Tags: buildconf



A map to build by

The fifth and final Build has just wrapped up in Belfast. As always, it delivered an excellent day of thought-provoking talks.

It felt like some themes emerged, not just from this year, but from the arc of the last five years. More than one speaker tapped into a feeling that I’ve had for a while that the web has changed. The web has grown up. Unfortunately, it has grown up to be kind of a dickhead.

There were many times during the day’s talks at Build that I was reminded of Anil Dash’s The Web We Lost. Both Jason and Frank pointed to the imbalance of power on the web, where the bottom line has become more important than the user. It’s a landscape dominated by The Stacks—Google, Facebook, et al.—and by fly-by-night companies who have no interest in being good web citizens, and even less interest in the data that they’re sucking from their users.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that companies shouldn’t be interested in making money—that’s what companies do. But prioritising profit above all else is not going to result in a stable society. And the web is very much part of the fabric of society now. Still, the web is young enough to have escaped the kind of regulation that “real world” companies would be subjected to. Again, don’t get me wrong: I don’t want top-down regulation. What I want is some common standards of decency amongst web companies. If the web ends up getting regulated because of repeated acts of abuse, it will be a tragedy of the commons on an unprecedented scale.

I realise that sounds very gloomy and doomy, and I don’t want to give the impression that Build was a downer—it really wasn’t. As the last ever speaker at Build, Frank ended on a note of optimism. Sure, the way we think about the web now is filled with negative connotations: it appears money-grabbing, shallow, and locked down. But that doesn’t mean that the web is inherently like that.

Harking back to Ethan’s fantastic talk at last year’s Build, Frank made the point that our map of the web makes it seem a grim place, but the territory of the web isn’t necessarily a lost cause. What we need is a better map. A map of openness, civility, and—something that’s gone missing from the web’s younger days—a touch of wildness.

I take comfort from that. I take comfort from that because we are the map makers. The worst thing that could happen would be for us to fatalistically accept the negative turn that the web has taken as inevitable, as “just the way things are.” If the web has grown up to be a dickhead, it’s because we shaped it that way, either through our own actions or inactions. But the web hasn’t finished growing. We can still shape it. We can make it less of a dickhead. At the very least, we can acknowledge that things can and should be better.

I’m not sure exactly how we go about making a better map for the web. I have a vague feeling that it involves tapping into the kind of spirit that informs places like CERN—the kind of spirit that motivated the creation of the web itself. I have a feeling that making a better map for the web doesn’t involve forming startups and taking venture capital. Neither do I think that a map for a better web will emerge from working at Google, Facebook, Twitter, or any of the current incumbents.

So where do we start? How do we begin to attempt to make a better web without getting overwehlmed by the enormity of the task?

Perhaps the answer comes from one of the other speakers at this year’s Build. In a beautifully-delivered presentation, Paul Soulellis spoke about resistance:

How do we, as an industry of creative professionals, reconcile the fact that so much of what we make is used to perpetuate the demands of a bloated marketplace? A monoculture?

He spoke about resisting the intangible nature of digital work with “thingness”, and resisting the breakneck speed of the network with slowness. Perhaps we need our own acts of resistance if we want to change the map of the web.

I don’t know what those acts of resistance are. Perhaps publishing on your own website is an act of resistance—one that’s more threatening to the big players than they’d like to admit. Perhaps engaging in civil discourse online is an act of resistance.

Like I said, I don’t know. But I really appreciate the way that this year’s Build has pushed me into asking these uncomfortable questions. Like the web, Build has grown up over the years. Unlike the web, Build turned out just fine.

Cool your eyes don’t change

At last November’s Build conference I gave a talk on digital preservation called All Our Yesterdays:

Our communication methods have improved over time, from stone tablets, papyrus, and vellum through to the printing press and the World Wide Web. But while the web has democratised publishing, allowing anyone to share ideas with a global audience, it doesn’t appear to be the best medium for preserving our cultural resources: websites and documents disappear down the digital memory hole every day. This presentation will look at the scale of the problem and propose methods for tackling our collective data loss.

The video is now on vimeo.

The audio has been huffduffed.

Adactio: Articles—All Our Yesterdays on Huffduffer

I’ve published a transcription over in the “articles” section.

I blogged a list of relevant links shortly after the presentation.

You can also download the slides or view them on speakerdeck but, as usual, they won’t make much sense out of context.

I hope you’ll enjoy watching or reading or listening to the talk as much as I enjoyed presenting it.

Play me off

One of the fun fringe events at Build in Belfast was The Standardistas’ Open Book Exam:

Unlike the typical quiz, the Open Book Exam demands the use of iPhones, iPads, Androids—even Zunes—to avail of the internet’s wealth of knowledge, required to answer many of the formidable questions.

Team Clearleft came joint third. Initially it was joint fourth but an obstreperous Andy Budd challenged the scoring.

Now one of the principles of this unusual pub quiz was that cheating was encouraged. Hence the encouragement to use internet-enabled devices to get to Google and Wikipedia as quickly as the network would allow. In that spirit, Andy suggested a strategy of “running interference.”

So while others on the team were taking information from the web, I created a Wikipedia account to add misinformation to the web.

Again, let me stress, this was entirely Andy’s idea.

The town of Clover, South Carolina ceased being twinned Larne and became twinned with Belfast instead.

The world’s largest roller coaster become 465 feet tall instead of its previous 456 feet (requiring a corresponding change to a list page).

But the moment I changed the entry for Keyboard Cat to alter its real name from “Fatso” to “Freddy” …BAM! Instant revert.

You can mess with geography. You can mess with measurements. But you do. Not. Mess. With. Keyboard Cat.

For some good clean Wikipedia fun, you can always try wiki racing:

To Wikirace, first select a page off the top of your head. Using “Random page” works well, as well as the featured article of the day. This will be your beginning page. Next choose a destination page. Generally, this destination page is something very unrelated to the beginning page. For example, going from apple to orange would not be challenging, as you would simply start at the apple page, click a wikilink to fruit and then proceed to orange. A race from Jesus Christ to Subway (restaurant) would be more of a challenge, however. For a true test of skill, attempt Roman Colosseum to Orthographic projection.

Then there’s the simple pleasure of getting to Philosophy:

Some Wikipedia readers have observed that clicking on the first link in the main text of a Wikipedia article, and then repeating the process for subsequent articles, usually eventually gets you to the Philosophy article.

Seriously. Try it.

Speaking, not hacking

I spent last week in Belfast for the Build conference, so I did.

The fun kicked off with a workshop on responsive enhancement which was a lot of fun. Toby has written a report of the day outlining all of the elements that came together for a successful workshop.

The day of the conference itself was filled with inspiring, uplifting talks full of positive energy …except for mine. My talk—All Our Yesterdays—had an underlying sense of anger, especially when I spoke about the destruction of Geocities. If you heard the talk and you’d like to explore some of the resources I mentioned, here’s a grab-bag of links:

I thought I had delivered the talk reasonably well only to discover that my American friends in the audience misinterpreted my quote from Tim Berners-Lee as “Cool your eyes don’t change.”

Still, it was wonderfully surreal to be introduced by Jesse Thorn.

Build Jeremy Keith

My appearance at Build was an eleventh hour affair. Ethan was originally set to speak but he had to cancel. Andy asked me to step in. At first I didn’t think it would be possible. Last Thursday—the day of the conference—was the day I was supposed to fly to San Francisco for Science Hack Day. Luckily I was able to change my flight.

That’s why I was up at the crack of dawn the day after Build to catch an early-morning flight to Heathrow where I would have to dash from the lowest to the highest numbered terminal to get on my transatlantic hackrocket.

So you can imagine how my heart sank as I sat in the departure lounge of Belfast International Airport listening to the announcement of a delay to the first flight. First it was one hour. Then two.

When I did finally make it to Heathrow, there was no chance of making the flight to San Francisco. I was hoping that perhaps it too had been delayed by the foggy weather conditions but no, it took off right on time. Without me.

As my flight from Belfast was a completely separate booking rather than a connecting flight, I couldn’t get on a later flight unless I paid the full fare. So I simply accepted my fate.

C’est la vie, c’est it is.

It looks like Science Hack Day San Francisco—to the surprise of absolutely no-one—was a superb event. There’s a write-up on the open.NASA blog outlining some of the amazing hacks, including the cute (and responsive) Space Ipsum and the freakishly brilliant synesthesia mask: syneseizure.

Science Hack Day SF science hack day


I never made it to the Build conference in Belfast last year or the year before. I think it clashed with previous commitments every time.

This was going to be the third year in a row that I was going to miss Build. I had already slapped my money down for the excellent Full Frontal conference which is on the very same day as Build but takes place right here in Brighton in the excellent Duke Of York’s cinema.

But fate had other plans for me.

Ethan was going to be speaking at Build but he’s had to pull out for personal reasons …so Andy asked me if I’d like to speak. I may be a poor substitute for Ethan and it’s a shame that I’m going to miss Full Frontal but I jumped at the chance to join the stellar line-up.

As well as speaking at the conference itself on November 10th, I’ll be leading a workshop on responsive design and progressive enhancement on the preceding Tuesday. The conference is sold out but there are places available for the workshop so grab yourself a slot if you fancy spending a day working on a content-first approach to planning and building websites.

If you can’t make it to Belfast, I’ll be giving the same workshop at Beyond Tellerrand in Düsseldorf on Sunday, November 20th and there are still some tickets available.

If you can make it to Belfast, I look forward to seeing you there. I’ll be flying my future friendly flag high, just like I’m doing on the front page of the Build website.

That attire would also be suitable for my post-Build plans. The day after the conference I’ll be travelling to San Francisco for Science Hack Day on the weekend of November 12th. If the last one is anything to go by, it’s going to be an unmissable excellent weekend—I highly recommend that you put your name down if you’re going to be in the neighbourhood.

Looking forward to seeing you in Belfast or Düsseldorf or San Francisco …or wherever.