Last week’s dConstruct 2013 was a fun and interesting event, with much nutritious brain food on offer; but more than anything else, I enjoy the great atmosphere of thinking, doing and exploring. The theme this year was communicating with machines, but the talks were as much about human behaviour as technology. The talks were excellent, and you can see a selection of reactions on twitter, plus Luke Wroblewski’s notes are pretty good.

Three sub-themes stood out for me.

First, there were some useful reflections on how we interact with machines and each other.

On the micro level, Luke Wroblewski talked about the explosion of input methods, or ways to interact with our devices, in the post-iPhone era. Dominated by keyboard and mouse for 29 years, interaction design now needs to cope with a plethora of input methods that can be combined and re-combined in many new ways. Amber Case gave a great talk that extended this idea to consider how the cyborg dream of human augmentation is partially being realised in new devices (e.g. Google Glass), input methods (e.g. liquid buttons) and geo-fenced ambient notifications, citing the example of the game and other projects that seek to liberate data from the web and bring it into the physical world. As we move towards becoming more cyborg in our relationship with machines and data, Amber reminded us that we may also need diminished reality – using augmentation devices to remove information (e.g. advertising) – and more calm technology, as outlined by Mark Weiser at Xerox Parc; plus we need to solve the basic problem of the ‘quantified self Tower of Babel’ by correlating and matching up data better.

On the macro level, we had two talks about how to engage with the good and the bad of online community behaviour. Nicole Sullivan gave a good account of how to deal with trolls  which is sadly all the more relevant and necessary for a high-profile woman online than a man. Later, Maciej Ceglowski talked about his experience with the fan fiction community as founder of the bookmarking service pinboard, and how rival service Delicious’s inadvertent removal of the ability to search its archive using the ‘/’ character provided an opportunity for pinboard to reach out to the huge fan fiction community, understand their needs and ultimately make a lot of money from giving them a new place to share. Like all Maciej’s stories, it was both improbable (though undoubtedly true) and hilarious. He also provided one of the quotes of the day: “social is not a syrup you pour over content” and reminded us you cannot bolt on “community” and even if you try, as a website owner or host, you don’t own it’s behaviour.

So, as Elizabeth Pizzuti said in her review of the day, we need to be thinking waaaay beyond user interfaces if we are to keep up with the future of interaction that is emerging so rapidly around us.

Second, there were some good observations about how we co-evolve with machines.

Sarah Angliss, a sound historian and composer with a robot band, gave a brilliant and educational talk about the sometimes surprising way that people have evolved with musical technology (e.g. how and why did instruments such as the Giraffe Piano die out?), and how the Uncanny Valley principle applies, whereby we are increasingly intrigued as machines seem more life-like … until they get too close, and then we often find them distasteful. She also talked about how two elements in music – technique and derring do – can combine to form a mystical third element: grace; and how audiophiles spend absurd amounts of time and money trying to recapture this transcendental feeling in recorded music. She talked about how before recording technology, castrati were used as musical devices and people taught birds popular songs to be reproduced at parties and events, and how we really take for granted the mystical quality of being able to hear the voices of the dead using recording technology. There was something in this talk that seemed very relevant and instructive in terms of how we relate to machines, but which I can’t quite put my finger on.

Another excellent contribution was from Simone Rebaudengo, who gave a delightful talk outlining his experience creating a ‘real fictional network’ of connected toasters that were hosted by willing experimenters in several London offices. The key idea, which I found quite illuminating, was the notion that products might ‘want’ something (e.g. to be used) and in future our relationship with them might not be one of ownership and control, but rather custodianship and participation. The majority of Internet of Things talks I have heard over time tend to struggle to get beyond the fridge or toaster use case, so I was sceptical; but this was such a lovely story and so wonderfully executed that I found it both poignant and in some ways profound in challenging our preconceptions about products, their identity and interaction. You can read more and watch the videos on the designed addictions blog.

Thirdly, another sub-theme I noticed was the idea of making the invisible visible. This is not a new theme, but in recent years it has been increasingly applied to design disciplines that run the risk of disempowering or misleading ‘users’ by cloaking underlying assumptions and functionality. This applies to both the banal issue of website cookie laws all the way through to potentially dangerous developments such as the proliferation of CCTV and even the briefly-notorious MAC-address sniffing hi-tech bins in London. Dan Williams gave a very interesting talk about this and more, and suggested that as technology becomes cheap, commoditised and widely available, we are seeing a proliferation of unintended uses and consequences for previously single-purpose technologies – e.g. CCTV for analysing the gender, race and even income level of a bar, mini-phones that look like car keyrings becoming popular in prisons, or web sites like Please Rob Me that use the Foursquare API for purposes that neither Foursquare nor its users anticipated. Dan reminded us that creating a sense of wonder with technology sometimes means masking how it works; but this can be dangerous since if you don’t know how to read the technology, you don’t know what it is doing. Therefore, a responsibility of critical engineering is to expose how things work so that people are aware of their implications.

A great, thought-provoking day that proved, once again, that there are many brilliant, generous minds working in or around the future of technology and human experience today. Thanks to Jeremy Keith, Clearleft and helpers for making it happen.