Editor’s Note: Daniel is an administrator at the Unfiction forums and was part of the team that created the Project MU Archive Book. He was on the scene at PICNIC ’07 as a representative of the ARG community and was kind enough to submit a report on his experiences. This is part two of the report. We thank Daniel for his support of ARGNet and his wonderful report and pictures.

main_conference_hall_exterior.jpgThe next day started out with a discussion between two people who are both known as quite visionaries when it comes to the Internet. The first was David Weinberger, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, is a prominent commentator on internet marketing strategies, and is the author of the book Everything is Miscellaneous. The second was Andrew Keen, a digital pioneer, author of the book Cult of the Amateur and a leading contemporary critic of recent developments regarding the Internet.

This set up a really interesting debate, between a Web 2.0 fanatic and one of its most prominent critics. Weinberger gave a compelling presentation of his views on the Internet, that it was made for one purpose — to organize messiness. Hyperlinking as a concept was invented so that content could be offered in multiple places, just by linking to it. Having user generated content, with Wikipedia as the main example, creates more content and complexity in that content than could otherwise have been achieved, which is A Good Thing.

Keen, however, fundamentally disagrees with this view, condensing his own take on this as “complexity bad, simplicity good” and stating that the media and the Internet should try and reflect the world, rather than trivialize it. Nowadays, the Internet ‘complexifies’ the world and a lot of the information that is being offered is wrong or corrupt. He kept arguing that Weinberger’s approach was much too philosophical and that he needed to be more practical. One of his better examples was the Wikipedia entry for ‘truthiness’, a term coined by Stephen Colbert. Its word count is almost exactly the same as the entry for truth, demonstrating that Wikipedia has no context and that there’s nothing there to tell us what’s important and not.

Weinberger countered this by arguing that incidents like the ‘truthiness’ entry will automatically be dealt with by the community, which is an argument I also tend to rely on a lot. Overall, I thought Keen was coming off as being rather sour and negative, while Weinberger seems to be more of a visionary and has much more of a pioneering spirit. I know one thing for sure — I will definitely go and read Weinberger’s book. Oh, and here’s a funny little fact — Amazon lists Keen’s book as a ‘Perfect Partner’ for Weinberger’s. 🙂

After this compelling discussion, we moved on to yet another multi-speaker session aimed at technology. First off, there was Pablo Holman, more widely known as ‘Pablos’. He’s a hacker, and was introduced as someone with no role in creating technology, but a big role in taking it apart. He gave us a really funny take on the vulnerabilities of technology. Some highlights included him organizing the Wearable Tech Fashion Show, which he characterized as a unique opportunity to get people to send you all kinds of cool tech stuff, slap it on some hot babes and then keep it afterwards, which apparently is a very worthwhile scheme when you’re low on cash and have a great need for cutting edge wearable technology.

One of Pablos’ better quotes was “Hackers don’t ask ‘what does this do?’, hackers ask ‘what can I make this do?’”. He then demonstrated some of the cooler things you can do when you know just a little bit more about simple technology than the average person — hacking into the TV-network in your hotel room, hacking into someone’s cell phone voicemail and changing the greeting message (which he demonstrated live on stage by doing it to Cory Doctorow’s voicemail, who was actually sitting in the audience) and spoofing identities by scanning RFID tags and using the info on them to do all sorts of freaky stuff. His most applauded feat was a remake of the famous ‘Samy is my hero’ code that was released on MySpace, which added those four words to every profile that came in contact with the original profile which contained the code. Pablos pointed us all to the PICNIC Network site, where, to everyone’s amazement, the words ‘Pablos is our hero’ had been added to a couple of profiles, Cory Doctorow’s being one of them. All in all, this made for an often times hilarious and very enjoyable presentation.

panel_discussion_on_pervasive_experiences.jpgNext up was Nikolaj Nyholm, founder and CEO of the Danish company Polar Rose, which produces software that can recognize faces from images, whether they are single 2d images or a video feed. The software works by recognizing over 140 different vectors in a face and could, while still in development, already determine with a 98.2% accuracy if a face is male or female. This made for another impressive demonstration: If you run the software on your PC and you are, for example, browsing on Flickr, every picture that the software recognizes as having a face in it is highlighted with a little rose icon. If you then click the rose, you can identify the person in the picture and thus help by adding to the Polar Rose database of metadata.

You can then use the software to go to a website or into your own collection of pictures and say “show me only photos with person A and B, but not person C in them” and it will search all the pictures for you. A neat and funny little thing he assured us was becoming practical with the current version already was the ability to ask it to “crawl match.com for me and show me all profiles of people looking x% like the person in this photo”.

Two less elaborate, but still pretty interesting presentations followed: Alexander Straub from Pixsta, presented their image-browsing software that shows some innovative ways of ordering and browsing items visually, for example in a webshop. Arnold Smeulders, from MultimediaN, talked about a few new and original ways of searching different parts of the web that his company was working on, the most interesting being Moodspotter, which crawls Livejournal and finds relations between content and the mood people say they were in while typing that entry. By graphically showing the mood-distribution over the course of a day, he was able to assert that there is a very steady pattern for distribution of the mood ‘excited’ (with the height of excitement always being in the middle of the day). Only really major events like the release of the last Harry Potter showed a distortion of the common pattern, which was pretty cool.

Ending the morning session was Dr. Sugata Mitra from Newcastle University, who has a background in educational technology. During the first few minutes of his presentation, I had some doubts about where his talk was going, but soon, his story started to really impress me. The research project he has been working on for the past eight years is called ‘Hole in the Wall’ and is basically about trying to see if children can educate themselves on how to use a computer without any outside help or prior knowledge.

To study this, he developed a way to place a complete computer, built into a concrete little bunker, in little villages all over the rural areas of India. The results were truly amazing: not only can children easily learn how to use a computer, they will also rapidly teach other children how to do it. They did this in such a way that between 200 and 300 children on ONE computer could learn how to operate it in less than four months! They learn adaptively and by all sorts of interesting group processes. He is now on a mission is to use this information to demonstrate that $30 per child over a three year period would be enough to make a radical change in development in severely under-developed regions of the world. This is a truly impressive story, for which Dr. Mitra received a thunderous standing ovation.

Moving back to creativity for the post-lunch program, and this time focusing more on the people who use technology for creation, the next keynote speech was given by Michael Johnson, COO of Pixar. Johnson gave an excellent talk on the process of going from an idea to a product, by walking us through how The Incredibles came to life. This time, he talked about the process of creation in much the same way, now with Ratatouille as the example at hand. His four essential steps in creating a virtual world were as follows:

1) Create an interesting world
2) Design engaging characters
3) Tell a compelling story

Now, at this point you will be confronted with the flaws in your world and your characters: Whenever you try to tell a compelling story, you will find that you need to change things to make it work. This brings forth the fourth point:

4) Research, research, research

And by this, he does not necessarily mean do background research, but rather, play around with your characters. Put them in different positions and ‘see what they do’. If you have thought them out well enough, they will go in certain directions seemingly naturally, and may even surprise you.

To give an example of how this can work out, he told us that he was once challenged by a biologist, who criticized the movie Antz by saying that he thought it was ridiculous that the ants in that movie didn’t have six appendages, but rather, four, and that he was very curious about what had been the reasoning behind that decision. Johnson first told him the ‘long answer’, being that from a character standpoint, the extra appendages didn’t really add anything and even made the ants look a little more alien than they had wanted, so they decided against it. Then he also gave him the short answer: “Ants don’t talk”.

I’m especially fond of what he concluded from this: Reality is a convenient measure of complexity. It sets a bar for what you might aim at.

His presentation ended with another example taken from The Incredibles. He showed how the character Edna, the Italian/Japanese superhero-clothes designer, had come to life. First, the creative team designed the character, then they designed her over and over and over until it felt right. Then, they had her walk around the world of The Incredibles, hoping that that would give them an idea as to how she would interact with that world. From that came the basic idea of how she lived, how she talked, and how she acted. This was a fascinating look inside the creative process of a very creative company.

Following Johnson were presentations from several people who have all been credited as being very creative innovators:

  • Peter Frankfurt from Imaginary Forces, a company dealing with design, communication and entertainment, and which is well-known for its very visual and high-impact imagery showed some of their work. The examples included the ‘logo trailer’ for the Transformers movie (http://nl.youtube.com/watch?v=wFvUdt9BQhU) which Michael Bay supposedly classified as ‘ cool’
  • Paul Pope, a graphic artist heavily inspired by classical comics and known for his work on recent Batman comic books gave us a private tour of his creative process: how he develops concepts and then lets them involve into a final product
  • Danny Yount, creative director of Prologue Films, showed us several title sequences his company has done for major Hollywood productions like Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, The Reaping, and The Invasion. They also made the hilarious short film Raymond which I urge you to go see on YouTube because it is just too funny
  • Steven Sagmeister, an Austrian graphic designer who has done some major ad campaigns that are known for their ‘alternative’ and surprising look and basically showed a ton of examples of the work he did so far

After a rather tedious and way too technical presentation on 4k Digital Cinema, which is supposedly going to radically change our lives sometime in the near-ish future (although I still have no clue how or why, exactly) Stefana Broadbent, who is a social scientist with Swisscom Innovations, took over and gave a talk on how technology impacts our daily lives, during which she put forward some really interesting eye-openers.

For example, she started out by debunking some popular myths, like “(local) radio is dead because of the iPod”. Actually, only about 10% of the people in the US listen less to radio than they did before, and 70% still never even listen to MP3s at all.

Here’s another myth that she challenged: “People who have digital TV watch no more commercials”. This also is apparently not true, as it has been determined that the average attention span of people watching TV is about 30 minutes. Apparently we need commercials to provide a much-needed break.

And a third myth: “Newspapers are dead”. Again, this is not true. Paid newspapers are experiencing decreasing circulation, while free newspapers are seeing massive increases. And not only are these newspapers free, they are also available at or near the point of consumption.

So, apparently, new forms of media and outlets have constantly been added over the past 40 years (radio, television, more TVs per household, PCs, mp3, digital TV, etc.) but almost nothing is disappearing. Her answer to this seeming paradox is that everything moves into the background. Everything is becoming wallpaper, and no longer do we focus on just one thing, but rather we are now constantly consuming media running in the background. Instant messaging and e-mail are nice examples of this, because they are even literally running in the background.

This means some things are becoming routine: Listening to the radio station you are used to listen to during breakfast, listening to music while exercising, etc. Ultimately, Broadbent turned this into an argument against personalization: “users can only multitask if we don’t ask them for ALL of their attention”, and when we increase personalization, we ask more and more of a user, which requires them to make choices, which a user does not want to do. A surprising twist after an interesting analysis…

This concluded Thursday’s program for PICNIC, although inside the PICNIC Club, discussion continued for a while longer during various round-table sessions with a varying selection of that day’s speakers. Unfortunately, I had to leave 20 minutes in, just as discussion between Andrew Keen and David Weinberger was heating up again. That session also included Dr. Sugata Mitra, and I really liked how the moderators, combining the ideas of Weinberger and Mitra, steered the debate on to the question wether or not the internet could replace teachers in the future. Keen, making a point of stating that he gained most of his support from teachers, certainly had a strong opinion on this question.

This is another thing that I really like about PICNIC and kept impressing me: you constantly have the idea that you are listening to people who are actually deciding how the internet and media landscape will look in five or ten years time. I guess that that’s probably because they actually are… visionary people like Weinberger, Keen, Mitra and a lot of other people who were present at PICNIC ultimately have a big influence on what’s going on in crossmedia land.