Lessons from dConstruct 2012

This week was the eight edition of the dConstruct conference in Brighton. It was a day of information overload and inspiration, and offered plenty of food for thought. From my notes, I have tried to distill the most important messages and lessons from the different talks.

The theme of dConstruct this year was “Playing with the Future”. There are two parts to that, really. One part is the future, the other part is the playing itself. Ben Hammersley kicked off with some lessons from the past and a message for the future. Over the past thirty years, the Internet and the Web have evolved from a messy academic toy to an elegant stack of technologies, built from beautiful, standardised layers. That beauty has been built and hard earned from lots of effort, and a lot of the battles have been fought and won. We have built our tools and technologies and now we need to start thinking more about how we use them, what we can achieve and why. If you make your money promising results to your clients by making apps and websites, you have to acknowledge that what you are doing has an effect on society and take responsibility for it. We are changing the world faster than we can fully understand and we should take that seriously. Right now, we are entrusting our future to people – specifically politicians – who don’t understand the present.

Understanding the present and making sense of the future is the job of science fiction writer Lauren Beukes, who took us on a trip through the past, present and future of her home country South Africa. As she pointed out, some things are too real for journalism and in those cases, Science Fiction is a better vehicle to spread the truth. Science Fiction can tell the stories of individuals without overanalysing the big picture, thereby making it easier for the reader to understand what is going on and feel empathy. She showed by example that those who don’t understand the past are bound to repeat it, but also offered a more important lesson to take away: those who cannot imagine the future are bound to fuck it up.

Whether we can predict the future at all was a recurring theme at dConstruct. As Scott Jenson laid out his vision of the post-PC world, he pointed out that we cannot possibly predict the future based on what we know today. The people who worked on the first mainframes could not possibly have predicted the mobile phone we have today and neither can we predict what we will be using next. We can at best prepare for it. We are, as Marshall McLuhan said, marching backwards into the future, looking at the present through a rear view mirror. We only have the present and the past to look at to extrapolate the future and we try to solve the problems of the future with the tools of today. For the post PC world, Scott said, those tools are Apps. Apps are relics from a time where software was a costly thing, that you carefully installed and reused. Everyone and everything wants an app now and a lot of apps are actually not that valuable and reusable. We end up App glut, an overload of one-off apps that we never use. This is not sustainable. We need to move away from the software-to-reuse model for those things and think more about fleeting experiences. The web is much more suitable for this, but it suffers from being stuck in the ghetto of the browser. Browsers new devices look a lot like browsers on PCs did, but are not as easy to use. The address bar is a poor fit for a device equipped with so many interesting sensors. Many things that now require you to install an app could easily be controlled using the internet, as long as they can be discovered. If we can solve this discoverability problem, in the future we can use our phones, computers and who knows what devices we have at our disposal to interact with the things around us when they matter to us.

A more gloomy picture of the future was painted by Jason Scott, who worries about the preservation of our past and present in digital times. He cursed the misleading name of the “save” button, because while it may “save” the current state of your work, it destroys its history. Computers and storage media often come with the promise of preserving our work permanently, but do a terrible job at delivering on that promise. So much of our digital history has already been lost, because people simply didn’t bother to keep it. The era of the Internet has only made this worse. We trust on-line services with our lives, but as we have seen with examples in the past, a decade of memories can be jettisoned with a month’s notice, just because a company has gone out of business or has decided to “pivot” to greener pastures. Future generations will look at this destruction of history as a crime. A lot of stuff is not preserved, because at the time it is not seen as being interesting. However, things often turn out to have an unexpected “sideways value”. A picture of some people working on a movie set may not seem interesting, but years later it can teach us exactly how things were done at that time. We should all take pictures of the mundane; how we work and how we live, because those things will turn out to be interesting in the future. Scott was especially worried about the things we are building now. Facebook is the number one place in the world where human history is recorded right now and it has no plan for keeping that safe. He urged everyone who is building things that people entrust with their digital stuff, to take that trust seriously and not become digital black holes where data goes in and never goes out.

From the future of our history back to the future itself, James Burke also had a bone to pick with foreseeing the future. Like Scott Jenson, he lamented the way we try to predict future by extrapolating the present, but we base those predictions on constraints and paradigms that change faster than we can keep up with. Change is leaving us behind and he blamed Descartes’ principles of applying methodological doubt and being reductionist our inability to keep up. Reductionism causes us to divide everything up into ever smaller niches that are ever more specialised. This “silo thinking” has resulted in innovation shifting from common people to specialists in R&D institutions. The Internet has changed this though. It enables “noodlers”, individual tinkerers, to share information and build upon each other’s work and cross the boundaries of silos and disciplines. This is huge, because cross-discipline work is becoming increasingly important. He suggested that perhaps it’s time to recognise that focus is what the machine is best at and that focus is not always good for imagination and creativity. Reductionism causes us to look at the small bits, but not how they work together. This makes it increasingly hard to predict the future, because doing so requires understanding the relationships between things. We cannot expect innovation to be driven by established institutions. The very institutions that hold the keys to the future are most susceptible to being disrupted by it and they will be sure to prevent that from happening, as they have in the past. Real innovation, the disruptive kind, can only come from the noodlers, the hackers and the tinkerers, who are not afraid to think outside the box.

Jenn Lukas has made it her mission to enable more people to start tinkering themselves. She realised that often the reason we don’t start learning something new, is because we don’t know where to start. Through workshops and courses, she wants to teach more people to make things on the web. Normal people can do a lot, as long as they know where to start. If you give people the tools to create things, it’s surprising what they can do.

This leads to the second important theme of this year’s dConstruct: play. Ariel Waldman, organiser of Science Hack Day San Francisco and founder of Spacehack.org, pointed out the importance of playing, tinkering and hacking. Bringing people together to play with science and technology can have unexpected outcomes. Building an automated “beard detector” using computer vision may be silly and pointless, but turns out to be surprisingly similar to detecting cosmic rays in a lab. Science is about exploring the unexplored and space is the most unexplored of all. There is so much we don’t know about space and space is becoming more and more accessible to normal people. There are now initiatives where you can suggest experiments that fit into a little box and have them shot into space to see what happens. This is what hack days are about. Trying something new, without having some predetermined utility.

Utility is not to be confused with purpose, as toy maker Tom Armitage pointed out. Just because something does not have utility, does not mean it does not have a purpose for its maker. Tom experiences this a lot. For example, when he created his own FourSquare ghost, inspired by racing games such as Mario Kart, so that he could see his past self check into venues where he was last year, he was surprised by the effect it had on him. Seeing his ghost check in, he could often remember exactly recall that moment and why he was there. He also found himself starting to check in more. In cases like this, purpose and meaning are not planned, but exposed through making. Toys are often better ways to understand things than static pieces of information, such as books. Interactive toys allow you to play and fiddle to see what happens, which is what the scientific method is all about. Toys are often simulations, but they don’t need to be precise. They are caricatures of reality and because of that, they are often more interesting than the reality they simulate. The trick of a good caricature is in the width of the brush strokes. A caricature takes a core idea, exaggerates it and turns it into an abstraction. What it leaves out is as important as what it leaves in. These constraints breed creativity. For years, the demo scene has thrived on constraints. Initially there were very real constraints on the amount of available space in front of game loaders, but the 4K challenge, which has its participants make demos in under 4 Kilobytes, continues to baffle today. Making toys is of course only one way of playing with them. Armitage loves to see people play with his toys. He is a big proponent of leaving visible seams in his projects, but stresses that seams are not rough edges. His toys are finished, not prototypes. They do something small, but do that well, and then people who play with his toys can give meaning to it. Children are experts at this. A wooden push mower is just a noisy wheel on a stick, but in the hands of a child, it becomes a pet, a lawnmower or a vacuum cleaner.

To make us adults all play more, digital artist Seb Lee-Delisle arranged for everyone in the audience to be given some glow sticks, so that we could play with interactive digital fireworks and Pong games. Rather than writing about this, a video says much more.

The message of dConstruct this year was surprisingly coherent. The future is important, and we are all responsible for our role in it. We cannot leave it to the established institutions, because they already have a hard enough time understanding the ever changing paradigms of the present. This is not surprising, because institutions are fundamentally not able to deal with these changes and may even oppose them for self preservation. We need to be able to imagine the future, if we are to make the most out of it. Predicting the future though, is fundamentally impossible. If we only extrapolate from the past and the present, we are sure to get it wrong. Perhaps the future cannot be predicted, it can only be discovered and made. Making and playing are ways of discovering new things and creating the future. The future belongs to individual tinkerers, working together. Which is exactly what this year’s dConstruct was all about: playing with the future.

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