Wuthering Bytes Festival 2019

Last Friday was the Festival day at Wuthering Bytes, and for the third time I was the compere. Andrew Back did an excellent job curating a great range of speakers as ever.

I’ve written up a few notes on what struck me as most interesting below.

The diverse talks managed to weave together several common threads. Community came up in many talks — communities around local projects, building guitars, designing satellites. Some communities are made of citizen scientists measuring air quality, tracking satellites, and even testing genetically modified seeds. Technology in our homes, in our local areas, in our societies and the control we have over it, and the purposes for which it is used. Another theme seemed to be technologies and ideas arising in perhaps less likely places — past and present — in the Calder valley, in catering businesses; nuclear physics in gardening and medical care.

Wuthering Bytes 2019 badge

JP Rangaswami opened the day with a keynote about the future of lurk. We talk so much about the future of work; in communities, the bulk of people are lurkers, not workers — what is their contribution? They are the dark matter, or perhaps the junk DNA, of communities. Maybe we are misnaming these ideas.

Community is important. Doing things in a group, being noticed by others, getting feedback — this is the essence of society, of teams.

Migration is much cheaper today than ever before; but this changes community dynamics.

Communities and societies thrive when there is a diversity of types of contribution, without ranking.

It’s not about patronage, but sharing capabilities, mutual support. JP linked this to mutualisation in business — so often lost today, except in some insurances.

The value of lurkers is invisible; similarly to the value of, say, housework, so often neglected and undervalued. Perhaps we overvalue payment and income, and overlook dignity, purpose and inclusion as why work matters.

We don’t realise that when we beta test systems, we are offering distributed (open?) testing labour.

JP quoted Miltonthey also serve who only stand and wait.

My only quibble with an excellent talk would be the idea that society is a team sport, in contrast to adversarial business/work. Surely team sports are by their nature adversarial?

Wheat won’t grow in the Calder valley — the soil and climate are better suited to oats. Ideas and technology grow well here though. David Fletcher attributes this to the land — it wasn’t very desirable or productive, so the area acquired no lord of the manor, no religious establishment. Instead the area remained without centralised control; filling with entrepreneurial smallholders, as one continuous village filled with diverse ideas and innovations. Not lords and serfs, but an “independently minded awkward aquad.” This inspired innovation in the past — water power, pioneering markets — and now numerous small digital businesses. David feels the internet is a mere subsiduary of the industrial revolution, not a major change in itself. Power and ideas are the same.

The first business computer application was produced by the UK’s largest catering company — Lyons. It was called Bakery Valuations (ah, the era of clear nomenclature) and was deployed in 1951 to help track ingredient stock levels. An unlikely place to find pioneering innovation, and one designed to relieve clerks of repetitive, dull labour (enabling them to do more interesting things, and save money). (Sadly it didn’t work — no cost savings.)

Two talks about satellites — building, launching, and tracking them. It was interesting to see the contrast between OldSpace (nation state), NewSpace (smaller, diverse, agile ventures), and Open Source Space (communities). Ground stations listening in to space radio traffic are run by amateurs around the world. Jo gave an example of a Texan satellite which transmits a quotation from Portal 2 at the end of each message — a bit of fun, but one that really energises and motivates the community.

Why did matter win over antimatter in our universe? Heather’s demo used ribbons to illustrate how Positron Emission Tomography works. Ribbons also featured in Claire Garside’s tour of citizen science projects exploring air quality and wellbeing in and around Leeds. One of the projects used floristry ribbon. Claire talked about the bits of citizen science you might expect — the joy of getting GPS working after much effort, the sensor readings which make you think “of course!” (such as when there’s less pavement pollution when a cycle lane is between you and motor vehicles). She also talked about other effects. How you slow down your thinking, if you carry an air quality sensor on a walk, using it as a “object to think with,” even thought the sensor is showing you a measure of your health in the moment.

The power of technology tools in the hands of people other than computer scientists isn’t just enabling people with different skillsets to use tech, and talent diversity. It’s also about enabling people with fundamentally different motivations — citizens thinking about local quality of life, not distant corporate technologists delivering business value. There’s so much power in names — one of Claire’s projects is the internet of curious things which gets very different responses to “IOT”.

Michael Dales had good tips for getting started on a new project and working within a community (or communities) to succeed.

Tips from Michael Dales

Amanda Brock shared her story of open source, communications technology, and how our lives are changing. She’s working to make software more trustworthy. Trustable.io focusses on the engineering processes, rather than the software itself (which changes often). The hope is to create a system where insurance is part of risk management of technology, with a captive insurance pool funded by big tech backing new insurance products.

Amanda’s material is on Gitlab, which got more mentions than GitHub at the Festival.

Sarah Angliss spoke about Muriel Howorth, the atomic gardener. In 1950, a ballet was performed in London:

Far away from the cares of Britain’s Atomic Weapons Establishment, a pantomime cow was eating a radioactive lunch. A Geiger counter flashed and clicked as the cow stood up on her hind legs, rubbed her stomach and smiled. Moments later, a balletic Atom Man pirouetted, glided across the stage then squatted before Knowledge, a figure draped in parachute silk. “The cow should soon be a perfectly healthy animal”, Knowledge said.http://www.ernestjournal.co.uk/blog/2017/9/10/the-odditorium-the-atomic-gardener

The work was entited Isotopia. Sarah noted the half life of pioneers like Muriel seems quite short — she is long forgotten. What do the half lives of different pioneers tell us about what they did and when? (This reminded me of the idea of the half life of knowledge.)

Muriel dreamed of something like citizen science — where via the Post Office, people around the country would grow atomic seeds from Oak Ridge, and report back on the results.

Communities have lurkers — and they also have gatekeepers. The latter need to understand how to be inclusive — Muriel did not manage this, and her project didn’t take off.

Sarah also talked briefly about the lure of technofixes — simplistic remedies for the symptoms of more complex problems. Sometimes these are deployed with less reflection and consideration for consequences than one might hope. Watford was a testing ground for fluoride in mains water — where the population were only told after it had been happening for several weeks. This was an attempt to address tooth decay in children in the 1960s, which might have been better addressed by thinking about food poverty. She also showed some terrifying Ladybird books with a hideous alternative orthography, which were used for a couple of years in infant schools to “make reading and writing easier”. It was funded by Pitman shorthand — so a corporate motivation to deploy a technofix which didn’t work.

Engineer and more. Several hats. Also https://lbj20.blogspot.com if Medium doesn’t work for you.