Webstock 2009: Peace, love and a eulogy for Web 2.0

It opened with a call for website creators to help save the world, and closed with a call for Web 2.0 to grow up already… In the course of just two days, speakers at New Zealand’s Webstock conference evoked the perils of ecological disaster, suggested that computer games might be able save the world and performed a eulogy for Web 2.0. A heady, visionary blend of themes, attitudes and exhortations – this was Webstock 2009.

Jane McGonigal, an affiliate senior researcher with the US based Institute for the Future, opened the conference with a utopian discussion of how we might leverage the positive effects of computer games, such as teamwork, to “fix” reality. She used her talk to launch an online game at signtific.org which encouraged players to share ideas on how humanity might harness satellite technology in a future where personal satellites are as cheap as broadband is today.

Predicting that someone in the games industry would win a Nobel prize by 2034, McGonigal said she was hopeful about the future, while mindful that “we need creativity that hasn’t happened before.”

The theme of harnessing creativity to further our technical reality was continued by author and Io9 sci fi blogger Annalee Newitz. She warned the audience of web creators that the fantasies and fears explored in science fiction can inform the way users react to their products.

Using Google’s android phone as an example, Newitz said that Google may well have deliberately nixed its first vision of the Android phone as a Cylon – the enemy robots in Battlestar Galactica in favour of its playful, friendly logo which evokes the friendly servant robot, R2D2 from Star Wars.

People were more likely to respond well to a friendly servant in their pocket, rather than a rebellious slave, she said.

“Work within the narrative. Tell new stories that counteract the old ones. Pay attention to the fears expressed, and address them.”

On the positive side, “science fiction stories also create an environment to get users ready for new technology,” said Newitz. One example of technology which was demonstrated in a movie was the gestural interface used to control computers in the Tom Cruise film Minority Report, she said.

The upbeat nature of many of the conference talks was starkly contrasted by one of the conferences closing speakers, sci fi author Bruce Sterling, who effectively performed a eulogy for Web 2.0.

At times sounding like an American evangelist preaching hellfire and damnation, Sterling said Web 2.0 was following a similar trajectory to the American financial markets.

Web 2.0 is dead, and “transition web” is next, said Sterling.

His message seemed to be that it was time to grow up, and rebuild. For all its talk of maturity, the internet and the businesses built on it were dependent on a creaking structure of Javascript ‘duct tape”, he said.

In perhaps a fortuitous feat of scheduling, Sterling’s talk was bookended by a much more humourous attack on “web suckiness” by tech industry teacher, trainer and Perl designer Damian Conway. Not above photoshopping people he disagreed with to look like Satan, Conway also chided web designers for overreaching, suggesting they should apply a “Hippocratic oath” to web design.

“Help them find your site, help them find the information, and help them buy your products,” said Conway, illustrating his points by showing off a mindboggling range of live websites which seemed designed to prevent just those things.

Ending with a melancholy montage of abandoned shopping trolley photos to remind web designers of the perils of making it too hard to buy from their e-commerce sites, Conway closed the conference with humour, but echoed the call to keep using the web to improve the world. Peace, love and web design, Webstock style.

(I also contributed a story about Webstock to ZDNet today – a write up of a talk by Flickr’s community manager entitled “Nix online legalese“).

1 Comment

  1. Webstock - what you said Said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 11:46 am

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