Stuart Nolan – deceptive technology (#13)


Unique performances that combine traditional disciplines of impossibility with original research into how we are deceived by language and gesture. Consulting, training, and facilitation. Mostly in technology development, tricky thinking, physical deception, attention control, and impossible innovation.

Twitter: @stuartnolan


Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

I went on holiday to Croatia recently and watched a huge electrical storm out at sea. We were sat in a bar and at first it was an impressive light show with everyone taking pictures but then it got nearer and nearer and I had to help the bar owners get the awnings down and cover the till with a tarp before it hit us. Then everyone had to hide in the cellar while it passed. I’ve always found storms amazing and exciting but there’s that moment when they turn from an entertaining display to damage and danger when you realise the immensity of the forces involved. With the increasing unpredictability of weather due to climate change it’s humbling to be reminded of the potential of these things.


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

One of my favourite books is The Ambiguity of Play by Brian Sutton-Smith. He says that play is too slippery to define and instead spends the book looking at the major rhetorics of play that turn up in culture. Plus as competition, imagination, identity, power etc. Having spent the past 25 years thinking about wonder I’ve come to a similar conclusion, that wonder is a varied experience and it’s better to consider rhetorics than to create definitions that invariably feel unsatisfactory and flat. So I think of wonder as a soup that can involve many ingredients. How we experience it is composed of basic psychological drives shaped by context and culture, beliefs and preconceptions. I recently did a One Thousand Mindreaders session for the Empathy Research Group at Bath Spa University. Dr. Alison Lee, a leading neuropsychologist, gave a response to the sessions that I round fascinating. The talked about to basic drives that balance each other, the drive to explore new things and the drive to make successful predictions about the world. Wonder feels like a balance between awe and curiosity. Awe is a state of being frozen by the experience of the new. Curiosity is an active state of investigation and pondering. Wonder might be the experience of floating between the two. Robert Neale has a similar conceptualisation involving a monkey being fooled by the reflection of the moon, then investigating and breaking the illusion but then forgetting and being fooled all over again. So I experience wonder as a complex active process rather a simple drive.


What inspires you to be creative?

Boredom and irritation.


Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?

I use metaphorical modelling. I’ve been a certified LEGO Serious Play facilitator since 2004 and I use it with some of my clients. It’s a way of using LEGO to build models of projects, ideas, practices, teams etc. The powerful idea at the heart of it is that creativity feeds on metaphors and that using physical objects in a metaphorical way engages the whole body. So I make models of routines, ideas, projects, acts. I have a lot of LEGO.


What do you love about magic?

The physical feeling in my body when I see great magic. For me it’s a physical experience rather than a mental one. I’ve studied with Armando Lucero and when he performs has coin magic for me up-close it makes me cry. There is something about the beauty of the patterns he creates that is akin to Baroque music. The fact that I can’t really explain why this makes me shed a tear is part of my continuing fascination. I also love performing of course. I have a routine called Fake News and I recently made some major changes to the methods and the structure. I performed the new version last week for the first time and got some gasps from the audience both at moments I had planned but also at two moments where I hadn’t expected to get a strong reaction. I enjoy thinking about why those moments worked and working out how to try to ensure they happen every time. It’s the pleasure of the craft that comes both before and after a performance.


What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?

The cultural idea of a magician as someone that tries to fool you while you try to figure out how they do it. This is a legitimate style of magic of course but it is not the only one available to us and it is one that has become so dominant recently that audiences increasingly see a magic performance as a puzzle or a challenge. There are many good techniques for dealing with this issue of course.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

It’s a complex soup of psychological drives, beliefs, practices, and preconceptions how we cultivate wonder will depend on our context. How a Buddhist cultivates wonder will be different to how a physicist cultivates wonder. And a Buddhist physicist may cultivate wonder in a number of ways. Recognising the rich variety of ways that humans can experience wonder is one of the things we can do to cultivate it. Wonder about different kinds of wonder. The philosopher Graham Harman proposals something called “speculative psychology” dedicated to investigating the “cosmic layers of psyche” and “ferreting out the specific psychic reality of earthworms, dust, armies, chalk, and stone”. This seems to me like a bold way of cultivating wonder, to imagine what it must be like to be an earthworm or a piece of chalk. What does a piece of chalk wonder about? This reminds me of my favourite André Breton quote, “The man who cannot visualize a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot.”


You write and speak on the interface between technology and magic. What current developments do you find fascinating?

My focus at the moment of on neurotech, specifically the mindreading technologies being developed by companies such as Openwater and CTRL-labs. The idea of technological telepathy is only around 150-years old and the idea that a mind can be “read” like a book is relatively new. The technologists involved in creating neurotech are mostly unaware of the cultural history that shapes how they think about the technologies they are creating. These technologies have great potential for social good but they also provoke fears of intrusion and invasion that need to be carefully considered. The emerging discipline of neuroethics hasn’t yet tackled the implications of mindreading tech.


You’re co-writing The Magical: 100 Principles of Design. Can you tell me more about this?

It’s a book for all creators concerned with the magical, the impossible, the mysterious, the illusory, the wondrous, the enchanting, and the deceptive. It’s a a toolbox of possibilities. Magicians aren’t the only people who design the magical. Game designers create worlds where you can die and be reborn. Architects create buildings that seem invisible and spaces that appear to levitate. Movie special effects designers create wonder and spectacle. Artists create enchanting and mysterious objects. Technologists create mindreading devices that can tell what video we are watching or what number we are thinking of. There are movements in design that talk of enchanted objects, of animism in design, or speculative design. The Internet of Things is creating a world of Smart Devices. Robots have become efficient enough to threaten the majority of jobs. AI technology is giving these devices the illusion of life. At the same time we live in a world of deception. Of alternative truths and fake news. We live in a mediated world where technology increasingly allows us to fake any kind image, video, sound, or experience. The design of illusions is a serious undertaking. The book argues for an approach to design thinking that recognises the fundamental illusions involved in creating media, products and experiences that will charm, enchant, and fascinate without misleading, deceiving, or disappointing.


What’s the 1,000 mind readers project all about?

I’m teaching people how to read minds through touch. I’ve taught 723 new mindreaders this year. I’ve taken techniques based on Victorian muscle reading and enhanced them with current methods from neuroscience. The sessions are an hour long and by the end people are able to duplicate each other’s unseen drawings and find objects hidden in the room. It began as a project about mindreading and art. The drawings were my focus. But it has now grown in many different directions. Some people are interested in the science behind it or the potential it has in technology innovation. I ran a session at Sci-Foo at Google X earlier this year and had people interested in medical applications, lie detection, VR, and haptics. Others see it as a way to cultivate empathy and compassion, to practice listening to another person. Embodied cognition is a fascinating field at the moment and One Thousand Mindreaders raises questions about touch, cognition, and philosophy of mind that will become increasingly important as the emerging neurotic becomes more widespread.

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