I’m Reuben Stanton. This is an intermittent blog of relatively random things: thoughts about technology, reflections on my life and work, and some historical stuff.

My ‘real’ website is here, and I tweet intermittently @absent

Monthly Archives: February 2014

Improvisation and medium


I found one of those projects that was caused of those ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ moments. It’s “The Aleph: Infinite Wonder / Infinite Pity“, a ‘modern’ take on the Borges story. The project takes random sentences from the Gutenberg archive and Twitter that begin with ‘I saw…’ and strings them together into a strangely coherent mass.

It is so simple that it’s a wonder that it didn’t already exist. What I love about it is It uses a very basic metric to slice across a huge cross section of data, and presents it in a way that is compelling and beautiful. In some ways it is (more) effective than the Borges paragraph that it references, because of the way that it really does seem infinite: the awful UI paradigm of infinite scrolling has finally found an appropriate implementation. Combining literature and Twitter it gives a strange, otherworldly sense of immediate and historical. It de-contextualises then re-contextualises to create something new, but maintains an implicit reference to something real in the world. The only thing that could make it better would be if every sentence linked back to its origin (though this may, in fact, break the otherworldly nature of it.)

It reminds me of a very old (please be kind) piece of collaborative student work that I was involved in: violence of text, in which, at one point, we took an essay about the ‘epigram’, and reduced it to an epigram by reducing the length of the text on each scroll through. Simple and kinda silly, but it has some interesting parallels; mostly in the way that the interface presentation is an essential part of the aesthetic argument of the piece. The interface is not a content container, rather, the interface is part of the rhetorical argument as to how the content should be understood. The interface is performative.

When I reflect on the digital work that excites me, I feel like I’ve actually been doing the same work over and over again for the last 10 years, without even realising it. I enjoy taking data (streams, databases, networks etc) and re-presenting them, using interface design, in ways that the data-designers never intended (assuming data structures were even designed at all) . I want to show data out of context, I want to show data in new contexts. I want to use systems designed for temporal presentation (blogging software is the obvious example) and use it to present other, non-temporal structures. I want to take metadata and make it the presentation metaphor. I want to take comments and make them the descriptions. I want to take tags and make them the content. There is something here about improvisation, something about playfulness, something about rethinking norms in interface and presentation, while staying within familiar paradigms. It is struggling against a medium, but pushing lightly and with purpose.

Guitar4 44 AM

When I talk about music composition, I often tell people that I like that my guitars have ‘character’, that I need to ‘fight’ them. This feels related to my design practice in ways that I’d never considered before. I like improvising by ‘fighting’ my guitar; and I like coding/designing by ‘fighting’ a database. I like pushing against boundaries to create something ‘beautiful’. With the guitar, the instrument and it’s inherent character is the medium; with software it is code and the code’s interface with other software and hardware. But the process and goals have similarities. My adeptness with each seems about equivalent. I have a certain defined repertoire and as a result I repeat myself a lot, but sometimes I surprise myself with something unexpected and wonderful. Sometimes these unexpected wonderful outcomes are a direct result of my in-adeptness: in the fight against the medium the medium ‘wins’ in a sublime way. Could this be an argument against Bret Victor’s ‘inventing on principle’? Maybe there is a genuine benefit  in working in a medium that is unwieldily and difficult to master. When I can’t immediately manifest my ideas, I end up with outcomes which are substantially different from what I would have got otherwise. It is a combination of my repertoire and my exploration of the nature of the medium that produce the final outcome. It is not a process of inspiration and production, but it is not totally uncontrolled either. The process is exploratory and improvisational.

This thought feels unfinished — I’m not really sure where I’m going with it — but I’m finding these connections between music composition/improvisation and interaction design a really interesting  space that is certainly worth more exploration, especially regarding my PhD research, where I’ve become interested in the specific actions that designers can do to actively encourage improvisation within complex, cross-disciplinary design projects.

Research outcomes, ‘live’ and ‘real’


The Living Archive project — the project that has taken up all of my time for the last 2 years, the project that takes up so much time that I haven’t even ‘bothered’ (according to one unhappy customer) to update my one iPhone app to work on the slightly larger screen of the iPhone 5 — is now ‘live‘.

‘Live’ is a funny word to use really. The Living Archive prototype, in some form or another, has actually been ‘live’ online for over a year. What ‘live’ means here is that the current version, the ‘new’ version, is accessible to the general public, to the world, unrestricted.

I have a few qualms about this ‘liveness’, mostly hold-overs from my former life as a professional web and software designer and developer. Looking at the version that is available to the public, I can’t help but feeling there is so much wrong with it. It is buggy. It crashes. It only works on a selection of web browsers, a smaller selection of phones. It is not optomised for anything. It is unreliable, possibly confusing, underdesigned, unfinished.

The nature of this being a research ‘prototype’ as opposed to a commercial venture is that there is actually years of invisible thought underlying the design. That said, in this particular project, the manifestation of the research through the design is subtle. This is no cool data-visualisation project with excititing visual outcomes to share on design blogs. Nor is it a technologically complex project: none of the technology involved is new, or even remotely groundbreaking. Most of the research is hidden in the processes involved in producing the outcome, and the outcome itself is something of a side-effect of these processes.

The problem—where I perceive it—is that this ‘side-effect’ is the only thing the rest of the world sees. This tension between ‘research’ and ‘development’ presents itself in the project at every meeting, and is becoming more and more explicit as the project moves into a ‘public’ phase. Yes, this is a research project. Yes it is ‘only a prototype’. But people all over the world can use our project as a way of interacting with Circus Oz, a performing arts company with a reputation to maintain. There are so many things that we haven’t thought about, so many design decisions and issues that we decided to ignore because they were not the focus of the research. These things all glare at me, especially when I consider how it might seem to a new user, one who has no idea about the research nature of the project, interacting with the archive for the first time.

On the other hand, for a project that really only had two developers working on it (two developers who were spending most of their time on other, tangential research activity), it’s a pretty good effort. It mostly works, on a selection of browsers. The content is mostly accessible. It’s buggy, but nothing insurmountable. It is a very useful proof of concept of my (and the project team’s) research work. It is a useful tool for Circus Oz. Most of all, it is a useful tool for future research into digital performance archives.

Dan Hill argues in his wonderful ‘Dark Matter and Trojan Horses‘ that “there is a danger in describing projects overall as prototypes, in that it suggests they are in some way “not real”, that they can be turned off, decommissioned”. I agree wholehartedly with this statement. This is no prototype, it is the Circus Oz Living Archive, online, ‘live’, and real.