A fishing expedition

Webstock, held annually in Wellington, is one of the top web and design conferences in the world, and has produced a passionate community of web developers and designers, many of whom return year after year.

Looking upon our *own* works, we mighty…

This year was my first Webstock, but I know it well by reputation. In years past, the conference has been a source of stories of unfettered optimism, vibrant start-ups, and utopian idealism that have bounced inspirationally around the web. This year, however, there was a more sombre undercurrent that knocked the usual buoyant mood a little askew.

It felt like the morning after the celebration party, or perhaps just a step in the maturation of a relatively young industry that is learning its own strength through the unintended damage it leaves in its wake. The attendees were largely comprised of a generation of folks who built the web, saw it grow to the point where tech companies are the biggest and most successful in the world, and are now reckoning with the evident truth that all of its innovations have not been created equal.

I count myself among that generation, having come to the library world from a background in e-commerce and online art. Along the way, I have been fortunate to attend many conferences, some of which fill my head with ideas, sending me out charged up with prototypes and projects that I suddenly feel that I just NEED to build.

Webstock in 2014 was not exactly one of those conferences. Instead, I emerged more introspective than when I arrived, thinking hard about the work that I do personally, the impact of the products that my team builds, and the values – both positive and negative – of what we add to the world.

The quotes below are what I scrawled in my official Webstock notebook as I listened to the speakers, each followed by my after-the-fact reflections. As of this writing, videos of only some of the talks are on the Webstock site; watch for others to be added in the weeks to come.

"We've broken the world, inadvertently" and "You have a permanent record."

The "fail faster" mantra of Silicon Valley and its brethren around the world has led the tech industry to innovate with often spectacular results. However, the revelations of the past year – that the applications and social networks built by that industry have already been co-opted for surveillance and subject to egregious breaches of privacy, with little to no public discussion – hung heavily over the room, and were the source of an awful lot of black humour.

Seen through that lens, the internet is an engine for generating historical-scale unintended consequences, on a par with the automobile and the long rifle. As one commenter on Twitter recently put it:

Where the most vibrant startup companies in the past would have been unabashed in their desire to grow and exit with a big sale to one of the big companies, now many of the people who run those companies are not so sure. To grapple with this choice is difficult, but not to do so is to be complicit.

Judging from the post-conference reactions on Twitter and elsewhere, the speaker who captured this mood most succinctly was Maciej Ceglowski. His self-described rant, titled "Our Comrade the Electron", paralleled the life of Soviet inventor Leon Theremin, whose inventions were used for purposes both benevolent and nefarious, and the current state of affairs in the high-tech world. If you've only got a few minutes to spare, his presentation is worth a read.

"It's better to make great things than lots of money", aka "Venture capital will screw you up."

Multiple speakers spoke of their own less than happy experiences with outside financing and the subsequent loss of control of the companies they had started from nothing. Jen Bekman, who started the successful online art gallery 20x200, spoke of how the relentless demand for growth from her investors resulted in the collapse of her business. Bekman's current project is essentially a reboot of the original 20x200, starting over from scratch.

Designer Sha Hwang spoke quietly, but passionately and intensely, in a far-ranging talk about designing something you love and managing its impact on the world, commercial trade-offs, and connecting in a human way. His talk is the one I most want to go back and listen to again; I felt I'd seen something moving and important that I didn't fully grasp on the first go.

He has also posted an impressionistic collection of quotes and links on his site that capture the essence of his talk almost as well as the talk itself.

"It's better to make a small great thing than a large bad thing."

Dan Saffer's talk was all about "microinteractions", the tiny details that accumulate to make our experience using a piece of software a pleasant or unpleasant one. He gave many witty examples, including one of my personal favorites: Gmail prompting you to attach a file to an email when you've typed "Attached is..." but haven't included the file.

Saffer referred to the frustration of getting hung up on bad software as the "pebble in your shoe effect", where a tiny wrong detail can actually cause a disproportionate amount of pain. If you're interested in seeing more of these design details highlighted in one place, I highly recommend the blog Little Big Details.

On the practical side, I really appreciated Aarron Walter's description of the way in which his team uses off-the-shelf software, such as Evernote, to collate and sort every single piece of relevant feedback.

Learning that tools exist to easily sift through sources as disparate as emailed complaints from patrons, survey data, academic studies, and blog posts was incredibly useful and relevant to the work my team is doing this year.

"Build and iterate. But know WHY you're doing it. Purpose matters."

Given the format of the conference (speakers speaking from the stage, theatre seating, no questions and answers), I was determined to have as many conversations as possible in the interstitial breaks between presentations.

One man I was delighted to track down in person was Tom Loosemore, one of the driving forces behind gov.uk, the UK's efforts to radically unify and simplify the experience of interacting with the government on the Web. I spoke to him briefly and thanked him for the work his team had produced. If you haven't read them, the gov.uk Design Principles are definitely worth a look.

On their own merits, they would make a fine design manifesto for a small company, but as a central organising document for a major government they are downright radical, and constitute one of my favourite pieces of design writing from the past couple of years.

Loosemore's talk contained a lot of practical insights on how to work fast, listen to the right people (your users), and still get everything done within the constraints of the inevitable bureaucracy. I was heartened by the number of New Zealand government representatives from all across the country at the conference, including our colleagues at Government Information Services who are working on New Zealand's answer to the gov.uk "front door". As part of a team with responsibility for a few .govt sites myself, I found the collective energy of the public sector crew energising.

"Details matter, but especially emotional ones."

Designer Erika Hall related perhaps the perfect example of the importance of the human and the emotional to good design: The Lucky Fish Project.

To make a long story short, a field worker at a public health organisation was working in rural Cambodia with a population with a high rate of anaemia, a disease he knew could be corrected by getting enough iron into their diet. However, medical solutions were out of reach, and even such low-tech solutions as cooking in iron pans couldn't be afforded.

The first solution tried was giving the villagers a small brick of iron that could be dropped into their soups cooking in aluminium pans; the villagers used them as doorstops. However, after learning that a certain fish was locally considered good luck, the iron was cast into fish-shapes. The lucky fish was accepted as a token of good health, and anaemia rates declined dramatically.

Image from Erika Hall's talk "Beyond Measure" at Webstock 2014.

The important lesson Hall related: there was no technical distinction between the iron in a brick shape and iron in a fish shape, but a world of behavioural difference – literally the difference between sickness and health.

The description of Hall's talk contains this quote, which cuts to the core of what I feel is important as a technical person inside a cultural institution: "Human experience does not reduce to an engineering problem and what we can’t count still counts in an increasingly quantified world."

On that note, I'm off to look for our (metaphorical) iron fish.

Small boy holding a very large fish, smiling.Unidentified boy with fish, 1950. Ref: WA-26274-F.

By Michael Lascarides

Michael is the manager of National Library Online in DigitalNZ.

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