Blue is the warmest colour

London loves history. It does not take you long to figure out that once you are here. It all began with this interesting story about the place I am living in. So you see, the baroque mask is something that the UCL New Hall could not have gotten rid of as it was ‘listed’ as a result of which the new building had to come up around the old facade. The older the building, the more likely it is to be listed.

And this way of preserving heritage in the form of listing buildings extends to commemorating places where famous people lived by erecting a blue plaque in their memory. Blue plaques seem to be everywhere in London, and with about 900 blue plaques floating around it’s no surprise. The London Blue Plaques are sort of like The Hollywood Walk of Fame-except they are a tad more prestigious.

Blue plaques are placed on buildings – occasionally grand, often ordinary – where famous people lived and worked. Sigmund Freud lived and worked in fashionable Hampstead; Charles Darwin in UCL’s campus; Isaac Newton in Soho; Charles Dickens in private street of Camden; Mozart composed his first symphony in the elegant neighbourhood of Chelsea. As with all fame, of course, many of the Blue Plaques of London commemorate people the average person don’t know.

Such memorials provide a chance to stop and think about something because we’ve stumbled across a relevant point in space, in the same way a google doodle invites us to think of someone or something just because of a particular point in time.

You can find a list of all blue plaques in London here or can make a fun blue plaque for yourself here.

Sounds & Notes from London

It may just sound weird but I often wake up in the middle of the night thinking of the woman who sells The Big Issue outside the Waterstones on Gower Street. Not that I am unsympathetic towards the cause of The Big Issue but there is something eerily scary about her voice. I even avoid going to that part of the Waterstones but still every visit to Waterstones is full of reminiscences of that sound. This gets me to think if there is a hierarchy of senses in a way that we end up remembering more visual experiences or associate sounds with visuals and then in a similar order may be taste or smell or touch. In most cases it is the visual experience that one recalls most often or if there is a visual associated with a sound or a smell or a taste or touch it becomes easier to remember. Is this the reason we take more pictures than we record sounds or has the medium somehow adopted itself to a hierarchy of senses which perches vision right at the top? Is this the reason we have more apps or platforms that make it easier for us to take pictures, record our visual experiences and share with others?

I think about sound as a photographer. I’m not a “good photographer” but I do it enough that when I’m out in the world I see things in terms of what I would like to see again or that I would like someone else to see from a particular perspective. That’s my guiding principle with pictures. I wonder why exactly we have such a different relationship with sound as compared to how we relate to images. We have music, of course, but that’s not like photography at all. Music is the brush of a paint on canvas or a sculpture or graceful curve of an atrium. But music is not photograph of sounds.

I found this group on Soundcloud, Sound Art, that advertises itself as interested in ambient recordings, but in practice it looks more like another place for people to post their sick jams. What I want is a place to hear things that people record in the spaces around them. This seems reasonable to me: An app with just one button to record and another to share. I’d have fewer “friends” than on Instagram, in the realm of sound, but there would surely be some. And some who use the app would be pushed to find better and more interesting sounds, and to appreciate those sounds in new and different ways.

It’s worth discussing why this audio-sharing network would be so much smaller than the visual ones and why there would be less interest. For starters, vision is the dominant sense. All I really need to prove this is to ask which sense you would rather lose, but it’s still important to look a bit closer than that. Research has shown that up to 85 percent of our perception, learning, and cognition is mediated through vision. Just think of absolutely anything you enjoy: “running,” “chocolates,” “plants,” or “cats.” If you’re an average person, you saw those things in your imagination. (Possible exceptions, like “sex,” are an interesting digression, however.)

On Instagram people share subjects. In my experience, they don’t share very much ambience. There is very little to be found in the sense of a place on photo sharing sites. Rarely do I get a chance to “like” a photo of a room or some field. This is a shame. I’d like to be better able to share environments and ambience in general. We’ve reached a particular point in evolution and technological advancement that we don’t need to dote on vision anymore to survive or at least not as much as we used to. We have a vision-based internet and given that the internet itself doesn’t exist as an actual space, in the sense of needing to be spatially navigated, perhaps sound just needs a better advocate than websites that autoplay horrible music.

So: a sharing network for sounds. Someone build that. I’ll be your first member.



Flickr image via

So I moved to London to study Digital Anthropology

It does not happen too often that you walk a few feet around a place and you see a house which was once home to Charles Dickens and another one whose inhabitants included George Bernard Shaw and Virgina Woolf. And then you see someone ‘almost flipping pages’ of supposedly, a book on their Kindle, as they sit by the sides of these historic but still functional precincts.

This is the leafy Bloomsbury in London. How good are the chances that one of them is reading a Great Expectations or a Pygamalion on those reading devices? It makes me wonder if they already had one of those books in paper and downloaded an e-copy so that they can read one as they move around. Or what else can be the reason that they decided to ‘consume’ (which has a lot of deeper meaning than what we usually associate it with) or read the book on their e-devices? And once they finish reading the book will they recommend the book to someone in their different social circles – friends, family and workspace colleagues? And if they do recommend how will they do, on Facebook or WhatsApp or walk up to a friend and talk about it? Will they Instagram the cover of the book because they liked the cover art and share it on their digital social networks?

What I realise quite as much is aspects of consumption of new media have been growing beyond physical media into bits and stream and clouds of data, and beyond the largely one-way conventional distribution channels to a more social experience. And this is why I find myself in London spending the next year studying Digital Anthropology at University College London (UCL). The programme is (arguably) the only one of its kind in the world.

While the title ‘Digital Anthropology’ may seem a little unconventional, “locating the field of digital communication and digital media on a global context using field-based methods” is important. Look at the Internet and think how much time you spend on it – and how its changed the way you talk to people, contact your family, look for information, conduct business, and (special to Instagram) take pictures with a hint of nostalgia. Or the role of cell phone and social networks in the organisation. We need to derive new methods to study how our behaviour and relationship with entities around us is changing because of technology.

Communication has changed dramatically – how its changing is important to try to understand and has implications of art, society, business, and policy, and trying to understand some aspects of this is going to implicitly affect all our lives and perhaps explicitly be the focus of a good deal of my primary career.

While there are many academic programs worldwide studying these things under different names (“media studies,” etc), I chose Digital Anthropology in part because I liked the idea of rooting a methodological approach in social and cultural aspects, as well as UCL’s egalitarian ethos. The anthropology program here is known for its emphasis on research in material and visual culture – i.e., stuff, and stuff we can see – and their connection to social relationships. Objects. Keepsakes. Knick-knacks. As we experience wearable devices and smart watches around us, there will be stuff, and with it stuff to talk about. And then I wanted to steer my experience in digital marketing and business of over the last six years into something more grounded in inter-disciplinary social sciences theory and critical analyses so that it gives me new perspectives to think or evaluate business problems once I go back to work after the course.

This sort of grounding seems the ideal springboard to go into new and social media, which at times can seem quite intangible and in other ways is very concrete – as in the record kept by an online group, or the physical object of a pirate DVD. And, of course, I’ll be chronicling my life and studies in London through some of the same technology I’ll be studying. We’re all doing it – the studying and chronicling, I mean. I just found a place that gave it a name I liked.

Tailpiece: It is highly unlikely that you come across a statue of Mahatama Gandhi in close proximity with a statue of Rabindranath Tagore anywhere in India. I feel extremely chuffed almost every morning, walking past their statues in Bloomsbury, both of whom studied in UCL.