dConstruct 2012: A quick review
This was my second year attending the dConstruct conference in Brighton, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. The main theme was discovering the future by looking at the past. But later at the after party, while discussing what we’d seen and where we would go from here (I mean technology wise, not where the after after party was being held!) another theme emerged that ran through most of the talks.
Let’s start with a run through of the day, then I’ll explain in a second post why I think it was all related.
First up, Lanyrd.com announced new features on their events site, such as the “Would Like To Meet” functionality. However with 450+ attendees, and no way to filter them down by expertise/interests, it would have taken too much time to identify those you wanted to talk to by looking through each one line bio or clicking through to their Twitter feed to determine if you actually wanted to talk to them. Perhaps with filtering and a link with something like Klout to identify topics they talk about frequently, would help. I tested the feature with a colleague, then decided to tag one of the speakers as WLTM. I didn’t follow it up with an introductory message though, I expect all the speakers were inundated with messages as it is.
The second thing of note was the use of BSL interpreters who signed their way through all the talks, which I expect was particularly challenging when James Burke’s turn came. Jason Scott was the man who highlighted what a great job they were doing at the beginning of his talk.
The third thing of note, was the free coffee provided by Small Batch Coffee Company courtesy of sponsors that I forget the name of (I guess the coffee was more memorable than the sponsors!) but was a big improvement on the coffee usually on offer at the Brighton Dome. On to the speakers, I’m emphasising what the relevant strands were:
Ben Hammersley is the Prime Minister’s Ambassador to Tech City (aka The Silicon Roundabout, otherwise known as Old Street Roundabout, London). His talk “The Flower, The Field and The Stack” covered the beauty of things, and how we understand and recognise the beauty in something, for example, being able to recognise beautiful or elegant code, or how you only see the beauty of an in-jokes or geek joke if you understand the subject. The beauty in the web technology stack and internet in general has come over time with lots of effort and standards fought for, with each layer of the stack refined into elegance from an initial mess. He spoke about the government’s dream of Britain becoming a nation of Mark Zuckerbergs becoming millionaires through their own solo efforts, but that the web industry is based on a community approach, to share knowledge with each other, and work together on projects.
Jenn Lukas is a web developer from Philadelphia and speaks, writes and teaches aspects of web development, including at GirlDevelopIt, a scheme to encourage more women into the world of web development. Her talk “The Cure for the Common Code” covered why people might want to learn to code, what happens if they attempt to learn on their own, such as discovering articles about why they shouldn’t bother, and finding untrustworthy resources as demonstrated by googling for the term “learn html” and finding w3schools.com, which is not particularly trustworthy, despite it’s appearance – See w3fools.com. It boils down to putting them on the right path as quickly as possible. You can’t teach everything in a short space of time, so instead set fun projects with realistic expectations, teach the basics, teach the terminology, and learn to identify trustworthy resources. Her talk was aimed mostly at adult learning, but she did touch on CodeClub, and there is clearly an overlap in terms of teaching techniques. She also taught us a simple trick with an elastic band.
Scott Jenson has had a strong career working at Apple, Symbian and Google, and his talk “Beyond Mobile” asked the question about where technology was going, but that we’re continuing to use existing development models when thinking about the future. “We look at the present through a rear view mirror: We walk backwards into the future.” as Marshall McLuhan is quoted. He uses the Kuhn cycle to demonstrate that we are on the verge of a paradigm shift away from software to experiences. Mobile Apps are a pain for one-time use. Web apps are better but currently less usable compared to native mobile apps. You regularly have to tend to your device and weed out the unused apps to make space for new ones. He suggests a new system that he labels “Just In Time Interaction”, and discovery using sensors on existing phones, Bluetooth/WIFI/GPS, which gives you immediate access to an app when in the vicinity of a product or location. But there’s a catch 22: we need people to develop/design these smart devices/locations that can push content, and we need phones natively capable of detecting these smart devices/locations.
Ariel Waldman is founder of spacehack.org, and also organises Science Hack Day San Francisco. Her talk “The Hackers Guide to the Galaxy” started out very much Science minded, and how the universe was 99.5% unknown, but generally she encourages people to hack for fun, and share their hacks with others in seemingly unrelated fields (the web is perfect for this) who in turn may find a practical alternative use out of your fun hacks. An example of this was highlighted by a man who created a system that detected beards on faces. When a particle physicist saw it, he thought it was a great way to discover cosmic rays in a cloud chamber.
Then it was lunch time. We had an awesome Burrito and sat in the sunshine for a bit, so the effects of which meant that we were likely to be suffering from the mid afternoon slump. Thankfully we wouldn’t just be sat unmoved in our chairs for the next talk.
Seb Lee-Delisle showed us audience participation courtesy of glow sticks and a camera pointed at the audience. Our movements then lead to an on-screen firework display and a game of pong. He likes to toy with people with silly web projects, and make the code he creates available for free on the web. There wasn’t much to take away from this talk aside from perhaps a real world example of someone who isn’t focussing on the monetary value of projects, just the fun that can be had with it.
Lauren Beukes, a science fiction novelist and journalist, talked about “Imagined Futures”. She described how events in novels and films are regularly inspired and re-imagined by real life events, an example being the District 9 being a metaphor for Apartheid. Real life monsters are usually so much worse than make believe ones, so much so that real events don’t always make sense through journalism. We re-imagine the monsters to make them less scary, in Lauren’s case, she turns those horrors into science fiction, but sometimes even Sci-Fi fiction can’t handle the truth of real horror. Not for the first time, this talk was to touch on the concept of looking into the past when thinking about the future, and how those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it. But really this was at times a shocking look into what South Africa was like during Apartheid, and, referring to repeating mistakes of the past, she showed harrowing footage of recent South African Miners being murdered by the police force. It suggested South Africa was doomed to make the same mistakes it had made during Apartheid, where she explained, amidst the disgusting treatment of black people, newspapers were heavily censored, Sci-Fi show “V” was moved to a ridiculously late time slot following the airing of its first episode, when PW Botha (alias The Big Crocodile) thought the repressive reptile alien species were an allusion to him, and that sexy freedom fighters might inspire the kids of South Africa to rise up against him. Not to mention the Cosby Show escaping censorship and probably having a major role in racial politics, showing black families being “just like us”.
Jason Scott is a computer historian and archivist. His talk, “The Save Button Ruined Everything – Backing Up Our Digital Heritage” described how volatile the web is, and how “Saving” something only really saves it temporarily, usually losing it’s previous state. Do kids realise the significance of the Disk icon that usually indicates the “Save” button? It’s not a new issue – people have been “temporarily saving” their files for years, rather than storing it for the long term. We should keep these recordings of past state as a look into the past, to show/remind us how things were done – perhaps to remind us why we shouldn’t repeat the past. But it now a major issue. In an era where we are convinced by companies such as Facebook and Apple that we should send our digital files into the cloud, and that we feel they are trustworthy enough to keep our files and photos safe forever, it’s quite clear that this isn’t the case. Jason Scott and his archive team attempt to do their part in making sure that when these companies announce they are to close, that all public files are downloaded to a new location. It brought to mind a story in the news recently, though it later proved to be fake, that Bruce Willis was suing Apple in an attempt to make his digital music collection available to his daughters after he died. It makes you realise how a children’s heritage, the albums their parents owned, the books they read, the photos they took of the family, are moving increasingly to a digital only environment. What happens when those companies close? What happens when we die? It’s a big problem now but I don’t expect the public to become fully become of it until years to come when the current generation of users die. The key, Jason says, is for creators of data systems to provide an export system that allows data creators (users) to get their data back out of the system before it goes, and to ensure they are aware of the why they would want to do so, as he doesn’t want to be running an archive team forever.
Tom Armitage is a game designer and toymaker. His talk “Making Friends: On Toys and Toymaking” refers to a line from Bladerunner where Pris and JF Sebastian are stood in Sebtasian’s workshop, and Pris says, “Must get lonely here, J.F.” Sebastian responds, “Not really. I MAKE friends. They’re toys, my friends are toys. I make them, it’s a hobby”. Tom sees playing with and making toys as the same thing. Toys are finished, but they have seams and edges for you to expand on. Don’t fall in love with an idea, get it out of your head and make it before the idea grows too big. In terms of technology, an example would be a silly web project or twitter bot that serves no real purpose – it’s just fun. But, through play, and making things, you learn, explore and discover new things.
James Burke really needs no introduction. He is a science historian, author and television presenter of such amazing shows as Connections, The Day The Universe Changed, Tomorrow’s World, and the BBC’s chief reporter on the Apollo Moon missions. In his amazing talk, “Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll”, James proceeded to tell us that the future is impossible to predict, because even the smallest thing can create a very large ripple effect that causes huge change. To that end, he showed a prototype for what was effectively a highly stylised but focussed Wikipedia system, which connects topics in some sort of 3D space. It is designed to show how two seemingly unrelated subjects, events or products interact and result or impact on something else. He demonstrated it in a “Six Degrees of Separation” style presentation showing how one shipwreck that occurred in the 1600s indirectly led to the invention of the toilet roll. It was a perfect example of how unconnected threads and disciplines could work together to create something new, similar to Ariel Waldman’s talk about beard/cosmic rays detection earlier in the day. The trick to knowing what the future holds, James believes, is identifying those seemingly unrelated connections now, as this may give some indication of what will happen next, Sociologically or politically, but that this relies on how much we know about the past and the present. The Web is ideal for this.
The highlight was undoubtedly James Burke’s mind blowing race through science, with Jason Scott coming in a strong second. The other speakers all gave great talks, resonating strongly in different ways, and I enjoyed it immensely.
We ended the day with a beer on the front as the sun went down, before visiting the after party where I got to talk to Jason Scott and other developers.