Last week I went to The Story 2012. Over the previous 2 years I had seen it become one of the ‘must attend’ conferences of the year, but I had not been before. I went with the expectation that it would bear little direct application to my working day. When a friend asked how I justify the day to my corporate overlords my answer was effectively “I don’t - this is a refresher. A chance to recharge”. And this is exactly what I got - which is a bit odd considering how tired I was by the time I left.
The line up was brilliant, a mixture of names I knew and wanted to hear speak and plenty I had never heard of. The stories took us from how buying supplies for your monster can help nurture the shoots of creative writing in Hoxton, through re-opening the wounds of the miners’ strike to how the founder member of the anarchist yacht club helped billionaires with their sea-steading ambitions.
There were far too many amazing stories to repeat here, so instead I want to recall (via my dubious notes so please excuse rampant paraphrasing) some of the points I found most interesting.
Matt Sheret and Simon Thornton discussed how the order of tracks on an album is a form of narrative. Artists and producers spend long hours trying to decide which order to put the tracks to manipulate the listeners’ mood. Often this is in opposition to the record company who want to manipulate the listeners’ propensity to buy.
Strangely the record company’s interest in track order belies that fact that they have been using music sharing to drive sales for a very long time. Why would they care if the hit single is early in the order as the listener has already paid for it - unless, of course record companies have been relying on music sharing to sell their plastic products.
It was fascinating to hear from Jeremy Deller about the impact that miner’s strike of the eighties had on his life. He found it to be one of those defining moments that rippled throughout the rest of his life. It seems that the pervasive bias of all the media coverage of the time has prayed on Jeremy’s mind ever since. And quite rightly so as the extent of that bias has never been properly exposed and our impression of miners and their communities is still tainted to this day.
To attempt to redress this imbalance Jeremy staged a reconstruction (using historical re-enactment groups) of the Battle of Orgreave to retell the story with a deliberate bias toward the miners’ point of view. The event was filmed (directed by Mike Figgis) for Channel 4 but, sadly is not available on 4oD. The gaining a different perspective on a situation or story was one that seemed to repeat itself through the day.
After lunch we were treated to an on stage conversation between Emily Bell (former Director of Digital at the Guardian) and Tom Watson (Labour MP and member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee) about their respective roles in the uncovering of the New International phone hacking scandal in the face of the refusal of most of the media outlets in the UK to report the story. It was incredibly refreshing to hear from representatives of two professions that, over the past few years, have lost significant public trust through the actions of a few of their number. Tom and Emily show us that there is yet hope for UK democracy.
Tom made 2 comments that relate to my recurring theme:
I’d been watching a lot of The Wire, so I thought to myself “What would Lester Freamon do?”. The answer was - follow the money.
I thought “What’s the worst that could happen?”. The worst is that they run me out of politics.
Both comments show how, faced with what seems an insurmountable problem, thinking from a different perspective can provide new clarity and perhaps the inspiration needed to make incredibly brave decisions.
The story from Scott Bunham was quite astounding. He told how citizens of Amsterdam were co-opted to help create a huge representation of a Stefan Sagmeister statement out of 350,000 Euro cent coins. The result was a huge piece of public art that was expected to degrade (i.e. get changed or stolen) over time. It was going to be interesting to watch how the public interacted with the piece.
Unfortunately, the local police department thought that the temptation would be too much for the citizens of Amsterdam to bear and decided to scoop the art work into plastic bags and store it back at the police station safely out of harms way.
Some people’s perspective on the value of things is limited to the risk or impact of losing them.
I hadn’t heard of Ellie Harrison before she spoke, but I had heard of one of her projects. She once photographed everything she ate for an entire year. She continued to do this for the following 4 years. This lead to other personal data logging projects including all of her journeys on London Underground (total 9,236km) and her ‘gaseous emissions’ for an entire year. Eventually she recognised that all this data logging had become an obsession and decided to stop - a liberating experience apparently.
Since then Ellie has applied her playful outlook to many other projects such as a vending machine that only dispenses food when the economic crisis is mentioned on the BBC News website and a visualisation of the 2010 general election as a drinking game.
The day finished on Danny O’Brien who started his presentation by showing how too much perspective was not a good thing by showing a picture of the the entire known universe which, it turns out is a monotonous and featureless blur. This is known as The End of Greatness, but was mostly a means for Danny to claim that his presentation had covered everything.
Danny then went on to explain what he has been doing since he went to California and the great newsletter that was NTK went into hibernation (his final slide stated ‘ask me about ntk’ - I intend to). His story involved billionaires, anarchists, yachts, sea-steading and an ordained Rinpoche. He told of how it was sometime difficult to tell the difference between the two groups that emerged from the Internet boom of the Nineties. The dot-com million/billionaires and the political motivated anarchists. Not only do members of these communities often look the same (sandals, beards, complete disregard for fashion) but they both feel that the current world order is broken.
Danny told of how a group of uber-libertarian silicon valley billionaires are trying to create new nation states (on makeshift rafts in International waters - known as sea-steading) and had ironically recruited members of the Anarchists Yacht Club to help them with their seaworthiness.
To me the whole sea-steading thing is an extension of the tendency I’ve seen in every geek/developer I’ve ever known (including myself) to want to ‘just rebuild it from scratch’ applied to societies. I guess when you’re billionaire then nothing is un-re-enginerable.
The Story was a fantastic event and did exactly what I had hoped it would - refreshing the parts that other conferences fail to reach. It has given me the push to take a step back, gain some perspective and work out how I can tackle those big problems form a different direction.
Thank you to the speakers and Matt Locke and everyone who worked to put the event on. Mostly thanks to all the people who I met and chatted to at the event and in the pub afterwards and sorry if I didn’t manage to talk. There’s always TheStory 2013.