Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I've seen the future and it will be...

In the 1950s, the western world's fascination with technology and science fuelled design like never before. Right there, in that present, people were provided with houses and cars that screamed 'the future'. Cars that were equipped with fins fit for take-off; curvy furniture that occasionally resembled marshmallows; kitchen appliances that looked capable of getting you to the moon and back. The future, when it came, was nothing of the sort. As we all clamour to work out what the digital future is/should be and get one step ahead of the zeitgeist (the avant avant garde?) are we, I pondered over a slice of pizza and a cheese savoury doorstep, simply creating another retro-future?

Today, I spent much of the day at Hull Digital Live 09 - 'Hull's very own Digital and Technology Conference'. It was fun and the speakers were, on the whole, very good. We started with bacon sarnies (why, they know the way to a geek's heart!) and vast vats of coffee, and we were regularly fed and watered throughout.

I made some notes. A potted and highly inaccurate version of the day's speakers, if you like. BBC Tech reporter Rory Cellan-Jones was first up. 'How Digital is Britain?' went the question on his first Power Point slide. He provided an historical overview of all things wired which, I assume, was aimed at those who have been asleep since 1995 when Rory first arrived online via a mysterious device called a modem, a thing that, he told the room that laughed in response, made funny noises. There were difficult-to-glean-anything-from maps of hotspots and notspots, a chat about connection speeds and Rory's favourite word, it became apparent, is 'scraped', which he uses instead of 'downloaded' but, in doing so, makes the internet feel a bit grubby and dirty. I should point out that Rory, along with Charles Arthur, was one of my faves on the day - he had a nice line in self-deprecating wit and further endeared himself when he spoke about the "sheer hunger for connectivity" in Rwanda and the One Laptop Per Child scheme that has paid dividends in Kigali, Nigeria. He also dismissed the current vogue that, somehow, suggests that broadband access is a 'right' that we should all be provided with a la gas, electricity and water.

Number 2 (a cheap laugh there, for those who like their toilet humour) was Jaan Orvet of, telling us about the philosophy that is noded which, run for the hills oh mighty organisations and archaic outmoded businessfolk, is all about individuals. I feel as if I have been noded for some time. It's getting the others to think like that too. Nice philosophy. But so was the white bicycle of the freethinking, liberated 1960s. Great speaker, mind, and a tad trippy with it - either that or I'd had too much coffee already.

Ah, Charles Arthur. The Grauniad's Tech Ed. 'Newspapers are Changing - Are You?' was his title. Charles told us about his evolving role, his loathing of press releases, his changing news sources (they are "meeting people, twitter, in excess of 500 RSS feeds, news websites, the occasional press release via email. I'd rather not use press releases at all"). He has no time for anniversary journalism, no time, in case we hadn't heard it, for press releases. Most of his ideas come from his blog consumption and, he pointed out, the Grauniad finds writers through blogs. Embargoes, in case you're a PRO intent on sending him a press release that he won't use, are pointless due to the rapid speed that news rolls at these days. Charles and his colleagues at the Graun no longer think of writing for a physical media; they write for web first then re-purpose. He is a man who 'gets it' and the need to engage with readers.

Yorkshire Forward's Stuart McFarlane was, perhaps, always going to struggle taking to the podium after such a fine speaker and wearing such thick, bottle-bottom glasses. His summary of the Digital Britain Report was...well, it was that. Public money. Being invested. Yorkshire the innovator. YF in conversation with KC, Hull CC, Hull Forward, usual suspects, etc etc. I'm sure some people like this kinda thing.

Mike Butcher I liked. Mad and as funny as a box of frogs with a 'prison gag' jokebook, he's the UK and Europe Editor of Techcrunch. "Product," he told any prospective startups in the room, "is a must". He hailed the return of professional content and targeted editorial. Amen to that. "And why does anyone need to know you're even from Hull?" he asked, in the home of Hull City AFC and Hull FC, "Internationalise!!!" A question led to the revelation that there is a group of Angels with money to burn in Yorkshire. They gather under the fine, Flintstonesesque acronym YABA.

Rob Palmer, Newcastle Upon Tyne born web designer who has branded himself as He likes birds. In his designs, that is. The programme noted that Rob is "famous for his Puffins". In simpler days, when print was king, those Puffins were an imprint of Penguin. But no more, they're Rob's now. "Effective over flashy," was Rob's mantra, summing up that good design, well-written copy and cutting edge interactivity will get you far. I also sensed a little anti-IE6 in the room.

Kai Gait is the Digital Commerce Marketing Manager for GlaxoSmithKline, which leads me to believe his business cards must be wider than the norm. Oh, the pharmaceutical world sounds a thrilling place to operate. Especially when Kai refers to it as 'pharma' which brings to mind a world of manual labour, shovels, manure, livestock and milk maids, as opposed to prescription drugs with bad side effects. "Build for search, write for search," he said, between highlighting the strict codes of the pharma industry that prevent him idling his days away on social networks.

AudioBoo's Karen Barber, bless her, had a 'mare. I've not watched anything like it since Tommy Cooper died on stage during Live From Her Majesty's pulling a ladder between his legs and/or that time that Ricky Gervais danced like a dad at a disco in front of a sold-out Wembley Stadium audience. I was beginning to wonder if Kai was going to have to administer some GSK sedatives but, thankfully, Karen's shaky ways subsided and she got into her stride once the slides moved round to booing proper.

In the headline slot and rounding things off in stye was Anand Verma, of Sapient Interactive. They have big clients. He had a nice presentation and a lovely demeanour that sucked me right in and had me nodding my head enthusiastically at the news that "the linear world has become a diffuse brand experience". I had knocked back around 20 mugs of coffee by this time, mind. Anyway, trends: #1 physical meets digital; #2 social media and distributed content enabling communities; #3 mobile marketing; #4 augmented reality; #5 next generation. Listening and targeting. "I feel like I'm summing up the whole day," chuckled Anand, knowing that he was, the clever fella. He showed us some augmented reality, which saw a piece of paper wafted in front of a webcam bring forth, Aleister Crowley Magick stylee, a plasma tv. No, it wasn't the coffee.

And that, give or take the usual sponsors mentions and many thanks raining down on several people who needed a nap by then, including organiser Jon Moss, was that. Well done Hull Digital 09, you done good and were a right proper conference. Is it the future? Is it now? Or is it the 21st century equivalent of vintage Pyrex dishware? We shall see. Probably this time next year.


_Ross_ said...

Nothing really to add, except to thank you for a well-written reminder of the conference. You seem to have come away from the day with very similar impressions to those that I came away with.

Ally said...

Thanks, Dave. An evocative and entertaining write-up.