A Shape Odyssey – a guest blog by Andy Robinson

“Timo Peach’s idea nearly incinerated my Sunday roast.

 

As will later become apparent, this is in fact the highest compliment – and perhaps the benchmark by which I will judge all ideas presented to me in future: is it a roast-killer? The bar has been set very high by his latest project…

A Sunday afternoon Skype conversation on Feb 14th 2016, would mark the start of my official involvement on this mission. By this stage I had been blessed to collaborate with Timo on 2 short film projects. We’d been introduced 18 months earlier by Illustrator & mutual friend, Simon Brett, who was contributing to a charity anthology of stories called Seasons of War. It’s editor, Declan May, had come up with the idea of exploring the character of the War Doctor – the forgotten incarnation of Doctor Who, so brilliantly played by the late John Hurt in the BBC’s 50th Anniversary story. As we were only to see him the once, the War Doctor’s presence in the canon only created more questions than he answered – something that Declan wanted to explore. He assembled a brilliant selection of writers – some with close connections to the TV series – to contribute.

Simon contacted me as he had an idea to help promote the book by commissioning an online promo video. He’d seen one of my short films, which had a strong SF-vein, and I’d inflicted a rough cut of my Twilight Zone-inspired feature film on him, so Simon very kindly thought of me for the Seasons of War project.

He’d originally pitched it to me as something that would be 30 seconds long – perhaps a tracking shot past objects associated with the Doctor. I’m not sure how long I entertained that idea, but I was already carried away with something much more ambitious by the time I replied to his original message…

What Seasons of War the promo film became was effectively a 5-min Doctor Who episode, which the notoriously difficult-to-please fans of the show seemed to have really embraced. Made for around £350, and the incredible goodwill of the people involved in Declan’s project, one of its biggest strengths is Timo’s score: Bold, propulsive, with a fitting other-worldly quality to it. But most importantly, it nailed the sad emotional core at the heart of this mini-story – of connections made and broken. Of expectations met then dashed. It did all the things a film on its own can never quite do.

This was the start of what has become for me an incredibly fertile creative partnership. Sometimes you just click with someone – creatively, or socially – in this case, both – and it has been truly invigorating. When you ‘get’ what their work is about, and vice versa, that can be such a sustaining thing – because so many on this journey will not get what you’re doing. Cherish those relationships, and encourage all those you believe in.

Needless to say, I asked Timo if he would compose music for my next short film. Based on fellow filmmaker Wend Baker’s brilliant idea, Two Feet Tall, conveys in Groundhog Day-like structure the everyday trials and triumphs of an office worker – told entirely from the level of her feet. This was in effect pure cinema, where visuals drove the narrative, and harked back to the silent era in terms of performance. But silent films were never really silent – they had music – and Timo’s delightfully surprising, idiosyncratic score perfectly complemented this unusual tale, and again, gave it heart where it was needed. Part of the score is now the ringtone on my phone – guaranteed to make me smile when someone calls.

It was towards the end of the scoring process with Two Feet Tall that Timo let me in on his latest project – that fateful Sunday, while my roast was cooking. Something, it seemed, had been cooking in Timo’s head too. And over a Skype call he began to outline his basic thesis: Science Fiction – that wonderfully enjoyable genre that no one treated seriously, or thought particularly worthy – had in fact been quietly preparing us for the future challenges now on our doorstep. Timo wanted to explore this in his unique, playful musical way – not only as the basis for his third studio album under his music moniker, Momotempo – but as part of a live music event that was also part caberet, part art installation. He asked me to help create an on-stage short film that would be interspersed throughout the show.

The name of this album/event? – The Shape of Things to Hum. The wordplay on a classic SF title was pure Momo, and instantly put a big grin on my face. Of course, he had me at ‘Science Fiction’, as we and almost all our friends share an abiding love for the genre – but then Timo delivered the deal-closer. He outlined the subject matter for the on-stage film – pitched in the form of a simple question:

“Why would NASA send an artist on the first manned mission to Mars..?”

At this point, were I a fish, not only would I have been hooked, but reeled in, landed, and pan-fried with a little butter. A great idea comes with its own rocket fuel to propel it into the wider world – and enough in the reserve tanks to light a fire under your imagination. Mine was certainly ignited.

InstantIy, I thought of how artists were central to scientific explorations in centuries past: the voyages of Captain Cook and Charles Darwin (which then were the equivalent of a journey to Mars), needed illustrators to create an accurate record of their discoveries. The British Antarctic Survey has a rich archive from the artists who have accompanied them on their expeditions.

But in the age of the camera, the artist’s role shifted away from just recording what they saw. Early on in the space program, there was an acknowledgment that highly trained individuals such as Astronauts, could only give the world a fairly narrow viewpoint of their experiences. I came across a quote from Buzz Aldrin: “We need to have people up there who can communicate what it feels like – not just pilots and enginners”. What better reason to send an artist to Mars?

In Timo’s head his Astronaut/Artist was a woman – which just felt right for this particular story. In fact, by the end of our chat, I had the perfect surname for our main character: Bonnestell, after Chesley Bonestell – the US artist who helped popularise the concept of space travel in the 1950s with his beautiful illustrations of Rocketships and Space Stations, published in Colliers Magazine.

Only one thought, buried at the back of my mind, was nagging me – my roast dinner in the kitchen was probably burning. I could have asked for a pause in the conversation – hell, the Skype call was taking place on A MOBILE DEVICE – but I couldn’t bring myself to break the flow in any way. I was captivated.

And I have been ever since.

Thankfully the call soon came to a natural end, and dinner was saved, but my mind was blown – or perhaps more accurately, expanded. I could certainly feel it had been stretched – and, in a strange way, reawakened – because the strands of my life had been gently guiding me to this moment for decades: without my conscious knowledge, I’d been training for this mission to another world. Timo’s thesis was playing out in my own life. But it wasn’t only science fiction, but science and art that had been working its background magic.

I had forgotten just how much of a geek I was as a kid, and also how much science, but in particular Space Exploration, meant to me. My first memory along this path was collecting PG Tips picture cards buried in a box of tea bags. I’m not sure if the company still do these, but as a kid growing up in the 1970s, this was almost a second strand of education for me. The cards, once collected, could be glued into little albums that you could send off for. And eventually you would have your own illustrated book.

Over the years there were lots of albums they produced – titles like Transport through the Ages, and The Sea – Our other World. But the one that captured my imagination was The Race into Space – 50 moments that charted our progress into the high frontier. Collecting for this was a frustratingly slow process, because sometimes you would get duplicate cards, and things weren’t helped by the fact that I didn’t drink tea as a kid. But eventually I got my album completed. One of the final cards inside was a glimpse of a proposed Apollo-style Mars mission (for the early 1980’s!!!). Maybe a seed was planted back then…

I found my mind journeying back to other moments that now seem formative. Libraries and Television were my Internet, with information gleaned from TV science programmes – never to be seen again (as this was pre-video recorders). As well as the required viewing of Tomorrow’s World, and Horizon, there were more thought-provoking programmes from presenters like James Burke who gave us Connections and The Day the Universe Changed. I think I can honestly trace the development of my enquiring, analytical mind back to absorbing those series.

But my sense of wonder about the exploration of our universe came from another man: Carl Sagan, and his sublime Cosmos series. The poet laureate of science invited me to leave my living room, and climb onboard his dandelion-like spaceship of the imagination. He showed me around the inside of the long-destroyed Library of Alexandria, then demonstrated the ridiculous length of the googleplex number. And he gave me perspective on just how brief human civilisation has existed in the great scheme of things – the last 10 seconds of the last minute of the cosmic year. Perhaps most importantly – though I didn’t truly appreciate it then – Carl Sagan outlined the crossroads that we as a species found ourselves at:

“We are the legacy of 15 billion years of cosmic evolution. We have a choice – we can enhance life, and come to know the universe that made us, or we can squander our 15 billion year heritage in meaningless self-destruction. What happens in the first second of the next cosmic year depends on what we do.”

I was just 13 years old. I didn’t know it, but my die had been cast.

Time jump to the 49 year-old me (this essay is beginning to resemble a Christopher Nolan film). It was Saturday 8th July 2017, and I was camping in a field near Manchester, with Timo, his wife Caroline, and our good friend Lee Rawlings. The shadow of Carl Sagan still loomed large in my life because we were at a festival named in honour of one of his most influential pieces of writing: Blue Dot.

It was a double shadow really, but this second one was literal: we were camped within a stone’s throw of the Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank – a huge 250-foot steerable dish designed to explore the universe in spectrums invisible to our eyes. Why have a festival here? Well, Blue Dot is no ordinary fest – it is the perfect fusion of art & science, and the Lovell Telescope is a beautiful constant reminder. For every packed out music act on the main stage or within one of the massive tents, there were equally well-attended science-based talks, discussions & demonstrations elsewhere. It seemed like someone had had a rummage around in my head, taken all my passions, and strung them together in the form of a 3-day celebration. The biggest surprise was that several thousand other people’s heads must have been filled with the same
things.

Timo and Caroline had made it possible for me to attend – an early 50th birthday present, and I will be forever grateful, because on this particular Saturday, the gears of my own personal universe meshed with the wider cosmos, and all the aforementioned strands of my life – and perhaps those of my friends with me – seemed to converge on a hot afternoon at Jodrell Bank across 2 seemingly disconnected talks.

The first talk, by Physicist and Blue Dot Curator Tim O’Brien, was called Hello Out There and was about the Voyager spacecraft – launched in 1977 to conduct a flyby exploration of the outer Solar System. Attached to each probe was a gold plated record, which contained a compilation of music, sounds and greetings from across the planet, as well as images that were encoded into the grooves of the disc. The idea was that as the 2 Voyager craft would have gained enough velocity to escape the solar system and head into interstellar space, they may eventually be encountered by other specefaring species. With instructions on how to play the record, and our location etched onto the aluminium ‘album cover’, the recipients would glean a small window
onto who we are. Think of it as the ultimate mixtape for aliens. The record was curated by a small team of artists & scientists, headed by – who else – Carl Sagan, and it was the record that was the subject of Tim’s talk.

Now the Voyager story holds a very special place in my heart, and its one that I am passionate about telling on film some day. I was a child of Apollo – born 18 months before Neil Armstrong’s small step took place – but was clearly too young to have any real appreciation of its magnitude. As I grew up, the talk was of one thing as far as manned spaceflight was concerned – the Shuttle, and I was genuinely excited to see this reusable spaceplane turn the greatest feat of exploration into a routine event like air travel (sadly, that never really happened).

We’d had Skylab, and the Viking landers had successfully touched down on the surface of Mars – all incredible feats – but in the end it was Voyager that made a shy 13 year-old from East London with few friends put pen to paper & write to NASA. Just as with Timo’s project, I was captivated.

I wish I had a copy of that letter – perhaps in a dusty filing cabinet of a NASA basement the original still exists. I don’t recal exactly its contents, but I think I imagined Voyager 2 hurtling towards its encounter with Saturn – next stop Uranus in around 5 years – and expressed my desire to know more about the mission. I’m not even sure how I found the address to write to, but clearly it was the right one, because a little later, I got a reply – and if it had been from aliens replying to the Golden Record, I doubt I could have been more excited.

A fat orange-brown envelope dropped through our postbox from what to me is still the coolest sounding address: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology – Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena, California.

JPL was the division of NASA tasked with designing and delivering all of the agency’s deep space robotic missions. This group have explored every planet in the Solar System from Mercury to Pluto (yes, Pluto – I’ll be having words with you one day, International Astronomical Union…)

Inside the envelope, they had sent me glossy full colour photos of the Voyager encounters so far – Jupiter and the recent flyby of Saturn by Voyager 1. I saw the swirling clouds of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot up close, and fine detail in the structure of Saturn’s rings. Things that no one on Earth had seen – until we went there. Also enclosed were ‘Voyager Bulletins’ – mission status reports that gave a little more of the science gleaned. They even packed in some images taken by the Viking landers on Mars. This all came from their education and community relations division, and boy, was I being educated. NASA has a remit to share scientific discovery with the world – and they were living up to it. I wondered were there other kids around the world who were receiving the same gifts as me through their letterbox?

For the next decade – in the years before the internet, I would receive regular updates and photos from the mission. Like those directly involved with Voyager, my life was bounded by the moments & milestones in its Grand Tour. It mapped not only the Solar System – but my entire formative journey to becoming a filmmaker.

I started secondary school not long after Voyager’s Jupiter encounter. Already I had a love of drawing and making things. From constructing crude electric motors in primary school science club, to building balsa wood gliders at increasing levels of complexity (aircraft were a parallel obsession – but that’s a another story…).

By the time of the Saturn encounter, and when I wrote to NASA, Art and later CDT (Craft Design & Technology), became the school subjects I loved best – both fuelled by passionate, encouraging teachers. I also discovered a love of Photography, learned to process film & print in a darkroom – and went to my first photographic exhibitions, which really opened me up to the power of the medium.

A fork in the road occurred for me around 1986 – and Voyager’s Uranus flyby. My A-levels nearly took me down a more product design pathway, but my maths wasn’t up to the job of pursuing it further. So I ended up on a BTEC Art and Design course, and this is where I really connected with photography, and decided to study it at degree-level – in the city that has now become my home – Exeter. What I also got the chance to do was go to the cinema. A lot. A lifelong fan of Steven Spielberg’s work, I recall one occasion where I saw his then latest Indiana Jones movie, The Last Crusade, 3 times in a week. I always loved films but this was where the notion of becoming a filmmaker was planted – in 1989 – when Voyager made its final planetary encounter with Neptune – before plunging into the perpetual darkness of interstellar space. It’s cameras, though, had one last task to perform.

Carl Sagan asked that they be turned back to take a ‘Family portrait’ of the Solar System. This had no real scientific value, and Sagan had a battle to persuade the project managers to do so, but the result of this was that the Earth was photographed at a resolution of less than a pixel. Barely discernible, this image became the iconic Pale Blue Dot, where Sagan poetically described the Earth’s fragile beauty in the cosmos, and how our petty selfish concerns threaten this oasis of life. The image that inspired the festival I found myself at that fateful Saturday.

During the talk Timo and I looked at each other like excited kids, because there was another layer of personal synchronicity with regards Voyager for both of us. Our birthdays are only a month apart, and unbeknownst to one another, our wives – Caroline & Lucy – had on order the same very special birthday present: a repressing of the Voyager Golden Record in vinyl: the result of a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. In fact my previous birthday present had been a record player – in anticipation of this. The creation of the Voyager Golden Record is a story that cries out to be dramatised – the perfect fusion of Art & Science – and perhaps the most hopeful thing we have ever done as a species.

I then dashed off to catch the start of the second talk – entitled Stone Age Cinema, given by New Scientist Writer Catherine Brahic – which on the surface would seem far removed from the technical wonders of the Voyager mission, but again this was of deep significance to Timo & myself. Since our initial Shape of Things to Hum conversation, I had written 3 drafts of what became known as The Martian Artist, and a key theme was that our hero, Nina Bonnestell, as the first artist on Mars, felt a strong connection with the first artists on Earth: cave painters. So this was a must-see talk. Catherine began the talk with a piece string – spooled out and held by an audience member. She wanted to give a visual reference of how far back in time we were
journeying – a little like Sagan’s cosmic 12 month calendar. Recent human industrial activity would only occupy a tiny section of the string, but to go back to the time when the first artistic marks were made, Catherine played out the string until it stretched the entire width of the lecture room we were in: 40,000 years. Before recorded history – and yet these cave-dweller paintings found in Spain & France were just that – records of their world and what was important to them. But there was another dimension to them that we were only just discovering.

Brahic informed us that palaeontologists now believe that what looked like preparatory drawings of an animal like a horse in different positions layered on top of one another were in fact the attempts to record the animal’s movement in stages.

In other words, animation.

Photographed as separate images and played back in a loop, the cave drawing of a horse in different positions becomes a film of it nodding its head. A bison drawn with too many legs becomes a galloping bison. It also seems that cave artists would also make use of the flickering nature of a cave firelight (or stone lamp filled with animal fat), combined with the curvature of a cave wall, to create images that not only moved, but had a 3D appearance.

Here I was – a filmmaker realising that the medium I expressed myself in was not 125 years old, but 40 millienia. Cave artists wanted to represent their universe just as I did. Like our Martian Artist, Bonnestell, I too felt a kinship and a visceral connection with these fellow storytellers.

Epiphanies are things that happen to other people, not me. But as I emerged from that second talk with my friends I truly believe that’s what I experienced, and I think they could see it on my face.

In a field in Jodrell Bank, I found myself at the the exact mid point between the first artistic marks made 40,000 years ago, and a time when Voyager, with its precious cargo of art & science gets within appreciable distance of our nearest stars – 40,000 years hence. To be planning films about both of these things with my friends who were also present made me reel from the heady collision of ideas that intersected me. Yes, I was at a science & music festival, but also in a prehistoric cave, on a mid 21st century mission to Mars – and experiencing the cultural offerings from a long-dormant spacecraft. Somehow all my childhood passions for space exploration, science, and my artistic training had become the means to link these distant points of human experience. For me to tell this story. So forget London 2012 – THIS was my Super Saturday.

Or perhaps it was mild heat stroke.

Blue Dot was, I believe, a turning point for Timo as well – or at the very least it deepened interests that were already there. We both attended a sobering talk given by Erik van Sebille called: Our Plastic Oceans. By now, there can be few who are not aware of this problem, but to hear a first-hand account of someone who has tracked & mapped exactly where this material ends up, and how it gets into the oceans in the first place brought it home. And still (in response to Timo’s question), he felt that the greatest threat to all of us was human-induced climate change.

After Blue Dot, I could see just from Timo’s tweets, that this was a more galvanised person, who was drilling deeper into the issues that he wanted The Shape of Things to Hum to explore. He became an accidental futurist, as I’m pretty sure that wasn’t his aim when he started this project.

Timo had already put together in beautifully-presented book form, the working thesis that he had given to me over the phone so many months before – and this had been such a useful tool in many of his early discussions with people trying to convey the scope of the project. But now he embarked on something much more challenging – to actively start the conversation we all need to have about dealing with the here & now – so we and our children can have the future we aspire to. The medium he chose to deliver this in was the podcast – making the most of one of his greatest assets: his wonderfully expressive voice.

Titled Unsee the Future: How to Encourage the more Hopeful, Human Tomorrow – this is a 19-part odyssey that uses the United Nations Global Goals as a framework to explore a variety of subjects – such as Health, Energy, Education, Sexuality, Justice & Poverty.

Now you might be thinking that the above sounds dryer than a lawn that hasn’t seen rain in 2 months (which as I write this, perfectly describes mine), but Timo manages to bring his unique sense of irreverence and play to the proceedings. I like to think that had Douglas Adams tackled these same issues, he may have had an approach that would have shared the same DNA.

But the great thing about Unsee is that it also knows when it needs to be serious, or impassioned, as Timo increasingly is towards the end of the series. There are no simple solutions to the “Now of fearsome realities” as he puts it, and the podcast doesn’t try to tie everything up in a neat bow at the end of each episode, but it does attempt to furnish us with potential strategies – brilliantly referred to in the podcast as “Seeing the hopey-changey bit”.

Ultimately, Unsee the Future is one man trying to get their head around the issues affecting us now, but it’s intention is to make you think about your own life, and the incremental adjustments that on a global scale might make a huge difference. As a result of the podcast, I eat less meat, and I consciously look for the alternative to plastic packaging when shopping. We have also got an electric/gas smart meter installed. I’ve seen how the podcast has altered friends trajectories in positive ways.

So 2 years on from Timo’s phone call, where are we? What of the event that is The Shape of Things to Hum? Well, like any major project, it requires a large amount of the folding stuff which we don’t currently have. And the incredible enthusiasm of everyone who has been involved, will only take you so far. But only so far, was just far enough to create a pocket-sized version of the final product…

At the beginning of 2018, Timo conceived a scaled down test-bed production, that would give a taste of what we wanted to achieve – called Five Songs to help us Unsee the Future. He constructed a pure audio introduction of just the first few minutes of the show to share with collaborators. Listening to this on headphones with eyes closed, the combination of his spoken voice intro, sound effects and music – including the opening number (the theme tune to the Unsee podcast), gave an incredibly vivid sense of atmosphere, so it became a brilliant tool to set the tone of the event. We had a deadline: to present this during Bournemouth Emerging Arts Fringe at the end of April 2018 – and Timo still wanted some aspect of the Martian Artist film included.

Oh.

There is a unwritten rule in low-budget filmmaking that you should really only build a film around what resources you have or can get. Well, in depicting a mid-2030s’ International mission to Mars, I think it can be safely said we have trampled over that one. Budget-wise we were flying on fumes – but that’s where I’ve made all of my films to date. It’s almost a comfort zone.

So for this teaser film within a teaser show, I came up with a more oblique solution, that didn’t involve filming the story exactly, but instead expanded the backstory of our artist, Nina Bonnestell. We simply presented what her last day on Earth would be like, as she says goodbye to all the sensory experiences that would be denied her on a 3 year mission to another planet: the taste of fresh food, air that hasn’t been recycled a thousand times, the sensation of running water over your hands.

The actor bringing the character of Bonnestell to life is Veronica Jean Trickett – someone who I met several years earlier in a filmmaking context, because Vee is also an accomplished writer/director. And it was one of her short films that she also starred in, which made me think of her for the role. Right from the get-go, when she submitted a self-tape audition piece from a monologue that I’d written, both Timo & I felt she projected both the strength and vulnerability that our Artist Astronaut needed.

We spent a very packed, but enjoyable day filming with Vee in Brighton, and got inventive with our location – a house belonging to friends of Timo’s – that became not only Bonnestell’s home, but parts of a Martian habitat – aided by a little sprinkling of old-school camera trickery.

Together with some Mars surface shots created in my back garden of all places, a few weeks later, we had a film – not the whole thing, but enough to give a flavour. Meanwhile, Timo had the unenviable task of putting together an entire show which was to take place in Talbot Heath Girls School, that for one night only would play host to a neon caberet for the end of the world. He pulled in both regulars to the world of Momo live performance, and new collaborators to help fashion this event out of sticks & string, imagination and passion. Key onstage collaborator was Hazel Evans, an artist, performer and spiritual explorer, who has worked with Timo many times. She would be embodying the persona of ‘The Muse’ – playing opposite Timo’s ‘Ghost of Future Shock’. Together they would be our guides through the evening – narrating, performing, and facilitating the transition from live moment to my filmed content.

Post-production on the film literally took me up to the wire – only completing the day before the event. We didn’t have the luxury (actually necessity!) of a rehearsal the day before – having no access to the space until about 6 hours before the event – and everything we needed to do had to take place in that timespan. I saw the pulling together of a little creative community, literally conjuring a show from thin air inside a school hall.

And what we pulled off on the evening of 29th April 2018 was a little piece of magic. Words here won’t really do it justice – it has to be experienced – participated in. I was helping to film the event on the evening, but that will still be a poor substitute for being there. The combination of atmosphere, music, visuals, performance and message was mesmerising. Everyone on the stage was in the zone – particularly Timo & Hazel, and for me, it became greater than the sum of the parts that I had witnessed in the brief rehearsal just before the actual event. I don’t think anyone present will forget that evening in a hurry.

As I said to Timo, if The Shape of Things to Hum is Apollo 11 – full lunar landing, stepping on the Moon – then 5 Songs was Apollo 8 – leaving the safety of Earth for the first time to circle the Moon – a necessary trailblazer to learn from & prepare for what was to follow. In that respect, she was a good ship, and I was so proud to be part of the crew.

To be honest, it has been an odd feeling to find myself the other side of the event – albeit a prototype – after more than two years of thinking about not much else. Like Voyager, there was a long period of build up as the goal got imperceptibly closer each day – then the sudden mad flyby of activity for the event itself – followed by empty interplanetary space again until the next encounter.

Hopefully that next encounter will be The Shape of Things to Hum proper – with the full-blown version of The Martian Artist. And we head towards that armed with some pretty significant knowledge – the most important of which is that we’ve proved to ourselves that Art is indeed the delivery system by which change can be effected. At its essence, Art is communicating the story of what it is to be human. We (being human, of course) respond to that story, so the end result of that process is change – sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic.

We have been hard-wired for story from those first marks made on a cave wall. And ancient myth was storytelling that shaped society. It is a cornerstone belief that both Timo & I subscribe to – that ultimately everything boils down to “what is its story?” So if we want to change things, we need new myths. We need to tell different stories. And I include myself in this. When it comes to personal change, storytelling begins at home.

50 truly is the age of reassessment in one’s life, and this project has reaffirmed that visual storytelling is where my talents lie. As Spock said in The Wrath of Khan, my “first, best destiny”. To anyone who knows me, that might seem like an obvious observation, but family life & work (the kind that pays bills) created a frame that often made me perceive filmmaking as indulgent hobby, getting in the way of ‘proper’ life stuff. A frame that has most consistently been applied by myself, and compounded by my frankly lousy ability to juggle the demands of all these elements. The end result is guilt, and feeling conflicted about my aspirations – to the point where normally if I introduce myself in a social situation, and am asked about what I do, I would never volunteer ‘Filmmaker’, when that is clearly who I am at my core.

I feel there is almost a ‘coming out’ process that I need to undergo. My work screams who I am, and displays me at my most authentic, but the person I still have to come clean with and admit to being, is me.

So my challenge is to find a way to rewrite my own personal story and acknowledge & accomodate all the aspects that are truly important to me: Family and Filmmaking. And when I use the term family, I include not only my wife Lucy & and daughter India, but all the incredible friendships we have forged that have been energising and life-sustaining over the last few years of this journey through life. It is creativity and friendship, love & family that has given meaning and purpose to me – all need to be honoured and celebrated. And the linking thread that has bound us together has been art, or creativity of one form or another – whether that be films, local radio shows, writing, painting or music. We have used it to explore the story of ourselves – even if we didn’t realise it. To explore, learn, develop and grow. And it nourishes not only us but the wider community.

We are already changing the shape of things – and for the better.”

Andy Robinson
Exeter, July 2018

Fully Charged Live – EVs shift the power at Silverstone

If you haven’t heard of Fully Charged, then that’s because you’re not currently the right sort of geek. But dropping into the first ever event by the online TV show this weekend showed me just how un-geeky the world of electric vehicles and clean energy for the home is already becoming. Because wandering around its packed halls in the pavilion buildings surrounded by the famous British race track, I saw only open-minded enthusiasts everywhere, brought together by a middle aged mechanoid with a bit of vision.

 

Robert Llewelin’s regular interviews with car designers and clean energy developers, home charging champs and innovative future thinkers have inspired and informed me over much of the time I’ve been developing Unsee The Future – enough to convince me that EVs are already viable for most car journeys right now, but with a staggering revolution about to burst across our highways. And as I’ve said in a couple of the episodes, most notably EP9: Energy, the reason EVs should excite you if you’re concerned about the environment isn’t simply that they are helpfully emmission-free at point of use. It’s because the mindset they bend your brain into when you use them is the beginnings of the mindset it will take between us all to save the goddam planet.

Here, I give you a glimpse in a little vlog that was a typical one-take wander with no editorial planning, including inspiring punchline. But it was an inspiring day – one we found hugely encouraging to some hopes, I’d go so far as to say. See what you make of it.

 

Five Songs and counting

It’s now been three weeks. And, so… this is what life is like on the other side, is it? Is this how big things end?

 

Five Songs to help us Unsee The Future is, yes, complete and essentially a success on its intended terms. I think we survived it. And modest as those intended terms were, it feels significant to me. Because, more personally here in a blogged reflection of it, I can say that this little show represented a turning point for me, quietly unlike any other I’ve taken. All roads lead to that evening, it seemed, and I more or less ran Momo flat on all fronts getting over the line of it. That’s conviction for you, I guess. All or nothing. Who knew I could be that guy.

I should feel a lot more depressed than I do.

Weeeehhll, you know what big highs are like, right? Always followed by big lows, they say. But oddly I kept equillibrium through Five Songs, even as the final weeks ticked by towards it and I didn’t see the end of the To Do list zooming up as quickly as the date. And this was certainly much to do with conviction – the personal belief that I should be doing this, bolstered into credibility by the lovely first lady of Momo’s agreement on the idea. She, I listen to. She wise. But any whiff of credibility, or at least enough integrity somewhere knit together in the experience of it, was hugely too to do with those around me on the night. How the hell did I talk into it whom I did?

In the official Promo article of it I’ve name-checked most of the amazing team that put their trust in me and the idea. But it goes back further to the folk who gave time to listening to a daft bloke with a book turn up and bang on about a crazy idea. I spent 2016 drafting the thesis for the idea, around writing the first music and generally keeping the other creative plates of Momo spinning. And thesis I felt early on that it would have to be, because it was obvious from the beginning that my hopes to simply take amigos into space with the third studio LP would barely cover the idea. So, as that idea took shape, I decided to work first towards codifying it into a physical tome I could thump on people’s desks and say: “This. I wanna make this. ..Am I cray-cray?”

As I explained briefly to Mark Masters on the night and a little as his guest on the You Are The Media podcast, my idea to use each different tune from the album to explore a different ‘prediction’ of scifi got me first thinking about what those regular themes really were in scifi, and then to thinking: Which of these supposed futures is the most likely for us?

And that got me looking at the current state of affairs the world is in. Turns out… um, not great.

I’d wanted to explore science fiction musically because it’s just always been the general filter through which I’ve seen the world. Thanks, as I have said often, to my wonderful mother. She I have to thank for getting me hooked on Blake’s 7 when young and for radiating the assumption that the great SF writers were proper writers indeed – expanding the human outlook, not hiding in a clique of amateur fanderbation. Which is a word I didn’t realise I had apparently in my brain ready to instantly make up by typing it before I’d even thought about it. Hmm. My, er, mind.

Beloved Asimov, or Clarke, or any of the big hitters that are legends of their creative kind today adorned my book-devouring Ma’s shelves and lay around the house throughout my childhood, all with gloriously fantastical 70s edition covers. All perhaps setting up my imagination to receive my own new generation of Star Trek when TNG beamed into TV at the end of  my teens and blew me away with its integrity of in-world thinking. And our-world thinking.

So a trip round the cosmos with my playful musical sound would be a no-brainer, right? Especially with the wonderful family of amigos who’ve grown to encourage me so incredibly much these Momo:tempo years – they take me to school on storytelling and imaginative knowledge, as well as creative musical understanding. I wonder what I’ve been doing with my mind and time all these years talking with so many people in my timeline.

But, as I began to wonder more about where we currently are today, in this broad chapter of Now, the big social and political bombs dropped that just changed the climate around me somehow – the B-word result here in the UK and the terrifying satire of Forty-Five’s actual election in the US. As people I love and respect were suddenly taking forceful stands against ome values I’d not thought about dividing us before, I could sense a new kind of reality unfolding in the air between us. Division like the UK seemed to be leaving behind, if the bubble of love I felt lifted into by the 2012 Olympics was anything to go by. It wasn’t, it turns out. Or at least, it wasn’t the whole reality. Which plenty of folk I love and respect might have told me, from numerous different perspectives I’d never felt for myself.

This Now of fearsome realities, as I came to christen it, put my daft playful ideas of music into a new imperative context culturally. It wasn’t that I awoke on the morning after the referendum result and said: “Now I am on a mission. I will redeem my country with electro-beat tomfoolery.” It sort of all happened naturally, concurrently, dawningly. And so I wrote down the things I was beginning to discover.

The result is the thesis of The Shape of Things To Hum. I had a couple of sacred copies of the short-run book out on display at Five Songs. Was expecting them to get nicked, because I know I’d want to. And in their pages, I found not simply the delineation of a five-part production take shape, most especially as I shared the bare bones of the idea with Andy Robinson early on and reading a whole new heart-filling dimension to the project in his first script for The Martian Artist. But also in the way those scif topics combined to imply a story as well. A story that consolidated, by mere juxtaposition, into a little opening essay. A starting point belief from first research that perhaps in fact, scifi was always trying to teach us the future. And that that might even give us some hope.

If we can turn Things To Hum into a full production, I shall undoubtedly find the budget to release a version of the thesis in print, hopefully bringing some of the graphics up to date with work we’ll produce especially for the project and already have a little. For now, I’ve turned it into an audiobook – the complete thing – as a sort of precursor, it turned out, to the podcast, Unsee The Future.

A thing you can now download and listen to if you are a Momo amigo subscribed out of wonderful actual interest on the mailing list.

As 2017 started, however, I had nothing else but the book and the outline of many of the tunes. Enough to feel inspired, and helpfully prepped in my mind to talk very definitely with first consultants. Because what could I do next? I had to get it outside my head and simply ask some first trusted advisors if my mad idea was pure folly. And planning to do this timed with something else interesting for Momo.

A few big things kind of cleared out of my way all at once, quietly. In creative work terms, two big clients I’d been working with alongside dear mate Julian Clarke-Jervoise came to the end of their projects with us, and a personal chapter closed for me and the lovely first lady of Momo. Some richly interesting but schedule-filling events were delivered and surived and billed by Jules and I, wrapping up a chapter of a few good crazy adventures around the world just quietly. And for Caroline and I, our long years of quietly trying for children came to an end. A sad one, but a weirldly peaceful one, as the book finally gently shut.

A story for anther time. But this turning point came to us during a year of celebrating a significant milestone in our marriage and felt like, well, at least closure. It was time to pack up our blessings and move on from the uncertainty. A mystery over us – yet one we came to finally accept, grateful for still being in a team together facing it. Who can explain any of the mysteries of loss and gain?

Which meant I found myself at the start of 2017 with a big book of an idea, some interesting tunes, a bit of pocket money in the Momo vault and a clear diary. So I filled it. With a year of trying to work out how the hell to make The Shape of Things To Hum a reality. Me. Bloke alone in a shed. With zero track record of making much beyond a jolly nice time of it happen around some good tunes.

I planned a schedule and wrestled with a gant chart, to make it seem real. I think the original gant chart I in no way used afterwards was February. I worked on a companion document to the thesis, an internal brief, to map out the many layers of development a whole concept production would require – the music, the stage, the graphics, the film and the digial elements, yes, but quietly huge challenges like the PR – finding an audience. Defining the brand. Working out how we’d fund anything, attract anyone to want to. And stages of development to start testing things.

What this year of development didn’t do was stick to first timings and get a show made. I should print out the original gant chart as a quaint poster memento. Sell it in the Mercato page as a curio.

What it did was kind of change my life.

Getting out to a number of folk in the first few months and share the vision for this great thing was empowering. Because no-one thought I was cray-cray. Well, no-one thought the idea was cray-cray. They thought it was infectiously inspiring, they all differently said. All. Exciting. So I began to belive in actual possibilities, at least. And in the idea of having a mission of sorts. One that felt somehow more than the energising ones I’d always felt before of each album adventure. As the brand developed sufficient to flip Momo:tempo into a new, more futurismy chapter, I began to explore how to build an audience. Something I’d not scienced the shee out of before, but I began to remind myself of the principle of regularity. Posting things as a regular voice of something. But also finding the ears to listen who already wanted to – finding your micro niche.

I discovered that, musically speaking, I don’t have one. That is, I’m it. So as I’d always known instinctively so I discovered with some research that year – I have no home, creatively. No neat pocket of fandom exists waiting for me to join it. The sound of Momo:tempo combines things from a few certain niches, but the combination of them has me seem to stand alone. So, I wouldn’t quickly win over the electro-pop musical crowd alone. My story was going to be the truly interesting and perhaps connecting bit. The why of Things To Hum. What came along at the same time changed up my life’s outlook again.

A friend introduced me to Ross Thornley. A creative consultant with an eye on the future. And he simply said to me: “Have you heard of the UN’s Global Goals?”

“No,” I said flatly. “What they?”

“They are a framework for talking around the human challenge as we’re facing it,” he replied. “A language used by higher-level people, who are more likely to respond to you framing your thesis around it’s analysis of everything.”

I didn’t make Unsee The Future immediately. But you know where I ended up. After reading around the topics I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this grand project before – and how the hell I was supposed to interact with them at Nobody Ground Level, where I live.

That summer, we had a first production meeting with Treehouse Digital. Because they too were something a little life-changing that came to me in my research. Frankly, like a small world of people, as I knocked on doors for enthusiastic chats. I didn’t find any cold hard cash, but I found some love for the project, at least in principle. And I found new friends. Treehouse met kindly and enthuiastically with me and Andy and with our Bonnestell – our Martian artist – Veronica Jean Trickett, whom Andy found from a networking event somewhere and to whose picture I simply said: “But that’s Nina. It’s just her, isn’t it?”

We had a sketch of a plan to make the film and the graphics. The next stage was to make a first music film to test the production and that summer, across a couple of mighty sweatsome days in Treehouse’s loft in Boscombe, we made the simply beautifully shot Behave New World, Hazel Evans brought in to be the face of the whole future, in an idea Pete, Natalie and Tom pitched to me for the piece. With a little creative help from projection artist Martin Coyne, we had a first bit of visual language and indeed music to share out there.

By the end of the year, you might have been forgiven for wondering what I’d been doing for twelve months. But it felt like I’d quietly changed worlds. Researching more of the state of the world as I squared up to becoming a podcaster, I realised this project was indeed my mission now  – and that if I was to make anything of it real, I would need to begin to stoke that idea of a regular audience. Strangely not built primarily around the music, but the idea. So, stoked by You Are The Media‘s regular wise counsel in Mark’s regular weekly bulletins, I finally launched the opening episode of Unsee The Future just before Christmas. And found I loved making preachy radio.

Hardly a surprise on any front, right?

I laid out the episodes along a timeline that I hoped would lead to… something, in the spring. But as I woke up on January first this year, I realised I had no idea what I was going to do with a single moment of this new empty calendar, so preoccupied had I been with working the old one.

WHAT was I going to, er, lead towards with Unsee?

The point was to create a something that revealed The Shape of Things To Hum at long last. But… how? I knew that BEAF was back, and in April and early May, so surely I had to put some kind of something into that, right?

Then on a walk in the woods in the first days of the new year, a phrase fell out of a conversation with the lovely first lady of Momo. “Five songs to help us unsee the future.” And something quietly went twang.

In the first weeks I worked up an introduction. Just like a radio play. And realised we had a format that could work. An old-fashioned bit of budget theatre – turning out all the lights and focussing on voice. The words: “Are we all asleep?”. Then I realised we needed eye masks. It felt like the start of something.

I picked five tunes from the LP and worked out a narrative around them – could I work up a cogent thesis of how we might get to the more hopeful human tomorrow, from the themes explored by these tracks, celebrating their particular themes of science fiction? I found myself in Rob Amey’s studio space in Boscombe humming and hahing and he simply said to me with a grin: “Just put the application into BEAF. Just put something in. Then you’ve got to do it.”

Well, in the end I had to do it. And perhaps I will go into this as fully as the experience justifies it one day, but here it is enough to say that from nothing at Christmas, the journey to producing our first actual, gosh-darned real world production, Five Songs, had some remarkable turns of fortune lining me up for the runway. Coincidences that might raise the hair on my neck if I dwell on them, but which essentially just did what I most needed… encourage me. To not give up.

When I found myself sharing the opening and the plan with Mike and Michele from Octopus Farm, they stared back at me and just said words to the effect of: “Shuttup and take our help. This is awesome.” I did, and they were. They treated the whole project as real from the beginning and valued it as not only credible but purposeful. If the Octonauts were my first official sponsor in a wonderful line of souls encouraging me in other ways, I couldn’t have found more validating, excitment-amplifying ones.

This side of actually doing it, I have not had a big emotional crash. Perhaps because I avoided a huge high going into it. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and Five Songs was a waypoint. A quietly massive one, but just that. Now we at least know, it could work. And we got our ‘quorum’ of mood in the room, which was in the end my only aim. People felt it, even though this test-bed first ever production was always going to be literally made of stick and string.

As I walked into Talbot Heath hall that afternoon and saw everyone in there, separately tinkering in the big empty space, together for the first time, I knew we had it all to do, but that it wasn’t really in any one person’s hands – even mine. All I had to do was gently ensure everyone’s plate was spinning up to speed as I moved around the groups and we finally struck up some actual musical sounds.

Y’know, the real space is never the space in your head. Hazel and I and Andy and I and Pat Hayes and I and Becky Cutts and I and Becky Willis and I may have felt increasingly excited each time we met to talk performance, film, music, set and show, but eventually you are on set and having to dance through all you planned in a whole new alien reality, trusting your prep. Somehow, with a scraggle of things looking apart from each other until tea time, we could have in the end pressed the button to let folk in from 7.00pm on the nose, right on schedule. I stood there, clad in my new Po-Zus, wondering where faith would take me as I stepped forward into it in this latest little bit, the actual perforamance.

I guess, the revelation of the reality was simply that it worked. There was love in the room. Tunes I’ve had in my head for years carried themselves, I think, including a conclusion that I was still wrestling with finishing just days before. Could I really just end the show by standing at an actual lectern in a preacher’s white suit and actually just preach?

Turns out, when you resiliently have no normal Cool, like me, you are free to try anything with enough conviction.

Especially when there is love in the room willing you on. I was hugged by such a line of people I admire and appreciate it was fortifying. People who had traveled from towns away, or just from a Sunday afternoon, to let me blindfold them and put strangers’ hands in theirs and sing the end of the world to them.

Except, because of the trust everyone showed me and each other that night, I have never felt more strongly, this is very far from the end. It’s just the beginning.

xxx.

 

Voice Search: What are we really asking for?

Earlier in March, I was invited by Andy Headington of digital agency Adido to take part in their first ever 20:20 Digital Debate. A format designed to explore aspects of emerging tech and culture through the playful lens of a sort of debating society, with a case for and a case against a statement. So what did this house believe by the end of a very informed presentation by Nichola Stott of Erudite batting for the positives of the next big thing, Voice Services, and grumpy old man for the night, the bloke from Momo?

 

It was pretty unchanged. To cut to the chase. Just a little unnerved, after what I shared. But along the way, we had a jolly time considering whether the tech lovies are right to gush over the encroachment of Alexa into our homes, hailing it as the next big thing in connectivity, and a gateway to making a fully connected home more human.

As hopey-changey as I strive to be, making the futurism curmudgeon job a slightly weird fit for me, my scepticism about this in particular was founded quite instinctively. Then informed further by Ben Scott-Robinson of Small Robot, whose talk at VentureFest South the week before was so good I nicked a pertinent bit of content from it.

A top night, and an intriguing format I’d urge you to enjoy at the next event in the series. A huge thank you to Andy for the debates we’ve already been having about trends in the human-planet future, and handing me a mic for a spot with a warm invitation. And a pleasure to be on stage with Nichola, who basically actually knows stuff. In the questions afterwards, I’d generally answer with a lyrical bit of emotional-space guff and she would come back calmly with data and informed insight. Plus, she was funny.

For a taste of the evening, do watch the highlights film here, ahead of hopefully releasing the whole debate some time soon. And for your interest, below is the article behind my talk on the night, if you’d like to find out what I think we’re really asking for, when we ask Alexa anything.

 

 

 

I have a saying. One you’ve probably heard me say before. One I sometimes have the nerve to present “in quotes” to look more important in presentations. Because I believe that technology always finds its level. Now, new stuff is always exciting, of course. Exploring new stuff is playful – and this can be wonderful, helping to drive change and engagement with it. But technology is often sold as a panacea when in fact it’s always an R&Ded specific response to a particular problem and context, and as such always has it’s intended place. And that place is always, in the end, human.

 

In the progressy-sexy 20th century, there was a burgeoning of materials and uses of them that all signalled NEW AND COOL in their days. Vinyl and wood and paper and plastic – they have all, as I’ve said elsewhere, had falls from prominence in doing certain jobs, and all been pronounced to have had their day at some point or other. Yet all of these materials, y’know, surround us everywhere today and have found their secure roles in lives. We won’t likely ever see the back of any of their use in human life, because we’ve set the template of expectations. You might not imagine putting a record player in your car to attempt to use one on the motorway, but I’ll bet you really fancy a turntable at home now, don’t you? You trendy buffoon. Because the sheer theatre of opening a gatefold twelve-inch sleeve and and carefully sliding out a record and placing it onto a slip mat with the attentive care of a BBC4 documentary archivist is just… yummy. When you have the time.

So here’s the latest hip thing to make you look up from your record dust wiper. Blogging. Ever heard of it? All the kids are doing it.

It’s a good example of something hyped at first then left to clag boringly. It was a whizzy new thing – the Web Log. Then it went away but now it’s back. It went away because the hot hype of self publishing fizzled out when tossed in a sea of online journals that no one wanted to read. But today, the blog is seen as a fairly essential tool in the arsenal of 21st century marketing. Not because it’s new any more, not because it has any novelty now, but because it enables us to do something vital in human relationships, and therefore in business – give regular testimony to what we believe. It’s the simplest public way to become a regular, and so eventually trusted, source of championing something. So it’s kind of a big deal again today, not because of the tech but because of what it helps us do as humans.

The truth is, though, tech tends to actually flourish when it hasn’t simply found its level but found its place in combination with other emerging tech.

I’m not an early early adopter. Because I kind of think, why play at being homeless on Oxford Street overnight to queue to hand over a hefty rental deposit-sized amount of money on a glitchy first edition of something? I’d rather wait for a slightly more shaken-down iteration of whatever that too cool to want to keep warm thing is.

But something I said I was waiting for during the 90s was an omindevice. A pocket-sized something that could handily do all things I need on the move in one shape. And along came the the iPhone 3Gs – what became my own first proper smartphone. The advent of the omni-device as normal. And this new iteration of other stuff that had been around a little while did a bit more than convince us we didn’t want good photography any more, we wanted LOTS MORE photography, easily shareable. It also changed the shape of humanity. Because it transformed us into a truly networked creature.

It’s a revolution in human life on Earth we will spend our lives exploring.

The development of the internet was a revolution perhaps without equal. But it was a kind of grand opening act of the digital revolution, just when we thought we were mainly just getting compact discs and digital watches. What it did was set the stage of the real activation of potential.

When the other developments of touch screen technology and more powerful small processing and 3G rollout combined… that’s when human kind truly stepped into being a networked creature, because it liberated the internet from your dining room. Now you could take it for coffee. A step change that we are barely beginning to understand the consequences of, just ten or so years in.

The problem with the omnidevice, though, is that’s a practical compromise. It’s not excellent at anything – it’s sort of good at lots. So we’ve degraded our tech expectations and gone with convenience. Crappy video quality and petabites of crappy photos through boring lenses and text abbreviations of our rich parent languages are the normal currency for our daily lives as a result of it. But that omnidevice is still a step away from being personal. And it’s annoying.

Using thumbs to communicate is clunkily artifical. Voice, though… voice is personal. We are no longer just watching information in abstract observation, voice gets into your head.

There is just something about hearing. Sound. I’ve always said that radio is the best medium because it’s immediate and not consumed in silent abstraction like reading, but can go anywhere with you. TV and cinema demand suspended complete attention – immersion. And so does reading. Radio, though – radio is your friend, chatting over your shoulder while you’re chopping onions. While you’re driving. While you’re decorating. Painting pictures in your head like a book, but giving you a visceral experience like film. Because it’s making a much more emotional contact with your body than photons hitting the back of your eye from a screen.

 

 

Voice and sound literally ressonate with our bodies. So talking to Alexa is taking a step into a more personally vulnerable world. You may imagine you, or at least trendy millenials, love your/their phone. You may sleep with your phone, you may wrap your hands around it as lovingly as an old vintner’s grip carresses a wine bottle – but you don’t have conscious relationship with it, I’d argue. To such extent, we don’t realise how addicted to it we are, because we don’t actually see it – this thing we’re staring at all day. What we see is, of course, the mirror into ourselves. The smartphone has become a portal into our personal neuroses.

Voice, we hear. And so as creatures of imagination, storytelling and emotional connection, we cannot help but ask: Who is Alexa? This… this is a new level.

It’s a profound step into our future. But it won’t be a thing in itself. Because you quickly realise, Alexa is no one. Not just because what we now call AI is merely unconcious algorithms, but because she is meant to work with a suite of other devices.

We are still in an age where our homes are not connected hubs. For all the connectable devices in your life, you are not yet living the full Google voice ad, distinctly Black Mirror-looking, creepy all-connected fantasy. And this, I think, is partly because the tech firms themselves are a long way from this.

The IoT may be looming, but we still often have crappy WIFI and wouldn’t know what to do with a fridge that judges our cooking anyway. Our TV at home is a nice screen and a good picture but being ‘smart’ it’s reliant on apps to use its real benefits. Apps designed by telly companies like Panasonic, not software experts like Apple. Electronics manufacturers are trying to build software environments for their hardware, sure, but even if you as a tech giant spend a lot of money developing an ‘incubator’ to get in some of that stuff, it takes years to grow a true culture. To be marinaded in outlook and experience that truly crafts your work. And in corporate terms, how the heck do you line up all those different department head objectives? There’s a whole financial firewall mentality that blocks sharing and better development of cross-cultural technology, just within your average big corporate company. So how at ease are such entities with sharing between traditional competitors?

 

 

Alexa may be a cuckoo in the nest of our global culture. Because she will depend on a culture that is practically only nacent today – sharing. But it’s the fundamental shift in outlook that is needed to save the world from its technologically-amplified problems.

I learned ages ago as a music producer that there is no point in spending time trying to learn how to play the drums or the trumpet badly to get the result I want in a song – why blow myself? When I can get in a trumpeter or a drummer to do it much better and quicker. And significantly more than that. Because getting in a trumpeter or drummer means I’m also getting in a different perspective on the music. I can learn from them and maybe get even better results than I imagined. Or certainly waste a lot of time pleasantly yakking about early Chaka Khan records. Much more fun, much better results.

Like the tech of the 80s, we dream of future ways of living that we can’t actually enjoy yet, because the tech isn’t quite there. But Alexa will find her place when my Tado thermostat connects easily to my sound system connects to my TV connects to my lighting grid connects to my electric car charger connects to my PVmicrogen connects to my house battery connects to the outside world… in a breaking down of corporate separate languages into shared experiences. I don’t want an all-Apple house. I did. But it, well, kinda creeps me now. And annoys. I want to choose the best device for the job from who’s ever made it, and slot it into the web of my life at home without blood-vessel-popping pairing problems. It would be nice though if, when any of us bought a new telly, we didn’t soon imagine we’d have to go out and buy another separate box requiring connecting leads to give us a better experience on screen, eh.

We want ease. We want connection. But we also want choice about how we interact with the world around us. I don’t believe we actually want choice to the dizzying, time-sloshing degree that retailers, politicians and swiping apps imagine we do. I think this is zombifying and stressful all at the same time. But we do have different preferences about how we interact with information and different ways of learning. What we want really is the right tool for the job – the right tool for us, in any given situation. The tool that makes it easy, whatever it is, is the tool you keep. Sometimes that’s an omnidevice – the most used tool in my house is a Gerba multitool randomly give to me by my mate Julian for a birthday present many years ago. Discovered only in the last week that my mate Andy swears by the exact same tool on film shoots. It fixes much – but there’s no substitute for a good screwdriver when trying to get a picture hook on the wall. Or an electric drill.

Alexa is a significant new bit of tech thing on her own. Especially if you have sight issues – Alexa opens up the world potentially. And any new tech can help you see the world differently – strap on its goggles and see how things look. But the real potential of Voice is as a useful additional touch point into the web of tomorrow, which we can sort of just begin to explore and play with today.

Plug Alexa into AR, when that’s a more deliverable thing, and wow. Plug it into other bits of wearable technology and it’ll be helpful. It will be more a natural way to interact with technology to do what we want to do.

What we’ll have to do is what we always do with new technology – relearn our boundaries. From the digital market place to falling for AIs.

But you’ll have to have one thing if you want her. A relationship. Because she will have to have access to every aspect of your digital life, and how it directly affects your material and emotional life. Do you trust her?

Of course you do, because she is you. She just mirrors what you want. But is this healthy?

Let’s face it, search assistants are weird out of the box. They come packaged as ‘male’ or ‘female’? This can be problematic. Why should a bot be ‘she’ or ‘he’? And what does it say about the manufacturer preloading that decision? Well, if you think it might be wiser to let the consumer ‘choose’ the sex of their new baby – sorry! – their new slave, is that good for us to ‘play’ God? For twerps like you and me to get used to manipulating the presences around us to our preferences? Philosophy club discuss.

 

 

Maybe, the healthiest thing is to package all voice bots as conspicuously artificial. Make’em bots. Speaking through vocoders or cutesy ambiguous character voices. Much more Jap-toy tech. Either way, our anthropromorphising of this lifeless information connecting device will delude us as to its full programmed possibilities. It’s automatic intentions. For, in order to work, Alexa has to be always listening.

Does information only flow out of Alexa’s speaker? Or does it flow the other way too, through its microphone? Constantly. All around your house.

Think. About. That for a while.

We want ease, we long for companionship. Alexa sounds rather like it. But be careful what you wish for, or ask for. You might be surprised at the answer.

You might be asking for information and find you’ve got company.

VentureFest South 2018 – when the future is opportunity today

You’ve heard so many of the headline Tomorrow’s Worldy terms, but what are some of the implications already for here-and-now business when it comes to robotics, smart city development, AI in industry, or using drones for more than nice establishing shots in property telly shows? A little favour for a mate turned out to be a very engaging day meeting some smart souls attempting to build positive entrepreneurial bits of the actual future today, as I hosted a little Silicon Salon in an historic old room on a not very business as usual day.

 

I think the future seems a lot more exciting when you get talking to someone already inspired by the possibilities. When you know people who are already trying things out and looking for other people exploring things with similar attitude. Like a cat in a thunderstorm, you can get all sort of worked up. Well, I can. But I think it’s just infectious. So when you have interesting mates like Matt Desmier, you’re likely to find yourself feeling encouraged that all is far from lost if you’ve been getting bogged down in your outlook. You never quite know what might happen in your inbox, if he’s connected to it.

Founder of the fully splendid Silicon Beach ideas festivals and umpteen other creative events designed to get your brain humming, the Wise Old Uncle himself is basically brilliant at convincing people to meet each other and do things. So when he asked me to cover for him looking after a group of speakers he’d curated together (talked into making slidedecks) for VentureFest South at the start of March, I found myself saying yes. Even on email, he has some kind of voodoo in his eyes. He also had a really interesting group of future-facing makers and doers on the rosta, so I was booking my train to Winchester before my reply had gone woosh.

As VentureFest itself puts it: “Once a year, the region’s innovators, entrepreneurs and investors come together in one place to showcase the latest technology, share thinking and explore new ideas.” And this might be reason enough to consider going, if you’re in the region. Because, as I and the lovely first lady of Momo found, you’re going to meet people there who are already stuck into exploring good ideas for how humans can do things a little better, if such a thing interests you. It interests me – because it’s inspiring, pondering the posibilities for doing any normal things from a different perspective, which new tech can help us develop. But I personally find such thinking most especially interesting when considering how such fresh problem-solving might all fit together into a connected new outlook on the human planet. Looking for patterns that link. I may have said this before just the once or twice. But I saw some of it in just the collection of ideas from our speakers that morning.

 

CONNECTION AND PRECISION.

The Guildhall in Winchester is a nicely rennovated historic building with touches of old grandieur about it, and Portsmouth Uni’s sort of tech biz engagement tzar, Jo Stark, was manning our Silicon Salon in the leather-buttoned, wood-paneled cosiness of the mayor’s palour. Ghosts of worthy civic leaders past surrounded us as we gathered to consider some of the implications of future technology trends, while snow fell silently beyond the tall windows. For yes, it was the Thursday of the great freeze this year and us Momos had ventured out by rail into the weather front, clad in ski jackets and old fashioned wellies and clutching a flask of coffee with cheery stoicism. Which seemed extra fun when your own business isn’t very usual; distruption, mate – like a creative bit of it. But I’m not a dairy farmer or a paramedic. Or a rail operator. Either way, beezer or ball-ache, the unusual weather did mean we didn’t know who else would make it that day. Or if we’d make it through the simple technological challenges of getting home again.

It made for an interestingly out of time setting for our considerations that day. What if we just stopped the way we normally come and go, and think outside the things we take for granted?

Four of our five speakers arrived just fine and helped us consider just such different thinking in unfantastical applied ways. And I was very happy to first introduce Ben Scott-Robinson of Small Robot Company. An agri-startup, his project espouses a very 21st century sounding idea – “small robots not big tractors”.

Their work finds application in the idea that robotic plant care is: “kinder to soil, kinder to the environment, is more efficient, more precise and more productive.” Essentially because you can acurately tend each individual plant in a field. It’s no small challenge in a world attempting to feed ever greater numbers of us when, as they put it, “95% of all farm energy is used in ploughing”.

Greater digitally-driven precision between a small network of all-terrain rovers, akin to lunar or Mars rovers, can turn big-grunt tasks into much more exacting tending of land and planting, using far less energy and chemicals volume for potentially greater yeild. I put it to him that this sounds a very tech-enabled nature-minded permaculture kind of approach, not the more typical brute-industry minded farming. Something I first started to get my head around in Unsee The Future episode 4, which looked at the global challenges of food culture.

He agreed, but said that farmers are listening, because his team speak their language.

“We only want to make robots that help people. My partner Sam is a farmer, and knows the pressures. So the idea of bringing down costs for them for better results makes sense.”

By devising a leasing structure for the bots, the farmers don’t have to invest up front in massive infrastructure. An approach very on trend with where other automating industries are going – buying the miles not the car.

His talk was entitled From slaves to overlords to friends? and, it asked: “As robots become more real, the relationship has become more fragmented. Are they our workplace friends, designed to do the jobs we hate, our oppressors, stealing our chance of happiness, or subtle forms of control developed by Big Tech to monitor our every move for financial gain?” The reality is, he suggested, that robots, like all new tech, are actually designed for a context – they can only work within certain parameters. And within those, they can help us do things simply better. But they bring with them new questions to answer.”

When Czech writer Karel Capek invented the term ‘robot’ in the book Rossum’s Universal Robots, said Ben, the replicant-like ‘slaves’ in question in the end did destroy the human race but looked like they might have signed their own death warrant in the process because they couldn’t reproduce. Which might not sound like a realistic salvation to us today, given that robots will surely reproduce by just replicating their own technology and building or growing more robot replicant overlords faster than we could. But in the spirit of the book that conclusion is more akin to understanding that robots are a very long way from driving markets through creative tastes, or by making things for the sheer fun of it, or from pondering existential questions. Because they don’t desire anything.

A point echoed by Alex Hill of Senseye.

“Robots don’t drive the markets, we do” he said. Because, essentially, we still want things and robots don’t.

Of course, as he also concurred with Ben, robots are just tools that are effectively driven by AI – machine learning algorithms. And this can be useful for industry in a big way – maintenance. Because the larger your set of systems and machines in manufacturing or any sector, the larger your problem when you get problems – downtime.

“Up until recently, predictive maintenance has simply not been scaleable” he said. “It still takes experts to monitor the specific data to read potential upcoming problems into it.” And then he flicked up a graph.

“Know what this is?” he asked, to a reluctant room. “Trick question – none of us will likely know. It’s a very specific data set from a niche product in a particular production cycle. The point is that very few people in your business likely know the niche software, and that’s a lot of costly down time if you get a problem with it. AI can simply help create context faster – predicting problems much more efficiently by understanding all the specialist graphs and how they work together.”

It could save industry generally a lot of money, deploying such systems. There is a lot of data noise generated by analytical software, but the right AI could turn it into much more adaptive response metrics. And if Adaptive Response Metrics isn’t an acroynm used by tech speakers widely yet, I think it should be. Use it today. Then say something about much more powerful scope and monitory nuance. Because you’ll be on to something.

But even Senseye is comparatively nacent at tackling the opportunity. The industry, Alex commented, is slow to adapt to this in the UK.

“Why?” I asked him, picking up on it.

“There is less of a progressive culture in UK industry somehow” he simply said. “A reluctance to move forward more fundamentally, challenge the operational status quo.”

It’s some kind of cultural thing. For all the knowledge in the interphasing industry, tech and digital sectors in the UK, maybe there’s something not joined up enough about it, and so not very… I’d say inspired. Not as much as it could be.

There’s something so ruddy British about keeping everything in its place. Sectors, classes, boxes of thought. Something of this establishment thinking lingers across the country’s business and politics, I think. Even in a time of unpleasant political discourse, the B-word divisions in the UK at the moment are driven by desires for different stati-quo. Resetting the past or remaining in the present. Not genuine new outlooks. We have just one Green MP in Parliament. Everyone else is still banging on about left and right. Not forward. Or back.

 

VISION AND MOTIVATION

For all the innovation and creative thinking in my home country, it’s not culturally driven by barriers-breaking connected thinking. But it’s the connectedness of possibilities that I think may be the very secret of a possible new level of inspiration we’ll certainly need to fire better global responses to the climate crisis, and that could put a rocket under the UK economy, if we wanted it.

It’s a theme very relevant to the concept of the smart city. As Chris Cooper of KnowNow explored.

Often touted as the model for managing urban health as more of us than not live away from rural life, the smart city is, said Chris, not simply about joining things up with technology. It’s not just about finding efficiencies – saying things like: “Working smarter not harder, mate” while knowingly tapping our nose. It’s tech that’s driven by outlook, or it’s a waste of effort.

“Digital systems are built on numbers,” he said, “but we’re not. We’re built on feelings. We have to change how we appraoch problems to get better outputs.”

It’s not simply about working up the deployment of 5G or public WIFI so people can hook up devices more easily. “It sounds like you’re doing something futury and techy when you tell everyone  you’re working up a 5G network. But it’s not tackling the fundamental thinking needed in itself” he says. “Plus, 5G is still problematic. It’s not going to be easy to get those high radio frequencies to transmit far enough.” 5G will take a lot more physical infrastructure, apart from anything else, as Wired explained. Love mobile masts on the urban skyline already? You may be in for a treat.

His point is that a truly smart city will be built from a more connected outlook that infects and drives everything. Something a long way from possible in the grumbling UK, you might think, or indeed anywhere.

“Hands up who thinks we have any smart cities?” he asked. “We don’t. Not really. Not yet. Because it’s hard to really grow the culture for it.”

The point, I think, is that smart city thinking isn’t driven by engineering, but by values. “Open data isn’t free data. It’s loved data. Curated, cared-for data” said Chris.

It is, he suggested, why data networks should all be free. “Connectivity is like a road. You don’t build a housing estate without one. Provide free connectivity and things will follow.”

Economic things, and human wellbeing things. Such thinking broadcasts an attitude. At the moment, where would all that metric data from the Internet of Things be going? What would it be feeding? Helping? It’s all pointing somewhere, and it all speaks of values in the end.

Ben Scott-Robinson illustrated an example chillingly, with video evidence. “In the T&Cs of the Amazon Echo, it doesn’t say they can’t always listen.”

What can be done with Alexa’s little array of microphones that are always on and always connected to the internet? Invited into your home, as it has been? Who decides the boundary? And who impliments it? Does our private home drive the shape of the connected city, or the other way around? Home is certainly where our values can most honestly be found.

I asked Chris Cooper: “What about Singapore? It’s achieved a remarkably joined up rennovation of its water systems and other things – isn’t that a good example of joined up thinking working well?”

“Yes,” he replied, “but it’s a dictatorship. You can get a lot done with a dictatorship. I’d love to be a benign dictator.”

Values. If there’s one thing the future is going to be built with, it’s these. Our sleepy agnosticism to belief is not going to keep turning the lights on or paying the bills for all kinds of business, as individuals wake up slowly to the consequences of ‘better’ ways of doing things. Many walls we think are comforting boundaires will simply fade away. Are fading away already.

 

WALLS AND BOUNDARIES

Maybe one little symbol is the ever-techy seeming unmanned aerial vehicle – the drone. It’s impossible to imagine TV filmmaking without these four-fan floating camera platforms now; we can pick ’em up plakky-cheap from Argos these days, not just Maplins. And they are designed to do anything but respect walls and boundaries.

As used to them as we already are, buzzing about, could they be useful for rather more than snooping on the neighbours and making movies? Gemma Alcock of Skybound Rescuer thinks so. They could play a lifesaving role in search and rescue.

Sounds obvious, you find yourself saying. But who’s done it? Working in the SAR sector for four years, Gemma says not many have looked into it – and almost no one from a search and rescue background, but she’s been looking into ways to deploy drones in much more affordable and manoeuvrable ways than helicopters. Not just in the search bit, but the rescue bit – dropping liferafts at sea, and the like. But it’s not just mucking about with a remote control toy.

“True innovation comes from a strong foundation in research and evidence” she said. And she’s someone who interestingly combines a love for the boffin bit – finding things out – and the bally hero bit – getting out in the weather to pull people from the waves. An instinctively values-driven life, I’d suggest, throwing mind and body together into something she believes in and turning it into an opportunity. Taking something we think we know and wonking it a little to do something better with it.

“What would you most like to see happen next to help unlock its potential?” I asked her.

She said simply: “A big challenge is the civial aviation restrictions. Even trained SAR operators aren’t allowed to fly drones out of line of sight, so we’re really restricted in how we can get to people in emergencies, compared with what we could do.”

Interesting. The boundaries we set for our very safety can hold us back from truly making the most from innovation. It’s the age-old problem of trying to connect today to tomorrow. We didn’t get into this end of the potential discussion, but it made me think about the potential to deploy drone SAR much better when a flight control grid is in place one day. AI that the flying bot could connect to, rather like the same implication for driverless cars. Raising the question immediately again – so who will be driving the direction of what AI drivers will be able to do in our lives? Skynet? Or just Sky?

I think today, more than ever, it won’t just take the inspiration of new technology to light the fires of possibility in industry and business, it will take the inspiration of seeing real human values in action, making a difference, to help us see the world more change-makingly differently to how we have. And that may come down to who you get talking with.

And I doubt seriously that such utopian sounding emotional philosophy among increasingly connecting groups of entrepreneurial thinkers and business owners won’t dent the empty cynicism of older, more constrained market ways of doing things. I think it already is. Real systemic culture change works across generational, not tech-conference annual timescales, but it has its flashpoints – and when values and opportunity mix, such inspiration may even put a torch under old ideas of success eventually. A little heat wakes us all up.

That night, the heating broke down in our train carriage. But we ourselves did make it home from VentureFest essentially fine, after a nice little adventure out in unusual climes, and didn’t get snowed in overnight on the line outside Christchurch, for example. Others did. For many, the beast from the East was a big headache and more, struggling to keep our normal ways of doing things running in changed circumstances. Circumstances that may or may not be climatically linked to everyone’s old ways of doing business. For others of us, it unlocked life away from business as usual, opening neighbours doors and time with the family and a little time to see things differently.

If we spent a little more time pondering how to connect the way we normally do things, and who we go find to help us do so, just how much might we spin up the engines of inspiration? We might even reach ‘the future’ rather faster than we imagined.