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Neo-Futurism in the Information Age

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Post-WWII, after the dust had settled and old maps had been redrawn we entered a period of utopian future-gazing. This period, predominately lasting the 1950s and mostly found in the American and Soviet superpowers was characterised by our view that as humans we would triumph over any adversity. We held the view that all of nature was our to command – for we had just mastered the atom, the jet age had begun and we were on the cusp of sending humans into space. The dream of protein pills and personal jetpacks didn’t eventuate but the thinking of the time ushered in a new period that would last for another couple of decades – where considering big, idealistic futures was considered the norm and that one should get out and try and make them happen.

For me, Web Directions South 11 held much of the same passion and fervour. Finally, at least in Australia it seems, the shadow of the GFC is lifting and we are at the dawn of a period where a third of all humans are connected and we are starting to see the future that mastering the connected bit can achieve. Whereas in 2010 it was about the potential technologies like HTML5 and mobile technologies would bring us, in 2011 it is about our application of these technologies into new ways of working, new styles of design and the creation of a future for everyone.

Much of the conference theme was about just getting out and doing stuff, providing echoes of the 1950s sentiment that we live in a time where it is the makers’ world, that we are architects of the future and our place within it.

Indeed, WDS11 showcased a future where the web transcends the boundaries of mere browsers, where it is now the platform for our mobile worlds but increasingly our physical ones as well. As designers the call was put out that we will be designing physical objects, as developers that we will be creating means for greater utility of the web in these future environs.

Web Directions this year was a showcase in diversity in thinking and technology, like an atomic age World Fair. We had sessions on Augmented Reality merged with the Web of Animals merging with classical architectural design applied to the web merged with Physical and Ubiquitous (PDF) computing. We had visions of our future mixed with an appraisal of our current state of being. Alongside the whimsical we had the practical too, conveying the knowledge of our craft that will raise the bar yet again next year to greater levels.

And we had calls to arms in the style of presidential challenges past.

A few weeks ago I read a piece by Neal Stephenson on how Science Fiction writers had lost their talent for dreaming big ideas and articulating futures that would inspire scientists and others to attempt to fulfil them – a sentiment I totally agreed with. What I’ve since realised is that scratch the surface of the web community and there are big ideas being dreamed. Whether it’s a future where all data is interlinked seamlessly so we can create better stories about our past or one where we begin to interact with render-ghosts, those half real avatars of the robot world through the medium of the web there are futures being envisioned and articulated – and they are being made real.

Many people I talked to – both presenters and delegates kept saying over and over that this Web Directions was making them think bigger, that it wasn’t all just about skill transferral, that they were inspired to do more.

I think we exist now at a point of change, where the web has hit some unintended critical mass. The web is now permeating the fabric of humanity on a nearly global scale and Web Directions managed to tap into the web’s subconscious – highlighting the patterns that will develop over the next couple of years and take shape around the mainstream.

Regardless of whether I get my personal jetpack or not, this neo-futurism wave that seems to have swept the web community (and the maker community more generally) will at least help shake off the shadows of a post-GFC world, and sometimes a bit of unbridled futurist optimism can’t be a bad thing.

[Note I will update links from presentation synopses to actual presentations once they are uploaded]

If you were an attendee of Web Directions 2011 I’d love your view on whether you had this sense of the vibe?

Written by

Maker and breaker of smart things that combine mobile web, cloud computing, ubicomp and large data processing. Sometime programmer and CTO @ JBA, Breaker of Stuff @ Rocket Melbourne.

Filed under: development, Featured, internet, media, mobile, presentation, web · Tags: , , , ,

4 Responses to "Neo-Futurism in the Information Age"

  1. For me, the WDS11 taught me a lesson in creating something for the world, something for the people. After we embrace the rise of HTML5 and CSS3, as well as more things that JS can do, at least from a technological perspective we have all the required tool to build something magnificent, and for me WDS11 managed to pull a bit of my ego and say “hey, instead of creating something awesome for you, why not create something for social purpose.” Really, that’s all missing from my design process and that lesson serves me well :)

  2. John Allsopp says:

    Hi Andrew,

    thanks for this wonderful write up. We too felt that this year was something special, different, really amazing. And the themes you highlight here were really emergent – we certainly didn’t sit down to create an event around the “internet of things”.

    How are we going to maintain the strength of this for WDS12? We’ll do our best!

  3. Russ says:

    I too had the same vibe however, as will everything I do, it’s always tinged with a bit of “The Real World”. Forgive me for coming across as a raving Greenie, but everything I’ll say is fact: Global resources, energy in its many forms and even money itself are dwindling – the very three things that are required to make the worlds billions of electronic devices that we rely on for our craft – worse – there’s no standard way to safely dispose of these devices after their ridiculously short lifepans.

    Much like that golden age of the 1950s, we cannot afford to assume too much of the future, lest we put our collective creative energies into the wrong space.

    There are some incredibly clever people out there, the application of who’s talent could very seriously affect the world for the better – so let’s not waste our time building Angry Birds and Farmville aye? :-)

  4. ajfisher says:

    Very good points Russ. Interestingly I think we are on the cusp of solving some of these issues – performance on hardware is about to run into a wall which means we may soon be entering the age of the “heirloom computer” so that may help with some of our disposability issues. I also like to think that the universality of the web – especially as John describes it here: will lead us to a point where we have sufficient cognitive surplus at our disposal to be able to solve some of these problems. I think that was the sense that Adityo was picking up on as well – instead of building stuff for me, it’s time to build stuff for everyone.