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I wrote this in January 2003 to try to describe the kinds of things you would see at a Social Computer building (a Civil Sandbox). The name Prototype comes from the name of the event we were proposing to explore the Social Computer. Please bear in mind that it is nearly 6 years ago so some of the ideas and explainations may seem a little old to some. I hope this helps to give a bit more clarity to what you can expect to see in our upcoming Sandbox event.

Artwork by Laurine Brugman, Jaap Dankert and Jelmar Geertsma

 What is a Social Computer Prototype?

It is a demonstration of the Social Computer in effect. As well as explaining and clarifying the meaning of Social Computer, the project itself is a creation inspired by the concept.

I see that there are a number of intertwined projects; is this what you mean by Social Computing?

In basic terms, yes but it isn’t so simple. From a certain perspective, you could say so. Each project is interesting on its own, but when combined with the others, it becomes more effective and less costly.

You say that the project will benefit people, how will this happen and who will it benefit?

Everyone involved in creating the Prototype is attempting something new and will hopefully experience some different approaches towards what they are doing. It is unlikely that anyone could come to an event like this and not learn something new.

When we call it a cross-discipline event, this does not mean “cross-discipline within a specific discipline” as is usually the case. We are aiming to involve as many different people as is possible and positive.

You say the project is very broad, can you give some examples?

Certainly. Let’s start with Technology companies.

Such as?

Internet providers, Technology providers, Creative equipment manufacturers and so on. They can benefit by collaborating to create a technology environment. Their task is to create a space which allows a wide as possible variety of communication infrastructure.

What do you mean?

Imagine that you walk into a building, and are given a personal information device such as a Palm computer or something. Your device greets you and asks for some details. You decide that you would rather skip this and remain anonymous for the time being. Then you can browse through the database and see what is available in the building.

So the handheld is able to guide you around the building?

Well, yes. The more information you give the device, the better it can point you towards the interesting information within the project. It gets more interesting when you can have all these devices communicating with each other.

Like a network?

Yes, but imagine you are walking around, and you pass someone with similar interests to you. Your personal device informs you both that it may be interesting to meet each other. However, you both know that you are going to see a presentation in a few minutes and so decide to make an appointment. The devices check your agendas and inform you both of a list of available timeslots in your agenda.

Wow, that sounds cool. So you could put something like that together?

Not me! I am just suggesting ideas and ideals and see how close we can get to creating it.

Why would a technology company invest in this kind of a project?

Well, as I understand it there is a need for more user-involvement in the design process.

How could these companies benefit exactly?

It depends on who they are. Let’s take Xerox as an example. Last year I had a very interesting conversation with Maurits Aalders from Xerox Netherlands and Patrick Mazeau from the Xerox Research in France. Here is a quote from a more recent interview with Maurits:

“At a certain moment, you try to get feedback from the customer or the user. We try to get them into the research lab and get feedback, so we can see if we are on the right track. We do it in several stages of development.

We try to do it in the beginning, but what you tend to see is that if you develop technologies a lot of the users don’t have a need for the product. Mainly because they don’t know you are that far and is hard for them to see an application for it.

It is always difficult to know if you are going to go ahead with your development or not.”

Imagine you are researching 10 different products that you might be selling in 5 or even 10 years, and the average person has no idea of how we might be using that product. You need to have some idea of whether a product will sell at the end of the development.

“What you see is that a lot of innovations are built, but only a few will be a success. So you constantly need some feedback, ‘Are we on the right track?’. You do that not only with users but also people who are working in the industry, consultants, professors and so on.

Everyone who has an idea on some industry or some process or product or technology and from there you try and get the feedback and try and work on it.”

So you are saying that the Social Computer could be an interesting way of achieving this goal?

Yes, I think so. I’ll quote Maurits again.

“I really like the idea that you can have an environment in which you can test technologies, products and see feedback and see a lot of things happen. You could see a lot of new things get developed, and innovations. Almost like an atmosphere of its own.

From there you have the opportunity to see what the new technologies are, seeing what the new generation is thinking of your products or technology and start developing new ideas, new concepts which you can use back again to develop your own products.”

I should mention here that Maurits was talking about the Social Computer building or site. The Prototype is an early experiment in which we aim to present the infrastructures within the Social Computer and give a broad presentation to a wide audience.

So you want to make an environment like this on a permanent basis?

Yes. I think that all cities can benefit from having one.

Like a monument or something?

You could say that, but it is much more that. It is a research centre, a business centre, a meeting place, a public space, a social environment. A place where people come together for all sorts of reasons.

With a wide variety of technologies?

Yeah, but all sorts of technologies. Imagine a huge collaboration of research and marketing departments to create an environment for people to interact in.

You say marketing? i thought you said it was a non commercial project.

Well, it’s not so much non commercial, just no money, sales or advertisements. I call it ‘Commercial Transparency’.

I think I get it. So there wouldn’t be any advertising around, just the products themselves.

Exactly. The companies can be present and using the opportunity to interact and educate people to what they are doing. The public can use the facility to learn and interact with companies.

The public can educate them too!

Yes. It is my hope that the interaction will be more open and less commercial. Allowing healthy interaction and better understanding. Actually, the whole building is a huge communication device for anyone to communicate better with anyone. An environment like this has to involve all areas of society and be built to function as a sort of accelerator.

You’ve lost me, an accelerator?

Let me describe another benefit of the Social Computer, then we’ll come back to that. I’ve talked about technology companies and how we can help develop new ways of approaching the users of their products. I’m going to quote from a recent interview with the Communication Manager of the Information Societies Research department within the EC, Robert Henkel.

“I think one of the big problems of the Commission is that we’re making good policy and working for the citizen, but the citizen has little or no knowledge about it.

It’s very important to have motivators, people who transport our information to the citizen. This is one intention, one idea that the Social Computer can do.

But in general this is a problem of our society that there’s a group of people in the industry, policy and research who are taking big steps forward but a great part of the society and the citizen cannot follow.

So it is very important to help them to understand, to give them the necessary information, to teach them, to convince them of the ideas being conducted within policy, research and economy.

We have no problems to inform the researcher or the industry. They are informed and they are looking for information. They are working together for the research projects.

We have problems to tell the normal citizen on the road what we are doing because we are using their tax money and it would be nice that they are convinced that we do it in a good form, in a sensible form and only to service them.

I think we do it because research policy is the core of economy and social policy. Only by new research projects, successful research projects can you create new products and new employment or, you could say, more quality of life.”

Okay, so what exactly is this Social Computer?

Well, I mentioned before an ‘accelerator’. Imagine that you could bring all areas of the industrial society and combine them in interesting ways within an environment, together with all the other areas of society in new and interesting ways.

Like a SimCity kind of thing?

Like a SimSociety, but not inside a virtual space but in real life!

Okay, now I’m intrigued. It’s hard to visualise what you are saying.

How about we use the building as example.

Which building? The Social Computer?

Well you can use any building for this, take a hospital as an example of a Social Computer. You have area of the building which are dedicated to certain functions. People move from one area to another and perform certain ‘operations’ on each other.

Was that a pun?

Not intentional, I mean that people interact with each other. I’m trying to suggest that the operation of people within this building can be compared with a computer.

You mean like programs or hardware?

Both. The ‘Social Hardware’ is the bricks, the pipes and infrastructure. Phone and electricity lines for a system for people to interact and function, much like a computer hardware system.

Do you think it works like that?

It’s only a metaphor to get people thinking. I’m not necessarily interested whether society can be likened to a computer. In many ways I’d like to suggest that society ‘computes’. It adheres to many rules, most of which are necessary to allow it to function.

I see what you mean, like people are functioning like software within the computer of society?

I think so. I should say that this can be taken in a negative context. I’m not suggesting that we are all running a standard program or something like that. There are, however, standards in our society. Similar to computer protocols.


Like a set of rules that different software or hardware have to conform to. Firewire or USB are hardware interfaces for many different types of device.

So in our society we have these protocols.

Sure. Economy, policy, education, industry, media even language are full of systems that rely on rules amongst rules amongst rules and are therefore protocols.

I see the analogy, it makes me think of that book, ‘1984’ or something. The idea that society is a machine.

You know, it’s important to see the purpose of this idea. ‘1984’ was a work of social prediction. It shows us a vision of the world in the future. This world allows us to imagine the possibilities and think about our futures.

Like trying to warn people?

Maybe not that drastic, but perhaps it had a broad influence within the way we thought about the future.

So what is the Social Computer?

It is a metaphor for society. It is meant to draw the analogy of the computer with the real world. This is for a number of reasons. There are two very important lessons learnt from the world of computing. Since the machine is doing all the real work, you are using your intelligence to navigate the world of the computer.

That doesn’t make enough sense to me right now.

Yeah, but there are many different kinds of people I am trying to design this thing for. It’s really important to build something that satisfies everyone, doesn’t annoy anyone but still remains positive and effective. It will take time to clarify the central principles and make a concrete outcome from it all.

Is it working out so far?

It seems so. I’m getting some pretty excited, in-depth reactions from a wide range of interesting people.

So the prototype event is some sort of governmental, technological, research, education conference event?

Yes but with many more activities and involvement that the usual conference event.

Like new media?

You could say. Also, real-time digital arts called ‘Demos’ will be shown.


They are programs created by a team of people producing music, coding(programming), video, 3D design. Real-time performances of art and music.


In a computer game, the computer’s hardware is used to model and display an environment in which you can interact with the game. Creating the story and environment for these games has truly become an art form, along with programming, hardware, visual quality etc. Demos are like audio-visual arts which are displayed by your computer.

I’ve heard of that, isn’t that Digital Arts?

Well, not exactly. There are many things which are called Digital Arts. I think this is more like a ‘free arts scene’ where people are competing in a really cool way to better each other and themselves. This is just my opinion. I’m not here to represent the Demoscene. They represent themselves at

(Try searching for Tpolm, Katastro.Fi, Sunflower, Threepixels, Blasphemy, 64K for example)

So are you bringing some of these people to the Prototype event?

Yes. We’re bringing a lot of amazing artists and people in a variety of skills and talents. It is hard for them as they have discovered how to express their ideas and art forms. I think it would be very interesting combining their artistic talents and technological creativity with research and marketing departments of companies such as Sony, Phillips, Xerox, IBM etc.

I understand the research side, but what would a marketing department get out of this?

Let’s take Sony as an example. People are within the event, using sony’s PDAs, cameras, screens or whatever as part of the infrastructure for the conference, workshop, exchange and TV projects.

Oh, so they get feedback from the users on how they like the products!

Yes. This is a different way of getting attention. Instead of saying ‘Go Create’ or ‘Let’s make things better’ companies can enact a telling role in supporting people and involving them in their design process.

So people are getting more choice of products?

They are inside an environment of communication and activity, from music or theatre performances to political debates or conferences.

Political debates?

Imagine technology supported city planning or demonstration. People can visit an exhibition from multiple parties and multiple angles to help educate the public to the different viewpoints and allow them to interact and vote using simulations and technology support.

So people can use their personal device as a voting tool?

Yes, but that’s probably a whole discussion in itself and I have to get the train in 25 minutes, did we cover everything you wanted to talk about?

Well, no but thanks for your time.

You are welcome, can we drop the charade now, since we are both me?

Sure, no problem.

Author :
EurActiv Network