Leeds Ignited.

ignite

I was a bit nervous about going to the Ignite Leeds event at the Rose Bowl last Wednesday evening. An impressive line up, that was obvious, but when I looked at the titles of their talks I did wonder if it all wasn’t a bit above my head. These people are geeks! Hard-boiled techies. And they know stuff that’s way beyond my meager comprehension. They use words like teleworking and data store and geolocation (I’d like to point out that this latter word is strictly tautologous, one of those annoying half Greek, half latin verbal concoctions that means bugger all – located on Earth! as opposed to? . . . am I the only person left in Leeds aggrieved by this? I believe this makes me a nerd, and anything but a geek) Still, I did read something about free wine, so I knew I could always hit the booze if my brain was becoming over-taxed.

The format of Ignite will be familiar to anyone who’s ever attended a Pecha Kucha evening, or even Betta Kultcha, our beloved local comedic brand of passionate, punchy, powerpoint presentations. Ignite had fifteen speakers, each with just five minutes and twenty slides to make a mark on the minds of the hometown crowd. I have to admit I couldn’t do it and I have the utmost admiration for anyone with the gumption to get up and gab under such pressure. I don’t have the gorm .

First up was Ben Dalton. Digital Death and Virtual Suicide . . . a cheery, light-hearted introduction to the proceedings. Actually, Ben promised to talk about what he called “happy death,” as opposed to the grim and gory actuality of analogue annihilation; digital demise, virtual mortality, the pure passing away of pixels, the ceasing to be of computer generated figments. Ben was amusing and genuinely thought provoking. I’m not a gamer and don’t really understand that world at all but it did seem like the geeks are catching up with issues that have been tackled in fiction for thousands of years. We make up characters and pretend they have a life of their own; we become attached, want to know the story, worry about what happens next; we suspend disbelief and get caught up in a phantasmagorical existence . . . then we get all discombobulated by the death of a pretense. It’s been going on since well before Homer. Still, it’s endlessly fascinating. Web 2.0 fatality just seems faster and more frivolous. Ze Frank’s take on termination is brilliantly funny.

I loved Herb Kim’s idea of Thinking Digital as a kind of Geordie Ted! The story of how he put together “an annual conference where the world’s greatest thinkers and innovators gather to inspire, to entertain, and to discuss the latest ideas and technologies,” in Gateshead, using the power of social media was inspiring. I’ve just looked at the website though and am gobsmacked at the idea that Robert McKee is considered a thinker of any stature . . . erm, he said Goodfellas was a bad movie! Need I cite any more evidence? Thought not.

Sam Foster urged us not to go to work. Stay home. Move somewhere nice. Have lunch every day with your loved one Ok, fair enough, that’s only half the story, but it’s the half I took to heart. Sam’s point was that in today’s connected world the idea of jumping in the car or, heaven forbid, getting on a train to work (and those of us who follow the travels and travails of @johnpopham know just how excruciating that experience can be) is plain daft. Though it only works for software geeks. Plumbers obviously can’t retire the white van just yet. There was a serious message to Sam’s talk about the necessity of trusting ones colleagues and being “grown up” if this new way of team working is going to get anywhere. I just can’t help thinking this is a fabulous ruse of late capitalism, to relocate the supervisor/manager inside the heads of the workforce, as a kind of super-ego or company conscience. Saves money on office rent too. I have my cynical moments.

Tim Panton talked about building telephone services for the rest of humanity. Unfortunately the talk went whoosh right over my head. Hadn’t a clue what was going on, just lots of techie guys having fun with expensive bits of machinery and wires and stuff . . . looked like it was a fabulous holiday in Nieu though. And a really good idea . . . I think?

At least the next guy, Dean Vipond, was more on my level, talking about designing for real people. Apparently he makes these people up and then wonders what kind of stuff these pretend personages would like! Now that’s my kind of job. Functional fiction, plot with a purpose. He even calls these people “personas!” and recommends inventing “edge cases” and “unique needs,” as if design was a sub-branch of the Gothic genre. I wish Dean would get cracking designing train ticket machines that were made with lanky, haptic, visually impaired blokes in mind. The world would be a much better place were that to happen.

When I saw that John Bradford was going to talk about The Difference Engine I was expecting some kind of biographical story about Charles Babbage. Turns out it’s something to do with digital mentoring, or financing digital. I’m afraid I was too busy wondering what a guy in a mud spattered hoodie had to do with Ada Lovelace that I missed the point and got myself completely confused. They have a flash website and a very nice office in the North East though, which is more than can be said for Charles Babbage.

The last person scheduled to talk before the break was apparently “a bloke with a beard, a hat and glasses” who’d gone awol. This description fit several of the guys in the lecture theatre. But nobody came forward. Instead, Steve Manthorpe bravely stepped in and talked about the robotic erotic (seriously, he did!) Beginning with Pygmalian and Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and ending with Roxxxy, he traced the history of mankind’s sexual involvement with anthropomorphic machines and facsimile humans. Steve mentioned that his own pre-pubescent fantasy female sex puppet was Marina from Stingray. Of course, this is perverse. Any adolescent male with a fully functioning libido and testosterone to spare obviously would fancy Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds. Fact! Steve also randomly referred to Erika La Tour Eiffel, a woman with Objectum Sexual Disorder, who is legally entitled to have conjugal relations with the famous Paris landmark. There was a lot of talk earlier about big penises (all Dean Vipond’s fault, or should I say, Mr Big Penis,) but let’s face it chaps, who could compete with a 324 metre erection? I caught Richard Michie collaring Steve in the break and making him promise to do an unexpurgated version of his presentation at Bettakultcha. Not for delicate ears.

After the break Julian Tait talked about how open data would transform our cities. He mentioned how this was already happening in America, where they have the advantage of a mayoral system (advantage, that is, unless you happen to be a schoolkid in California who doesn’t have access to a computer at home, now they don’t have books in schools either.) Open data is gonna be great for those of us who can afford to get connected.

Next was Matt Edgar with his tale of industrial espionage and steam engine skullduggery. I have to admit an interest; I’m a South Leeds lad who got brought up with folk tales about our local hero, the noble, innocent, altruistic genius Matthew Murray, and the dastardly, thieving, Brummy b*****d, James Watt Junior. I always want to boo and hiss when I hear that name. And Matt’s right about the statue of the father of the wicked West Midland’s monopolist, which is in Leeds City Square; the interloping icon is an isult to local pride and should be torn down and trampled on with extreme prejudice. Who’s bringing the dynamite? I’ve got the rope.

Dave Mee calmed us all down with his riff on the acronym, TBC. What does it mean, exactly. I thought I knew on Wednesday but today I’m more in the dark than ever. And that’s fine. Seems that knowledge these days is a shifty, slippery, slightly shady beast with questionable parentage. Not something to put money on. I didn’t quite see the point of the slide about Walter Benjamin and I almost put my hand up to stop the event when I saw the mis-spelling of Jurgen Habermas! If we are going to uncritically name drop our favourite critical theorists, let’s at least get their names right! Or was this a joke about Wikipedia? Hard to tell these days.

I was really looking forward to Guy Dickinson‘s talk on Flour Power. Bread, don’t you just love it! But apparently Guy changed his mind a few hours before he was due to speak and decided to write another presentation at breakneck speed on the 70’s kids book, Masquerade. I remember the hoohah about the scandal and Guy’s talk brought it all back. Kit William’s illustrations were beautiful and I loved the book for the pretty pictures but I never bothered to even attempt to solve the puzzle. Far too devilishly clever and devious for me. I just liked the story. And the fact that William’s inveigled Bamber Gasgoigne into burying a Golden Hare encased in clay and horse manure (for some technical reason that escapes me . . . or was it just for a laugh?) and then writing a book about the whole affair. Just marvelous.

One of the striking things I noticed at Ignite was that there weren’t very many women. There are more women in the new Cabinet than were in the line up on Wednesday. Come on chaps, sort it out! The only woman who spoke, Megan Smith, had the best title of the evening: The surreptitious Beckoning of Attention. And some of the most gorgeous slides. Definitely the most visually appealing presentation. I have to plead ignorant as to what exactly the story was, or how her MicroCONTROL piece worked though. It looked fabulous and sounded intriguing so I’m definitely going to follow up and find out what’s going on. How do those machines tell stories, or gather stories, or pluck stories from geo-located public spaces. I really do need to find out. Would save a hell of a lot of time sitting at my desk making stuff up, if I could just snare stories from the aether.

Tim Medcalf asked if “geek” should be a protected characteristic under the new discrimination law. The answer is yes, maybe, somewhat, in theory. Or was he kidding? Do geeks do irony? Am I in trouble for stereotyping our more intelligent brethren? There was a serious point to Tim’s talk, which was about can the law protect our sensitivities to insult, and do we have a right to be shielded from offense? Do we have to be nice to geeks? Let’s face it, what they gonna do . . . refuse to reinstall my software? Hah!

Matt Seward talked about design truth. How design has unintended consequences, how “meaning” isn’t nailed down by the designer but can take on a life of its own once it’s left the studio. Matt introduced us to a hairy guy who looked like the long lost brother of Dickie Davies. Apparently this bloke, Rob Janoff, designed the Apple logo. For free (did Matt actually say that, or have I just made that up?) I didn’t know there were so many urban myths surrounding the logo. Nonsense about Adam and Eve, Gay Pride, Alan Turing; all perfectly fabulous, wonderfully inventive, and delightfully appropriate. And all total BS! The truth is quite mundane. The colours were something to do with colour bars on early monitors and the bite was simply to reference scale. Matt mentioned that the only brief Rob Janoff got from Steve Jobs was “don’t make it cute!” As he says, briefs can be pants. His last rule of thumb of good design was “nobody remembers the designers.” That’s obviously not true. Designers remember designers.

Last, and most definitely lost, was the man they call Ivor Tymchak, who wanted to persuade us that everything we know is wrong. He seemed very certain of his position. Absolutely convinced that he was right in pronouncing us all in the eventual wrong. He came armed with graphs and charts and some clever verbal conjuring, but I think I could spot some gaping holes in his argument. His position is a variation of the philosophical stunt called Pyrronnism, which tends to crop up in times of cultural uncertainty and intellectual regression. It’s easily dismissed with a cheery, “how could you possibly know?” Of course, a true skeptic would shrug and admit defeat, but semi-skeptics are the most hardened of True Believers and come up with ever more desperate ruses of unreason to steady the shaky philosophical foundations and quell the cognitive dissonance. Fortunately, Ivor is just kidding. He’s got a good story and it makes for some funny gags along the way. He doesn’t want to convince us that comprehensive doubt is the best way to live as that tends to inert terror; a judicious, wry, humane, skepticism is more Ivor’s style. I know that he’ll never appear without a hat too. I know that with 100% absolute, unshakable conviction.

So, all in all a great evening of story telling, joking around and make believe. I don’t know why I was so worried. Geeks are just like the rest of us. Indeed, some of my best friends are geeks . . .