Open Tech 2005

On Saturday, I went to Open Tech 2005, a one-day conference about 'technologies that anyone can have a go at', supported by BBC Backstage. Like my lectures back at Uni, I didn't bother to take notes, prefering to sit back and 'take it in', so the following thoughts are retrospective:

11:30am: Danny O'Brien, Living Life in public.

An amusing talk, Danny's a good speaker with an unusually haphazard presentation style (no powerpoint here). The central idea seemed to be that it no longer cost you money to get famous, but cost money to stay in obscurity. One interesting point is that we face a choice between throwing ourselves out there, using our real name on the internet and commenting and creating content all over the place, or attempting to remain more anonymous and using psuedonyms. You see people making this choice all over the internet on a daily basis, from e-mail addresses ('davefbloggs@hotmail.com' vs 'bigfluffybunny05@hotmail.com') to flickr usernames to blog names. I've obviously gone for the former approach. Time will tell wether it's the right choice, or whether those thousands of bits of content will come back to haunt me.

12.30pm: Ted Nelson, A Countercomputer Universe

Another great talk from the 'inventor of hypertext', which came closer to an academic philosophy lecture than a geek talk. Ted basically criticised the prevailing convention in personal computing which aims to 'emulate paper' rather than 'improving the way we do things'. It's all the fault of a few people, who designed computers based by talking to secretaries rather than intellectuals, he claimed. I found myself nodding along to a lot of the points. The hierachical filing system, which is imposed upon computer users at all levels, from Operating System to bookmark folders, is really frustrating, and fails to be as useful as it should be. The idea that concepts can be classified in such a way pervades human culture, yet often fails at the metaphysical level (even animals and species can't be so neatly categorised). In fact, at this point, I might even be able to shoehorn my essay on the Metaphysical Function of Concepts in here.

1.30pm: Lunch.

Bought a samosa and chatted to James Boardwell, who has recently moved from working at the BBC to the 'sticks' of Sheffield.

2pm: Social Factors and Usability.

Chris Lightfoot and Francis Irving gave a speedy overview of lessons learnt from their mysociety projects. The question I wanted to ask (but didn't), was what they thought of the BBC's Action Network site.

Martin Belam talked through the great BBC Homepage Dalek debate. Summary: don't miss your users off, learn from your mistakes (a bold idea for the BBC, apparently), and do something big and controversial to get cheap user feedback.

Finally, John Scott bigged up a Glasto website project he worked on.

3pm: Jeremy Zawodny, of Yahoo!, said why The Future is Open (or should be).

An interesting talk, giving an overview of open technology stuff. Some of the interesting points: Having APIs is good because even if people don't use them, they like to know they're there. A missing component is a 'portable identity', at the moment you have to register and have a different username and profile on each site you use.

4.30pm: The BBC R&D team on Hacking the TV Stream.

An introduction on some geek things you can do with the TV stream, including recording the whole of a multiplex's output to harddisk, so you never miss a TV programme again, even if you didn't know about it until post-broadcast (the ultimate PVR). An unanswered question is what the commercial TV sector would do if this became mainstream and people stopped watching ads. Someone in the audience hinted at the answer, by commenting that the DVB organisation had been taken over by the American movie industry, who want to implement DRM into the TV stream (which'd be bad new, obviously).

There was another session after that, but I headed home early to go to a friend's houseparty.