After a weekend of reflection, I’ve decided that dConstruct 2012 had the best talks of any conference I’ve ever attended. The overarching theme was ‘playing with the future’, and so of course many of the themes of the day were focused around either future, play, or a mixture of the two. However, there were many other mini-themes, and these combined are what I’ve tried to explore and understand. I live-tweeted on the day from the ubelly account and you can see all those tweets along with my notes in Storify.
Caring, knowledge, and taking responsibility for that which we love
Ben Hammersley started the day talking about the beauty of what we’ve created on the web. As a community, we’ve worked long enough on the web, and know it well enough that we can see the beauty inherent in it; in its code, and in the standardisation that the community has worked so hard to create. But now we’ve made something good, we should stop being so enamoured with the tools we’re using.
Ben used the analogy of a painter obsessing over paintbrushes and not considering the people looking at their paintings. We need to consider the users. We know that the things we create can have a huge impact on the user, so we have a responsibility to create these things for the right reasons. We need to understand our long-term effects on society. Ben said that the people in power may want us to become solo Zuckerberg-style developer millionaires, but really the best things we make aren’t solo efforts/made in a vacuum, they are communal. It’s the community, and its interconnectedness, which we can use to improve the societal and cultural experience of the web.
James Burke also spoke about the importance of community and interconnectedness. James said that being able to make systemic connections—an ability based on cross-disciplinary skills and knowledge—is the only way we’ll be able to understand what the future might hold for us.
The past’s role in the future
Lauren Beukes, Scott Jenson, and James Burke all spoke about the importance of looking back to the past to gain perspective and to be able to predict or imagine what might happen in the future. Both Scott and James spoke about how predicting the future just isn’t possible. Scott pointed out that the media always focus on speed, size and cost; how everything will be faster, smaller and cheaper (and that’s just based on exponential increases we’re already experiencing) but are unable to predict anything more significant. James said that the systematic connections we can make through our ‘web’ of knowledge could, in theory, predict the future but this is all dependent on the patterns and values of the past, not of events that haven’t yet happened.
James Burke gave a fantastic end to the day in a talk that covered so much and at such speed that you should probably listen to it for yourself. On predicting the future, James explained that we can’t make any significant predictions because the smallest thing can create very large ripples throughout the world. The example he gave was the invention of the stirrup for loading up camels in Afghanistan. This invention enabled the French to ride horseback against English foot soldiers in the battle of Hastings, giving them a huge advantage, winning the war, and resulting in French becoming a significant part of our present day English language.
The future, past and preservation
Along the same thread, Jason Scott told us that we can’t know what in our past will be relevant in the future. Lauren spoke about how this kind of information is the ‘legacy of the past’. Jason saves so much of his data because of the ‘sideways’ value it could have; high-quality scans and photos literally allow us to learn from the background of the primary focus/data. It also leaves records that other people can use to learn. Jason said that it’s a crime that we take millions of people’s files on the web and get rid of them, just like they couldn’t possibly contain anything of relevance.
Jason gave us two sets of action points that we could use to improve preservation and archiving on the web:
- take photos of people you’re with and places you work
- spend time with people you care about, create memories
- save mementos from events
- take time to tell your stories and save them
Jason said a lovely thing that really should drive you to do the things above, “if you’re proud of what you’ve done, you’ll be proud of it forever.”
As ‘computer people’
- in the systems we create, always provide an export feature for people to retrieve/backup their data
- educate our users in the importance of backing up and archiving their data
The future and the advancement of technology
Both James Burke and Scott Jenson discussed how the advancement of technology would affect us in future, but in very different ways.
The experience model
Scott Jensen focused on user experience. He said that what should happen next is that we should think about technology and *understand* it. Scott believes that the mobile web is the only way that we can deal with a more interactive mobile world. And the interactive mobile world relies upon ‘just in time’ interactions in order to be useful on the move.
The problem we have is that we have mobile apps that so far provide us with a generally fantastic experience but are not tailored towards single use (not many people would download an app for a one-off interaction.) Whereas mobile web is perfect for one-off, speedy micro-interactions but is often let down by a poor user experience, especially through not making full use of the sensors provided in our devices.
Scott spoke about the importance of reducing pain in user experience. The old-fashioned software model allows pain points, as long as the value provided is greater than the pain caused. But as designers/makers we need to be focusing on removing *any* kind of pain, anything that would discourage use. Scott described this as being a shift from a software model to an *experience* model, closing the ‘experience gap’ between native apps and mobile web.
The part of James Burke’s talk that everybody was talking about afterwards was his prediction that we can’t turn around our social and economical infrastructure to cope with the inevitable, abundant and rapid advances in technology. Everything in our society and economy is based on value through scarcity, or perceived scarcity, so abundance in technology that could solve so many of the world’s problems would have an impact so enormous that it’s hard to imagine. Lauren Beukes made an interesting point about how we can deal with these predictions when she said that imagined monsters aren’t always cute, but we can always imagine ways to deal with them. If we’re considering problems which might happen with technology in the future, then hopefully we can come up with strategies and solutions to help solve them.
Playing and sharing with people
Seb demonstrated a few of his interactive digital art pieces where he uses technology to create an atmosphere and bring people together through audience participation. Where technology usually separates people, he uses it to bring them together. Seb pointed out that we sit together but continually play with our separate devices, cut off from each other. His work uses technology to encourage the opposite, and wouldn’t even work without the participation of a live audience.
Making things for the sake of making things
For Seb a significant part of this playing is that it is just for fun, not to make money or as part of a business. He creates cool things because it’s fun for these things to exist.
Ariel also spoke about how hack days should be fun and pure excitement. They should be about playing, and experimenting for the sake of making things. Ariel explained that chaos and mess are part of the process of exploring the unknown and undefinable, and that hackers should embrace this. People can (and have taken) hacks and find a practical use for them. The position of the hacker isn’t just to find a solution to a problem, it’s about having the different viewpoint to make connections which weren’t previously considered.
The value of making toys
Tom Armitage talked about how making toys, similar to Ariel’s hack day experimentation, is about exploring things you couldn’t always do through work. His toys aren’t about being ‘useful’ but have a value separate from the constraints associated with work. Often toy making is pushing the barriers of what’s possible with technology away from the constraints of utility; a demonstration of skill and craft.
Don’t mistake utility for purpose
Tom emphasised that just because you’re not creating utility when creating a toy, it doesn’t mean it’s purposeless or idle; often the value of a thing found through the making of it. Toys are things designed to be played with, not to worried about breaking.
They are for fiddling with, exploring and learning through abstract concepts.
A concept that Tom explored was that a toy is “seams all the way down”. A toy isn’t unfinished, or a prototype, but has inviting seams, gaps and edges which encourage interaction, exploration and building upon. This is why successful toys are often those which are incomplete, encouraging you to ‘finish’ them. This is also why toy making can be very hard. In order to design these seams and edges, you have to think like the player, and this is difficult because playing is freedom. Freedom is the opposite of obeying and the opposite of the constraints we give ourselves to help us solve design problems.
My final theme came up in a number of talks, partly in James Burke’s when he was speaking about how we learn to make cross-disciplinary connections in our knowledge but mostly in Jenn Lukas‘s talk.
Jenn spoke about teaching others to code, and how there are so many reasons for people to learn to code, even if it’s just to change the colour of a MySpace background. Despite this, it’s very hard for people to know where to start when they want to learn code. Googling ‘learn to code’ brings up a number of articles telling the reader it’s a bad idea to learn how to code, but Jenn pointed out that this is usually because the person who wants to learn to code can have unrealistic expectations of what they should be able to do after a few short lessons.
Jenn explained that, as somebody teaching code, you must understand that you can never teach everything. A big part of it is teaching a student where to start. You need to teach the basics, the terminology and the ability to identify good resources in order to enable your students to learn for themselves after your lesson.
Jenn also emphasised that teachers must bear in mind that people are often learning code in their spare time, as an extracurricular activity. This means that it’s important for students to gain experience and understanding through real life use cases, i.e., how to apply code to a real problem. This should also make learning more fun and minimise student’s fears that they may be wasting their time which often makes them fear failure even more.
Our positions of power
The main threads of dConstruct that keep coming back to me are that we need to consider our roles in what we do, feel empowered to effect change, and ensure that we’re doing what we do for the right reasons; whether that’s for the good of society or just for fun.
It seems that, in the tech and creative industries, we’re getting to the point where we feel like we know what we’re doing, and what we’re aiming towards, but now we’re trying to consider our position in the world; what can we do to help and make life better for those around us?