Although it’s been a while since the Kiandra IT contingent returned from the Web Directions South conference in Sydney, some particular thoughts still remain front of mind. Whether it was fully intended or not, I picked up on a noticeable story arc constructed by the various keynote speakers.
If I was to re-arrange the talks ever so slightly, I would perhaps start our story arc with the confronting realisations from Ben Hammersley. To paraphrase what was a challenging but necessary series of observations, Ben declared that the nerds have won. In a uniquely digital age, when the masses primarily consume content, we the creators are responsible for the content as well as dictating the way in which it is consumed. Ben talked of the “Zuckerburgian thought-army”, a potentially 6 billion strong populace that, with a single update on Zuckerburg’s whim, could be manipulated into sharing information or performing interactions they might not normally deem acceptable. A captive audience under a nerd’s control. How do we legislate around this? Do we as designers and developers become a self-regulating body resembling the advertisers or journalists within Australia? Or are we already doing that?
This sobering thought of responsibility followed on from Tom Coates’ presentation the day before, where he explored the potential for hyper-connected devices to change the world. On a wholesale scale we can now connect seemingly “dumb” devices to the Internet or in-house networks for dollars and cents per device. These dumb devices can use a plethora of cheap sensors, coupled with their new found networking capabilities and inform us of so much new information we didn’t previously know (or didn’t want to know). We can even purchase a Raspberry Pi for $25, with the same computing power of what would have occupied a small room back in the 1980’s.
Tom discussed how the concept has been done poorly to date (read: internet fridges) and established some guidelines for “needy” devices. What Tom didn’t particularly touch on that Ben later did, was the need for Government policies and law makers to understand just what these devices open us up to. If the nerds have truly won, we have an ever expanding tool set and a host of new data points – and only our personal ethics to hold us back.
To cap it all off, John Kolko presented the final keynote on social entrepreneurship. This is where the story arc falters a bit, but the theme of responsibility is certainly echoed. John talked of his work with his interns in conducting surveys with the homeless and disadvantaged. They do, in fact, have mobile phones and Facebook accounts. It’s safe to assume they also have needs for products and services that we can help create. I guess this extrapolation of John’s somewhat disconnected talk is what resonated most with me personally. 10, 20 or 50 years from now, how will you be remembered? Did you build some whizz-bang CRUD or CRM system that was used by say 20 people, or did you build software or services that actually made a difference?
Maxine Sherrin made sure to follow up immediately after the Kolko keynote, saying that “we hope that you’re not all going to return to your jobs on Monday and give notice!”. At the end of the day, that CRM system still needs to be built, and we all have jobs to do. In the ideal world we would only provide solutions that enhanced the quality of people’s lives. In the meantime let’s endeavour to use our enormous tool set responsibly, advocating for the user’s needs and rights, and not allowing ourselves to be a cog in the tool of behavioural manipulation, covert surveillance or worse. Whether that’s what you took away from Web Directions South 2012 or not, the future is definitely upon us, so lets have some good, clean fun and push some boundaries.