Thinking Digital embraces 'extreme capitalism' at Sage Gateshead

Talks from the woman who turned herself into a corporation and the man who encourages childlike creativity feature on final conference day

Thomas Jackson Photography Jennifer Morone speaks at Thinking Digital 2015
Jennifer Morone speaks at Thinking Digital 2015

Jennifer Morone had been going a rough patch when she decided to turn herself into a corporation.

Specifically, as she told yesterday’s Thinking Digital conference, she had been struggling to find a find a job, dealing with the end of a relationship and developing a growing interest the Edward Snowden story.

It wasn’t exactly the privacy issue that resonated with her, she explained, so much as the motivation behind data mining - whether from governments or companies - and the questions it raised about the role of the individual and his or her values in such a society.

On returning to study at the Royal College of Art, she got the opportunity to explore the idea when being set the task of producing a protest-based art project.

The result was what she refers to as “extreme capitalism”, a concept that essentially involved incorporating herself as Jennifer Lyn Morone Inc. and becoming founder, chief executive - and product - of the business.

“If you have to exploit something, then at least exploit yourself,” she said, before outlining how she tracked every physical and mental asset her ‘company’ could offer, collected data not only on digital activity but on everything right down to emotions and corresponding bodily responses tracked by a sensor system.

Thomas Jackson Photography Simon Lynen at Thinking Digital 2015
Simon Lynen at Thinking Digital 2015

Viewing it as taking ownership of what is naturally hers to own, she made all this entirely public, produced her own set of terms and conditions and made shares available with a price based on potential.

When it came to services requested, those getting in touch could expect rigorous open discussion of their values.

“It’s a critical project, but it’s also trying to test new waters,” she told the audience at Sage Gateshead.

“It’s about human experience and human nature.”

Relentless focus on GDP, she concluded, may sound like it would benefit everyone, but this was a premise worth questioning.

“We need to be mindful of who we’re exploiting, think deeply about who is benefiting and, if it’s not good enough according to your values, then please design again,” she said.

Advocating a similarly unorthodox - if somewhat less extreme - approach to life and work, then, was Ian Wharton of the digital agency AKQA.

As might be expected from the author of Spark for the Fire: How Youthful Thinking Unlocks Creativity, Mr Wharton isn’t a believer in the safe bet when it comes to business.

Instead, he argues, brilliant ideas arrive with more frequency when one starts thinking more like a child, with “unpoliced thought” opening the doors to concepts that can ultimately prove game changers.

The child’s tendency to prioritise presence and empathy over predicting outcomes, likewise, can be emulated to great advantage.

And creativity, Mr Wharton stressed, was a transferable blessing.

“At school, you’re told you have to do one thing and do it well,” he said. “I couldn’t disagree with that more.”

Even the commonly accepted notion that mastery requires 10,000 hours of practice should be questioned, he suggested: “Quantity is not the right metric to define creativity”.

Also emphasising the need to break accepted rules for the best results was Tara Shears, a particle physicist who has worked on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, constructed to study the elusive Higgs boson - or the ‘God particle’, as it has been dubbed.

Currently, she told the audience, the research suggested the universe fell into the category of “meta-stability”, meaning it was “stable but not quite”, with everything in it destined to “change into something else”.

The good news was that if was the case, it wouldn’t happen for “trillions of years”, and, the next stage of research, beginning in June, will see the experiment conducted at much higher energy levels,shedding more light on the initial findings.

In another case of ‘watch this space’, Simon Lynen from Google’s Project Tango described how he and his team had been using robotics research to create mobile technology that had a “human scale understanding of space and motion”.

The technology, from which prototypes have been produced, can produce real-time movement maps in 3D and 2D, opening up a wide range of potential uses, from providing directions in any environment to delivering location-based content, as users can leave messages in particular spaces.

The question now, Mr Lynen said, was how to “crowdfund map building”, allow multiple users to create parallel maps to build upon each other.

Other speakers at yesterday’s event, the last of the three-day conference, included Stefanie Posavec, who showcased a design process that specialises in the visual representation of data from language, literature and science, and the San Franscisco-based author Tim Leberecht who shared his vision for the future of business.

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