Thinking Digital 2009

Thinking digital 2009 was simply fantastic this year. It was going to be challenge to beat last year but they manage to smash the ball out the park this time around. I turned up a little late for the for the first talk and was directed upstairs in time for Paul Miller from the school of everything to talk about the social media camp and how the education system was slightly broken. Harry Drnec former CEO of Red Bull spelled out a simple message, advertise well and make money. As he talked about Red Bull, the can of Red Bull Cola called me from the late night I had the previous night. Dr James Terkeurst from the institute of digital innovation showed some good projects they had at the college. One of the most interesting was around a musical experience which involved 3 guys playing live on electrical instruments while the visual danced along in time to the music being made in real time (The Sancho Plan). Its hard to describe but we were treated to the live experience later in the day. The last talk of the session was Mike Southon from the FT. I've already written about Mike who gave a updated talk of his talk at Thinking Digital: The Next Generation. This talk must be watched live, but its Mike comparing Startup Culture to the Beatles. Its bold, funny and full of good points. A good end to the section titled Present at the Creation.

Session 2 was disturbing the universe and included talks from Simone Brunozzi of Amazon, Alex Hunter of Virgin, Tara Shears of Liverpool Uni/Cern LHC and Curtis Wong. Simone gave a good introduction to cloud computing while Alex Hunter gave a talk which I felt could have been covered by Tara Hunt later. So although it was bad, it just felt like duplication and that slot could have gone to something else. Tara Shears on the Large Hardon Collider was really interesting, although I heard certain people grumbling that it was long. I think it felt longer because Alex had over run? By the time we got to Curtis Wong of Microsoft he had to cut half his talk which then felt like a product demo of the worldwide telescope. Reading his profile it seems like there was lots more he wanted to say but didn't get the chance.

After a lovely social Dinner, came session 3: thinking digital. Straight after the Sancho Plan which is the interactive experience I talked about before came Johnny Chung Lee who recently joined Microsoft. Johnny did the same talk as he did at Mix09 where he talked about what really interested him in the HCI research field. Although Johnny's fame is from the stuff he did with the wiimote, you certainly get the feeling he's moved on, which is great. Talking about moved on, Adrian Hon from Six to Start talked about the work they had done for Penguin and you really got the feeling that they had finally dropped the notion thoughts idea that they were just about Alternative Reality Gaming. It was never once mentioned in his presentation. Adrian did have some problems with his laptop at the start and I was worried for him that what had happened to me at Next09 would happen to him but it was sorted after about 5mins. For the record he had a Mac, but I also want to say I've used my laptop for many presentations after Next09 and never had a problem doing dual screen. Anyway, we ended with Dan Lyons of Newsweek Magazine who was the Fake Steve Jobs. Dan started off the talk by talking about how his comments in the Thinking Digital University the day before had been twittered and posted in the Guardian via Kevin Anderson. He claimed he had been sudo-miss-quoted. I expected Kevin to ask a question at the end but he wasn't in the room, instead he was doing a interview somewhere else, but later came to find me to find out exactly what Dan had said. Anyhow back the talk, Dan talked about how Newsweek was accepting the fact they need to be more niche. There plan of action was to become much more relevant to a certain demographic but also charge more for the magazine. It started out that way and by the questions he was ad-libbing about all types of stuff. Dan's entertaining to say the least.

The last session of the long day titled: stop making sense started slowly with Michael Shermer of Scientific America and Skeptic magazine. A good talk but very similar to the talk in 2008. Talking about last year, the surprise hit for me was the Chemistry of Love and this year Chandler Burr of the New York Times with his insight into the perfume business and process was just something else. So this might not seem like anything new to anyone else but being a typical heterosexual man I tend to use little in the way of perfume, we learned that perfume was a multiple billion pound business where billions of individual scents are stored and mixed in labs to enhance the perfumes we use. Some of those scents are natural and some synthetic, some are blends of others but the whole thing is art. Amazing! And even better the night before at the speakers dinner, Chandler had prepared a menu of smells for the dinner. Before the food came out, he would give us a talk about the smells which make up the dinner. So you would get the smell of the next course on smeller sticks before it would come out. That was a seriously cool night. Another seriously from left field talk from Caleb Chung the toymaker and creator of Furby and Pleo. We were running very late by the time this talk started but no one moved from there seat it was still very full in the Sage2 room. Caleb explained where he had come from and what inspired him at every stage. Then got to Furby and Pleo. By the time he put on the video of the Pleo in action the crowd was in his hands. Then he pulled out Pleo and wow you could feel the excitement in the air. Great talk.
The dinner for Thinking Digital was so large they had to split it across 2 venues. It was a excellent end to a long but rewarding day.

Day 2 and session 5: Unconventional Wisdom. Rob Colling the musican started off the session which I missed most of due to a very long taxi ride from my hotel the marriot, which I got mixed up with the hilton in gateshead. So everyday I had to get a 10 pound taxi to the hotel next to ikea. Yes I got mixed up and its partly my fault for booking so late but the Copthorne, Jurys, Thistle and others were full and booking the Travel lodge or Premier Inn would involve paying for it myself then trying to claim it back while explaining why I had choose not to use a prefered hotel. Anyway, Matt Ridley the author of Genome, did a excellent job explaining genes and the genome. It was short and sweet but packed full of information which was easy to follow. Bob Baskin of Spotlight Analysis followed and his talk although interesting was slow and wondering. Weak I'm sorry to say. Hans Rosling follow via video link and go to meeting for his screencast. Hans is famous for the Trendalyzer which has been seen on TED talks many times over. He sold to Google but his whole talk was about the importance of good visualisations for data and statistics. He praised Google for there recent public data search and urged governments and public agencies to pull there finger out and release their data. Fantastic talk and well presented over a video link. Tom Scott had the hard task of following Hans and stopping people before going to break. Luckily Tom had a great time on stage, it started slowly but by the end people were cheering and laughing out loud to the good graph gags. It was certainly one of the best performances by Tom and I heard people afterwards saying good things about it.

Session 6: Content and it's Discontent. Started off with more music, this time by the singing/playing talent of Oonagh Cassidy. Kerstin Mogull of BBC Future Media & Technology stood in for Erik Huggers and covered the BBC's move to Manchester. Matt Mason, author of The Pirates Dilemma followed and struck a cord, outlined the need for the media businesses to take piracy seriously and do the smart thing. Copy and learn from them. I got a great quote – “don't let your legal department ruin a good remix before they talk to your marketing department.” I really wanted to catch Matt but he was surrounded at the end and I had to go to a networking lunch. I think he would have got a real good kick out of R&D TV. Oh well hope he sees the tweet I sent today. Following Matt was Russell Davies and Ben Terrett, I was intrigued to see who Russell Davies was because I keep missing the interesting conference and he's generally a bit of celeb in certain circles. There presentation was quite varied but in the end they got around to the main point and actually they have created something which I find fascinating. A way of creating short run newspapers or things previous thought of as newspapers, there example was a newspaper made of all the thinking digital online coverage including all the tweets from day one. Delivered to the conference that morning for everyone to read. I didn't grab one, because of the lunch but I was dying to see the quality of the print. I'm thinking this will make a fantastic way of finally reading more. I can control the line lengths and have the type exactly how I want it. It will be cool to finally get back into XSL-FO too. So I'm looking forward to the project, although I can't find anything about it.

At Lunch there was a special invite only lunch with Kerstin Mogull to discuss more about the BBC's move to Manchester. Nothing secret, just a continuation of the conversation over a lunch. Because of this I was late back to Session 7: Thinking Post-Digital. Ben Hammersley of Wired UK, is one of those names once again that fits that uk internet celeb category. Celeb or not Ben waxlyrical about the need to stop talking about things like a episode of top gear. Catering to the niche and not the mass, do it for yourself and don't water it down for everyone else. These are some of the things Ben talked about. It was a good talk but would have liked to asked some questions. Darius Pocha of Enable Interactive talked about how some experiences can't be emulated digitally by throwing things at the crowd, non-demand is more memorial. risk heightens experience, yadda yadda, yeah we get it. Generally it was a little lame and could have been redone in 5mins flat instead of 20mins. Andy Redfern of the Ethical Superstore worked the crowd and gave 10 practical tips to think about in business. Nice presentation but it was somewhat eclipsed by Tara Hunt author of The Whuffie Factor, who gave a great presentation which I really want to show to certain people I know. Actually I really want to buy her book for some people and throw it at them.

Thinking Digital was excellent and the production and location top notch. During the conference there was talk about 2010, TED-X Leeds and a digital festival for gateshead in 2010. So there's plenty being planned for 2010 and later in the year. I expect I'll be at the next one for sure, specially with the amount of inspiration I got from this year. I also spoke to a ton of people, I expect some of those conversations will turn into something very positive in the future. Great work Herb, Codeworks and the Thinking Digital team, can't wait for the videos so I can share them around.

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Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.