I’ve spent the last 4 days in Geneva at LIFT, an annual conference and one of my favourite events. LIFT attracts an unusual medley of artists, academics and industry types and tends to focus on near-future technology and its social effects. It’s brought to the stage Sister Judith Zoebelein, the nun who runs the Vatican’s Internet presence; Jan Chipchase of Nokia, talking about how they approach designing phones for illiterate end-users; and last year Kevin Slavin of Area/Code, who gave a fantastic presentation on “The Algorithms That Govern Our Lives“, later featured on TED.
It’s not possible to do justice to all 40 of the talks here, but a few themes ran through many of them.
Information overload was touched on by the first speaker, JP Rangaswami of Salesforce, and again by Anaïs Saint-Jude of Stanford University. JP rounded off his opening talk on the essential neutrality of technology with an observation that information overload isn’t a problem if you have sufficient filters, and that social networks can provide useful such filters. Anaïs followed up by observing that information overload is nothing new. Plato bemoaned the introduction of literature: “If we depend on writing, we will lose our ability to remember anything”. Thus every generation experiences information overload, and all experience it as both new and particular to their era. It’s an essential part of the human condition, said Anaïs: we naturally perceive our environment as overly complex, and reducing this complexity is *the* challenge of the human condition.
She also showed the painting ‘Voltaire rising in the morning’ which shows him desperately pulling his clothes on whilst dictating to his secretary. Perhaps some readers will find it reminiscent of their morning email?
Another theme was the fading of technology into the background of our lives. Stefana Broadbent of UCL gave us a history lesson, pointing out that it was only after the industrial revolution and its movement of work from the home into specialised workplaces that the home became focused solely on maintaining the solidarity of the household. How is this solidarity maintained? By deliberately managing our attention: think of living-room sofas facing one another, a circular dining table, or “work” devices like PCs typically kept in private spaces. The increasing miniturisation and consumerisation of devices which consume media, and in particular social media, has undermined this management of our attention and is a source of friction. But it’s not the use of social media in these spaces which is isolating; today our homes themselves are designed to keep us together, and strangers out.
Ben Bashford spoke about designing machines with empathy, drawing a line from Nass and Reeves’ seminal Media Equation through to modern network-connected gadgets like Withings and Nike Fuel, and beyond. If we treat software as people, Ben says, then there are people all around us, in increasing numbers; what personalities and character traits will we ascribe them with, or design into them? He held up the wonderfully minimal example of the LED on Mac cases, pulsing at the speed of human breath to comfortingly deceive us that a machine can actually asleep. He also, impressively, managed to use the phrase “zoomorphic dissonance” without blinking.
Information overload; social effects of technology; and increasingly organic software. LIFT was thought-provoking and deeply relevant as ever.
That’s just a flavour of the event, and I’ve missed out much more than I’ve included: I shan’t forget Song Hojun’s Open Source Satellite Initiative (space exploration funded by T-shirt sales!) in a hurry, and pieces of my jaw remain littered on the conference centre floor after hearing Mark Suppes tell the story of how he built a working nuclear fusion reactor in his Brooklyn apartment.
by Tom Hume