On Saturday 18 October 2014, the 6-2 design team tipped up to the University of Kent’s Gulbenkian Theatre for Digibury’s first ever ‘weekender’ – a whole day of 20 talks on the topic of digital, hosted by the comedian Robin Ince and organised by Deeson.
The day kicked off to a good start as Robin recounted the letters of complaint that used to be sent to the Radio 4 programme, ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’, that he co-hosted with Brian Cox. Before the programme had even launched, one listener wrote in and raged “Well I hope you’re happy with yourselves! Vivisection? Monkeys?! In a cage?!? I expected better from Radio 4.”
Robin and Brian used to reply to such letters, before management decided it was making the situation worse; their reply to this complaint was: “Dear Sir; I think you’ll find find that an infinite monkey cage is roomy.”
The keynote talk was given by Aral Balkan of Ind.ie, a social entrepreneur working to protect consumer freedoms by creating alternative consumer technologies with no ‘creepy middle man’ so your data remains completely private.
His arguments seemed particularly relevant given the recent backlash around the Facebook Messenger app, which demanded extreme permissions including modifying and deleting files on USB storage, downloading files without notification and recording audio, causing many users to abandon the app over claims it invaded their privacy.
Ind.ie’s mission is grounded in the belief that individuals have a fundamental right to privacy. As the devices, apps and tools we use today are increasingly online and cloud based, privacy is becoming slowly eroded, with our most personal details hoarded by the Facebook’s and Google’s of this world. Ind.ie aims to create a network client that is private by default.
But questions from the audience brought the opposing sides of the argument to light – with absolute privacy, what’s to stop criminals, terrorists or sex offenders from communicating securely? Aral argued that just because a pencil could be used to stab someone in the eye, doesn’t mean we should outlaw pencils. Should knowingly introducing a technology with such disruptive potential place an additional ethical responsibility upon the shoulders of its creators? Or do we just have to accept that ‘some might die for many to live’ is the price we pay for freedom?
This led to some pretty heated debates within our team at Digibury Weekender, in the car returning home, the following week… and they’re still going on today. Whilst we haven’t got the answer, we respect Ind.ie’s mission to create an alternative technology that keeps our private stuff private and we’ll be supporting their thunderclap on 8 November.
Aside from the key topic of privacy and freedom, there were a number of other thought provoking, exciting, funny and at times downright bizarre talks on the wider impact that technology has on society and culture.
David Walker from QA.com gave a talk on the importance of life long learning, and how online platforms are making this easier and more accessible than ever before. Howard Griffin, from the University of Kent’s Architecture Department, brought sci-fi to life with his live demo of Oculus Rift – a virtual reality headset they’re using recreate the interior of old or ruined buildings, allowing you to walk around like you were really there.
Vinita Khandelwal Rathi asked us why there aren’t more women in code. Historic attitudes used to push boys into sciences and girls into arts (or motherhood), but why haven’t preconceptions changed much since then? Her organisation, Women Who Code, is seeking to change this by getting women and men to work together and affect change from within organisations.
Paul Thomas from Microsoft told us how they’re exploring how apps can help us to monitor our health, enabling us to take preventative measures before things get too serious. This was followed by one of the most unusual and morbid topics of the day from Alberta Soranzo of Friday, on our digital presence after death. She recounted the chilling tale of how one man continued to receive messages from his girlfriend after she had died, as the social platform was regenerating and resending snippets of previous conversations to keep people coming back and using the platform.
Barbara Cooper of Kent County Council gave an inspiring talk on the potential of Kent as a business and economic hub with unrivalled transport links to London and Europe, which made us feel excited to be part of this great county. And Agnus Bankes of Skimlinks gave a fascinating talk on Bitcoin, the financial revolution that seems futuristic but is here today and is starting to disrupt traditional currency models.
Memo Akten, a visual artist, musician and engineer, gave a mesmerizing talk on the poetry of reality, showing how he transforms visuals into sound waves in public spaces to create beautifully astonishing spectacles. Bryony Bishop, of the Turner Contemporary, gave an interesting and completely unexpected talk on how selfies (of all things!) and online personalities are changing the social convention of “art”.
Simeon Berends of ITN productions talked to us about how millennials are making the digital landscape, whilst Leo Whitlock, editor of the KM Group, told us how their website is smashing records month on month (as well as the truth about Whitstable crabgate!) Jane Redman from the Kent charity Porchlight showed us how they’ve embraced technology to create a video in collaboration with the people they support to challenge perceptions on homelessness and young people.
Sebastian Haire of ProFinda talked us about how they’re using technology to help connect the right people with the right information at the right time, connecting workplaces and organisations. Velia Coffey from Canterbury City Council gave us an honest account of how they’ve found the move from providing offline to online services, the impact it’s had internally and the golden criteria they use to assess whether a potential digital solution is or is not worth pursuing.
Paul Hallett of Twilio inspired of us all techies with his talk on how software people are changing the world, and recounted how their software Twilio is changing the landscape of traditional telephony. James Cashmore of Google gave us an insight into the inner workings of Google — did you know one of the things they measure potential recruits against it their ‘Googleyness’? — and a quick whistle stop tour of the futuristic projects they’re working on.
Our thanks go out to Deeson for organising such as great event. So many events seem to stop short at London; Digibury Weekender went one step to correcting this imbalance, bringing the latest topics, great minds and fiery debates right to our doorstep – and one step closer to Barbara Cooper’s vision of Kent as the thriving hub at the gateway to Europe.