Wood for the trees – Webstock08

Jason Santa Maria talking about design at Webstock08 conference. Credit: www.flickr.com/photos/titine/I was looking through the 937 photos tagged webstock08 on flickr to find the perfect one. I gave up because, despite the many historical references at the conference, I couldn’t find a single photo with the past in the background. I choose this one because, well, I couldn’t resist the Gruffalo (thanks to Titine who shares her photos using a creative commons licence).

Definitely the most popular historical subject was 40,000 year old cave art. (BTW: the peoples whose art was shown weren’t acknowledged). Also mentioned were the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale, the first photograph (ever!), the Model T Ford, Napoleon’s march on Moscow (and retreat), the difference engine, the telegraph and the London tube map. Some references to historical figures were thrown in too, including Gottfried Leibniz author of an “Introduction to a secret encyclopedia” (1679), philosopher Otto Neurath, and reporter William Howard Russell.

I can’t help but reflect on the achievements, trials and tribulations and momentousness of these events, people and inventions. Then there’s Facebook (which I’m unfairly singling out). It’s about micro, nano, mini, minor, trivia, and even if it is reallly useful on some levels, it’s ephemeral stuff.

I just can’t see future generations looking back in wonder at some of the web2.0dium, as Damian Conway put it, with any part sense of awe. There’s something about placing current developments in a historical context which is deeply ideological. The latest developments on the Internet merely follow-on from earlier technological ‘advancements’. It’s inevitable.

This takes on slightly more ominous overtones when the tracking potential of data mining and geo-tagging are delved into. My jar dropped at the way Nigel Parker breezily walked us through a creepy scenario of tracking someone’s movements, in realtime. I’m online everyday and my jobs are Internet based, but because I don’t fully understand the social consequences of the technological changes, my inclination is to step back. The lightening speed of developments – quickly before your competitors do! – happens before reflection and analysis can occur.

A fair bit of the time I spent at Webstock conference, I was wondering whether it was trees, wood or the whole of cyberspace I couldn’t see.

Now the trees did get mentioned by the very thoughtful organisers, who are donating $5 to Project Crimson and $5 to Kiva for each ticket sold. They had the good sense not to fill the (very attractive and durable) conference bag with masses of crap literature from the sponsors, used manilla paper for the conference programme, and offer participants fairtrade People’s Coffee.

Given hightened concern about the way we humans are looking after the planet, there was barely a mention of climate change, waste or other environmental problems. I hate to raise something that may spoilt the party, but can’t these technologies be used for environmental and social good.

The opposite is almost true, as the underlying thrust of technological advancement is an inherent logic which requires you to buy more stuff, therefore consume more scarce resources. This was perhaps exemplified by Kelly Goto, from San Francisco, who flipantly was brainstorming in Barcelona one-day and dreading a trip to Vegas (again!) the next.

Anyway, the things that I’ve grasped hold of include:

  1. the web is no longer really about pages, but about content served up in lots of ways (eg through widgets, RSS, feeds, badges as well as humble pages)
  2. mashups, once sort of wacky and wild, are really maturing, particularly with mapping
  3. basic web design and writing rules still apply
  4. there’s a few initiatives that will make web users’ lives easier, eg OpenID
  5. we’re not all aspiring software developers at heart.

And here are some quick tips about the basics, and the speakers who shone some light on these:

  • Rachael McAlpine on effective writing for the web, see Contented
  • Jill Whalen on the best way for websites to be found by search engines, see High Rankings
  • Luke Wroblewski, practical visual design for the internet medium with lots of before and after shots, see his page hierarchy presentation(PDF 3.1 MB) or interface design website
  • Kathy Sierra recommends designing design for our “legacy brains” by making emotional appeals.

As a footnote to history, thanks to the organisers for granting me a scholarship. I’d include this hasty post in the nano, passing, ephemeral category and won’t be waiting for future generations to look back in awe. I think I’ll be in good company.