Locating a viable space for creativity: an odyssey into social mobility, digital divining and the unknown

Over the last month or so, I’ve had time to twiddle my thumbs.  It has been a most productive time… the casual research positions that have kept me going over the last few years are starting to wind up and it is time for me to generate new opportunities and directions.

Stepping out of the full speed Shinkansen that is research in motion is well needed.  I realised that in doing social research and holding social history as it unfolds actually requires a fair bit of emotional labour and multiple levels of processing.  Which I am fully equipped and trained to do, however at some point my processors need some time out. “From full pelt to time out” could be another title for this blog.

In looking around, opening doors, flipping stones and following up on connections the environment has started to ask me questions, or at least there are the questions that I am hearing.

In our current climate, institutions are demanding performance within structural parameters and these parameters, when shaken at the core by redirections in funding, are not providing what they promised when their performance indicators are met. Instead, there’s a giant marshmellow like, hollow sploosh, as the effort, and the outcomes do not pay forward.  I’ve no better words to describe the sound of entropy as the universe sucks the structure of what appeared tangible and material into a vacuum. Surrounding it is an organisational petrification and shattering, when the sedimentation of layers of practice and power become inflexible and brittle. To me this sounds something like the intake of a breath and a pause, followed by the burst of a harsh wind blowing shards of glass at high velocity.

Not fun for those in the path.

But, in these times, we are being forced to adapt, to innovate and to create.

My reflection on this overwhelming impression of structural and social change and adaptation has somehow lead me to question down the only promising path I know.  How is the internet reconfiguring social order, what does it afford for us as new directions and possible affordances, and what do we lose/gain in the process (the old every augmentation is an amputation hypothesis, thank you Marshall McLuhan)?

Whilst twiddling my thumbs and allowing my mind to wander and rest, a writing commission came in to present a short essay on the built environment and what that entailed as a space for the creative arts into the future.  Golden. Love it.  I immediately got into sharpening my pencils and working out how to expand on the notion of ‘code space’ as a built environment that augments and shapes our physical ‘built environment’.

The key question here that I am being prompted to build forward on is what conceptual and technical vocabulary can others to understand and speak about how our socio-technical environment works, how it reconfigures organisational engagement and describe what the new forms of physical digital collective spaces look like. Prime digital sociology territory really.

In meeting and talking with my colleagues on this project, I suggested that we needed to change our thinking of this environment as being predictable (i.e. action A leads to action B, which instigates response C) to predictive. In a predictive environment, we need to push out and prosume our way into the next space. In seeing these actions, our environment draws on these activities, matches them with our previous activities (historical digital traces) and surrounds us in our own echo chamber of activity by matching and generating content and connections that resonate algorithmically with who we are quantified to be.

I believe that it is our job, in essence, to hack culture and the sentient environment in order to move laterally (i.e. social mobility) out and beyond our current context. I suggested that we were moving far away from ‘the organisational man’ (think the grey suit, bowler hat, brief case and shiny shoes of William Whyte’s iconic metaphor) to ‘Anonymous’ the mask of the swarm (the work of Gabriella Coleman exemplifying this persona).

On the same day, I sat with an architect who shared with me that I can model in 5D (what was I thinking that 3D was an awesome goal for social data? Need to think BIG!). He showed me physical models of swarms and other structures with interactive and algorithmically derived models reacting to environmental factors.  You can imagine where I’ve gone with that. My inspirational loop of how chromatophores work as a metaphor for social process in dimensional thinking is starting to pale in comparison.

Alongside this, I’ve started drafting up my dream research project asking how we are doing more than surviving as the environment around us reconfigures. I believe that it requires us to adapt and to utilise the passive, submerged networks, gift economies, and digital possibilities within our social networks. I’d like to find out how this rewiring of social practice and process assists us in finding some form of life security (for want of a better term), both in the solid terms of our homes and in virtual terms of the currencies of exchange that we deal in (economic, social capital and good will). I’m keen to trace out the invisible transactions and lines that we use to stay afloat and move towards some form of life possibility, which I’m starting to gather together under an umbrella concept of abundance (still to be defined fully).  So cook cook cooking I am and digital sociology still seems to have traction with the environment in responding to the questions and conceptual hunger that comes my way.

I also profiled myself for my strengths…handy through a U Penn research questionnaire “VIA Survey of Character Strengths”.  Awesome early career researcher tool I think, just knowing what about yourself is an asset. Apparently mine are 1. Love of Learning (yes), 2. social intelligence (makes sense seeing that I’m a sociologist) 3. appreciation of beauty and excellence (well, yes) 4. humour and  playfulness (spot on, life philosophy that) and 5. creativity, ingenuity & originality (eureka, I kind of need this right now!). Groovy. Good to know. So I guess that skill set should help right now.

However, these are not the only realisations that twiddling my thumbs has brought. I’ve also realised some value propositions for my skills. It appears that I’ve got something to contribute to discussions that are being had in open minded and progressive channels within the corporate sector (ah ha!) and also into the arts sector.

This leads me to our recent Parallel Fascinations salon at the Channel, Arts Centre Melbourne.  Salon 4 just happened, with an incredibly, giving, creative and eclectic group attending.  Our conversationalist, Amelia Winata, ‘brought it’ as the saying goes.

Amelia is an emerging curator and writer and spoke on Arts-based practices and practical constraints: navigating the conflicts. For her presentation, Amelia drew on examples of her current projects to consider the practical constraints of arts-based practices with a focus on the inevitable tension between creative and administrative work that exists within the arts industry. Ring a bell?  The organisational (wo)man performing to institutional practices, whilst the creative drive morphs through the vortexes of ‘anonymous’ into a million bits and bytes to reconfigure as a phoenix. Tension?  It occurred to me as I compared these two tropes discussed earlier that they present a metaphorical ‘cognitive dissonance’ where performing to one criteria and compartmentalising or sequestering behaviours seeking the other criteria would create a split or tension leading to dysfunctionality.

So this is where we find ourselves.

Amelia put forward an insightful discussion that resonated strongly for those attending from the arts sector and, actually, strongly for all of us. As seems to inevitably happen, at some point we got side tracked into discussing the internet. Beginning with some observations of Gen X use of the internet we moved collectively to considering who we are and how we act/perform across the digital physical and whether our identities really find synergy and traction across these environments. Slowly we spread our tentacles forward  to the discussion of whether this evolving and augmented social and economic environment can offer us an abundant space through which to continue and sustain our creative practice? Through combined head nodding and light bulb moments, we wondered what the conditions of this new domain were, what will it demand from us, how can we adapt to it and how can we utilise its affordances to help us make our way in this world? You know, the big questions.

Well this is where my thinking cap is firmly situated right now, give or take a few random brainfarts that attending Parallel Fascinations tends to put into the mix. One of them being, how the Feynman diagram might fit into all of this as a visual or conceptual thought tool. I think it may help me to trace through the way submerged networks and digital traces of social action across time give rise to and amplify pre-figurative moves that we make to manifest the world of our making. Bit quantum there but, watching the bitcoin and cryptomarket communities imagine and collaborate themselves collectively into constantly evolving socio-technical frontiers has been a bit of a ‘bar raiser’ when it comes to thinking on what is possible.

It’s the threads, you know, that are all placing themselves on my meandering path, waiting to be picked up and pulled together and a few knots tied. Lucky I’m into knots, also bows, pink ones/satiny ones, with spots.

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Materialising social form through the creative process

So, as a sociologist and academic, when do I ever get to ‘see’ and ‘feel’ my research once I leave the field? The social world that I study is so dense with sensory information and alive. Once I collapse it down through data analysis, I always feel the loss of the heaving pulse of humanity.

So this gets me wondering…how can I materialise social information? The next question that occurs is why I would do it. I guess I’m interested in the interactivity, user appropriation and insight that making knowledge material may bring.

For many years, I have been writing and thinking about social form and how to transform social information into 3D formats.  As you can see from my previous blog (that I am now retiring), here, there are many ideas that I have built and played with in my creative thinking that aim to visually and tactilely illustrate the environmental structures, social signals, emergent processes and surfaces of communities.

After writing much of my foundational thinking into my book, Research methods and global online communities: A case study, I am ready to embark on the next chapter of this story, which I had to leave out of my previous work into order to complete it.

But now, with the freedom of brain space and new inspirations, it is time to get into the next step, materialising social form through the creative process. I’m interested in translating the conceptual and ethnographic insights that emerged from my research into the Herper community into an interactive exhibition.

This, in my mind, is the first step towards finding ways to animate social data into 3D formats that researchers can use to understand the present and forecast future implications of social action. But first, animating the heartbeat of social form is where I would like to start.

In my mind, this takes the form of engaging sound artists, visual artists, data artists and other creative souls to riff off the ideas I have used and begin the materialisation process.

As social information is like a pulse, and the densities of engagement that indicate community formations within datasets are like a heartbeat, I imagine the first step will be to provide an exhibition that gathers heartbeat data from all that attend. With the aim to translates that into a group visualisation. Movement through the exhibition may trigger sound and light as well as motion in objects that work like puppets or wings.

These simple techniques may be simple but they will gather and rest as people move through the space. In this simplicity, it will hopefully create a desire to engage and play with the exhibition, and thus themselves and all those who have come before them and after them. So in a sense, the interactive exhibition would act as an archive, collective memory and visualisation of the emergent moment.

There will be other forms of data that we can collect from people, however, as with any type of data collection, it needs to be interesting, curiosity generating and easy. So I’ll be working on that side of things!

I’ve always liked the visualisation of how chromatophores work as a way to describe how social form emerges from interaction and I hope to be able to add that idea into the balance.

For me, the exhibition and creative process, is a crucial step to moving into more rigorous and engaging forms of data visualisation. A ‘proof in the pudding’ moment that shows that it is possible to animate 2D social information into an interpretable form.

So this exhibition idea has been in the dream phase for a long time now, incubating through my long term shenanigans with Romaine Logere and Meredith Lewis. However, I’ve finally set a goal to have it up and running for a festival hosted at the Big Bang studios next year. So exciting times ahead. I’m happy to be getting creative and combining my sociological mind with some creative hackery and bringing this vision into form through its native model of collaboration, community and passion.