dConstruct 09 in review

After you build forty or fifty websites there really isn’t any magic in it.

dConstruct’s comfortable niche as the thinking person’s web conference was quickly disrupted by Adam Greenfield’s early remarks. Decrying web and UX design is a risky strategy in a room made largely of web designers and developers, yet it was a thought entirely consistent with our theme of Designing For Tomorrow. The phrase wrapped topics that have been of recent interest to us Clearlefties: ubicomp, gestural interfaces, networked devices and what lies beyond our familiar digital horizons.

Adam led us into a world where information is omnipresent and persistent, where actions stick to identities and the presentation of self is a largely forgotten luxury. A world where objects become services, shared not owned, implies a post-capitalist swing perhaps alluded to by recent economic events. As a recent and voracious reader of Everyware, I was thrilled by Adam’s talk. I’m sure the imminent podcast will reward careful re-evaluation.

Mike Migurksi provided a practical counterpoint with a case history of Stamen’s information design work, with subsequent colour commentary by Ben Cerveny. Ben’s dense, rapid idea stream was perhaps a step too far after such an analytical opening; although Stamen’s work is undeniably excellent, many felt a gap between the metaphysics and the design output, and some of Ben’s more elaborate statements seemed hard to grasp.

Brian Fling explored the mobile field with characteristic flair and pace. Focusing on the future lives of the post-millenials native to the digital age, Brian proposed that history will judge the mobile (and the iPhone in particular) as the flying car we have been waiting for. We are living through a second industrial revolution, based on the portable, personal power of bringing people closer through technology.

Next up, an elaborate Gaia theory of sci-fi and interaction from Nathan Shedroff and Chris Noessel. In an entertaining presentation, the over-used Minority Report example was only (multi)touched upon once, and Jurassic Park’s ridiculous UNIX scene was rightly used for cheap laughs. Of particular interest was the pair’s evidence that anthropomorphism can exist at non-visual levels (consider R2D2’s bleeps and Amazon 1-click servant), although, like Ben before, some other claims seemed rather hazier.

Robin Hunicke, known for her work on “the Maslow’s Hierarchy game known as The Sims”, unfortunately alienated her audience with a spoiler (albeit well meaning) for a film still on general release, and struggled to recover favour. Her West Coast bubbliness sat awkwardly at odds with her academic subject matter, which was coincidentally recapped by August De Los Reyes. Any Microsoft speaker knows he has an uphill battle to win over a sceptical audience; fortunately August’s self-deprecating humour was an instant hit. We imbue objects with intelligence (slide rules, other technological tools), so why not emotion too? Heartbroken families insist on the repair, not replacement, of their Roombas – can we conjure similarly powerful dynamics in the systems we create? August closed with Office Labs’ concept video, a surprisingly rousing vision that raised hairs on necks across the Dome.

The stage was set for a wonderful denouement from Russell Davies, who produced a performance straight from the traditions of British music hall. Russell predicted that digital buildings will give us “Blade Runner brought to you by the makers of Cillit Bang”, and that as technology matures the only way we will escape cliché is to redomain, appropriating ideas from other fields. Russell provided a marvellous reminder that, despite the intelligent contributions of the day, as an industry we are prone to hubris. We’d be daft to disregard the marvellous infrastructure our media predecessors have created.

At its best, the fifth dConstruct was simply outstanding. In its rare low points, it disappointed. As such, it’s at a crossroads. The trend has certainly been cerebral, and this year’s theme certainly encouraged abstract exploration. Early feedback says our audience is happy with this, and that the differentiation from other conferences is an important part of dConstruct’s appeal. Yet there’s always a danger of vanishing into pretension, and the conference must of course appeal to 700+ attendees.

I’m sure Clearleft won’t be taking any snap decisions. dConstruct has become part of the fabric of our company and hopefully the annual schedule, and, in line with our chosen theme for the year, we’ll be thinking carefully about what happens next. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the day and your preferred direction for dConstruct 2010.

Photos: Matt BiddulphFriiSprayTom Jenkins.

Cennydd Bowles