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The University of the Smart Mob

spiked gets an exclusive preview of the new – and very blue – Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University.

Emily Hill

Topics Science & Tech

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On entering the Institute of Creative Technologies (IoCT), the first thing that strikes you is how blue it is. It has blue chairs, walls and curtains, a mottled blue floor, a sky-blue ceiling and a blue SMEG fridge. What is not blue is at least shiny and new. A poetic LED display points to the entrance; small robotic dogs line the walls between large white Macs and a robotic control centre.

Earlier this week, spiked was invited to the IoCT to write an exclusive report on its opening and to listen to the inaugural lecture by visiting professor, Howard Rheingold. An internet guru, he resists the urge to dress all in blue. His famous shoes (you can download pictures of them on the internet) are today coated in a thousand rainbow paint splats. His jacket is checked and purple, his shirt a mass of light multicoloured stripes; his belt buckle, with a sun and lightning design, looks like it has been made out of luminescent baked play dough. I settle back and wait to hear something radical.

But radical is not the keynote to Rheingold’s speech today; instead it’s cooperation. There is only a thin sprinkling of the ‘Smart Mob’ theory buzzwords on which Rheingold’s reputation has been built (see here for more on Smart Mobs). Rather, Rheingold’s attention is focused not on spontaneous social upswell, but on how to foster cohesion within established academic systems. It is centred on a ‘revival of the commons’: creating a fertile web territory in which scholars from a variety of different disciplines can read and respond to each other’s papers. It is hoped that encountering new ideas and perspectives will trigger new thoughts and further progress.

The benefits of cooperation, Rheingold argues, could be demonstrated through an exercise in game theory with the use of poker chips. At this preview event, it didn’t really work, because people were much, much too cooperative to need the benefits of cooperation proved to them. But by applying such theories to the internet, Rheingold seemed to make some sound points. The reputation system instituted on eBay, for example, is a variation on game theory, where buyer and seller both get what they want through cooperation and are rewarded accordingly. Cooperation, we agreed, must yield benefits to both parties; the rest of the morning was taken up by breakout groups on how cooperation could be fostered at the IoCT and beyond.

IoCT research projects will include: an internet orchestra; the world’s first cylindrical projection hologram animation (for hospice residents); an animatron (for exploring the role of artificial intelligence in modelling human emotions); and a high-speed research network linking the institute to other universities. It will be interesting to see how these key projects span out. But although it was hard to disagree with Rheingold’s premise – that cooperation and file-sharing between academic disciplines could be an instrument of progress – the room was not filled with physicists, philosophers and free marketers. It is perhaps hard to see, for the uninitiated, how writing a poem or performing a dance might have an impact on scientific discovery or help promote technological innovation, and it may be hard to understand, too, how talking about cooperation as an abstract can translate into real-time action.

Only time will tell if De Montfort can succeed in coaxing universities worldwide to plough their ideas into this new blue home of blue-sky thinking.

Emily Hill works at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech

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