The Royal Society are currently celebrating their 350th anniversary with a series of events under the See Further banner.
Last night, I attended a panel session entitled Future Technologies featuring
- Sir Tim Berners-Lee , inventor of the World Wide Web and Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
- Stephen Fry, writer, broadcaster and technophile
- Professor Dame Wendy Hall, leading computer scientist at University of Southampton
- Bill Thompson, technology critic and commentator on digital culture
- Jim Haseloff, expert in Synthetic Biology at the University of Cambridge
So, a very esteemed panel and a very educational session.
This was also the first session I’ve attended with a (moderated) Twitterfall running on a screen in the background. While this meant there was no danahboyd style sniping , it didn’t provide much value and was primarily an annoying distraction
While the panel were prompted with a series of questions, the speakers invariably went off on tangents. At times, this made it difficult to keep up with the gist of the arguments (if indeed there were points being made) but I did jot down plenty of interesting things. Perhaps inevitably, Stephen Fry and Tim Berners-Lee did most of the talking, but I’ve jotted down at least one thing from each of the speakers (Wendy Hall and Bill Thompson chaired parts of it, hence the relative lack of quotes from them).
Note that I am paraphrasing, and they aren’t verbatim quotes.
I also apologise for my interchanging of the terms web and internet. I know they are different, but I’m never entirely certain which is correct in which circumstance.
Stephen Fry – We are often made a fool of by the future. But it is not the science that surprises us but the humanity – how we humans respond to the science.
Jim Haseloff – Biological systems are increasingly being seen as information processing systems, with recognition of the discrete parts
Tim Berners Lee – there is so much data that we are now moving from one person retaining all of the information to it being shared among a group. We therefore need democratising technology to help us work together collectively. This in turn could help democracy work better
Technology and tipping points
Stephen Fry – Twitter is banal and foolish… Naturally, I gravitated towards it
Stephen Fry – The press feel threatened by Twitter as celebrities can now go and do their own press. Why should Ashton Kutcher or Demi Moore use a press agent when they can talk directly to four million people? (Incidentally, he views this lift incident as a tipping point for Twitter)
Stephen Fry – The most important debate at the moment is the tension between openness and privacy
Bill Thompson – In the early 1980s IBM computers were priced at such a point that middle managers were able to buy then without seeking corporate approval. They were able to undermine the mainframe and information services department, providing them with new tools and a choice
The internet for everyone
Stephen Fry – we are facing a same problem with a digital underclass as we did with a literary underclass one hundred years ago
Tim Berners-Lee – The internet isn’t more important than vaccinations in Africa, but they can work together in interesting ways
Tim Berners-Lee – It is more important for the internet to be ubiquitous than it is to be fast
Bill Thompson – we need to prepare ourselves for the ways in which the 80% of those not currently online will try to use the internet
Tim Berners-Lee – Once a computer is connected to the web, it is as important as any other computer in the network, whether it is at MIT or somewhere in Africa
Evolution of technology
Stephen Fry – We can’t deduce from an invention how people will use it. From a person experimenting with pistons we get a car, huge highways, London’s one way transport system and Top Gear
Jim Haseloff – We have an emotional attachment to “natural crops” but these have still evolved due to our behaviour and involvement. Our crops are just domesticated weeds.
Tim Berners-Lee – The internet removes our geographic constraints. Does this mean we can meet a greater variety of people, to open up society, and produce greater peace and harmony
Society and culture
Tim Berners-Lee – Freedom and freedom of speech online raises questions about society, not technology
Stephen Fry – We are walking masses of metadata. We plug ourselves in and react. Software then deduces our intentions without the need of us to state them
Jim Haseloff – The internet will encourage diversity, not monoculture. However, it can introduce more volatility since consensus, and thus change, is reached quicker
Stephen Fry – (Rubbishing Nicholas Carr’s thesis on changing neuropathy in The Shallows) This current generation is more literate and more confident in what it wants to say than that of one hundred years ago. Who cares if they don’t always put the apostrophes in the right places. Language pedants are only trying to prove that they have received a good education.
Stephen Fry – The first thing I thought when I opened up my iPhone 4 (and saw the front facing camera) was that this will be great for prostitutes
Stephen Fry – We talk about systems but we are in them. We talk about humanity but we are human. We can’t perfectly design a system and the web will be like us – disgusting but lovable.
Wendy Hall – I’d like a teletransporter, but I’d be worried about 404 errors
Tim Berners-Lee – The most important thing for the future of the web is something I can’t imagine. It is open and for everyone; it wasn’t designed by me for me.