Using Technology to Unlock the Imagination; as a Musician, He's Travelled the World Playing Wonderful Instruments, Such as a Device That Uses Muscle and Brain Signals to Control Synthesisers. However, Culture Lab Director Atau Tanaka Is Also a Firm Believer in the Need for Technology to Affect Social Change. JOHN HILL Finds out More

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AROUND 15 years ago, the founder of America's MIT Media Lab wrote a book that predicted the future. Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital focused on the transition from "unwieldy atoms" of information, such as books, into bits of information. He foresaw personalised daily news such as web feeds, as well as the rise of touch-screen technology and digital books.

Society is more digital than it's ever been. But what does it mean for us, and what's the point of it all? In his epilogue, Negroponte said: "Bits are not edible; in that sense they cannot stop hunger. Computers are not moral; they cannot resolve complex issues like the rights to life and to death. But being digital, nevertheless, does give much cause for optimism.

"Like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped. It has four very powerful qualities that will result in its ultimate triumph: decentralising, globalising, harmonising and empowering."

This is the challenge of the digital age; to not only change objects into information, but to open the doors to the world. Steps on this journey are made every day in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Toyko, London ... and, of course, in a listed building in Newcastle. Welcome to Culture Lab.

"We're not a lab that belongs to one faculty," says Culture Lab director Atau Tanaka. "Culture Lab is the first lab funded by science that's managed by a faculty of humanities and social science.

"There's a shift now in focus from technological innovation to social innovation. When Negroponte wrote that book, it was about the future and the future had to be invented.

"In the time since, the future has arrived. People have started using digital cameras instead of film, and mobiles over land lines.

"Now we have a responsibility to see through everything that we imagined. We can't automatically assume technology is good. We believe it can be good, but we need to adapt the uses of the technology for social gain."

Backed by funding from the Science Research Investment Fund, Culture Lab opened in 2006 to support experimental creative arts and technology projects.

Late last year, it showcased some of its intriguing experiments, such as tables which allow users to alter ambient lighting in a room and electronic beer mats which can be used to send messages to each other.

However, there's a wider social element. It is currently two years into a five-year exploration of the social benefits of technology. The pounds 12m Social Inclusion Through the Digital Economy research hub is investigating how ill health, unemployment and poverty can be tackled digitally.

Culture Lab has held workshops at the Tyneside Cinema to show older people how blogs and social media can connect them with family and friends, and Culture Lab On Site is now connecting with the community from a railway arch at 5 Forth Street in Newcastle.

Tanaka says: "We organise film screenings, public events and poetry readings, but it's still a lab. The way Culture Lab plays a role in the region's well-being is by opening its doors and being inclusive in our vision.

"We've had success with open days for young children. They know technological innovation takes place somewhere in the world, but don't realise it happens in their own backyard. That raises aspirations.

"Policymakers will observe the conditions of digital access and write a report about access. We're looking at inclusion beyond access. We're looking at what information we should pass on and what knowledge we can share. How can the infrastructure become socially empowering?" Tanaka has been Culture Lab's director since 2009. He took on the role of chair of digital media at Newcastle University in 2007 after six years as a researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratory in Paris. However, it's music that drives his quest for innovation.

Tanaka played classical piano until he was 18, but found himself drawn to electronic music. …


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