A letter from the future about numbers

It’s an odd now looking at early 21st century content in the Internet Archive. So little nuance.

It feels a little like watching those old black and white movies. All that colour which was just right there. But now lost. Easy to imagine that life was just monochrome. Harder to imagine the richer colours.

Or at least hard for me. There are AIs that will imagine it all for you now, of course. There have been for a while. They’ll repaint the pictures using data they’ve gleaned from elsewhere. But it’s not the film that is difficult to look at. It’s the numbers.

How did you manage with just those bare numerals?

If I showed you, a 21st century reader, one of our numbers you wouldn’t know what it was. You wouldn’t be able to read it.

Maybe you’ve seen that film Arrival? Based on a book by Ted Chiang? Remember the alien writing that was so complex and rich in meaning? That’s what our numbers might look like to you. You’d struggle to decode them.

Oh, the rest of it is much the same. The text, emojis and memes. Everything is just that bit richer, more visual. More nuanced. It’s even taught in schools now. Standardised, tested and interpreted for all. It’d be familiar enough.

You struggle with the numbers though. They’d take much more time to learn.

Not all of them. House numbers. Your position in the queue. The cost of a coffee. Those look exactly the same. Why would we change those?

It’s the important numbers that look different. The employment figures. Your pension value. Your expected grade. The air quality. The life-changing numbers. Those all look very different now.

At some point we decided that those numbers needed to be legible in entirely different ways. We needed to be able to see (or hear, or feel) the richness and limitations in the most important numbers. It was, it turned out, the only way to build that shared literacy.

To imagine how we got there, just think about how people have always adapted and co-opted digital platforms and media for their own ends. Hashtags and memes.

Faced with the difficulty of digging behind the numbers – the need to search for sample sizes, cite the sources, highlight the bias, check the facts –  we had to find a different way. It began with adding colour, toying with fonts and diacritics.

5—a NUMBER INTERPOLATED.

It took off from there. Layers of annotations becoming conventions and then standards. Whole new planes and dimensions in unicode.

42—a PROJECTION based on a SIGNIFICANT POPULATION SAMPLE.

All of the richness, all of the context made visible right there in the number.

27-30—a PREDICTED RANGE created by a BAYESIAN INTERPOLATION over a RECENT SAMPLE produced by an OFFICIAL SOURCE.

180—an INDICATOR AUTOMATICALLY SELECTED by a DEEP LEARNING system, NO HUMAN INTERVENTION.

Context expressed as colour and weight and strokes in the glyphs. You can just read it all right off the digits. There and there. See?

Things aren’t automatically better of course. Numbers aren’t suddenly to be more trusted. Why would they be?.

It’s easier to see what’s not being said. It’s easier to demand better. It’s that little bit harder to ignore what’s before your eyes. It moves us on in our debates or just helps us recognise when the reasons for them aren’t actually down to the numbers at all.

It’s no longer acceptable to elide the detail. The numbers just look wrong. Simplistic. Black and white.

Which is why it’s difficult to read the Internet Archive sometimes.

We’ve got AIs that can dream up the missing information. Mining the Archive for the necessary provenance and add it all back into the numbers. Just like adding colour to those old films, it can be breathtaking to see. But not in a good way. How could you have deluded yourselves and misled each other so easily?

I’ve got one more analogy for you.

Rorschach tests have long been consigned to history. But one of our numbers – the life-changing ones – might just remind you of a colourful inkblots. And you might accuse use of we’re just reading things into them. Imagining things that you just aren’t there.

But numbers are just inkblots. Shapes in which we choose to see different aspects of the world. They always have been. We’ve just got a better palette.

GUIDE, a retrospective

“Tyntesfield servants’ bells” by Caroline. CC-BY-NC-ND licence. https://www.flickr.com/photos/carolineld/4608720906/

This article was first published in the February 2030 edition of Sustain magazine. Ten years since the public launch of GUIDE we sit down with its designers to chat about its origin and what’s made it successful.

It’s a Saturday morning and I’m sitting in the bustling cafe at Tyntesfield house, a National Trust property south of Bristol. I’m enjoying a large pot of tea and a slice of cake with Joe Shilling and Gordon Leith designers of one of the world’s most popular social applications: GUIDE. I’d expected to meet somewhere in the city, but Shilling suggested this as a suitable venue. It turns out Tyntesfield plays a part in the origin story of GUIDE. So its fitting that we are here for the tenth anniversary of its public launch.

SHILLING: “Originally we were just playing. Exploring the design parameters of social applications.”

He stirs the pot of tea while Leith begins sectioning the sponge cake they’ve ordered.

SHILLING: “People did that more in the early days of the web. But Twitter, Facebook, Instagram…they just kind of sucked up all the attention and users. It killed off all that creativity. For a while it seemed like they just owned the space…But then TikTok happened…”

He pauses while I nod to indicate I’ve heard of it.

SHILLING: “…and small experiments like Yap. It was a slow burn, but I think a bunch of us started to get interested again in designing different kinds of social apps. We were part of this indie scene building and releasing bespoke social networks. They came and went really quickly. People just enjoyed them whilst they were around.”

Leith interjects around a mouthful of cake:

LEITH: “Some really random stuff. Social nets with built in profile decay so they were guaranteed to end. Made them low commitment, disposable. Messaging services where you could only post at really specific, sometimes random times. Networks that only came online when its members were in precise geographic coordinates. Spatial partitioning to force separation of networks for home, work and play. Experimental, ritualised interfactions.”

SHILLING: “The migratory networks grew out of that movement too. They didn’t last long, but they were intense. ”

LEITH: “Yeah. Social networks that just kicked into life around a critical mass of people. Like in a club. Want to stay a member…share the memes? Then you needed to be in its radius. In the right city, at the right time. And then keep up as the algorithm shifted it. Social spaces herding their members.”

SHILLING: “They were intense and incredibly problematic. Which is why they didn’t last long. But for a while there was a crowd that loved them. Until the club promoters got involved and then that commercial aspect killed it.”

RENT-SEEKING

GUIDE had a very different starting point. Flat sharing in Bristol, the duo needed money. Their indie credibility was high, but what they were looking for a more mainstream hit with some likelihood of revenue. The break-up of Facebook and the other big services had created an opportunity which many were hoping to capitalise on. But investment was a problem.

LEITH: “We wrote a lot of grant proposals. Goal was to use the money to build out decent code base. Pay for some servers that we could use to launch something bigger”.

Shilling pours the tea, while Leith passes me a slice of cake.

SHILLING: “It was a bit more principled that that. There was plenty of money for apps to help with social isolation. We thought maybe we could build something useful, tackle some social problems, work with a different demographic than we had before. But, yeah, we had our own goals too. We had to take what opportunities were out there.”

LEITH: “My mum had been attending this Memory Skills group. Passing around old photos and memorabilia to get people talking and reminiscing. We thought we could create something digital.”

SHILLING: “We managed to land a grant to explore the idea. We figured that there was a demographic that had spent time connecting not around the high street or the local football club. But with stuff they’d all been doing online. Streaming the same shows. Revisiting old game worlds. We thought those could be really useful touch points and memory triggers too. And not everyone can access some of the other services.”

LEITH: “Mum could talk for hours about Skyrim and Fallout”.

SHILLING: “So we prototyped some social spaces based around that kind of content. It was during the user testing that we had the real eye-opener”.

“Memory Box” by judy_and_ed. CC-BY-NC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/65924740@N00/18516079841/

ITERATIONS

The first iterations of the app that ultimately became GUIDE were pretty rough. Shilling and Leith have been pretty open about their early failures.

LEITH: “The first iteration was basically a Twitch knock-off. People could join the group remotely, chat to each other and watch whatever the facilitator decided to stream.”

SHILLING: “Engagement was low. We didn’t have cash to license a decent range of content. The facilitators needed too much training on the streaming interface and real-time community management.”

LEITH: “I then tried getting a generic game engine to boot up old game worlds, so we could run tours. But the tech was a nightmare to get working. Basically needed different engines for different games”

SHILLING: “Some of the users loved it, mainly those that had the right hardware and were already into gaming. But it didn’t work for most people. And again…I…we were worried about licensing issues”

LEITH: “So we started testing a customised, open source version of Yap. Hosted chat rooms, time-limited rooms and content embedding…that ticked a lot of boxes. I built a custom index over the Internet Archive, so we could use their content as embeds”.

SHILLING: “There’s so much great stuff that people love in the Internet Archive. At the time, not many services were using it. Just a few social media accounts. So we made using it a core feature. It neatly avoided the licensing issues. We let the alpha testers run with the service for a while. We gave them and the memory service facilitators tips on hosting their own chats. And basically left them to it for a few weeks. It was during the later user testing that we discovered they were using it in different ways that we’d expected.”

Instead of having conversations with their peer groups, the most engaged users were using it to chat with their families. Grandparents showing their grandchildren stuff they’d watched, listened to, or read when they were younger.

SHILLING: “They were using it to tell stories”

Surrounded by the bustle in the cafe, we pause to enjoy the tea and cake. Then Shilling gestures around the room.

SHILLING: “We came here one weekend. To get out of the city. Take some time to think. They have these volunteers here. One in every room of the house. People just giving up their free time to answer any questions you might have as you wander around. Maybe, point out interesting things you might not have noticed? Or, if you’re interested, tell you about some of things they love about the place. It was fascinating. I realised that’s how our alpha testers were using the prototype…just sharing their passions with their family.”

LEITH: “So this is where GUIDE was born. We hashed out the core features for the next iteration in a walk through the grounds. Fantastic cake, too.”

“Walkman and mix tapes” by henry… CC-BY-NC-ND. https://www.flickr.com/photos/henrybloomfield/5136897807/

MEMORY PALACE

The familiar, core features of GUIDE have stayed roughly the same since that day.

Anyone can become a Guide and create a Room which they can use to curate and showcase small collections of public domain or openly licensed content. But no more than seven videos, photos, games or whatever else you can embed from the Internet Archive. Room contents can be refreshed once a week.

Visitors are limited to a maximum of five people. Everyone else gets to wait in a lobby, with new visitors being admitted every twenty minutes. Audio feeds only from the Guides, allowing them to chat to Visitors. But Visitors can only interact with Guides via a chat interface that requires building up messages — mostly questions — from a restricted set of words and phrases that can be tweaked by Guides for their specific Room. Each visitor limited to one question every five minutes.

LEITH: “The asymmetric interface, lobby system and cool-down timers were lifted straight from games. I looked up the average number of grandchildren people had. Turns out its about fives, so we used that to size Rooms. The seven item limit was because I thought it was a lucky number. We leaned heavily on the Internet Archive’s bandwidth early on for the embeds, but we now mirror a lot of stuff. And donate, obviously.”

SHILLING: “The restricted chat interface has helped limit spamming and moderation. No video feeds from Guides means that the focus stays on the contents of the Room, not the host. Twitch had some problematic stuff which we wanted to avoid. I think its more inclusive.”

LEITH: “Audio only meant the ASMR crowd were still happy though”.

Today there are tens of thousands of Rooms. Shilling shows me a Room where the Guide gives tours of historical maps of Bath, mixing in old photos for context. Another, “Eleanor’s Knitting Room” curates knitting patterns. The Guide alternating between knitting tips and cultural critiques.

Leith has a bookmarked collection of retro-gaming Rooms. Doom WAD teardowns and classic speed-runs analysis for the most part.

In my own collection, my favourite is a Room showing a rota of Japanese manhole cover designs, the Guide an expert on Japanese art and infrastructure. I often have this one a second screen whilst writing. The lobby wait time is regularly over an hour. Shilling asks me to share that one with him.

LEITH: “There are no discovery tools in Guide. That was deliberate from the start. Strictly no search engine. Want to find a Room? You’ll need to be invited by a Guide or grab a link from a friend”.

SHILLING: “Our approach has been to allow the service to grow within the bounds of existing communities. We originally marketed the site to family groups, and an older demographic. The UK and US were late adopters, the service was much more popular elsewhere for a long time. Things really took off when the fandoms grabbed hold of it.”

An ecosystem of recommendation systems, reviews and community Room databases has grown up around the service. I asked whether that defeated the purpose of not building those into the core app?

LEITH: “It’s about power. If we ran those features then it would be our algorithms. Our choice. We didn’t want that.”

SHILLING: “We wanted the community to decide how to best use GUIDE as social glue. There’s so many more creative ways in which people interact with and use the platform now”.

The two decline to get into discussion of the commercial success of GUIDE. It’s well-documented that the two have become moderately wealthy from the service. More than enough to cover that rent in the city centre. Shilling only touches on it briefly:

SHILLING: “No ads and a subscription-based service has kept us honest. The goal was to pay the bills while running a service we love. We’ve shared a lot of that revenue back with the community in various ways”.

Photo by Jacques Bopp on Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/photos/pvtA7r3jBTc

SLOW WEB

GUIDE can be situated within the Slow Web movement. There are a host of services offering quieter online experiences. Videos of walks through foreign cities. Live feeds from orbiting satellites and VR outposts mounted on marine buoys and in wild locations around the world. Social features as bolt-on features. But GUIDE’s focus on the curation of small spaces, story telling and shared discovery sets it apart.

Of course, all of this was possible before. YouTube and Twitch supported broadcasts and streaming for years, and many people used them in similar ways. But the purposeful design of a more dedicated interface highlights how constraints can shape a community and spark creativity. Removal of many of the asymmetries inherent in the design of those older platforms has undoubtedly helped.

While we finished the last of the tea, I asked them what they thought made the service successful.

SHILLING: “You can find, watch and listen to any of the material that people are sharing in GUIDE on the open web. Just Google it. But I don’t think people just want more content. They want context. And its people that bring that context to life. You can find Rooms now where there’s a relay of Guides running 24×7. Each Guide highlighting different aspects of the exact same collection. Costume design, narrative arcs and character bios. Historical and cultural significance. Personal stories. There’s endless context to discover around the same content. That’s what fandoms have understood for years.”

LEITH: “People just like stories. We gave them a place to tell them. And an opportunity to listen.”

The British Hypertextual Society (1905-2017)

With their globe-spanning satellite network nearing completion, Peter Linkage reports on some of the key milestones in the history of the British Hypertextual Society.

The British Hypertextual Society was founded in 1905 with a parliamentary grant from the Royal Society of London. At the time there was growing international interest in finding better ways to manage information, particularly scientific research. Undoubtedly the decision to invest in the creation of a British centre of expertise for knowledge organisation was also influenced by the rapid progress being made in Europe.

Paul Otlet‘s Universal Bibliographic Repertory and his ground-breaking postal search engine were rapidly demonstrating their usefulness to scholars. Otlet’s team began publishing the first version of their Universal Decimal Classification only the year before. Letters between Royal Society members during that period demonstrate concern that Britain was losing the lead in knowledge science.

As you might expect, the launch of the British Hypertextual Society (BHS) was a grand affair. The centre piece of the opening ceremony was the Babbage Bookwheel Engine, which remains on show (and in good working order!) in their headquarters to this day. The Engine was commissioned from Henry Prevost Babbage, who refined a number of his father’s ideas to automate and improve on Ramelli’s Bookwheel concept.

While it might originally have been intended as only a centre piece, it was the creation of this Engine that laid the groundwork for many of the Society’s later successes.

Competition between the BHS members and Otlet’s team in Belgium encouraged the rapid development of new tools. This includes refinements to the Bookwheel Engine, prompting its switch from index cards to microfilm. Ultimately it was also instrumental in the creation of the United Kingdom’s national grid and the early success of the BBC.

In the 1920s, in an effort to improve on the Belgium Postal Search Service, the British Government decided to invest in its own solution. This involved reproducing decks of index cards and microfilm sheets that could be easily interchanged between Bookwheel Engines. The new, standardised electric engines were dubbed “Card Wheels”.

The task of distributing the decks and the machines to schools, universities and libraries was given to the recently launched BBC as part of its mission to inform, educate and entertain. Their microfilm version of the Domesday book was the headline grabbing release, but the BBC also freely distributed a number of scholarly and encyclopedic works.

Problems with reliable supply of electricity to parts of the UK hampered the roll out of the Card Wheels. This lead to the Electricity (Supply) Act of 1926 and the creation of Central Electricity Board. This simultaneously laid the foundations for a significant cabling infrastructure that would later carry information to the nation in digital forms.

These data infrastructural improvements were mirrored by a number of theoretical breakthroughs. Drawing on Ada Lovelace’s work and algorithms for the Difference Engine, British Hypertextual Society scholars were able to make rapid advances in the area of graph theory and analysis.

These major advances in the distribution of knowledge across the United Kingdom lead to Otlet moving to Britain in the early 1930s. A major scandal at the time, this triggered the end of many of the projects underway in Belgium and beyond. Awarded a senior position in the BHS, Otlet transferred his work on the Mundaneum to London.

Close ties between the BHS members and key government officials meant that the London we know today is truly the “World City” envisioned by Otlet. It’s interesting to walk through London and consider how so much of the skyline and our familiar landmarks are influenced by the history of hypertext.

The development of the Memex in the 1940s laid the foundations for the development of both home and personal hypertext devices. Combining the latest mechanical and theoretical achievements of the BHS with some American entrepreneurship lead to devices rapidly spreading into people’s homes. However the device was the source of some consternation within the BHS as it was felt that British ideas hadn’t been properly credited in the development of that commercial product.

Of course we shouldn’t overlook the importance of the InterGraph in ensuring easy access to information around the globe. Designed to resist nuclear attack, the InterGraph used graph theory concepts developed by the BHS to create a world-wide mesh network between hypertext devices and sensors. All of our homes, cars and devices are part of this truly distributed network.

Tim Berners-Lee‘s development of the Hypertext Resource Locator was initially seen as a minor breakthrough. But it actually laid the foundations for the replacement of Otlet’s classification scheme and accelerated the creation of the World Hypertext Engine (WHE) and the global information commons. Today the WHE is ubiquitous. It’s something we all use and contribute to on a daily basis.

But, while we all contribute to the WHE, it’s the tireless work of the “Controllers of The Graph” in London that ensures that the entire knowledge base remains coherent and reliable. How else would we distinguish between reliable, authoritative sources and information published by any random source? Their work to fact check information, manage link integrity and ensure maintenance of core assets are key features of the WHE as a system.

Some have wondered what an alternate hypertext system might look like. Scholars have pointed to ideas such as Ted Nelson’s “Xanadu” as one example of an alternative system. Indeed it is one of many that grew out of the counter-culture movement in the 1960s. Xanadu retained many of the features of the WHE as we know it today, e.g. transclusion and micro-transactions, but removed the notion of a centralised index and register of content. This not only removed the ability to have reliable, bi-directional links,  but would have allowed anyone to contribute anything, regardless of its veracity.

For many its hard to imagine how such a chaotic system would actually work. Xanadu has been dismissed as “a foam of ever-popping bubbles“. And a heavily commercialised and unreliable system of information is a vision to which a few would subscribe.

Who would want to give up the thrill of seeing their first contributions accepted into the global graph? It’s a rite of passage that many reflect on fondly. What would the British economy look like if it were not based on providing access to the world’s information? Would we want to use a system that was not fundamentally based on the “Inform, Educate and Entertain” ideal?

This brings us to the present day. The launch of a final batch of satellites will allow the British Hypertextual Society to deliver on a long-standing goal whilst also enabling its next step into the future.

Launched from the British space centre at Goonhilly, each of the standardised CardSat satellites carries both a high-resolution camera and an InterGraph mesh network node. The camera will be used to image the globe in unprecedented detail. This will be used to ensure that every key geographical feature, including every tree and many large animals can be assigned a unique identifier, bringing them into the global graph. And, by extending the mesh network into space the BHS will ensure that the InterGraph has complete global coverage, whilst also improving connectivity between the fleet of British space drones.

It’s an exciting time for the future of information sharing. Let’s keep sharing what we know!

Mega-City One: Smart City

“A smart city is an urban development vision to integrate multiple information and communication technology (ICT) and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions in a secure fashion to manage a city’s assets – the city’s assets include, but are not limited to, local departments’ information systems, schools, libraries, transportation systems, hospitals, power plants, water supply networks, waste management, law enforcement, and other community services…ICT allows city officials to interact directly with the community and the city infrastructure and to monitor what is happening in the city, how the city is evolving, and how to enable a better quality of life. Through the use of sensors integrated with real-time monitoring systems, data are collected from citizens and devices – then processed and analyzed. The information and knowledge gathered are keys to tackling inefficiency.” – Smart City, Wikipedia

We’d like to thank the Fforde Foundation for grant funding this project. We’re also grateful to the Fictional Cities Catapult for ongoing advice and support.

In this post we share some insights from early work by our lead researcher Thursday Next. Thursday has recently been leading a team carrying out an assessment of Mega-City One against our smart city maturity model.

Housing

Homelessness is rare among the official citizenry of Mega City One. Considerable investment has been made in building homes for its rapidly growing population. Self-contained city blocks encourage close-knit communities who identify very strongly with their individual blocks.

Citizens enjoy the ability to live, shop and socialise together. Some even choose to spend their entire lives within the secure environment provided by their home block, each of which can house up to 50,000 people. Block provides immediate access to hospitals, gyms, leisure activities, schools and shopping districts. Everything a citizen needs is available on their doorstep.

Transport

Meta-City One boasts a huge variety of transportation systems, covering every form of travel. Pedestrians are able to use Eeziglide and Pedway systems, whilst mass transit is provided by Sky-Rail and other public transit systems.

Roads are adequately sized and are home to a range of autonomous vehicles. Indeed these vehicles are so spacious and reliable that many citizens choose to live in them permanently.

Transport in Mega-City One is reliable, efficient and typically only faces issues during large-scale emergencies (e.g. the Apocalypse War, robot uprising and dark judge visitations).

Education and training

While education is freely available to all citizens, there is little need for many to follow a formal education pathway. Ready access to robot butlers and high levels of automation mean that citizens rarely need to work. Many citizens choose to embrace hobbies and follow vocational training, e.g. in human taxidermy or training as professional gluttons.

But, for those citizens that display a strong aptitude, there are always opportunities in the Justice Department. A rigorous programme of physical and education training is available. Individualised learning pathways mean that citizens can find employment in a variety of public sector roles.

Leisure

Leisure is the primary pursuit of many citizens and there are many opportunities and means of participating. A culture of innovation surrounds the leisure sector which includes a range of new sports including Sky surfing, Batgliding and PowerBoarding.

Citizens are able to quickly learn of new opportunities meaning that crazes often sweep the city (see, for example, Boinging).

Health

Mega-City One is almost completely self-sufficient. Food is primarily created from artificial or synthetic sources. Popular brands like Grot Pot, provide a low-cost balanced diet. These are supplemented with imported produce such as Munce, which is sourced from artisan-lead Cursed Earth communities.

Environmental Services

Weather data and control infrastructure in Mega-City One is highly developed. Justice Department have long had control over local weather and climate conditions, allowing them to provide optimum conditions for citizens. Weather has also factored into policing, e.g. during large scale rioting and other disasters.

There is a strong culture of recycling in Mega-City One and there have been citizen-led movements encouraging greater environmental awareness. The cities Resyk centres ensure that nothing (and nobody) goes to waste.

Policing and Emergencies

Little needs to be said about Mega-City One’s crime and justice department. It is an exemplar of integrated and optimised policing solutions. The Justice Department are able to react rapidly to issues and are glad to offer a personalised service for citizens.

While data from homes, public areas and “eye in the sky” cameras are fed into central systems, actual delivery of justice is federated. Sector Houses provide local justice services across the city. This is supplemented with Citi-Def forces that handle community policing and enforcement activities in individual city blocks. Mega-City One has also embraced predictive policing through its small but effect Psi Division.

We hope this post has helped to highlight a number of important smart city innovations. Exploring how these have been operationalised and optimised to deliver services to citizens will be covered in future research. Please get in touch if you’d like us to undertake a maturity assessment of your fictional city!