dConstruct threads: Arrogance, uncertainty and the interconnectedness of (nearly) all things

The web is 21, says Ben Hammersley, it can now legally drink in America. And yet, as it strides out into young adulthood, it has much to learn. At dConstruct we hear some of those lessons – ones about humility, unpredictability and the self-appointed tech community’s responsibilities to the rest of humankind.

I agree with Ben when he advocates a layered approach to the web and its next, next, next, larger contexts – the single user, groups of users, society and the world at large. “Make the world more interconnected, more human, more passionate, more understanding.”

“Don’t become enamoured of the tools,” he urges. Think of the people looking at the painting, not the paintbrushes and the pigments.

And then he throws it all away with a breath-taking streak of arrogance: “How do we as a community [of practitioners] decide what to do?” To which the world might legitimately respond: who gave you the authority to decide?

And then comes the most arrogant over-claim of all: “We are the first generation in history to experience exponential change!” Exponential change, don’t get me started on exponential change. That was last year’s dConstruct-inspired strop.

Jenn Lukas shows a little more self-awareness. Teaching people to code is a Good Thing. That much is motherhood and Raspberry Pi. And as she digs deeper into the plethora of resources now coming online, she takes a balanced view.

Some learn-to-code evangelists have taken the time to swot up on pedagogic principles that traditional teachers have known all along, like the one that says a problem-based learning approach built on students’ existing motivations is more likely to be retained. Others simply dump their knowledge on an unsuspecting world in a naive splurge of information-based learning. “It’s a tool seeking a problem,” says Jenn.

It strikes me that the learn-to-code advocates who bother to Do It Right could be at the vanguard of the new disruptive wave in education. The approaches they pioneer in online code classes may easily be extended to other domains of learning.

What I missed in Jenn’s talk was a rationale for why learning to code might be important, besides solving specific personal pain points or seeking to earn a living as a developer. For me learning at least the rudiments of computer science is a prerequisite for empowered citizens in the 21st Century. I want my children to grow up as active masters, not passive recipients of information technology. Also, they should know how to make a rubber band jump fingers.

Jason Scott puts those pesky twenty-one-at-heart Facebook developers in their place with his talk on digital preservation. “We won! The jocks are checking their sports scores on computers, but you dragged in a lot of human lives.” Facebook is “the number one place that humans on Earth store our histories. But there are no controls, no way of knowing what they’re up to.”

One day, the law will catch up with the web and mandate backups and data export as standard. “Pivoting” will not absolve businesses of commitments they made to customers under previous, abandoned business models. Until then we can simply implore those responsible to be, well, responsible, with people’s personal data. Or stage daring multi-terabyte rescue missions when companies that should know better shut down Geocities, MobileMe and Muammar Gaddafi’s personal website.

I also loved the concept of “sideways value,” the unexpected things you learn by zooming in on high-def scans of old pictures, or sifting through data that people uploaded for quite different purposes.

Revelling in the unexpected was a big theme of Ariel Waldman‘s talk about science and hacking. Hacker spaces, like black holes, have had a bad press but it turns out they’re really cool. Both suck matter in and spit it out as new stuff, creating as much as consuming. In Ariel’s world of delicious uncertainty, satellites inspire new football designs, citizens pitch for experiments to send into space, and algorithmic beard detection turns out to be good for spotting cosmic rays in a cloud chamber.

Plenty of sideways value too in the sheer joy of making stuff. It came across viscerally in Seb Lee-Delisle‘s demo of glowsticks and computer vision and fireworks and kittens on conveyor belts. Then intellectually in Tom Armitage‘s thoughtful, beautiful reflection on the value of toys, toying and toy making. Tom is the master of the understated, profound observation, such as noticing the hand movement he makes when talking about toys: it’s small, fiddling, taking stuff apart and putting it back together to see what happens. Only by making stuff and playing with it can we really understand and learn. What does it feel like to interact with time-lapse photography, or to follow your past self on Foursquare? Make it, play with it, and see.

Tom also touches on connections between stuff, with Twitter as a supreme platform for linking one thing – Tower Bridge opening times – with another – the web. Thereafter new uses emerge. Expats seek the comfort of a distant but familiar landmark while taxi drivers consult it to route round the problem of a communications link that’s always going up and down.

While other presenters tackle big picture subjects, Scott Jenson‘s talk is the most UX-ey of the day but none the worse for it. Every word rang true to me. In my time at Orange, I frequently found myself pushing back against the knee-jerk request for an app. If only, as Scott says, we could strip away the “thin crust of effort” that comes as standard with native apps, then we could empower users with a more natural experience of “discover, use, forget”. Instead with silo’ed apps we spend time “gardening our phones.” I glance down at the status bar of my needy Android which is currently pestering me for 28 different app updates.

All this becomes even more pressing when we consider the coming plethora of smart devices that use GPS, wifi, Bluetooth and NFC to link to mobile platforms. Before we even start trying to chain together complex sequences of connected services to second-guess the user’s intent, it makes eminent sense to take Scott’s approach and solve the simpler problem of discovery. Let devices detect their neighbours and expose simple functionality through HTML standards-based interfaces. It may be a tough challenge to liberate such interactivity, but it will be worth it. If smart toasters are mundane, there’s all the more reason for them to work elegantly and without making a fuss.

James Burke takes the interconnection theme to a whole new level. As a child I loved his pacey, unorthodox TV histories of science. Looking back, I think that’s where my own fascination with the Age of Enlightenment was first kindled. Now he seeks to inspire a new generation of school children with exercises in interdisciplinary rounders. He tickles my Ruskinian sensibilities with the suggestion that “focus may turn out to be what the machine is best for, and a waste of human brainpower”.

Only connect. “It is now much easier for noodlers to be exposed to other noodlers with explosive effects.” Children should be schooled in skipping from chewing gum to Isaac Newton in six simple steps, or Mozart to the helicopter in 10. Two hours of daily compulsory wikiracing for every Key Stage 2 pupil, say I.

Sadly James ends the day with a classic “never meet your heroes” moment. Having reeled me in with the unpredictable, wiggly “ripple effects” of innovation, he proceeds to lose me completely at the end of a 40-year-long straight line to a world where autonomous self-copying nano-technology has brought about an abundant, anarchic equilibrium. It is, I suppose, one possible path, but how a social historian of science can jump from so delightful an account of past serendipities to such a techno-determinist vision of the future turned out to be, for me, the biggest mystery of the day.

As ever, I had a great time at dConstruct, saw some old friends and great talks. Thanks to Jeremy Keith and everyone who made it happen. I’m already looking forward to next year.

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mattedgar

Product strategy and design leadership in web and mobile media. Before that I was a newspaper journalist and history student

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