A couple of months ago, the Information Age gallery at the Science Museum was officially opened by The Queen. I’m really proud and pleased to have helped devise and create an installation for the Web section of the gallery.
The Web ‘Storybox’ attempts to tell you how the web works, and specifically explains what happens when you click on a link. Amazingly, we have none other than Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, inside the box doing most of the explaining (in video form – we haven’t locked him up in a box). Just as amazingly, we have the comedian and activist Josie Long in there too, acting as the people’s representative, asking the obvious questions and generally lightening what could have been a quite heavy ‘learning content’.
The box itself is mildly smart in that it can know roughly how many people are in it at any one time, and how many people are sitting down. It’s also connected to web feeds that tell it the time and date, the weather and the status of the local London Underground station. The video content can then branch according to what the box ‘knows’. The box also has one big button which can be ‘clicked’ at various points - without really telling you what’s going to happen when you do.
It took more or less two years to get this project from a first sketch to finished product. It all really started with a provocation from Sir Tim himself, who’d already had one bash at explaining ‘what happens when you click’ here: http://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/Kids.html#What1
He ended the article somewhat ominously with this statement:
@@@ This really needs lots of nice diagrams @@@
Two years later, we’ve created something rather more complicated than a set of nice diagrams. We’ve produced a space which not only tells a story about what happens when you click – but which also conveys to visitors the feeling one gets from being connected to the web via a personal device.
The web has the ability to give everyone an amazing sense of personal freedom and control in terms of accessing data, processing information, generating content etc. But it’s also a place of centralised and centralising powers (Amazon, Facebook, Google...). And with billions of nodes already on the network and billions more coming soon, the web is rapidly becoming the kind of chaotic system that can make you feel very much like you’re *not* in control at all.
You could claim, in fact, that the dominant theme of the Web section at Information Age is this struggle between centralised control and personal freedom – between order and chaos, between the server and the client.
When writing the original scripts for the Web Storybox, I had this very much in mind. Sure, I admit I struggle with keeping things simple. Nearly every project I get involved in seems to end up being quite complicated. And while this may reflect my penchant for over-complicating things, I think it also reflects what generally happens on the web and in the modern world.
We, as humans, are having to deal with, and possibly master, increasingly complex systems. As we connect up the world, the solar system, the universe, the complexity is going to get worse (or better depending on your POV). Check out this Radio 4 In Our Time programme for more about this (I'd embed it if I knew how...):
BBC Radio 4 In Our Time - Complexity: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ls154
Yes, we crave simplicity – it’s easier to handle, it’s easier to get a grip of simple things, and it often helps to confirm our own abilities and certainties. It’s also a remarkable and valuable skill to be able to explain complicated things in a clear and simple way. Witness the rise and rise of John Oliver online, for example:
John Oliver’s Complicated Fun Connects for HBO: http://nyti.ms/1yKKIPg
But sometimes things just are complicated, and that needs to be accepted. When it comes to explaining the web and how a life might get lived online, there’s no simple way of doing it, I'd claim. There are some ideas that can't be summed up in 300 words; some creative projects can't be simplified so a non-technical arts funder or a panel of competition judges can easily understand it. You can't always ‘boil down' a project to a single central ‘idea’. (I think you all know what/who I’m talking about here)
It took us 2 years to go from a doodle in my notebook, and it took a lot of people a lot of time to get it right. Perhaps a few diagrams would have been simpler and easier. But, for me, the Web Storybox is a notable and useful advance on telling a 'simple' story with text and diagrams only, and a recognition that dealing with complication is a necessary part of creative practice in a networked digital world. If you have time , do go and check it out.
Much credit for actually building the Web Storybox has to go to Fiddian Warman of Soda, to his colleagues Jons Jones Morris and Julian Saunderson, and to designer Panja Göbel. Props too to Ben and Valentina at SDNA for making the video shoot happen at very short notice. And I must personally thank Tilly Blyth, Julia Pitts, Anne Prugnon and Sophie Keyse of the Science Museum for keeping the faith throughout.