A report from Webstock 2013: Jasmina Tesanovic

Photo: Bruce Sterling

I've been to tech conferences all over the world, but this one may be the most radical: Webstock in Wellington, New Zealand.

It's about web designers as both stars of "new media" and as futurist philosophers. These web people, who normally talk in their geeky way about algorithms, can't resist preaching some morality and politics, all from a handsome wooden stage on which the Beatles once performed in 1964.

Their IQs are as high as boiling water, while their jargon is a multinational meta-language above all national cultures. They are traitors to the sacred values of corporate mainstream business, even when they are part of it.

Here are some Webstock philosophical homilies.

• Structure your information diet. Don't consume too much data, but create a nutritious whole-news movement. Don't advertise, inform.

• Since time is precious, attention must be "paid." Go local! Eat broccoli, not overstuffed pizzas from the Fox News empire!

• Get rid of the clients who restrict your creativity. Use adversity to rediscover your aspirations, the goals you either never set, or that you lost in the money maze.

• The no-client policy says: when you have a creative project, try it immediately. You know more that you know that you know!

This leitmotif: do it immediately, do it for yourself — is the core of the web designer activism. It's as if protracted thought was bad for their creativity. Ponderous concern is just procrastination in disguise. The web is so uncertain that you must either react with lean, monkey-like agility, or else face psychotherapy.

More key words:

• fail, but fail forward. The problem comes when we don't understand the problem. Don't "think outside the box", change the box entirely.

• Journalism is in crisis. Not knowing your tools means telling bad stories. Designers are natural leaders for creatives less technically deft, those who struggle to survive! Create better content, using design as wedges to make people happier!

• instead of motion pictures, we make emotion machines!

Then we have the dark euphoria design fiction parable of "Fluffy, the Internet-of-Things LOLcat." This darling, hugely popular pet is actually a metaphor for ourselves, the ignorant Internet livestock dominated by moguls like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple… People living in denial while their world falls apart with climate change and finance crisis. No "off" button in real lives of humans, as colorful and hapless as Internet cat pics! Not quite what Vaclav Havel had in mind when he aspired to "live in truth."

Then we go to smart cities, in which the word "smart" disguises an oppressive disaster-capitalism. It is smartness imposed from above, created and dropped onto cities from a scorched-space abstracted void. Cities without history, where we don't live and never will: cities consecrated to the administrative needs of corporate elites.

But another city is possible with these approaches:

1. broadband connectivity to make the city live
2. smart personal devices for individuals
3. open municipal data
4. public interfaces
5. cloud computing

In modern China, we are told, citizens live double lives: a risky, oppressive dangerous real life and a pleasing Internet life. Your intimates, who know too much about you, are a threat to you, while Internet strangers are kindly friends who want to help. Chinese users have elastic selves, stretching back and forth over the limits of official proscription. Is it true of just them, or everybody nowadays?

Web design is a moral issue! Occupy design! Destroy misogyny! Destroy Webstock itself, even! The audience rose with a final roar as this two-day orgy ended and everyone sought a friendly bar around the corner.

I must say that the true winners of this web conference are cats. Clearly cats are winning the Internet without having to do any of the hard work.

The hacktivist blogger gets some attention, but the Twitter profile for his cat "Sockington" has one and a half million followers. Now I am one among them, since I am promoting this stupid cat as a philosopher of the new media. Sockington even has his own Wikipedia entry. Design may be a tool for divine genius for web stars, yet it is cats, the surrogates of humans, who become the protagonists! This is the world as it is!

What else can one say about Wellington, NZ?
It has the best mutton and the worst cake in the world.
I saw the best sea views and took dreadful photos.
People dress in chic, sleek Californian sports gear with the dismal hats of the monarch, Queen Elizabeth!

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