Paul Revere, Social Graph, Speculative Writing

The readings about networks and graphs. Facebook has what it calls a social graph, which is the data it maps about all our connections. I can’t do the mathematics behind it, but it is potentially very powerful, as this post from Ditte shows. In a similar vein when the Snowden story broke recently there were arguments that if the government harvested all this information about you, and you weren’t doing anything wrong, then what was the issue. (We’ll put to one side questions about sovereignty, privacy, the assumption of privacy and so on.) Sociologist Kieran Healy, using a social graph, wrote an extraordinary (speculative – note it is framed as if written from London in 1772, calls its data set Bigge Data – as in ‘olde worlde’ – and mentions an upcoming EDWARDx – TedX – talk) blog post that used this same mathematics and theory to ‘prove’ that Paul Revere was a terrorist. For those that don’t know, Paul Revere was the person who rode through Boston (there is literally a line painted on the road, in Boston today, so you can retrace his famous ride) yelling that the “British are coming!” and alerting the American patriots to the oncoming British soldiers in the American Revolution. He essentially set up an intelligence unit. He is the American hero (patriot, solider, prosperous silversmith, Bostonian, subject of a famous poem), and as Healy shows, by using the social graph (nodes and links) you can demonstrate that Revere was a hub, and therefore a terrorist. As Healy writes:

What a nice picture! The analytical engine has arranged everyone neatly, picking out clusters of individuals and also showing both peripheral individuals and—more intriguingly—people who seem to bridge various groups in ways that might perhaps be relevant to national security. Look at that person right in the middle there. Zoom in if you wish. He seems to bridge several groups in an unusual (though perhaps not unique) way. His name is Paul Revere.

Once again, I remind you that I know nothing of Mr Revere, or his conversations, or his habits or beliefs, his writings (if he has any) or his personal life. All I know is this bit of metadata, based on membership in some organizations.

The point he is making is that just based on social links a lot of information is known, but then add one or two assumptions (as he points out, he knows nothing about these people) and it is easy for this information to shift from being information, to knowledge, to an exercise of unreasonable power.

The Virtual

Danielle picks up the material parts of the internet and digital technology that I raised but thinks some of it must be virtual. We use ‘virtual’ to mean that we digitise stuff and once this was thought to make it ‘immaterial’ so what sort of media it was originally doesn’t matter to the system. A bit of video is the same as a bit of text to the network. That is true. Just data to be pumped around. But it is still stuff, and that is something that contemporary thinking in these areas is increasingly paying attention to. The other use is thinking that what is presented is virtual as an ersatz copy of something real. Except with digital stuff ubiquitous I’m not sure we gain much by thinking it is different. We don’t talk of cinema as virtual reality, and to my mind Second Life is anything but ‘real’!


Is a term we should all adopt. Thank you Courtney. Story is what a story is about, plot is the order in which it is told. We reconstruct the story from the plot. Story is also sometimes used as the term to describe what happened, and plot is the reason for why this happened. In narratology, the study of narrative as specific sorts of structures and systems, we use the first concept more. Story are the events that happen, plot is how it is narrated.

Design, Speculation, Fiction

Jennifer’s dad worked at IBM (the company that famously once thought the world wide market for computers was about five), so he’s seen a lot of change. Including that when staff would have a computer on their desktop, that was crazy talk. The secret to that story is that it was spreadsheet software that drove the personal computer. Spreadsheet software let business people speculate, they could run ‘what if’ scenarios easily by writing a spreadsheet with all the variables to their profit and loss – what happens if we sell this many? If we employ three more people? if the phone bill goes up? And while we don’t have Marty McFly’s hover board, we do have maglev trains, which is freaky.

There were some questions about its role for us, as media people. Here you go. Simple. What do you think you want to do. (Direct, run a media company, design web sites, invent a reality TV franchise, write screenplays). Got something? Now, it is 2020. Write a design fiction. What do you do in your job in 2020? how do you get paid? what stuff do you make? for what/who? where? As I asked a student in honours once, who wanted to do stuff on journalism, “imagine journalism was invented right now, today, with the internet as a given, what would journalism and the ‘press’ be, if it was invented now?”. That’s a design fiction question.

Jackie wonders about the imagining part. The key thing is it isn’t scifi so it is premised on real things. A real concept, technology, or scenario. If FaceBook uses enough electricity to power a city (it does), then how can it be sustained given our reliance on carbon fuel sources and the risks of global warming? That’s ripe for speculative research.


Alois has an outstanding thinking out idea post about speculative writing and design fiction. First wends its way through a critique, which I think raises legitimate questions that most who use this methodology are aware of (its one of the reasons why design fiction has emerged as a method), to conclude with:

Design Fiction is an opportunity to evaluate your own ideology of the world, and what the future will be like, and just how inclusive or exclusive that ideology is.

A Speculative Documentary

By way of example of how design fiction might work. Peter Watkin’s 1965 documentary The War Game. This is what I would also call a design fiction, or speculative making. It was not shown on BBC television until 1985, as it was thought too horrifying for broadcast, even though all it does is play out the possible consequences of a nuclear strike upon Britain. It does so in the way that design fiction advocates. It isn’t fiction (the film is a documentary), but by using argument, reason, and rationality. All it does it think with the consequences and the implications of these as a very reasonable and logical ‘what if’ and ‘therefore’. It is, genuinely, horrifying without being scary. And yes, it is now on YouTube – The War Game (1965 – dir. Peter Watkins).


Patrick likes the marketplace. We’ll see how it goes. This actually comes out of some material I’ve been reading about innovation, flat work places, and how to design for amplifying ideas. Thinking about as I was writing the pages and building the forms, I realised it isn’t yet a market place. Imagine if you all had money to spend (marks) so you could buy ‘ideas’ or ‘how to’s’ from others. You paid what you thought they were worth, and if you made them, then you got income (marks) depending on how many, and how good. So let’s say you all had 5 marks to spend, and 5 marks you were allowed to earn. What might happen? mmmm. Might need to mull on this a bit longer. (This has the potential to revolutionise the classroom by the way, turning assessment into an open market of interest led transactions.)