Thinking Digital Conference 2010, Sage Gateshead

Thinking Digital 2010 was a blast… It was an excellent two days of insightful, informative, eclectic and mind-bending talks around digital or technology related subjects. It’s one of the few conferences that I attend knowing I will do my best to attend most of the talks – as the quality of speakers is fantastic!

Apart from the talks there was an expo of business stands, plus cupcakes and treats, masseurs for weary delegates, speaker lunches, bands, parties and dinners – we were very well looked after! See my previous post for a write up on the pre-conference Power Arduino workshop.

Here’s a quick round-up of many of the talks I went to, I won’t fit them all in otherwise you’ll be left reading something very long from my 16 pages of notes!

Joi Ito – CEO of Creative Commons
Spoke passionately about sharing and open source projects within the realms of business and innovation. He advised us not to follow trends but to “question authority and think for yourself”. How giving stuff away for free is incredible, how most of the internet is run by amateurs who are not paid “open source lowers the cost of failure and drives innovation: – “99% of open source projects on Sourceforge are a complete failure, but it’s worth it to eak out that 1%”

Documentally – Christian Payne – Photojournalist
Gave a fab talk on the life of a backpack journalist who has used social media as a platform for sharing his photos, audioboos, videos and stories from Iraq and Pakistan – “Social technology is like sex. It’s fun to talk & read about but you can’t truly comprehend it until you do it”. He took us on an entertaining trip via stories of his exploits and how his kit has changed over the years, but admits that all you really need these days is a smart phone, plus he mentioned the importance of backing up data “My data is backed up in 3 places, data just vanishes, especially when crossing borders!” He left us with a URL to some great links

Jon Drori – Changing Media
Gave two brilliant talks. Firstly, a run down on 23 of the classic pitfalls of business relationships, including nuggets: “avoid understanding your audience or what they want and how they work” and “never confuse a neat idea with a strategy”.

Followed on day two by a sum-up of compelling experiences – they were surmised as: Defined, Fresh, Accessible, Immersive, they are Significant and are Transformative. He also informed us about Florence nightingale was a pioneer of data visualization, as she made the link between people dying and lack of hygiene and distributed this information in diagrams – making it accessible.

Don Levy – Sony Pictures
Gave an interesting talk on the tech behind cinema, including a sneak peak at the Alice in Wonderland DVD extras. He talked about losing yourself in the imaginations of other people – the magic of movies.

On Sony & open source, “We’ve now 5 open source projects – it lowers the cost of learning and innovation although we still do things with proprietary software. But we put a lot of things out into the open source community to share and develop” – he didn’t say, but it would be cool to find out what those projects are.

He went on to say, “there’s never been a better time for entertainment the possibilities are virtually endless” and “we’re now able to do something on one pc that it took a whole building to do up until recently”.

Andy Hobsbawm – DoTheGreenThing
Talked about the challenges his company faced in reframing sustainability and driving behavior to make recycling desirable – via the DoTheGreenThing campaign. Also, initiatives such as Mixmag’s Walkcast to aid the enjoyment of walking and Glove Love – a lost glove = a double throw away!

Rory Sutherland – Advertarian
Kicked off his humorous talk by mentioning ‘engineering envy’ – people who wish they were as efficient as machinery, though most human behaviour doesn’t follow scientific law! He mentioned how paying people to do creative tasks, just turns creativity into work. Also that humans tend to disproportionate the value of something because it is rare – such as rhino horn. Same goes for cheap goods and services: coach travel and frozen food – two things that a cheap and ecologically good, but seen as cheap and inferior. The question for marketeers is, how do you make these things cool? “You can create huge amounts of consumer delight from marketing some fantastically trivial ideas” for example the Virgin cruet set had ‘pinched from virgin upper class’ engraved on them – “you’ll remember this far longer than whether you went on a 747 or not”. He urged us to looks at old things in a new way and add appreciation to what already exists and introduced the ‘Diamond Shreddie’ to the TDC audience, (a marketing campaign in Canada, increasing sales), which became a bit of a meme for the rest of the conference.

Tom Wujec – Marshmallow Challenge
Asked ‘what fosters technology?’ He told us about the ‘marshmallow challenge’ – a team building exercise where the aim is to build a structure with items such as spaghetti and string, then balance a marshmallow on the top. He described various personalities and their approaches to this, including that recent business school graduates do worst as they cheat and fight. But, the people who do best are kindergarten kids as they achieve the exercise via play and enjoy it – “they don’t seek power to achieve the goal”. Tom finished with the warning that “every project has it’s own marshmallow – the assumption is that a marshmallow is light and fluffy, but it’s not – don’t overlook it!”

Tom also spoke on day two on advancements in technology and the step progression from blue sky to ubiquitous: “impossible > impractical > possible > expected > required”. He showed us a couple of examples, such as printers that can reproduce themselves and machines that will scan our feet, then weave and build shoes for us while we wait!

Brian Solis – Futureworks
Tackled the issue of privacy and social media and introduced the Klout website to us where you can find your credit score for the social web.

Luis Von Ahn – Professor at Carnegie Mellon University
After introducing himself by asking “You know Captcha? Do you hate it? Well, I invented that…” Luis took us through the story of Captcha – the system that uses randomly distorted words and is used by many sites to test that you’re really a human entering data. His story wound around online polls, humourous and unfortunate combinations of words that have appeared randomly together, plus an insight into the spam sweatshops that try to beat Captcha.

Roughly 200 million Captchas that take roughly 10 seconds are typed every day, so Luis wanted to find a way to use all this human effort for good. He came up with Re-Capture, a way of using the system to get people to read words from old books that computers can’t recognize from OCR. Roughly 80 million words solved a day, equals about 4 million books translated per year!

Robert Lang – From flapping birds to space telescopes

We were taken on a charming journey centered on origami, via history, maths and computer aided origami design. We heard about how paper-folding patterns can be transferred to helping with problem solving for scientists and engineers looking for clever ways to get around size and logistical problems. For example, in space equipment the umbrella pattern has been used for a 5 metre collapsible space telescope, plus solar sails, in other uses: airbags for cars and medical stents that fold up small enough to go through an artery and then unfold.

Julian Treasure – This is a journey into sound

“Over the next 20 mins I will transform your relationship with sound…” was the opener from Julian, who took us on a whirlwind tour. From telling us that sound is the first thing you sense, in your mother’s heartbeat, to anecdotally being the last to go. How we suppress sound every day, such as traffic, muzak in shops & noise in public areas, but also how sound affects you physiologically – it influences heart rate, brings on fight or flight reaction, can change our mood through music and birdsong or waves, and how we move away from unpleasant noise. Sound affects our cognitive process – we have an auditory bandwidth, for example office workers find it hard to work and productivity goes down 66% in open plan offices. Music has been shown in case studies influence our actions, such as what we buy via sound association and birdsong in service stations has been shown to make people calmer.

Julian left us with a sound action list:
– listen consciously
– protect your ears
– train your voice
– befriend silence
– respect music
– design soundscapes

Robert McKee – Storylogue
Ran one of his legendary Story Seminars pre the main conference, told us there’s “no such thing as an innocent story – it’s a story that is embedded in emotional experience” and “There is no fundamental difference between cutting someone off in traffic and cutting them off by the head”. He went on to tell us that “the mind organizes life as a story, not as a list of facts – puts the past into a story including planning, preparing, a coherent story with a beginning middle and end”.

He ended with “if you don’t believe in yourself then use the delete key!”.

Jer Thorpe – Wired magazine
Gave an interesting talk on data visualization and Processing with some lovely imagery. When he first started playing with Arduino he wasn’t sure what to do with it, so talked to his 10 year-old self and decided to create an alarm for when aliens landed with added wireless functionality!

David Siegel – Pull
I attended both his talk and lunch where he discussed the importance of the semantic web and searching for data such as the difference in results you’ll get between Google and Wolfram Alpha. He touched on rethinking your relationship to information and how we will soon be at 5 billion connected devices which will be capable of pumping out our information automatically, growing exponentially. He suggested that “every time you hear the word semantic substitute the word unambiguous”. David predicts that in the future we will move from “push to pull” and have ‘data lockers’ to store our information in various levels depending on relationship, e.g. family, purchasing, work, etc – it was hotly debated who might be the trusted keepers of these! He closed his talk with the message “Tweet this: what we do online, and how we do it, *matters*”. Oh yes, thanks very much for a copy of your book ‘Pull’!

Richard TitusFriction: Good, evil, necessity or fuel?
Gave a talk about ‘friction’ – “Friction is the evil of all motion” a quote from Fear of Physics and went on to give us various examples and lessons: ‘Privacy is NOT secrecy’: ‘Secrecy is almost non-existent today’. Richard also gave probably the most re-tweeted quote of the day “Data is the new Oil” which has already appeared on a badge!

Tom Scott – Geek Comedian
Gave us a cautionary tale about social networking and flashmobs out of control, plus also showed us his Evil app that reveals easily obtainable phone numbers from unsuspecting people on Facebook.

Jodi Forlizzi – interaction designer, Kinetic Fonts
Jodi took us on a tour of kinetic type – type that moves and allows expressive capabilities. Presently powerful but unexploited, she told us it has a lot of potential, but needs more study and more tools to support it. Here’s an example of how it can bring to life literature or quotes from a film such as Pulp Fiction

Ken Banks – FrontlineSMS
Told us his story of his software business and FrontlineSMS projects – for example, enabling communication in third world Africa in areas that don’t have internet connectivity. An example is software for laptops and mobiles, which allows simple text and image communication for non-profit organizations, doctors and human rights campaigners in dangerous situations. Another system used a mobile phone for blood smear diagnosis.

Big thanks to Herb Kim & the Codeworks team for a great 3 days at Thinking Digital 2010 – looking forward to next year’s conference already!



  1. Hi Don

    Thanks very much for the link – great to read about the open source projects you mentioned at TDC.

    Best, Rain

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