And I try to let the people involved in real money trade to tell their own stories in my documentary. But I think some of my "biases" do make their way into the documentary. For example, I don't really care if real money trade changes the regular gaming experience, I'm more concerned with how people's virtual life and real life affect each other, so you don't hardly hear the game industry's point of view in my documentary.

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Image courtesy of Ge Jin

Is gold farming regarded differently in China than it is in the USA, Europe or Japan for example? Is the practice seen as more acceptable by the public and the government? How much does China try to tax and regulate the business?

Culturally, real money trade is indeed more accepted in China than in other countries. For example, the successful game Legend from Giant. Ltc thrives on incorporating real money trade in game design. Western game companies dare not do so blatantly because many gamers may think the game is not a level playing ground that way. But the Chinese gamers seem to accept this inherent unfairness, as if they see so much injustice in real life that they don't expect the virtual world to be better. The government doesn't seem to have any problem with the gold farming business. It has not figure out a good way to tax virtual trade yet, in some rare cases, some gold farms pay a fixed amount of tax based on very rough estimation of trade volume. There is currently no policy directly regulating this industry. Though there are regulations generally aiming to purify content of games and limit how long people can play online games.

Did your research on gold farming sparkle the interest of Western commercial gaming companies? Asking your help to crack down on farmers? Or asking for your opinion on how to make the most of this new form of economy?

To my surprise, I was contacted by gold selling websites who want to use my website to advertise themselves, by gold buyers who are looking for a steady supplier, and by market researchers who want to measure the supply and demand of gold trade. I wish I could seize such opportunities to make some money for myself. But unfortunately I was occupied by exploring the social implications of this economy.

Thanks Ge Jin!

Another documentary part of Homo Ludens Ludens is the fantastic 8 bit movie.

More WoW stories: The Avatar Machine, Joichi Ito on WoW, Life at the gamers' farm.

There's something about Second Life that totally repels me: its aesthetics. No matter how sexy W. James Au makes his adventures in the online universe sound, i just can't go beyond the barrier of SL's dull and flavourless look. On Saturday while i was visiting the Holy Fire exhibition at iMAL in Brussels, i got to meet with Gazira Babeli and change my opinion. Gazira Babeli is not a human being, she's an avatar performing and living inside Second Life.

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Screenshot of the Grey Goo performance

Like everyone, i had read times and times again how SL residents actions inside the synthetic world impact on their daily life, how one can make a living there, how businesses and organizations were rushing to get a space inside the online gaming platform but yesterday was the first time i could feel SL's tangible effect on my life: i had bought a train ticket to Brescia (only 50 minutes from Milan). There, the Fabio Paris Gallery is dedicating a solo show to Gazira. I couldn't think of a better place to get to know her work with more depth. Yeah! don't smirk, please. I know i could do all that online but i'm old school. Still, i can't believe i took the train to see the work of an artist who was born only two years ago.

An old entry of mine (The Second Life code performer) and a beautiful text by Domenico Quaranta will tell you all you need to know about what she does. I'll just move to what i saw in Brussels and Brescia.

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Saint Gaz' Stylite - The Second Temptation, video still

The Brussels exhibition shows one of the episodes of Gaz of the Desert , a 23 minute movie which might very well be the first high definition movie entirely shot within a virtual world. Gaz of the Desert is inspired by Luis Buñuel's 1965 movie Simón del desierto (Simon of the Desert) which focused on St. Simon Stylites, a 4th century religious man who climbed on a column to be nearer to God and stayed there during thirty seven years preaching Christianity to passersby. If you were already taking for granted the fact that the virtual merges with the real, Gazira's machinima messes with your algebra by adding surrealism to the operation. The artist takes you on a rollercoaster ride which will drive you from dream to nightmare with the elegance of Buñuel, a Persian carpet, rows of call center employees, and a motorcycle killer. The movie is online.

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Gazira Babeli. Gaz Of The Desert - Pieta, 2007. Lambda print. 70 x 107 cm. Edition of 3. Collection Marchina-Ghizzardi, Brescia / Courtesy Fabio Paris Art Gallery, Brescia

In Brescia, there are several projects by Gazira. There's also Anna Magnani, an Italian actress everybody remembers as 'Pina' in Roberto Rossellini's neorealist masterpiece Roma, Cittá Aperta (Rome, Open City). Now Magnani was famous for that very Italian characteristic of constantly moving her hands and the expression of her face while talking. Gazira gave the actress' name to another video where the avatar gesticulates and where all kinds of expressions seem to fight and take power over her face.

0aamaganlingua.jpgFor people like me who wear their lack of knowledge about SL on their sleeve with some kind of pride this might not seem much but the making of the video actually required some coding skills. In the virtual realm any gesture is the result of a script. Anna Magnani is thus more than a video, it is also (as the catalog, Gazira Babeli explains) a script that forces the avatar to perform all the animations present in his or her inventory, in random order, one after the other.

If Gazira is Saint Simon, i've had my epiphany the other day in rainy Brussels: Miss Babeli is like Anna Magnani, she's not beautiful, she's better than that.

Gazira Babeli's work is on view at the Fabio Paris gallery in Brescia and at iMAL in Brussels until April 30, 2008.

0aamarisaa.jpgBefore meeting her, i had always imagined Marisa Olson to be an hyperactive blond girl running around the internet playground. She seemed to have so much fun online... surely that girl was made of pixels. And even now that we've met several times, i'm not totally sure that Marisa is real.

Marisa's work combines performance, video, sound, drawing, and installation to address intersections of pop culture and the cultural history of technology, as they effect the voice, power, and persona.

Marisa lives between California and New York, where she shows one of her (half) serious faces: she is a "Curator at Large" at Rhizome. You can find her on her whatamidoingwithmylife blog, on the Nasty Nets Internet Surfing Club, on her website and 3 years ago she was writing about her preparation to audition for the popular reality TV show, American Idol on yet another blog

How does one become Marisa Olson? What is your background and how did you get involved in technology-based art making, reviewing and curating?

Hmm... That could be hard to answer quickly. I was always a geek. I programmed the heck out of my C64! I was also always obsessed with mediated communication in the form of pop culture (radio and tv) transmissions. Add to this the fact that my dad worked in intelligence, growing up (I grew up in Germany, where he worked until I was 10) and I was surrounded by scary military technologies all the time (isn't the gun one of the most significant inventions ever?) and that all spells a strange fascination with technology. I always wanted to make art, but I'm actually related to one of the most famous French impressionists and I was raised thinking that's what "real art" was. It turns out I wasn't very good at that kind of art. So I stopped worrying about what was and wasn't art and just focused on what I found interesting. I spent most of my undergrad and grad school years in the SF bay area, and lived through the surreal waxing and waning of the dot-com. I wrote for Wired, consulted a few start-ups, and that sort of thing. Meanwhile, the area was overflowing with artists expressing themselves in work that engaged technology. And I really related. After that, the progression was natural and rapid. I threw myself into new media--as an artist and in terms of supporting the field, not entirely distinguishing between my writing, teaching, or curating. The more peculiar thing, for me, has been switching gears from being a musician (I've been a singer and lyricist in a few bands and grew up in choirs) to making work about music (most recently my Oh.Yeah.I.Love.You.Baby. remix album). There's definitely an interest in the DIY there, but I guess this is also why I often organize my projects as "albums" (like my Break-Up Album (Demo) video project) and I tend to think of curating like making a mixtape.

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In Abe & Mo Sing the Blogs, an online project for which the Whitney Museum of American Art commissioned an Artport Gatepage, you and Abe Linkoln sing posts from your favorite blogs. What was the impetus for that project? There's been several discussions of trying to turn blogs into an art form or an art project. What is you take on this issue? Could you name us other examples of successful "blogs-turned-art" projects?

Abe and I are both compulsive web surfers and love unusual blogs. We decided to pick our favorite posts from our favorite blogs and sing them, in a sort of concept album mixtape. His and mine are pretty different. They are all really funny. In our official description of the project, we say that blogs, like the blues, have been credited with channeling the "voice of the people" and we wondered if we could identify specific genre conventions on blogs. We were kind of interested in the blog as a stage for "site-specific" performance, which also carried over into our Universal Acid project. We'd both done blog-based projects before, which was how we met, online. We sent each other fan letters about his conversion of net artist Olia Lialina's My Boyfriend Came Back From the War and my American Idol Audition Training Blog. I also loved Screenfull.net, Abe's old blog with Jimpunk.

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Our first collaboration was actually a blog called Blog Art, which was a curated blog listing blogs that are art projects. At the moment, I'm really into group blogs that ride the line between art practice and some other sort of internet fan culture. For instance, some friends and I founded an "internet surfing club" called Nasty Nets--in which we sort of simultaneously celebrated and critiqued the internet--and I love other group surf blogs like Supercentral, Spirit Surfers, Double Happiness, and Loshadka.

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When you blogged your efforts to audition for "American Idol." How did people around you react to that decision? What did the whole training teach you (i'm not only talking about sun beds and stilettos boot camps of course)?

Well, my family and grad school professors at the time certainly thought I was crazy. I made what was probably the mistake of announcing it by emailing people out of the blue with the subject line "I need your help" and inside I asked for help in picking what song I should sing. Even though I linked to a New York Times article about the blog, a lot of people told me later that they really thought I was seriously delusional about trying to get on the show! They didn't recognize it as a parody, which is kind of awesome. I started the project wanting to critique the show (which I admittedly also loved) and the gender normative stereotypes it pushes. I was concerned about how artists rights to their own work & identity were violated by the producers, in my opinion. But the project took on a life of its own. The lead-up to my audition (in 2004) was the same as the build-up to the presidential election between Bush & Kerry. I started thinking of how the show is predicated on a model of democracy and voting but I kept hearing how my generation (the main demographic for the show) wasn't showing up to polls. They would stand in line for 8 hours to audition, but not 15 minutes to vote. So the project became all about voting. I told readers how to register to vote, brought registration forms to the auditions, and I had readers vote on what I should wear & sing. Ultimately, I collected over 10,000 votes in the course of trying to get young people to think about the many ways in which they could use their "voice."

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You are also a curator, both independently and as part of your activities at Rhizome. Your curating often deals with new media art pieces. What are the challenges of curating and exhibiting works of new media art today?

I think that there is presently a very exciting turn happening in new media, with respect to both the art world and the context of "traditional media." It used to be very important to carve out a separate space in which to show, discuss, and teach new media. Nowadays these spaces are sometimes seen as ghettos, but at the time, they were safe havens championing under-recognized forms. Things are more co-mingled now. Not everyone will agree with me about this, but I think it's great that some people no longer even know new media when they see it. I know curators who turn their nose up at that phrase, but they love Cory Arcangel or Paul Pfeiffer. There doesn't seem to be a need to distinguish, any more, whether technology was used in making the work--afterall, everything is a technology, and everyone uses technology to do everything. What is even more interesting is the way in which people are starting to make what I've called "Post-Internet" art in my own work (such as my Monitor Tracings), or what Guthrie Lonergan recently called "Internet Aware Art." I think it's important to address the impacts of the internet on culture at large, and this can be done well on networks but can and should also exist offline. Of course, it's an exciting challenge to explain to someone how this is still internet art... If that really matters...

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Your Media Change course at ITP/ NYU explored the "evolution" of technology. How does your teaching explore an area which is well... evolving so fast?

I feel like this is a great opportunity and a perfect class to teach at an amazing place like ITP, which evolves daily, with the technology. But I think the way to do it is to try to see media change as having a longer-tem trajectory. I have a background in media theory. I studied History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz and am PhD Candidate in film studies and new media in the Rhetoric department at UC Berkeley, where my dissertation is on The Art of Protest in Network Culture. So I've read, loved, and taught the classic McLuhan, Benjamin, Kittler, Flusser, Baudrillard, Jameson, etc over and over again. The aim of this class was to consider the cultural and political forces behind the evolution of technology and the broader concept of "change" (which most certainly also incorporates social/ political change). So we read these classic historiographies but tried to read them from the present context as well as the original one. And we read them beside Alex Galloway, Henry Jenkins, Clay Shirky, and other great contemporary writers. I mean, this stuff can never be pinned down long enough to be considered in an isolated temporal context, but it's still important to consider the personal and political forces that compel media change--the desires and impetuses.

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In your recent Golden Oldies performance/ video, you seem to give a very hard time to a bunch of electronic devices. What is your own relationship with technology?

Ha, well... It occurs to me now that you could probably say that my relationship to technology is a bit sado-masochistic. I don't mean for that to sound weird or sensational. I think, in the true classical psychoanalytic sense, many people's relationship with technology is very wrapped up in both their libidinal and death drives, as Freud would call them. I guess this video demonstrates that I enjoying abusing technology as much as I enjoy observing its abuse of me. I've always been a fetishist and could never try to hide that. My studio is littered with blinged-out headphones, radios, and cassette tapes. But the tapes I've been calling Time Capsules. I mean, they are moments of time that are disappearing but not really going away, so instead I try to prevent their burial (in a landfill) by taking them out of circulation and painting them gold, much like the symbolic bricks in Fort Knox. InGolden Oldies, I try unsuccessfully to instigate communication between media of various generations--tapes, vhs cassettes, records, cds.... And after drilling, hammering, and chiseling each one, I give up and wipe the garbage to the floor--where is becomes "out of sight, out of mind," as we say in the US. I feel like this is what's happening with all of our tv's, walkmen, air hockey tables, nintendos, etc as we follow our drives to upgrade. They just get pushed into dumpsters and disregarded. And I've been trying to think about my own role in this cycle, because I certainly love my ipod as much as the next gal.

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Any upcoming projects you could share with us?

Well, we just released a DVD of Nasty Nets members' work (there are 25 of us, including some of my very favorite net artists), and that was generously funded by Rhizome. It includes videos as well as loads of data files and a type-in website by fellow Nasty Michael Bell-Smith. People can get the DVD online, and if they are in New York, they should definitely attend our premiere screening at the New York Underground Film Festival this Friday, April 4th, called Nasty As U Wanna Be.

Otherwise, as you can see, I'm really obsessed with the future, at the moment, which is kind of funny for someone who tends to say that her work is about the cultural history of technology. I'm just starting to work on a project called "Martha Stewart Assisted Living" and it's a near-future version of Martha's show (guess who I play!) aimed at an aging audience whose lives have been lengthened by new technologies, but who are also suffering side effects, like head goiters from their cell phones or Global Warming-Related Illnesses (GWI's). I'm devising special recipes and craft projects for those 130-year-olds!

Thanks Marisa!

Previously: Sousveillance culture, a panel curated and moderated by Marisa Olson.

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0ajameswau.jpgMore etech08 talks with W. James Au's take onWhy Won't Second Life Just Go Away, Already? Understanding Web 2.0's Most Misunderstood Phenomenon

Throughout 2007, publications like Wired, Forbes, and the LA Times pronounced Second Life over-hyped, while negative press over Ponzi schemes, porn, etc. suggested imminent disaster. Meanwhile, the world's user base tripled (both in terms of monthly active and maximum concurrent users), and continues attracting about a half million new sign-ups a month. How can this possibly be happening?

W. James Au is the author of the recently published The Making of Second Life (amazon usa and uk), online games editor at GigaOM.com, and lives as an embedded journalist inside Second Life on New World Notes. In his blog he takes the position of some kind of archivist conducting ethnographic research of everyday practices and life in this emerging world..

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Second Life... "What was it again?" (James Au's PPT slides)

After the year 2006 where SL was on everyone's lips, that was the year i interviewed W. James Au. I actually never really got into SL. I found its aesthetic repulsive but i never stopped finding fascinating pieces of information about what SL was revealing about our society and how it is also contributing to its current shape in James' New World Notes. I was probably not the only person at etech who cultivates some curiosity for the synthetic world. The room was as packed as possible and the doors were left open to allow people crammed in the corridor to listen to the talk.

In Spring 2006, SL made the cover of Business Week. It's Anshe Chung - the "virtual Trump" - who got the cover. The avatar has built a development from nothing and quickly turned it into an operation of 17 people.

A mini dot.com boom followed as many other articles followed Business Week enthusiasm. That's when companies started to knock on the door of Linden Lab with requests to be allowed to get in. Linden Lab resisted for a long time but they changed their policy and allowed companies to buy land like any other user.

These companies would start opening shops to display and sell their stuff to avatar. One of the first company who joined SL was American Apparel. But their efforts were quite useless as the online shops was empty most of the time, most players were just ignoring it. James draw a comparison between this empty shop and the scarcely visited homepage of McDonald's in 1996. The pattern is similar, loads of modern is thrown to join the hype but with very little effect.

James went on by comparing shops selling cars. It appears that a kid who had opened his own shop and made it more appealing with hot babes and rap music was selling way more cars than Nissan who had just opened a shop which didn't looked much more than a giant vending machine.

Anyway, in 2007 the backlash started to hit hard:
Second Life: It's so popular, no one goes there any more.

The truth lies probably somewhere between the utopia described in the previous paragraphs and the disaster scenarios that would mushroom in 2007.

The first backlash arrived with a blog entry from Clay Shirky.

He was right and soon magazines such as Wired, LA Times, Forbes and many others were reporting failure of commercial ventures in SL.

A company called Yankee Group released figures that claim that user's activity had dropped to 12 minutes per month. However the company was unable to sustain these figures when asked to do so.

While backlash stories kept coming in, the active user base has tripled in the space of a year.

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Image by Paul Decelles

TV series like CSI and The Office featured SL in one of their episodes. CSI proposed a feature where the story would continue inside SL. However neither of these TV appearances have contributed much to the overall growth of SL. It's not the media that drives long term activities.

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Image Just Jared

SL keeps on attracting innovation and major companies continue to invest heavily in SL, not just for marketing but also for practical applications:

Interactive demo of the future Cisco Connected Health hospital campus, Palomar West due to open in San Diego, California, in 2011. Video:

IBM uses SL as a platform to design prototypes (3D data center) using OpenSimulator, OS version of SL, reverse engineering project.

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Image New World Notes

Greenies, a '50s style crazy room filled with tiny green aliens attracted the attention of L'Oreal Paris which started to advertise there by placing Copies of their products inside the funhouse. Corporations have learned their lesson and now adjust to what users want.

Corporation presence per se is not as important as one might think. Companies own a total of 2000 islands, that's 15% of the private-owned island which means that corporation presence on the total land mass amounts to less than 5%.

3 principles that make SL keep thriving (so far):

1. Mirrored flourishing - "What you do here should make you better out there"

This principle has been part of the community since its origins
Catherine Omega built a mansion on SL while she was homeless. She was squatting an apartment inhabited by drug addicts and somehow managed to get an internet connection in her place. SL was her portal into a better world. Because of her talent people started coming to her to help them build their house and that's how she started to make a real income. Today she is a SL consultant for companies.

The activities you do in SL can potentially improve your own life. Disabled people who have to stay home use SL to meet other people and get a social life.

SL is a space that creates opportunities. Users own the IP right to the content they create on SL.

2. Bebop Reality - "The virtual world as a 3D jazz combo"

In SL furries coexist with hot babes, angels and robots and that's not science-ficition. In the SL atmosphere, there are clashes and mergings of different races, species and tastes. You'll find a space station next to a church next to a strip joint. Everyone is part of the same society.

3. Impression society - Whaddya got, and how long are you gonna stick with it?

In SL making an impression is about being cool, compelling, exciting. It is not about money but about how much creativity you can bring to the community.

Impression is also about how long you stay there and provide and that's something that shows by the look of your avatar. A well-dressed avatar for example shows that its user cares for it, has been in the community long enough to polish the appearance of its character. Long-term activity is a prerequisite if you want to be cool in SL.

SL is a very frustrating experience at the beginning. There are neither rules nor guidelines, you have to make them up on your own. According to James Au the result is that SL is an international cutting edge creative space with high barriers to entry.

Kowloon: a Japanese studio 4 made a video game inside SL so that gamers can live inside the game. There's actually a huge amount of content no one knows about. Some of the most active users are from Brazil and Japan.

Steampunks are an active community in SL and a rather large one with 30 to 35 000 active users.

Midian cities, role play inside SL giving its users a "third life". Like a mini-MMO. The users don't chat as much as they write a story collaboratively and on the fly.

Innovation

My Second Life, The video diaries of Molotov Alva: documentary in SL (coming soon to HBO). There are many Machinima makers but only ten of them can be regarded as top talent as their movies go beyond the usual audience of the SL community. Usually machinima don't, they are for insiders.

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My Second Life, Screenshot

Ajax Life, a web-based client for Second Life that does not rely on browser plugins. Made and constantly improved by a 15 year old girl between her classes.

Several versions of SL on the phone.

SL hooked up with a jogging treadmill. Video:

3D architectural design and prototyping: wikitecture, 3D objects are "wikified".
Example 4 dozen people create project of a health center in Nepal for the OAN Nepal Challenge.

James also mentioned a Danish architecture studio which uses SL to play with SL and tries to figure out what architecture could be like were it not all those regulation rules, they came up with a desing of building that looks like pearls and some Chinese contractors found about it and the building might be realized in China.

No matter if and how SL grows up it has proved itself as a valuable platform for experimentation and prototyping. 300 universities using Sl as a teaching tool.

I arrived in San Diego for etech08 after a 25 hour trip. The morning after i was sitting in the main conference room wondering why on earth i was doing that to myself. I could have stayed quietly in Europe, avoided the jetlag and the artificial food enriched with extra-anti-oxidants and extra-vitamins.

... Until Eric Rodenbeck, founder and creative director of Stamen Design, took the floor and gave his waaaay too short talk on Information Visualization is a Medium. He highlighted a couple of the works they developed, threw in some interesting thoughts and saved my severely jetlagged morning.

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Many of you are probably already familiar with the work of Stamen, especially with the visualizations they created for Digg.com (Swarm and Stack) or the brilliant cabspotting.

The focus of the talk was on process of analysis and how the concept works both for Stamen and culturally. For Stamen Information visualization is a medium, not a technique per se.

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Housing built on an artificial lake: Discovery Bay

The first project that illustrated this statement is Trulia Insight, a real estate aggregator, search and information tool they developed for Trulia, a real estate company based in San Francisco which aggregates information about properties around the United States.

The mashup combines historical real estate data with a "heat map" that displays which properties are hot. People looking for a house can search for real estate by zip code, or other parameters like size, cost, and building type. Houses glow different colors as they are built and re-built over the years, enabling buyers to watch growth trends and movement in residential areas.

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Trulia, Miami, 1988

It is almost like a pollution map as it shows the impact of men on the landscape. The most fascinating aspect of the work is to compare the real estate growth from city to city. A city like Plano in Texas for example experienced a somewhat chaotic growth pattern from 1970 to 2008. Meanwhile the real estate flow in Los Angeles looked easier and more organic.

0aaaokland.jpgOakland Crime Spotting, a project initiated by Mike Migurski.

This interactive map of crimes in Oakland was developed with the idea of offering a tool for understanding crime in cities.

You can get a precise overview of what is happening in your neighbourhood (or the one where you plan to rent a house) over time, you can select the crimes you want to see and if you like that sort of thrill, crime alerts can be delivered to you in almost real time via RSS or email.

Crimespotting helps people explore public information, draw connections, see pattern emerge and find new possibilities for questioning.

The website says: We believe that civic data should be exposed to the public in a more open way. With these maps, we hope to inspire local governments to use this data visualization model for the public release of many different kinds of data: tree plantings, new schools, applications for liquor licenses, and any other information that matters to people who live in neighborhoods.

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The idea is not to offer a search programme that would give you a way in but rather to give a map display as a way out for users to explore. It is not enough to simply analyzes and it is not enough either to simply entertain.

In Stamen's project there is always an editorial choice, their projects are not totally value free, they are more than just a pretty accumulation of data. They attempt to give people a way to access information they care about, to engage them in data and keep them interested.

Related: Sascha's report on Stamen's participation at OFFF in Barcelona.

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