Doing dConstruct

After trying and failing to get tickets for the previous 2 years I have finally made it to dConstruct in sunny Brighton.

Its slightly hard to describe dconstruct as an event. In theory its a web event…but no one really talks about the web. It most resembles a full day of the talks I would attend at the Festival of Ideas in Bristol over the course of a year 🙂

The fact there was a queue outside the venue by 8.30 for an event that didn’t start until 10 tells you a lot about it I think and the lovely auditorium at the Brighton Dome was packed.

As usual the WiFi buckled under the strain pretty sharpish but I for one was OK with that as this is a conference for listening and reflecting rather than rapid fire tweeting and back channel whingeing.

Ben Hammersley, he of the impressive tache and collector of impressive job titles, gave the opening keynote. Clearly unwell he gave a wonderful talk sans slides with minimal reference to his notes. A talk about the beauty we find in things, including code, it touched on topics ranging from the failure of our leaders to understand the present let alone the future to the way that collaboration drives the web not individuals and he threw in a number of geeky jokes for good measure. It was a great way to open the day and his comment about people needing to work on projects that will have a positive effect on the world in the longer term was also interesting at a time when it seems so many new web products are short term projects at best.

Jenn Lukas followed up, maintaining the hospital theme on crutches due to a broken leg. Jenn gave a very fun talk about the challenges and opportunities that exist with the current drive to teach the world to code. The problem I have with the current ‘coding is king’ movement is how one eyed it all seems. Jen gave a very balanced talk though, highlighting pitfalls and the need for real reasons behind the coding, not just because you should. She also highlighted a problem I’ve also noticed which is how poor the learning resources for coding our on the first page of a generic Google search. I enjoyed the talk (and the magic trick she ended on!) and her slides were brilliant with custom cartoons dominating..

Scott Jenson has worked for Apple, Google, Symbian and many others. He gave an interesting talk about the need to move the debate about mobile technologies beyond the usual web vs native stuff and instead start building tool that enable ‘just in time interactions’ that can be used and then forgotten.

To to this though he suggested there was a need to move out of the mobile ‘browser ghetto’ – the browser is an amazing tool for more traditional devices but not so much for mobile. A lot of what he said reminded me of that ”the best interface is no interface” post that did the rounds recently.

He talked about how difficult it is to really predict the next bug changes because of ‘default thinking’

“We march backwards into the future” Marshall McLuhan

I’m not really a fan of the whole ‘internet of things’ movement so a lot of it didn’t really click with me but it was a clever and engaging talk.

The final talk before lunch was from Ariel Waldman. This was a real brain teaser jumping from sci fi to astro physics to synesthetic gimp masks at hack days 🙂

Alot of the talk was based around the fact that 95% of the universe is invisible and that is what drives the spirit of experimentation which drives both scientists and hackers.

She spoke about the idea that hack days should remain about pushing the boundaries and trying things out and not trying to shortcut getting a product to market.  When people have fun and experiment unexpected connections can be made (a beard detector morphing into a tool for a astrophysicist for instance!)

The talk was really interesting and I learned more about the universe than I ever did in school.

After a most enjoyable lunch break sitting in the sun in the park the afternoon kicked off with Seb Lee-Delisle. There is no way I can cover this in words. Look out for the inevitable video of the session! It included virtual fireworks, a game of pong powered by audience glow sticks, kittens and Asteroids.

.@seb_ly's glow stick controlled fireworks at @dconstruct
@seb_ly’s glow stick controlled fireworks at @dconstruct by jvbates

Amazingly everything he does he releases as open source on Github. Digital Artist indeed 🙂

Seb was followed by SciFi writer Lauren Beukes. This talk was not at all what I expected and was all the more interesting because of that. It was basically a rapid run through of the problems in South Africa over the last 30 years through the eyes of a pop culture influenced SciFi writer.

Talking about censorship of a show like V because it glamorized freedom fighters and newspapers published with blank front pages it was an interesting insight into life back then. As was the idea that the Cosby Show was a massive influence in defeating apartheid as it humanized black people in the eyes if an entire generation.

The fact that her experience visiting a church offering sanctuary to Zimbabweans during recent violence was so harrowing she couldn’t even find a way to reference it in her own (dark) fiction says a lot about the world we are in. It was quite a challenging talk and quite a contrast to what it followed but interesting stuff.

Jason Scott gave my talk of the day. Dressed like Colonel Sanders in his white suit and bow tie (but with an oh so British bowler hat) gave a talk on the importance of preservation. Once he got past the fact he is the man behind THE cat (@sockington) he gave a whistestop tour of the concept of ‘save’ in computing.

As leader of the Archive Team he has rescued data from GeoCities, MobileMe and the BBC amongst others and is clearly passionate about how quite some people are to hit delete and destroy our digital heritage in the process.

My time at Jisc made me very sensitive to this idea of breaking the web and I often get funny looks for my dislike of deleting web projects so this one was close to my heart!

Tom Armitage is something of a golden boy with a certain digital crowd and his work with his digital ‘toys’ makes him one of the most referenced guys out there in conference talks and blog posts. I’m afraid I don’t quite get it. I think maybe I lack appreciation of whimsy or something but the whole ‘toys’ thing didn’t chime with me. It was a wonderfully delivered talk with lively slides but I didn’t connect with it – maybe because I never really liked toys or games even as a child!

The final keynote was James Burke, a science and technology journalist since before I was born with a dream career and a terrifying depth of knowledge. In a day of quick talkers he was the Usain Bolt! His talk covered medieval history, nanotechnology, Descartes, the lack of interdisciplinary studies in science, the creation of toilet paper and a million other ideas. I was swept along with his ideas about a nano tech fueled future of abundance challenging all existing social norms but honestly I have no idea how much I really understood. Mind blowing though!

This was the best conference I have attended in a long, long time. The common theme throughout was that if you don’t learn from history you are doomed to repeat it. I can’t count how many times this was referred to and to an old history student like myself it made me feel right at home. So thanks to the organizers – wonderful stuff.


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