Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor

Touch me, feel me: The internet as sensory organ

The Internet is a global stethoscope that allows us to listen in to the world’s most intimate secrets. It is an extension of our nervous system, the thing that connects one of us to the other, allowing us to experience the world and transform our emotional responses. And the ways in which Professor Shinichi Takemura, a Japanese cultural anthropologist and social media designer, demonstrated this at this year’s Design Indaba conference gave us all goosebumps.

His presentation opened with music from a water fountain. But this was no ordinary aural effect: it was real sound in real time, connecting conference delegates in Cape Town via the internet to the 700-year-old water musical instrument in a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. We were together. We were one.

This single presentation was reason enough for me to travel from Grahamstown to Cape Town and put myself through three days of creative mindblow. In just 45 minutes, Professor Takemura made technology spiritual, he made multimedia sensate, and he tasked us all with a higher purpose.

Talking about his work in “designing the global window”, Takemura took us through his extraordinary projects, such as Aquascape, “an internet project that listens to the sound of water in the world and feels it” and the Ubiqutous Museum, which allows you to find out the “hidden story” about life around you by combining GPRS, existing information with cellphone technology.

These participatory and visible approaches intend to encourage people to see the world in a new way. “The nature of mass media is to report the extraordinary, but what we need is to share the simple feelings of people.” It is, he says, unpredictability that connects us all together. Takemura’s aim is to create a higher resolution to our imagination.

He believes that technology and the internet are extensions of our nervous system. By connecting small bits of data and information, such as seismic information for example, which already exists on the Internet in a constantly updated form, we can make the intangible, tangible. See his Sensorium, or “breathing earth”, which he created in 1996.

The Sensorium is not a site that simply digitises and links to existing knowledge and data. It is, Takemura says, a virtual self-portrait of the earth that aims to make us more sensitive to the vulnerability of our society and an experience to “make us feel ashamed of our lack of sensitivity to our fluctuating earth”.

The audience gave a collective gasp as he played footage of his Tangible Earth: a 2.8-metre in diameter terrestrial globe, a luminous world that gives us an emotional sense of what is happening in the world, of how we are all connected. Updated with existing information and knowledge from the Internet, this makes the unreal real.

And, believe me, it is emotional: watch the clouds gather into a tsunami format over Sri Lanka. Watch the earth turn red, powered by global warming statistics. Takemura has described this project as an earth-sized water dance of exceptional beauty.

Another project of exceptional beauty is Sakurascape. This is “an internet portal showing haiku on cherry blossoms”. Pictures are sent in by cellphone from across Japan, the map lighting up as the cherry trees come into bloom from the south of the country through to the north. This is “visualising a whole” through the voluntary collaborations of individual parts. Beautiful. Haiku. Falling letters. Falling petals. We were awestruck.

Takemura’s challenge, really, is the realisation of a post-Gutenberg multimedia society. It is technology that has already changed our world, but are we prepared to use this to transform our cultural and sensory experiences? Takemura, who showed us how he included children from around the world in a single-venue expo with his Global Corridors project, says technology allows us to include the world. We have the new technology, now we just need to create a new world to match it.

Perhaps, he said, quietly and carefully, the key to creating stable global peace is not politics or through politicians. It may rather be designing effective information environments.

As corny as that sounds in reporting it, it was an emotional moment. After two-and-a-half days of seamless, perfect, design, of designers who are showered by generous funders and companies to play and have fun creating seamless, perfect things, I think the audience was collectively in need of some spiritual input.

As Takemura said, design is not meaningful unless it effects change outside of the display. This was truly digital dissent of exceptional beauty.

A quick aside: it was terribly ironic that the only time the conference technology played up was during Takemura’s remarkable presentation. One crucial aspect of his work is that is unfolds in real time. He wanted so desperately for us to experience that but, unfortunately, the network kept chocking on information. “Too much windows?” the professor wondered. Perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing for him to be reminded that, unlike in Japan, bandwidth is not something you can take for granted.

  • anne

    so we need the internet to listen to running water?

    what’s wrong with listening to it real time, real life as it happens?

    we might be more in tune with the earth and the people on it if we realise that our computers and the intenet are simply tools; and to actualy experience each other in “real time” face to face, instead of constantly relying on technology to make our human connections emotional response gimmicks.

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  • masha

    I found Takemura’s talk to be very profound, touching – inspirational. I’ve been thinking a lot of how technology so often separates us. I felt that Professor Takemura was gently reminding us of the simple, direct and profound effect of the communication that the internet makes possible – and that what he was doing was exactly the opposite of gimmicky.

  • Perry Curling-Hope

    A most thought provoking post for the receptive.

    “[…] the realisation of a post-Gutenberg multimedia society.”

    Indeed. The internet is set to transform human society more profoundly than not only the advent of the printing press, but the invention of writing itself.

    Sadly, some would welcome state intervention to ‘regulate’ the internet.
    They fear harm to their children, and their shenanigans on ‘Mixit’…look after your own children, I say, don’t lobby to lock up the collective human mind.

    “A 25-year-old mother of two from south London whose drink had been spiked was raped by three boys who filmed the incident on a cellphone and then uploaded it on to YouTube.”

    Thought Leader » Michael Trapido » YouTube rape videos, castrating taxi drivers and a woman named Gugu

    Up goes the cry…down with the internet! It was suggested “While we can’t stop the internet, […]”. Good grief, this suggests digital repression akin to medieval book burning!
    Takemura displays a little more vision than those who would have us locked up in a new Orwellian dark age…“Perhaps, he said, quietly and carefully, the key to creating stable global peace is not politics or through politicians. It may rather be designing effective information environments.”

    State control GOOD…Internet BAAAD!
    How sad!