How to approach data science in your business Learn more

Duncan and I have been working up creative ideas together ­– and separately – for a few years. Some get to the prototype stage while others are developed in sketches, wikis and excited emails before being set aside or segued into something else. There’s a range to it, but a lot of our ideas seem to have to do with trying to find meaning in networks. We’ve noticed that the internet started off with one problem and ended up with the opposite one: too few users have become too many, not enough information has become too much. With so much undifferentiated stuff, and so many strangers so close by, we're facing a new set of problems around filtering and making sense of things. We might not have the answers, but we’ve definitely had contrary fun thinking about it all. Check out our conversation about some of the stuff we’ve made over the turn…

Leila: It started with The Operator. Nothing shows the paradoxical facelessness – the loneliness  – of crowds like a network of strangers, and we played on this, and the disingenuousness of infinite opportunity, with our first big project, F.U.S.I.O.N. The game demo stars a lovelorn switchboard operator stranded in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse. Suffering from a lovesickness as debilitating as her radiation sickness, The Operator uses her access to the global communications network to scan for eligible male survivors, lifelong happiness… and basic humanitarian aid. This theme of the significance of locations has persisted, too. We spent a recent lunch hour getting a bit too interested in the idea of building some kind of ‘laser cage’ to force birds to competitively check in to trees. And Duncan, your Paris Metro project comes to life during those moments your phone goes offline…

Duncan: Smartphones are such connected devices that it’s very noticeable when they’re offline and disconnected from the hive. I wanted to play with the idea of things happening whilst you’re offline – commuting, underground – and to see if there was any fun in holding your phone and waiting for a signal, to catch up on what you might have missed. Making a commuter game out of the train network made sense when I started to think about the design of the Paris Metro. But I didn’t finish it, of course, although I proved the concept and still want to make a game where I’m excited to see what happened when I was disconnected.

Leila: That triggered a lot of thoughts about phones. Your imaginary ‘Macroscope App’ idea that I featured in issue 2 of Hackers! was a great (and really funny) – way of demonstrating insignificance by showing your location relative to an asteroid, etc. I still think we should make that! Then we considered making an infuriating iPhone app that posts reams of frightened tweets whenever you lose a 3G connection, and scraping train data to send your phone on a virtual inter-railing adventure if it’s irritated you one too many times. I think we must have been quite frustrated with our phones at the time. I like things that notify when no one’s listening, and things that fail to notify when everyone needs them to. It’s all useless and anti-social by the web’s standards, but interesting and oddly human: the opposite of an ever-expanding universe of information and contacts. I would describe your project bliss, ‘the opposite of Foursquare’ as a simple but beautiful articulation of the impersonality of check-ins.

Duncan: Yes, it’s a game about presence. In reality, you play by checking in, and you check in by loading the page. Stick around for long enough and you’ll see other people come and go. I wanted to know what London looked like from the other side. I wanted to build a hippie commune bonafide. I think we’re living in a period of acute self-awareness and I wanted to make something ill-defined, like a smear across the lens.

“Everywhere you look, there seem to be increasing signs that we are living inside a novel that JG Ballard started to write at the exact moment he died, a novel that takes the form of a reverberating hallucination that just keeps giving. Perhaps the novel/hallucination ends when Ballard himself is the most followed character on Facebook, his brain radiating astounding time-bending realities at the centre of the new post-internet universe where the numerous and multiplying levels of our existence interact.” via.

A lot of what I’ve been designing recently has been as a reaction to the broheimification of the internet, the masculinity and the obviousness of it all. Where Foursquare is about visiting one place at a time, and witnessing multiple personalities active on it, bliss registers its own page loads, finds them in space, and plots them in a simple abstract way. The result is a fascinating, twinkling constellation devoid of ‘friends’ and ego – it’s all about personality-free check-ins, but the result is a sense of a world full of life. If the opposite of foursquare is bliss, then bliss is a place where every check-in means something, and where every check-in disrupts the network. Where everybody means something.

Leila: It’s interesting how abstraction can emphasise presence more than location apps that let you talk to each other continually through ‘tips’ and messages. Maybe presence isn’t as much about connecting as we’re led to think. There’s something very powerful in the idea of just sending a wordless beacon from where you are.

I’ve been thinking similar things about Instagram. Because I think the captions are under-used, and because the buildings and streets I see every day reliably remind me of the same moments from my past, I’ve started building what I call a “Memory Map”. I’ve been taking pictures of things as I walk around London, and captioning them with a concise but atmospheric (and sometimes willfully cryptic) memo, and a year. I’ve also asked Instagram to send me an email every time I post an image tagged #memorymap. The effect of a “memory” being emailed to me as I wander around is surprisingly eerie, considering I effectively just told it to happen! It’s partly because, in my head, my memory really does take the form of a freeze frame and a few words. It’s a bit like a dream viewing machine, and brings to mind another opposite: the opposite of A.I.

I love the idea of a service that automatically issues someone’s personal memories into the inboxes of anonymous subscribers. It’s impulsive and impersonal, the most literal ‘connection’. It’s basically what would happen if a person was turned into a robot, a brain in a jar. I don’t need to know who the subscribers are, and they don’t need to communicate with me. But they will get access to something almost inaccessibly private, very fast, with no emotional obligation. It’s one-way, unplugged, disinterested – yet packed with feeling. I think bliss is similar: a flip-side view of a social network that takes the idea of a connection to its limit.

Leila Johnston

Leila Johnston

Leila specialises in content and copy at mxm. Her professional background combines journalism, blogging, events, comedy and digital copywriting. She has written two humour books, is the editor of the Hackers! newspaper and represents one half of the iTunes hit podcast Shift Run Stop. (She still contributes regularly to a number of websites and magazines, including Wired UK.)

An enthusiastic public speaker, Leila currently co-hosts the interdisciplinary mini-conference with colleague Sara Williams.

None of her immediate relatives are Native American.