Guardian Activate 2010

I went to Activate 2010 yesterday. It’s a conference about technology, society and the future (‘changing the world through the internet’). This is the second time the Guardian have run an Activate event (Activate 09 was very interesting, though I see I mainly ended up writing about how the event embraced the Twitter back-channel by displaying a moderated selection of tweets on stage. They did it again this year and it seemed to work, and was much less controversial, though I’d say that this year a higher percentage of people had laptops, iPads etc in their laps anyway…).

The programme featured an impressive list of speakers from a range of disciplines. It was a real treat to be made to think by a range of futurologists, ethnographers and researchers. A day to wake up your brain and make it think about important stuff. Many of the sessions were split into multiple streams, so I missed some of the best bits of the day, but what follows is some of what I saw.

Emily Bell, in what I think was her last day as director of digital content at the Guardian, introduced the day and welcomed us to the first keynote panel, which set the scene for the day very well with its ambitious title of Society, Humanity, Technology and the Web. (‘Using the power of connected networks, ubiquitous information, cutting edge technology and the spirit of the web to overcome the global challenges of our age’).

Ethan Zuckerman, founder, Global Voices gave a thoughtful and powerful eye opener. Especially for someone who had only landed in Heathrow 90 minutes earlier.

  • We need to point to, and amplify, repressed voices rather than attempting to represent them. It’s silly to speak for someone who is already seizing the microphones themselves
  • Social web = usually a place where you interact with people you already know. However, big cultural events are an opportunity to talk with strangers
  • Sending a million t-shirts to Africa (Million T-Shirts) is a bad idea. Donating clothes damages thriving local businesses.
  • TMS Ruge: “our voices count, and it would be good to partner with us – to have a conversation with us first – before any projects are started”
  • The Iranian ‘green revolution’ was mainly Iranian diaspora raising awareness in West. Twitter is not where you want to organise a revolution; the authorities read it too.
  • we need to listen to people in the developing world tell us what they care about

Jamais Cascio, The Institute for the Future is a self deprecating californian futuroligist with a TED talk and a book (‘Open the Future’) under his belt.

  • technology is culture. It’s not a field, it’s a manifestation of our beliefs, norms and politics. To understand the future of tech we need to think about the future of how we interact with each other
  • 3 drivers: consumption (watching youtube, reading twitter, reading blogs, …) creation (writing/making things), and connection (how do we relate to each other)
  • consumption + creation = attention ecology: making and reading. Largely the world we have today
  • creation + connection = ‘Lego Land’: making and creating and sharing new forms to facilitate further development. creation as collaboration
  • connection + consumption = empathic spectrum: focus on reputation, empathy (rather than attention), slower and richer than the world we have today
  • ‘will technologies make us smarter’ is less important than ‘will they make us better people’
  • human + computer = human
  • technologies are not independent of us. we create them and control and determine what shape they take

Georgia Arnold, SVP for social responsibility at MTV & executive director, Staying Alive Foundation talked about how MTV uses their brand for social good.

  • TV is technology too. 1 trillion hours of TV is watched around the world each year.
  • MTV ‘Staying Alive’ campaign = HIV and AIDS awareness campaign. Staying alive foundation funds young people doing prevention work
  • ‘Shuga’ – Kenyan TV programme. cult viewing whilst also being informative. Multi-layered social campaign: website, FB page, radio, marketing, press, teaching guide, plus lots of fan=created communities. Creativity is vital
  • actors trained with messages and become ambassadors themselves
  • success: releasing results in AIDS conference in Vienna in a couple of weeks
    stats say that if you watch Shuga you are more likely to get tested
  • technology doesn’t work in isolation. Need to think about people
  • technology is the glue that connects people, it doesn’t replace people
  • social media is not yet the most prevelant or influential agent for social change, but social media will be revolutionary in amplifying voices
  • we create everything rights-cleared for everyone to be able to use (including broadcasters)

Dr. Aubrey de Grey, biomedical gerontologist & chief science officer, SENS Foundation gave a disarmingly blunt and comic introduction to regenerative medicine. His exasperation at people who fail to fully understand why living longer is a good thing was probably less useful than trying to actually convince us.

  • SENS foundation is US registered charity focusing on regenerative medicine
  • 2/3 of all deaths worldwide are due to causes related to aging (proportion is much higher in the west)
  • because aging is (was?) inevitable, we tend to put it out of our minds rather than become preoccupied by something ghastly
  • Three approaches: Gerontology (slowing and preventing damage), Maintenance (repair of damage), Geriatrics (preventing death after damage is done).

  • claim: the maintenance approach, focusing on damage, may soon achieve a big extension of human healthy lifespan
  • his book: ‘Ending Aging’
  • eye opening quote: “there’s not much point having a voice if you’re wrong”

After a presentation from mendeley.com (who won the Activate VC pitching day award the day before) there was an interesting, if buzzword laden, panel discussion about VC funding. Bingo if you had ‘groundsourcing’ and ‘crowdfunding’, but don’t forget to take a drink every time you hear the word ‘ecosystem’.

The panel was

  • Esther Dyson (angel investor & chairman, EDventure Holdings)
  • Julie Meyer (founder & CEO, Ariadne)
  • Anil Hansjee (head of corporate development, EMEA, Google)
  • Nick Appleyard (head of digital, Technology Strategy Board)

and was chaired by Charles Cotton (director, Cambridge Enterprise).

I struggled to care about VC really, and the only thing that stood out to me was Esther Dyson’s insights about solving one small problem that make other things easier being better than trying to do everything all at once.

(Why was this a plenary session? Felt like this one could easily have been swapped with a later steamed session). Anyway, I wish we could have had more tangible examples from this panel and less vague hand-waving about ecosystems. Rather than write about this panel, I’m going to recount a little more about Medeley, which helps researchers work smarter and makes research more collaborative by building a research database. A desktop app extracts research metadata (authors, abstract, citations, etc) and aggregates research in the cloud. It can then distill trends, give realtime insights into who is citing who. Very very interesting. Clearly not aimed at me, but it looks so interesting that it makes me want to have a reason to use it.


After the break were some Lightning Presentations (‘Visionary sound bites from the brightest names on the internet on everything from the future of free to the power of unfettered information access to initiate a new world order’).

I went to stream #1…

Danny O’Brien, internet advocacy co-ordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists was excellent. He ran out of time a little bit, so I asked him to fill me in on what he missed. The last couple of points below are what he would have said if he hadn’t needed to truncate himself.

  • Danny’s work at the Committee to Protect Journalists is especially around internet journalists. Half of the journalists that were imprisoned in 2009 worked on the net, many of which are freelance without the support of big institutions
  • how do we burn in protections and reverence for free speech when building media institutions, in the same way that TCP/IP has free speech burned into it
  • Global Network Initiative – ensuring privacy and human rights of people around the world
  • whatever you build, however trivial you think it is, people will use it for vital free speech. What should you do?
  • preserve the confidentiality of your users (including protecting data from state-level adversaries)
  • make your rules public and even-handed (common trick is for states to use the tools of control against the people they want to silence, complaints, by making the rules obscure people don’t challenge)
  • keep your door open (in as well as out) – give people back their data when they want to take it elsewhere
  • make struggling speakers in dangerous regimes a use case when designing
  • turn on SSL

Sharon Biggar, COO & co-founder, Path Intelligence talked about ‘google analytics for the real world’.

  • the falling cost of sensor tech means: online research and analytics innovations can move offline, more experimentation, less need for market research
  • online shops know what we look at and choose not to purchase. Offline: if you walk into a shop and leave, the store doesn’t know what you were looking at
  • Path Intelligence works by detecting mobile devices anonymously and aggregate data around where the device goes. Currently detecting 10M unique visitors every month
  • “a little bit of information about a lot of people” rather than ” a lot from a few people”
  • At this stage, I can’t tell if I’m intrigued or frightened. This could well be an Orwellian spoof. She’s acting, right? She’s working for Liberty or someone and this presentation is going to get increasingly weird and scary until we all want to do something about it. A creative way of delivering a dystopian message about privacy perhaps?
  • surveys tend to underestimate length of time people are shopping
  • Oh. Ok. It’s not a spoof. This is an actual sales pitch for Path Intelligence’s products and services. Gosh. Why are we watching a sales pitch?

Sobia Hamid, co-founder, DataGiving.com

  • Ventroy – took data from Kiva and CrunchBase to show how many micro-enterprises could have been funded by failed startup investments
  • DataGiving beta
  • This is more world-changing, but still I’m seeing a lot more ‘look at what I’ve made’ pitching this year than last year

Matt Stinchcomb, director, Europe, Etsy

  • Etsy: “even the servers were built by hand”
  • last year $190 million of goods sold (doubling each year)
  • $0.20 listing fee, 3.5% commission
  • no reselling allowed, you have to be the maker
  • people before products
  • we think a lot about he cluetrain manifesto: markets are conversations
  • More pitching, though it would be hard not to like Matt and his open delivery.

A keynote panel on Politics, Democracy and Public Life (‘Mobilising democracy, streamlining government, improving access and empowering citizens through the internet’). Moderator: Tom Steinberg, founder, MySociety

Martha Lane-Fox, UK digital champion

  • 10M people in UK have never used internet. 2M have used it and not gone back
  • lots of organisations inviting digital engagement, and it always seems to be via the web
  • the UK could be the first country to have 100% use of internet by 2012 olympics
  • 500,000 computers are locked up in schools every night
  • computers have to somewhere you can get at them: doesn’t necessarily have to be in your home
  • don’t overcomplicate what it taks to get them online. Start with people’s passion. Focus on the benefits to them
  • People don’t yet know what the benefits are for them. Design services on line for people who don’t use them, not for people who do – start with the difficult customers
  • I think I’m a tiny bit in love with Martha Lane-Fox

Steven Clift, founder and executive director, E-Democracy talked about creating online public space for neighbours with common interest

  • every neighbourhood should have a local online space that connects people
  • Pew Internet research: 27% of US adult internet users use digital tools to talk to their neighbours. That’s 20% of adults overall
  • local voices matter, but you need the capacity to listen
  • civility matters. most people see and expect public conflict (flame wars) rather than civil conversation
  • by the way: putting up photos on the screen with ‘Creative Commns via Flickr’ as the attribution is not at all cool
  • real names work, creates reputation, builds trust and community
    inclusion matters
  • changing the neighbourhood rather than changing the world
  • e-democracy.org

Nigel Shadbolt, director, Web Science Trust & The Web Foundation talked about Open Government Data

  • politics is dog eat dog, but academia is the other way around
  • Since data.gov.uk launched, we’ve seen an ABSOrometer (how many ASBOs near where you are now). Was briefly the top free download app in the iTunes store in the UK
  • More worthy examples: UK dentists – find the nearest UK dentist
  • Showed Post Code Data newspaper as an example of what you could do with data if licensing wasn’t a problem
  • principles of public data: available in machine readable form for resuse including commercial reuse

Beth Simone Noveck, deputy chief technology officer, United States and director, White House Open Government Initiative talked about the US open government initiative, with a bit of healthy competition for data.gov.uk. Most interesting to me was a consensus on the panel that while anonymity is important, requesting first + last names, with explanation of why, creates sites in which the names mean more, with a focus on reputation and civility. I also now need to go and read the US government’s National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace proposals.


Final keynote presentations were grouped in the theme of Where Do We Go From Here? (‘Where next for the web? Future technologies and their impact on society and humanity’)

Joe Cerrell, European director, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation talked about philanthrophy and technology.

  • “Devices have the power to change the way we interact with media and change the world”
  • Shared examples of investments in: mobile money in Haiti, room temperature vaccines, Evidence based advocacy
  • ‘living proof’ showcase of investment results

Jan Chipchase, executive creative director of global insights, Frog Design seems to have the best job in the world. Jan (the man, sounds like ‘yan’) observes how products are used in the real world. He talked about ethnography and empathic design.

  • The poor can least afford poorly designed products and services
  • There will be 5bn mobile phone subscriptions by end of the year. 1.1bn sold every year. There’s a design responsibility that comes with that
  • Reputation has value. Reputation is collateral
  • The poor can least afford poorly designed products and services
  • And they know it
  • And now they know that you know it

Desiree Miloshevic, board trustee, Internet Society

  • How should the Internet be governed?
  • Who decides who decides?
  • Currently, mostly governed (controlled by) private sector interests
  • Used a Princess Bride allegory which I can’t relate in sufficient detail to do it justice, other than to say that the Internet = princess who is elegant and simple and virtuous by design, and there’s no clear outcome.

Clay Shirky, professor, Interactive Telecommunications Program, NYU talked about Cognitive surplus.

  • Example of Kenyan election disputed. Media blackout. Realtime news via blogs eg Kenyan Pundit -> Ushahidi
  • human generosity + free time + platform for collaboration (specifically incremental building and sharing)
  • Wikipedia is 100M hours of humans thought. Television 200bn hours eveey year in US alone. Wikipedia every weekend just in adverts in usa alone
  • Hang on a minute Clay: it was 100M hours over two years ago too.. surely that’s gone up a bit since then?
  • The future is random: Infrastructure widely spread means mass rather than depth of participation is often most important. How many people use it is more important than how fancy is it.
  • ‘Design through lack of hubris’. People who are certain of what will happen next try fewer things. People who are willing to learn through incremental public failure often find the inobvious solutions
  • Geographic spread. Innovation coming from oustife traditional centres.
  • Future is harder to predict but easier to see (globally)
  • Paying attention is a valuable tool for understanding the future

Unfortunately, I had to miss the closing presentation from Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his interview by Alan Rusbridger. Real life got in the way and I had to jump out a tiny bit early. Here are the two videos of it though:

And for much more nitty gritty of what was going on and who said what this year, rather than just the bits I saw, the Guardian’s live blog coverage is what you need.

2 Comments

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  1. Activate 2010 – Filtering the Twitterstream…

    Rather interesting observation yesterday – I was busy with client work so couldn’t attend the Grauniad Activate 2010 conference, so I dipped in (as is my wont) to the User Generated Twitterstream (#activate2010). At the same time there was a Guardian …

    Trackback by broadstuff — July 2, 2010 #

  2. Thanks a lot for summing this up and commenting. Wish I could have attended. Really helpful to read the boiled down version here. Tnx!

    Comment by Hilla — July 4, 2010 #

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