Blog: Thinking Digital conference 2012


Posted by: Creative Times

on June 07, 2012 09:30

Chris Sharratt spent a morning at last week’s Thinking Digital conference and, in a stellar line-up, was particularly impressed by the man from Microsoft.

They pack a lot in at Thinking Digital. I was only able to make the Thursday morning sessions of this two-day conference in Gateshead last week, but that was enough to get a succession of big hitters from the BBC, Facebook, and Microsoft, as well as Steven Kyffin (previously at Philips, now heading up Northumbria University’s School of Design), No Straight Lines author Alan Moore, a surgeon who works with robots, and a nice American insurance lady who specialises in mapping the future of risk. Plus, of course, Codeworks CEO Herb Kim, doing a good job of introducing and gently quizzing the speakers.

Against all expectations, it was the man from Microsoft who really got me thinking, both during his talk and since. Richard Banks is principal interaction designer at Microsoft Research’s Cambridge facility and author of the book, The Future of Looking Back. His presentation combined personal experience, qualitative research and product design, raising questions about how we experience digital data and how it differs from its analogue equivalent. Most interestingly, he talked about how we might bridge the gap between the two as a generation that takes smart phones, tablets and cloud computing for granted, comes to terms with the idea of a digital inheritance.

When it comes to memories, we crave something tangible, something that is the antithesis of the invisibleness of digital.

What made Banks’s research and ideas so compelling was in part the way he effortlessly weaved in tales of his own family life, positioning the digital realm as integral to the modern domestic experience. He talked about viewing his recently deceased granddad’s photographs and how it got him thinking about the thousands of digital pictures he would be leaving his daughter to sift through; of his reticence when confronted with the desktop of his dead father’s PC; of how the meaning and memories contained within a digital image shift dramatically depending on the context, an anonymous jpeg on your computer becoming something else entirely once it’s a photograph on flickr with a story attached and an audience to be shared with.

Particularly interesting was Banks’s point that, when it comes to memories, we crave something tangible, something that is the antithesis of the invisibleness of digital. We may not look at it every day, but by seeing the family photo album on the shelf, we are reminded of the stories contained within. To this end, we were treated to a selection of prototypes that seek to make data ‘real’, from a simple but lovely wooden box for your backed-up Twitter feed, to a container with a slide viewer that makes looking at your digital photographs a hands-on, tactile experience.

And the other speakers? All fascinating in their own way, but while I don’t doubt Simon Cross’s assertions about the awesomeness of working for Facebook, I’m getting a little weary of hearing about the all-conquering genius of Zuck and co. Steven Kyffin’s tales of frustration and failure at Philips were far more edifying, although of course his experience of stasis in a big corporation could equally be seen as a convincing argument for Facebook’s ‘move fast and break things’ approach.

BBC head of Future Media Ralph Rivera, meanwhile, was a compelling evangeliser for both the centrality of digital to the corporation’s future, and the BBC’s wider enabling role within the UK’s digital sector. While the prospect of London 2012 leaves me cold, the Beeb’s wall-to-wall coverage as described by Rivera sounds pretty spectacular. And, of course, it means there’s no need to chase your tail trying to get hold of one of those magic Olympic tickets. The inevitable, and unstoppable, side effect is of course the demise of that collective experience of a nation gathered round the box in the living room, and the subsequent erosion of shared memories. No doubt Richard Banks has some interesting thoughts on that subject.

Image: Ralph Rivera (left) and Richard Banks

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