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Guest blog post from Justin Spooner on the challenges of Digital Collaboration


This is a reposting of a substantial essay by my colleage at Unthinkable Consulting, Justin Spooner. It's a series pf thoughts on the challenges of using digital tools for collaboration which have been prompted by Justin's work with the organisation Heart n Soul, who specialise in arts for and by those with learning disabilities. That's it, over to Justin...


I am thinking a lot at the moment about practical solutions to get people creatively collaborating on projects. In particular I am trying to find a number of straightforward ways a whole bunch of people from seven different countries can make music with each other for the Dean Rodney Singers project I am working on with Heart n Soul.

As always, for me, trying to find solutions has mostly been about trying to better define the problems. Over the next few days I'll lay out a few of the ones I'm trying to get my hands around at the moment and point to some examples I think might shed some light on emerging solutions. Let's start with this:
Synchronising one's contribution with other people's
When we work together we often have to decide if it will be better to work at same time or work at different times, handing the object we are working on back and forth. If we are a band and the work is to make a song sound great when we all play it, the best approach might well be to spend time together. If I am composing a work with someone else it might be better for me to do my bit and hand it over.
A lot of digital collaboration happens asynchronously. When we email we are exchanging ideas over sequential time rather than parallel time. But many creative exchanges are richer, more serendipitous or branching when done synchronously. This often leads to better or unexpected results.
In the mid-2000s I used to dream - and bore a lot of people - about an idea I had about digital music making collaboration being more like improvisation than design. I envisaged people hooked up to their Xboxes with their multi-faceted controllers choosing sounds and playing them in real-time with other people across the world. And of course the whole thing would be captured in the form of the music played and a visual score. Well I saw this the other day: Plink by DinahMoe is clearly not quite what I had in mind, but it does start to grapple with a number of the challenges of people playing together, while apart.
How do you synchronise different particpant's inputs? How do you visualise the musical activity of each person playing? How do you limit the key, timbre and pulse to make the combined sound cohesive? And how do you do the opposite to all of the things I have just suggested if you find that particular musical experience is too on-rails, not free-form enough?
Even though it is easy to feel the limitations of the Plink experience I am just full of admiration that someone has given it a go. And I suspect that it is easier to build a proof of concept with all those experiential limitations in place and then remove them than the other way around. My hope is that their recent FWA award will send a signal to the development community that this is category of problem begging out for more attention
Getting material moving between software and devices
A real challenge for digital collaboration is how to make the materials accessible easily to the participants. Many projects get around this problem somewhat by using one bit of software that does it all. It maybe that I can persuade everyone in a team to use Basecamp as a project management and co-ordination tool. And now that everyone is using it insist they only create stuff within its walls, to ensure that we can all get at everything.
But for my project just one tool is not going to work. I need the global band to feel they can use many music tools and be able to exchange and develop each others work.
We've decided to use as many iPad apps as we like, in an unrestrained way. Right now if you make music on an iPad you'll know what a potential headache this might turn into. It is notoriously tricky to get sound from one app to another, let alone off the iPad itself and onto another machine.
Here I want to point to the work Soundcloud and Sonoma Wire Works are doing to make collaboration easier. Believe it or not Sonoma is bit by bit bringing audio copy and paste to the world of Apple devices. Essentially they are creating the bridge between applications so that now I can create a beat in one app and then paste it into another app to have effects put on it or make it part of a larger piece of work in a sequencer app.
But what about the bridge off of the device and into the rest of the world, where your fellow collaborators live? This is where Soundcloud apps come in. Because Soundcloud's built the way it is, it's reasonably straightforward to publish audio to Soundcloud from an app. And thank goodness for that, because if it wasn't possible it would be a very horrible process to get audio out involving cables and iTunes and a lot of shouting. That said, it's still very tricky to get sound from Soundcloud back into your iPad. These devices are going through a rapid evolution: starting as media consumption units, through to production tools, on to publishing tools... and yet still not quite yet the two way open creative tool they need to become.
The balance between having a clear vision and a hazy set of outcomes
Both of these bits of iOS innovation are not the core development concern of either company, but they are providing the essential building blocks to creating a new approach to working with each other using digital tools.
Every creative project that involves drawing on the combined expressive force of a crowd is faced with a dilemma. How much control should the centre have? Is it best to know exactly what should be built by the group and issue clear instructions? Or is it best to see what emerges and adjust what we are aiming for as we go along?
For the efficiency of a project that takes the least blind alleys, central control looks seductive. But creativity is rarely efficient, it is very likely to be exploratory and by the end of the project the rules and processes that were designed at the start now look naïve or over-engineered.
My current hunch for the Dean Rodney Singers project is that spread betting and loose processes are going to be the best approach. By "spread betting" I mean using a wide range of apps and sharing platforms at the start and keeping a close eye on which ones are doing the best job and adjusting our efforts accordingly.
By "loose processes" I mean that I have designed a way that over the next eight months 72 people from 7 countries will be able to make 25 new tracks with each other, but that those processes should be under constant review, and that we shouldn't feel bad accepting the failure of a process. In fact failure, observation and setting a new course I would call success.
In our project we've come to replace the idea of control with the idea of inspiration. We want Dean to drive the project through his vision, his musical ideas and his personality - not because he's the boss and has the blueprint.
Dealing with increasing project complexity through time
A major difficulty with using digital tools to create art of any kind is that as the art object becomes more layered or complex, the tools needed to change that object also become more complex - and less collaborative in their nature. Think how video and music as they become more finished or 'polished' end up living in big systems like Logic or Final Cut.
With the Dean Rodney project, everything starts open and exciting – everyone creating and pitching musical ideas to one another. Over six months, as we get closer to finished tracks, the tools that can handle all the combined musical materials created by the 72 members of the band become the more complex type. In this case I think Ableton Live would be the best and most flexible space. 
And here comes the big BUT – Ableton Live is a crushingly un-collaborative tool. This is where the loose processes kick in: in order to keep the whole six months open and exciting for the collaborating band we need to keep publishing each track out to Soundcloud in many work-in-progress versions. This will allow us to develop, comment, remix and call for new musical material, which can be drawn back into the next version. We have talked about this essential feedback loop, one which gives digital creativity its unique qualities, elsewhere.
So oddly the way to deal with complexity for me has been to not deal with it – rather to accept it but to ensure that the open and more playful processes that involve the most people can run in parallel all the way through.
If you've got any further thoughts on any of this, do drop me a line; I'm
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