“Wake up. They found the higgs bosun. Or they think they know where they put it. Or something.” [text message from M]
I spent part of my first year at the Slade creating intricate little line drawings in black charcoal pencil, inspired by the paths of decaying sub-atomic particles in a bubble chamber – the traces left behind by something that no-one could actually see. I put them in the black sketchbook that we were each given that year. Typically, I didn’t draw on the lovely heavyweight paper in the sketchbook itself, but instead used some yellowing bits of crappy newsprint, which I much preferred, then stuck them into the treasured book for safekeeping. It was a gift you see, the sketchbook, like the ever-more dog-eared photograph of Joseph Beuys which just so perfectly covers the front of my fridge, stuck on with blu-tac. I will never overcome my fascination with old bits of paper, and nor should I.
It was a life of being torn between extremes even then, being captivated by both particle physics and astronomy, the minute and the infinite, amongst many other obsessions. When I opened that sketchbook, I had never used a computer or a mobile phone. I’m sitting here tonight typing on the laptop that I use almost every day, next to the iPhone that my mother would like to see surgically removed from me, and not really paying attention to either of the two ancient TVs that I refuse to part with (only one of which is switched on). Each of those TVs is a story of its own, but I digress. I will never overcome my fascination with old bits of technology, and nor should I…
It occurred to me only this week that my work over the past decade, apparently lightyears away from those days of charcoal and aspiration, actually has its roots in what I learnt, talked about and captured on bits of paper back then. I’ve had cause to think about this a lot lately, because I’ve suddenly realised that few people who I work with seem to have much of an understanding about what I do – or why. I have found myself standing in no-man’s land, with no idea how I got here, and wondering whether I can be bothered fighting any more. (Terrible metaphor for a pacifist this).
I’m not a noisy person, or a confident person. I don’t make friends easily. There are few people who really know me. So it came as a bit of a shock to me when I discovered, also at the Slade, just how much I get out of collaborating with other people. I spent six years working in spaces where we talked every day about what mattered to us, shared ideas, worked things out, and got things done. My work began to come off the page, developing into interactive spaces, sounds, shadows, stories – things that changed over time, as I did. I learnt the theory of collaborative systems, from arctic wolf packs to cathedral builders, and I learnt the practical ways in which we can create things together. Those spaces we shared were also a gift.
Unbeknown to me, I’ve taken those ideas with me along the strange route that my life has taken since. I’ve spent almost 10 years using all kinds of digital technologies to help people get things done and make new connections with people they wouldn’t otherwise know. I began by working as a volunteer on the INtouch digital TV project, which I got involved in after receiving a bit of paper hand-delivered through my door. This letter offered an opportunity to write things about the place where I live – to find out what was going on locally and to share it. Somehow, years later, I’ve become the person who helps other people to do that. I hope.
I think we’re fortunate to have so many different tools now that we can use to build and strengthen relationships, and to figure out new ways of doing things. That’s what I’m trying to do, both in my paid work and in my exploits as a community activist. I’ve seen relatively simple and ‘slow’ technologies like digital TV change people’s lives completely. But of course the technology didn’t do it on its own. It’s people who change each other’s lives. Given the chance.
When I began working with these new-fangled digital technologies, there was no such term as ‘social media’. There was no bandwagon, no stampede. Nobody seemed to be very interested in finding out what residents and community groups in our local area had to say, or in helping them to say it. The awful thing is that I suspect a lot of people in local authorities still aren’t really interested. Sure, we might have set up dozens of twitter accounts and Facebook pages, and we might be busily asking people to ‘like’ us, but that’s not collaboration. It might lead to collaboration eventually, but only if we actively try to make that happen.
“Well if they become uncertain about the uncertainty principle then it proves um… uncertainty.” [text message from M]
I have earned my moment of uncertainty, because I’ve had a bit of a culture shock lately. My immediate working environment is no longer a place where we get together and share ideas each day. No longer a creative space, nor a happy one. For me, it’s become a no-man’s land between IT and Communications. We are in the process of being shuffled and split, and who knows where we’ll land. All I know so far is that, unlike most of the people who I have so far worked most closely with, I am “not IT.” Our island between the two strange shores has been engulfed. So that’s me in limbo for months, pondering where I belong, and wondering what kind of traces I might leave behind.
In the midst of which, I am asked to write.
It’s a dangerous thing to ask a long-silent writer to begin again. M has made many appeals over the years, for something longer than a text message. For more books even. If we’re on the verge of re-writing the laws of physics, now is perhaps as good a time as any.
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
[from Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday statement, 8th January 2012]
I will never overcome my fascination with old bits of the Universe, and nor should I.