Free Thinking Festival 2010: Human Aquarium

Here’s a little thing from the fringes of the Free Thinking Festival this year. If you don’t want to read what’s below, skip to their interview here.

Human Aquarium is … well .. what is it exactly? It’s a box. That’s what it is. A box packed full of computer and projection equipment with two people sat inside looking out through a perspex screen to a bemused looking crowd the other side.

One of the pair – Guy Schofield (below) – operates the ‘machinery’. The other – Robyn Taylor (above) – sings a long drawn out melody into a microphone.

There’s a technical chappy too – that’s John Shearer (below). He, like me, looks on at the assembled crowd who in turn look on the whole thing with a mixture of bemusement and excitement.

Unlike me, however, he does from time to time touch the perspex screen while Robyn and Guy perform inside their box amid temperatures approaching a stifling 40 degrees. No wonder their sets extend only to 20 minutes a time. By touching the perspex screen John like any member of the audience helps create the performance. The fingers on the perspex influences the computer-generated sounds. I don’t know how exactly, but it does. And, in a space like Sage, Gateshead it’s quite a wondrous thing to experience. Not least because the sight of it draws you and others in. And as soon as that happens you’re entranced.

One night only at the BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival. No matter though. I talked to them for ten minutes about their work. And what a smashing bunch they are too.

And there’s even some hastily shot video of their performance too.

:: Follow Human Aquarium on Twitter
:: Find out more about the lovely performers on the Human Aquarium website

Free Thinking Festival: Is Privacy Dead?

Is it wrong to be blogging about an event which has been recorded for radio not intended to be broadcast until Monday 3 November at 9.15pm? Am I revealing something I shouldn’t be even though I know it will happen because I sat in a room and listened to a man tell me and one hundred or so other people ?

It’s a question I’m thinking about having come out of a debate at the Free Thinking Festival which posed the question “Is Privacy Dead?”

In an age of online communities, blogging, micro-blogging and picture sharing, I find myself thinking intensely about my personal activities online. It’s scary. I can’t get it out of my head.

What should I reveal about myself? What do I reveal about myself online? Do I reveal too much? Am I revealing my true self or, a convenient skewed image of myself? Should I be more private? Should I reveal more? Would anybody read anything I wrote if I did?

And if it is I have an online persona and a real one (and personally, I would argue that they are one and the same otherwise both pursuits would be absolutely agony day to day) are there times when I don’t want to participate online ? Are there times when my mood, my insecurities and fears curtail my online activities? Thinking about those specific things, should I in fact be more careful about how I conduct myself online in an act of much-needed self-preservation?

Don’t you loathe people who ask too many questions and can’t/won’t/can’t be bothered to provide any answers? Well, the truth I feel the pressure of time on me. There’s no time to answer the questions even if I knew the answers. It’s a fast moving world. The bar here at the Free Thinking Festival is buzzing – the “Speed Date a Thinker” crowd are busy preparing for their hour of fun and there’s a competition going on between me and another other chap sat across from me busily tapping away at his laptop.

What I’m struck by – yet again – is how a relatively brief session listening to the likes of Bill Thompson, psychologist Sonia Livingstone, Cultural Historian Jonathan Sawday and Geoffrey Rosen has set my mind buzzing with excitement.

The most pointed example raised in the hour long debate hosted by Philip Dodd was this. Geoffrey Rosen explained how some students he knew of would take to live-blogging lectures and seminars. Was this a use of technology which was to be welcomed?

The fact is it’s here. We all do it. Those of us who use the internet rely on opportunities like these. There’s a buzz. A desire to provide a personal response to events as we witness them. We want to share where we are at any given moment in time even if the majority of the audience don’t care or would rather prefer it if we didn’t clog up the internet with our ill-considered babble.

The answer is impossible to arrive at. My interviews kick off in around fifteen minutes time and the speed daters are about to start their speed dating session.

I also have to get this blog published as quickly as possible. I have to beat the bloke sitting opposite me. I know he’s blogging about it. I just know. Why would he look so intently at his laptop in the way he does? I must beat him to it. Seeing as he’s Bill Thompson, the need seems inexplicably even greater.  

Disappointingly it appears I’ve failed. Mind you, it might have helped if I’d been a little less verbose.

You can hear the Free Thinking Debate “Is Privacy Dead?” on Monday 3 November at 9.15pm on BBC Radio 3.

Up to Liverpool


I’d made a mistake. It wasn’t a four and a half hour journey from London to Liverpool. It was in fact two and a half hours. Not only that, the thought of upgrading to first class was quickly dismissed when a very smart looking attendant standing outside the train advised me that no, on weekdays upgrades to first class were in fact £130 and not £18. I shuffled off feeling a little disappointed.

During the journey there was time to get some footage together for a short clip. Not having a cameraman makes the process more time consuming but still a challenging kind of fun. I’m nearly always surprised about how many more cutaways I need to break up the script. This usually means looking for different ways of shooting what might otherwise be regarded as a fairly dull interior. Bear in mind that rapid moving subjects don’t translate well on the web and very quickly the options are fewer and fewer.

Still, if there’s one thing I’m rather relieved about it’s the brevity of the thing. The Proms videos were over five minutes long nearly every time. Short form content is all about the piece being as short as it possibly can be. For someone who rather likes the sound of his own voice, such a demand can sometimes be a little difficult to meet.

Read up on the opening lecture given by Will Self at the 2008 Free Thinking Festival.

Free Thinking Festival 2008

“You’re a 90 year old man stuck in a 40 year old’s body,” said a new found friend with a wry smile on her face. I corrected her only on the “40 year old” bit. As it happens I am 36 and I also go to the gym three times a week. I may not have the body of twenty-something gym bunny, but I figure I’m doing OK for my age.

Having said that, she’s not entirely incorrect. I was explaining to her how I was looking forward to my weekend jaunt in Liverpool. I’ve got my train booked – a nice four and a half hour journey to the European City of Culture to attend Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival. I’ll be taking my flask for the journey (yes, really), some sandwiches, and a small weekend suitcase. I love the travel. I love the ocassional weekend away in a hotel. I’m really looking forward to it.

I’ve been to the Free Thinking Festival before and loved it. Initially the prospect of listening to lectures, seminars and debates about a broad range of topics delivered by thinkers, scientists and authors didn’t seem appealing. And yet, only a few hours in Liverpool and I found myself lapping it up.

Attending is one of the many benefits of working at the BBC. You can be working in one division doing your day to day work and then find yourself doing something completely different for an entirely different part of the Corporation. I like that. I value that. It’s something I’m very grateful for.

This year’s event is a little different for me. There’s a personal challenge afoot. Armed with my camera, my laptop and a (hopefully) free internet connection, I’m producing a series of short video reports about various events. There’s a drama being produced over weekend for broadcast on Sunday night, a key note speech from Will Self, a debate about whether computers make us stupid and a discussion about whether our idea of privacy is now redundant in light of social networking tools.

The challenge for me is two-fold. First is the editorial and technical challenge presented by attending a series of events and providing responses to camera immediately afterwards. This is “free thinking” after all. It’s about engaging in the debate, identifying your personal response to a series of ideas proposed by various speakers. That response then needs editing, encoding, checking over and then uploading to the web (all the videos will be at and on this blog).

The second challenge is primarily an editorial one. In comparison to the Proms – where I’ll happily admit I relish the opportunity to be a little tongue-in-cheek – the Free Thinking festival is an entirely different animal. Tongue-in-cheek just doesn’t work at this kind of event. It’s small – intimate in some respects – and it’s a genuine educational experience too. The opportunity to go is a bit like being told I could go back to University and do my degree all over again and not have to pay. The idea of that is a luxury. The opportunity to reflect that using a slightly different language is appealing and also quite a challenge.

Can I pull it off? I’ve absolutely no idea. But I will have a good stab at it. Keep up with what’s going on via Twitter if you fancy or perhaps even check the blog if you’re so inclined. Failing that you could always listen on the radio.

Thinking about freedom

It’s not often I wake up in the middle of the night, eyes wide open, my mind working overtime.

It’s annoying, that’s for sure. Annoying mostly because I seem to spend my day worrying about one thing or another to a greater or a lesser extent, so much so in fact that I do wonder why I bothered paying the first installment on my gym membership. Anxiety is always a good contributory factor to weight loss.

I’ve been thinking about the word “freedom” just recently, largely because one man suggested I might like to think about it along with the words “childhood” and “equality”. It was quite a tempting offer, not least because it seemed to set my fingers tingling with excitement.

What does “freedom” mean to me? How can I illustrate what it means to me ? Is there a reasonably interesting point (or points) to be made about the word “freedom”? It’s 4.37am on Wednesday morning. Given that I can’t sleep for worrying, I’m going to give it a damn good stab.

If I stop to think about things in my life as they are right now, me staring at the keyboard and panicking about the white space on the screen in front of me, there’s one freedom I’ve only just recently realised I’ve taken for granted for quite some considerable time.

Over the past ten years the internet has afforded me more opportunities than I ever thought I’d want or need. Quite apart from the obvious professional opportunities I’ve had working with web-related things, the internet has also made it possible for me to publish the results of my creative efforts in one form or other.

If it’s not a blog it’s a podcast. Videos or photographs. Facebook statuses (?sp) or the very briefest of dalliances with Twitter. All of these “tools” have allowed me to express myself without the interference of an editor wagging his finger, rolling his eyes or shaking his fist at me.

It is in fact these latest internet technologies, some part of what’s regarded as part of “Web 2.0”, which have been the most liberating. Facebook, hailed by many as the greatest development in social networking on the internet since I-don’t-know-what, has been that for me.

Over the past few months I’ve “made contact” with a whole host of people, made different kinds of connections with people at work, people from previous jobs and most recently people from school. * I’ve seen different angles on lots of different people. I’ve felt a part of different people’s lives in a way I hadn’t originally thought possible or necessary.

With predictable shamelessness I’ve also used these growing networks of propagating my fairly regular daily creative efforts. Contrary to the advice given by a friend who said “just concentrate on the content of your blog – let others market it”, I’ve found it difficult to resist trying to draw people in. After all, what’s the point in writing something if others don’t read or can’t read it. I’ve got to be honest that after I’m done writing I don’t really have much time or inclination to read my own blog back again. Once the “Post This Entry” button has been clicked, that’s it done with. I wash my hands of it, unless of course the spelling mistakes are so grim that it warrants a return visit in edit mode.

The ultimate problem with writing regularly and sharing with people I know via the likes of Facebook is that little by little the creative freedoms I had formally are slowly getting eroded. Suddenly I have to think twice before I commit something the screen. Who will read this? Will my words offend them? Will my actions be interpreted by some as grist for their particular mill? Do some people read this and then turn to a friend and say “have you seen the bollocks he’s written here – the pretentious wanker!”

Underpinning the power of self-publishing we’ve all of us come to take for granted is the growing spectre of moral and legal responsibility. I can write about what I want, in theory, but as I establish more and more real and virtual relationships to distribute those words so I have to stop and, in many cases, cross a topic off my list. That is a very disappointing prospect, almost as though someone is standing behind looking over my shoulder and warning me off particular words, phrases, sentences or (worse) entire paragraphs.

Some people (probably sandal-wearers) will shout “That’s the creative challenge – rise to it!”

I’d just say it’s a pain in the arse.

* It’s not without good reason that the people I consider closest and most in-tune are often correct when they half-jokingly refer to me as a real-life networking whore.