Webstock 2012: iPad publishing, crap design and ethical hacking

Jared Spool entertaining and educating at Webstock. Photo / Mark Webster
Jared Spool entertaining and educating at Webstock. Photo / Mark Webster

I sat through Jennifer Brook's presentation in a smaller theatre. I had interviewed her by phone the other day, so I listened with interest. Brook strengthened my idea that the unspoken theme of this 2012 Webstock was history - at least, how we got to where we are.

She did a great job of explaining her decidedly odd journey to the position of being in charge of the game-changing New York Times iPad app, used to introduce the very first Apple tablet at launch in April 2010.

Matt Haughey, a "seasoned expert [according to the Webstock blurb] on communities thanks to his creating and running of MetaFilter.com for the past 12 years and dabbles in web applications by designing and co-founding the social fuel economy website Fuelly.co.nz.

His presentation was kind of a downer, as he talked about being 40 (his presentation was called 'Lessons from a 40 year old'. This seemed to involve having sick parents (his mother recently passed away), having kids and working too hard.

Even more of a downer for me, perhaps, is that he's 11 years younger than me!

In the last five minutes, though, he gave excellent advice on looking after your money, maintaining your integrity and the pitfalls of accepting financing.

After this, South African author Lauren Beukes talked about using reality to create fantasy, and the importance of research in creating believable stories. Some of her research was pretty harrowing. The novelist, TV scriptwriter, documentary maker, comics writer and occasional journalist won the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award for her novel Zoo City, set in a fantastical Johannesburg where guilt manifests as spirit animal familiars and dark things lurk beneath the surface of the pop music industry. Her previous works include Moxyland, a dystopian cyberpunk thriller set in Cape Town under corporate apartheid and Maverick: Extraordinary Women From South Africa's Past.

Did I mention she got the Arthur C Clarke Award? Beukes did. Several times. Although it was hard to tie what Beukes said directly to endeavours around the web and mobile design, she gave a fascinating presentation, illustrating why South Africa is such a hotbed of creativity at the moment. I also appreciated how Beukes directed some of the rewards from her efforts into charities and needs she became aware of through her research efforts.

There were two more talks after this but I had an important meeting scheduled with Kiwi developer Emmerson Pilsner and someone from a ministry. Say no more.

Day Two

The much anticipated Jared Spool opened day two, making everyone laugh as he explained fascinating points of design. For example, he talked about the terrible crisis period in the history of the United States recently when, for a whole week, nobody could buy a Nintendo Wii.

Spool specialises in usability; over the last few years he has guided the research agenda and built User Interface Engineering into the largest research organisation of its kind in the world. He's been working in this field since 1978, before the term 'usability' was ever associated with computers.

Spool engages, making people laugh a lot (there was even a whoop) to make excellent points that were well received.

"I know people who are so devoted to the dogma of web standards, they have removed every table from their house."

One of his gems was 'every style has a purpose', and 'great designers know which style they're using' - this reminded me of the fascinating interview lettering expert Jessica Hische gave me yesterday.

According to Spool, there are five forms of designs to follow.

"And don't forget the sixth form of design, which we just call 'crap'." He showed many hilarious examples of that particular credo.

He finishes "What type of designer do you aspire to be?" and runs through the gamut.

Spool could just about justify a Webstock entry fee all by himself and got full applause... but of course there's a lot, lot more on offer.

All the time, by the way, shuttles of three women are signing in deaf language beside the presenters. I know this is exhausting work, but it's excellent recognition of New Zealand's third official language.

Did you hear that, Lockwood Smith?

The following speaker, anthropologist-by-training Gabriella Coleman researches and teaches on digital activism and the culture and politics of hacking. Her first book, Coding Freedom: The Aesthetics and the Ethics of Hacking will soon be out on Princeton University Press and she is currently working on a new book on Anonymous and digital activism.

Last year the Pirate Bay founder had people rolling in the aisles - a more academic assessment of web activism (Anonymous, in this case) was definitely worth a look.

Anonymous started out on 4chan with internet pranks but then unveiled Operation Payback, a DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service attack) which took down the services of MasterCard, Visa and other providers over the Wikileaks controversy. Coleman followed this five hours a week, seven days a week for nine months.

She identifies Lulz as an organisation of internet activists and pranksters. The humour is esoteric, involving doctored images, words and, more dangerously and controversially, 'trolling' , which includes dumping entire contents of hard drives on Pirate Bay, making sites display mischievous content and much more.

A particular target has been the Church of Scientology, after the church's internal recruitment video starring Tom Cruise was leaked (not by Anonymous) and the CoS started making threats. Anonymous effectively went to war with the church over it.

Then, public and festive protests garnered many supporters and started having political consequences. The movements' waxing and waning was all detailed to the attentive audience. On January 2, 2011, Anonymous started activating and supporting Tunisian efforts to bring democracy.

HP Gary boasted he knew names of Anonymous people and was going to give them to the FBI. Ouch - silly man. Within hours, Anonymous activists had hacked his company and deleted files, posted his emails on Pirate Bay, took over his Twitter account ... of course, they found lots of interesting stuff in his files, too, like his 'Potential Proactive Tactics' to destroy Anonymous and Wikileaks, and efforts to discredit journalists who had been on the side of the activists.

"People were excited that the Lulz had returned." But "Anonymous had not become the new Human Rights Watch."

Coleman detailed the boyishness that characterises the group: irreverence, controversy, vindictiveness. "Anonymous obviously repels many, but we should heed many small lessons." Coleman likens this to the creativity of subcultures to express 'forbidden contents'. "Transgressions like hacks unravel conventions but also give us windows into their logic."

Fascinating stuff. "Anonymous is not a united front, but more a hydra often at odds with itself." It's also prickly: "I have been told many times to watch my back by member of Anonymous."

Right, I'd better file this - one more report to come, plus the interview with Jessica Hische.

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