More on the latest serendipity appearances here.
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The serendipity engine has been on the road over the last few months, making appearances at the University of Cambridge at the Arcadia Seminar series, at Google at the Luvvies and Boffins event, for New Humanist‘s/Robin Ince’s Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People at the Bloomsbury Theatre, and this week in Leicester at DeMontfort University’s Institute of Creative Technologies research seminar series.
This week I started my Visiting Fellowship in the Media and Communications Department at the LSE. I’m absolutely thrilled to be part of this incredibly dynamic group of learned academics and incredibly inspiring researchers. I’ll be at the LSE until September 2012, working on two projects.
Alfred … puts serendipitous recommendations in the palm of a consumer’s hand. Dubbed “Pandora for the real world,” Alfred is a personal robot that can learn users’ tastes when they teach it about their favorite places in the real world.
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The Serendipity Engine is an artefact of knowing and an artefact of not-knowing
It reflects and produces everyday practices and knowledges
It is not bound by one form of human or technical engagement.
It is not fixed in place. Embedded in a suitcase, it is infinitely mobile, fluid and capable of infinite modularity.
It makes visible the existence of multiple forms of connections.
It resists being defined and resists knowing all the time.
It claims uncertainty and ambiguity.
It is about what works and doesn’t work
It is work.
It combines and entangles unexpected encounters
It is contained and uncontainable
It is your task
Make your own.
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I had 5 minutes to do nothing but stare at my computer during a lock-off shot whilst recording The Culture Show film on serendipity last week, and jotted down a few of the thoughts about the function of tonight’s lecture at The Royal Institution, the expectations of the audience, and why we are there talking about what we’re talking about.
The context and the expectation is that people will come to see a difficult concept made sense of - to see something that’s hard to comprehend demonstrated in a way that makes it clear. That is the history of this space. That is our mission.
As an exercise, I decided to replace the word “serendipity” with “trigonometry”, “quarks”, “black holes” and “microelectronics”. And it suddenly occurred to me: we will be delivering a How Stuff Works lecture, where the Stuff that we’re explaining can’t be explained in an easy way. That’s why the MONIAC computer was created. That’s why the beautiful machine method works. That’s why Kat and I are making an engine.
Rather than taking what is traditionally considered a physical concept (i.e., waveforms, chemical properties, even cognitive psychologies) we will extract a psychological attribution, a social phenomenon - a human-oriented conceit that has been generated by and has evolved throughout our social histories to explain something that is both mystical and rooted in our need to establish human control. It is manifested by our sense-making only. And, like mathematics or theoretical physics, or anything that cannot (yet?) be measured, we are seeking to explain it.
Tonight, Kat and I will enter into a space that has, since Faraday’s time, offered delight through explanation. We will demonstrate and explain the concept of serendipity.
We have produced a machine that seeks to explain what is in the black box, leaving to the viewers’ discretion - and personal sense-making process - what is missing.
There will be a lot that is missing. But that’s the point.
We will attempt to avoid a wooly, “but it can’t be explained!” explanation; people come to the RI lectures to come away with new knowledge and new information.
We hope that what we have produced - through the various workshops, the welding, the collaboration with generous contributors, the drilling, the sawdust and the amateur electronic engineering - will delight. Then we will have succeeded in doing what we set out to do.
Join us tonight at 7pm and let us know!
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In the process of pulling together my presentation for September’s SerenaA serendipity panel at the ISEA conference in Istanbul, I did a bit more research on beautiful machines. The talk showcased a few of the analogue solutions that artists, scientists and theoreticians have produced as “metphors in action” (as phrased by Kat & her Enquiry Machine No 1 collaborator Julien McHardy), situating this part of the Serendipity Engine project within the context of the analogue computer space.
Along the way, I discovered an entire BBC Radio 4 documentary from 2002 (audio file) about the MONIAC Computer, initially devised as a teaching tool by Bill Phillips in 1949 to model the British economy but later used as a factor in decision making.
Programme 4 - Water on the Brain
Shortly after World War II, a New Zealand engineer started a sociology degree at the London School of Economics. Bill Phillips had already shown remarkable courage and ingenuity, winning an award for bravery in the Far East, then making electrical gadgets as a prisoner of war. He designed simple immersion heaters for his fellow POWs’ nightly cups of tea; the guards never worked out why the camp lights dimmed around 10 o’clock. He made a simple radio (he’d have been executed if caught) and heard news of the bombing of Hiroshima. At the LSE he didn’t take to sociology but economics fascinated him. He wrote an essay comparing the national economy to a machine pumping coloured water round clear plastic tubes. An older student persuaded him to build one, and it was an immediate success. More than a dozen were made eventually, with Ford buying one and another going to the Central Bank of Guatemala. Within a few years he was a professor and became one of the giants among post-war economists. He died young, but friends and colleagues recall this remarkable man. One “Phillips Machine” is still working at Cambridge University, where leading economist Brian Henry, who helped restore it, recalls seeing this “ingenious teaching device” for the first time. Although he had already studied economics for 3 years, that was the first time he actually understood what the “circular flow of money” was all about, because he could see it.
Here are a few choice quotes from Dr Brian Henry, Director of the Centre for the Centre for International Macroeconomics, Oxford University:
It was such a supreme visual telling of the mechanics of the Keynsian idea that I think all students felt for the first time they started to understand what the basic ideas were all about.
In other words, the machine made visible the hidden inter-relationships between variables.
He then started translating the economics into hydraulics. In other words, from a language he didn’t understand into a language which he did.
This is a beautiful way of saying what Kat says in this quote from her article Exhibiting Ethnographic Knowledge; making sociology about makers of technology in the Jan 2010 issue of Street Signs, about her material-based practice of sense-making:
The process of spatially configuring my sociological arguments on the side of a suburban house and in the space of two glass cabinets at College opened up alternate means of interrogating my ideas. I came to see new relationships and connections between images, objects and texts. I was literally able to stand apart from my work and see it from different perspectives.
Kat and I present the Serendipity Engine tomorrow night at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Get your ticket to the event here.
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