An ethical new age for technology

One of the biggest challenges to my digital practise of late has been a creeping cynicism I’ve been feeling. It’s hard not to really. The excitement and promise of an open, accessible technology enabled future is something that I’ve been inspired by since the first time I snuck onto Prestel as a child. It’s why I pursued a career in the digital industries, and why I have spent most of that career advocating for it. Yet it’s increasingly beginning to feel like we’re in the bad future – that we’ve gone William Gibson instead of Arthur C Clarke. Powerful corporate technocracies, ever distant remote controlled wars, a media which is struggling to monetise and is therefore diminishing it’s own core values, and of course the post Snowden realisation that we’re not paranoid, we’re not over-stating it, there really is a huge structural system of surveillance which is beyond the dreams of Orwell. It’s a sobering time, and so I been finding that, for the first time in years, I haven’t leapt on the Gartner futures list or excitedly watched TED talks.

That is, until I saw Aral Balkan’s article on ethical digital design, and watched his (superb as always) talks on the subject. I’m not going to understate this, I think this is the most important thing that I have read about Being Digital since Negroponte.

I’ll leave the manifesto to speak for itself, and there is good debate around it’s points happening elsewhere. What I would like to focus on in this post, however, is the response from technology to this challenging and liberating ethos. When I read this manifesto, and in particularly the Maslow-style hierarchy of user needs, I excitedly forwarded it on to various networks, including an internal technology team here. There was a good response from the UX and design departments, those that are traditionally focussed on user needs as much as the brands. From the developers though, barely a peep.

This is a problem.

The experiences which we create for people to use are ultimately built in a technical stack, and for far too long, developers have focussed entirely on the technology itself. In fact with the front-end technology stack becoming ever more immersed in software engineering practises with the rise of Node, React et al, I am concerned that this is becoming more and more the case. The traditional ‘unicorn’ client-side developer used to be one that bridged the gap between design, UX and development. More than ever, it’s one that works across the full technology stack. This is good for technology, but bad for our users. I’ve already been witness to long discussions about technical design which utterly ignore what we’re actually trying to achieve for the people of the world that will consume these experiences.

If the vision of the ethical design manifesto and it’s human-centricity is to be realised, then it is vital that key figures within the front end technology community start to talk a lot more about their end user, and (slightly) less about the virtues of functional programming versus classical inheritance.

Those of us working with technology for a better end user experience are working in a golden age of frameworks, tooling and techniques. It is a huge mistake to think of the ethical design manifesto as only being a strategic, design or experience solution. It lies at the absolute core of what we are actually trying to achieve when we build websites, apps or other digital products. Even with regard to middle-ware or service layers there are lessons that can be learnt from this approach, for instance, in the design of your micro-service suite in alignment with the needs of the users rather than the needs of the application or architecture.

In short, we need to be just as excited about this stuff as our design, strategy and UX driven colleagues and I really hope that we see some traction amongst technologists. A good many of us seized on the promise of digital to create a better world and the fight is far from over.

A grumpy post about Dinovember and digital creativity

Family ipad time

Standard Sunday morning iPad sessions

This week’s cool thing on the internet: A couple set toy dinosaurs up into little vignettes to give their kids a nice surprise in the morning. And I love it. I do. It’s quirky and fun and awesome – it’s dinosaurs being cute, it would be pretty hard to mess that up. Way to engage little minds. I do similar stuff by dressing up as a tiger and letting my fat tummy be a racetrack, I just thought that it was the fun bit of parenting, when you’re not clearing up shit and doing all the washing in the world. I didn’t realise that playing with my kids was a new frontier of creativity.
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Thoughts on being creative. #reasonsto day one…

He probably didn’t know it, but Paul Trani set the tone. “[I don’t like the term Creative…it’s used too readily]”. You know what Paul, I couldn’t agree with you more. Everybody wants to be creative like everybody wants to be a geek (and there is another word which is rapidly devaluing). From the vacuous numptys on The Apprentice to every Dalston Douche that emin their way into their 15 mins…creativity is perhaps the most overrated word in the lexicon.

And yet, here I am, sitting at a conference called Reasons to Be Creative, bearing the lofty title “Creative technologist”…sitting, in fact, in the exact same seat I was two years ago when this conference was still broadly a tech conference for a now almost indefensible tech. I said once before that conferences like this are creative oxygen for me, this one in particular. I don’t know if John has been paying attention but their logo now shows a recharged battery, which, after a pretty hefty couple of months at the agency coalface, couldn’t come at a better time.

My own creativity has wavered, this I know. At the risk of giving a standard parent-and-manager whinge, there just aren’t hours in the day for the work I want to do in the face of the work I must do. Repeated throughout the day, by Grant Skinner, by Amit Pitaru, by Carlos Ulloa (who needs a separate blog post soon), is the need to play, to explore and to create. It’s something I’ve talked about at length and a central part of the culture of my team at work. I will say it again in the Elevator Pitch I’ll give at this conference in two days time. But now, sitting on the pisshead’s train back to London after marvelling at the ease with which Stefan Sagmeister once again makes being a world-renowned artist and creative seem, I *know*, really *KNOW* that I’ve been coasting, and that I’m not nearly as creative as I would like to think (or project) I am, not through a lack of ideas or skill perhaps, but because I simply haven’t picked up a tool and contributed to something.

It’s the thing I love about Reasons.to – it simultaneously lets you feel like you can achieve anything you want to, whilst at the same time, reality checking you that having the thought is not enough. You must do. Dominic Wilcox (whose work I did not know but instantly fell in love with) kept sketchbooks and littered his talk with cartoonish inventions that stick in the mind more somehow than his considered (and presumably well funded) work. The flow of ideas was irresistible…ideas of all scales from throwaway gags to incredibly emotive and thoughtful pieces of great depth.

I made some resolutions to myself today about the gulf that exists between having an idea and seeing it executed, even if that’s just a sketch, or an outline or a snippet of code or a todo list. It’s not difficult to find Reasons To Be Creative. It’s quite another thing to do something about it.

Flash – A call for sanity

or, I can’t believe I still have to discuss this shit…

Herein, are some notes, a slidedeck and some source code relating to a talk I gave for Academy Class this week, regarding Flash’s place in the web and beyond.  I was driven to put the talk together due to the sheer amount of misinformation, misrepresentation and outright idiocy that seems to still surround the use of Flash as a rich media technology.  The fact that we are still having to have this conversation depresses me hugely and I find the constant placing of ideologies (like open – not a synonym for ‘better’ btw) ahead of a sensible assessment of the appropriate technology to deliver a project successfully really tiring.  The lecture was well attended and the post-talk debate stimulating and balanced so I do believe that there is still a life for Flash.  Key points to take away:

1. Flash, and any other plugin runtime, exists to augment the browser’s native capabilities uniformly across available platforms.  If the browser can handle it, then there is no need to use flash.

2. HTML5 development is NOT stable across all the platforms that a typical commercial build needs to target.  As developers, we expend a huge amount of resource in hacking legacy support into our web applications.  The most stable code is always optimised for it’s runtime – if the runtime (i.e. browser) is fragmented, then it’s very hard to do this.  Rich media builds are often complex and Flash should be regarded as a viable technology for rich media heavy lifting.

3. Not everything has to be built for mobile and not everything should.  Mobile is an inherently different use case to desktop browsing and ‘compatibility’ is not a virtue in of itself.  Know when to support it, when to degrade down to it, when to branch the experience completely for mobile, and when to ignore it.  The lack of mobile support for flash is a red herring.  It’s not built for it and that’s ok.  Desktop experiences are still the most consumed digital content by some margin.  Mobile web browsing does not, and probably should not in many cases, need to be a rich experience.  We have apps for that!

4. As the browser’s capabilities have evolved, so have the flash platform’s.  It is vital that the developer community place pressure on ‘bad’ legacy flash code, particularly in rich media advertising which is still largely built to old specifications, and to educate and advocate for the platform’s capabilities and best practise.

I hope that this will be the last pro-flash post I have to make.  I hope that we can appreciate the multi-faceted toolbox of frameworks and runtimes that we use to create our fantastic medium objectively.  I hope that I don’t have to do this all again next year…

Slideshare deck
PDF with notes coming soon
Source code for the air mobile demonstration  (I’ll add some more comments etc soon)

Innovation versus copyright

It’s been hard to avoid the piracy debate this week with the SOPA/PIPA blackouts. Once again, the sheer amount of misinformation is staggering. This was summed up for me this morning by an ill-judged article on tmz which not only breaks Godwin’s law but also basic common sense. The claim that “Both ISPs and search engines are profiting from the raping and pillaging of the content creation businesses” is, assuming it’s not grade A link-trolling (oops I’ve fallen for it haven’t I), tea-party-esque insanity. What most angers me about this article though, and similar responses to the blackout, is the lack of positive vision provided by the incumbent companies who have had ample opportunity to innovate through the cultural changes in media consumption.

In replying to a facebook thread about the article, I wrote this:

“Can we stencil this on the CEOs of all these media companies: “For the millionth time, build a better bloody service.”

People do not value individual pieces of content anymore, but they do, massively, value service provision. Instead of wasting all this time bringing about legislation to restrict innovation that will do nothing less than help bring your business models into the 21st century, just build a better service. There is a massive appetite for the consumption of digital content at a fair price, delivered on demand without restriction so that it can be used on all of the amazing toys from the future that we all own these days.”

See Steam for more details.

The way to get through this “crisis” for rights holders, artists (and I am a signed musician whose work is all over the torrent networks myself) and media distributors is to innovate our way through it, providing a service with value. If the mediacos spent the same amount of money and effort on research and product development as they allegedly do on lobbying and lawsuits, they would find that they have a motivated consumer, eager to spend what little disposable income they have in the current economic climate on quality entertainment, delivered swiftly and conveniently. This has ALWAYS been the promise of the digital revolution and it makes me very sad that we are 15 years into it and are still bitching about our goddamn percentages instead of building better worlds.