In continuing with our fine Webstock tradition of losing a speaker at the last moment, we’re really sad to announce the Garr Reynolds has had to cancel his trip to Webstock. He’s come down with a bad case of the flu, it’s very contagious and his Dr has advised no travel. Garr really really wanted to make it here, but:
a) he was so sick his wife had to write us and let us know he couldn’t make it;
b) we didn’t want to be known as the conference that infected the whole NZ web community and various web glitterati from around the world with highly infectious flu!
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we’ve got a wonderful replacement for Garr at the conference. Amy Hoy, who’s spoken twice at Webstock before has agreed to step in at very late notice and deliver what we’re sure will be a wonderful presentation in Garr’s place. Thank you Amy, we’re extremely grateful!
Another option that was discussed rejected here at Webstock was having Webstock’s own Ben Lampard replace Garr with his own talk, entitled, ‘Presentation Ben’. We’re sure you’ll join with us in being glad Amy was in the country!
We’ve had a great response to the BNZ Start-Up alley, with nearly 30 companies entering. The range, scope and ambition of entrants has been extremely impressive — as convener of the selection panel, Nat Torkington, put it, “there’s been lots of companies entered I’d never heard about, but which are a long way along!”
And as much as we’d love to showcase everyone, there’s only room for the six finalists. So without further ado, here they are!
“Educa – helping parents stay connected with children’s early childhood learning. We are thrilled to be selected as one of the six finalists for the BNZ Start-up Alley. To see how Educa can benefit you, talk to us at Webstock 2012.”
Nathan Li — CEO
“GoVocab – Go Vocab is a new way to teach, learn and revise vocabulary. It’s fun and it makes sure you actually remember what you learn.”
Michael Dowse — GoVocab
“Luumin – We are very excited at being selected for the BNZ Start-up Alley! What a fantastic way to start off 2012. We can’t wait to get to Webstock and share
the Luumin Social Productivity app with everyone.”
“My Tours – Webstock really pushes you to up your game in whatever you do and we are really looking forward to pitching in front of 500 of our peers for the BNZ Start Up Alley.”
Glen Barnes — Founder
“Pocketsmith – We’re thrilled at being selected as a finalist for the BNZ Startup Alley, and look forward to meeting our friends in the NZ startup community at Webstock!”
Jason Leong — Co-founder
“uSnap.us – We’re thrilled to be selected as a finalist for the Startup Alley at Webstock and now we can show everyone attending and the judges why uSnap.us will be such an amazing product.”
Owen Evans — Co-Founder
Congratulations to these six finalists! We look forward to seeing them at Webstock.
Jennifer Brook is a resident of tree houses, a maker of limoncello, a cobbler of shoes, and one heckuva interaction designer. Jennifer is a lead user experience designer for Method. Prior to joining Method, Jennifer was interaction designer at The New York Times, where she designed the newspaper’s iPad and iPhone apps as well as several of the company’s web products. She’s teaching a Webstock workshop on rapid prototyping for the iPhone and iPad.
“Tapworthy” author Josh Clark sat down with Jennifer to talk about her path to touchscreen design, what it’s like to square off with Steve Jobs, the techniques newfangled designers can learn from old-fashioned books, and what she has in store for Webstock.
Josh: Like a lot of folks who come to digital design, your path wasn’t exactly a straight line. Where did you start in your career?
Jennifer: For the seven years after college, I focused on making books: letterpress printing, hand-binding, the whole nine yards. I got into making limited-edition letterpress artist books that have been collected by rare book libraries, museums, private collectors. And it was through bookmaking, which I see as a kind of interaction design practice, that I stumbled into what I’m doing now.
Books as interaction design, I like it! Here’s this ancient, centuries-old process of printing words and ideas, and now you’re someone who’s at the cutting edge of digital design. A lot of people would look at those worlds as being completely at odds.
I don’t see them as being at odds. There are a lot of similarities between bookmaking and digital interaction design. As a bookmaker, the way I approach my work is through this lens of an interplay between form and content. I typically start out with content, work through sketchbooks, and then start prototyping book forms. Before production, I have anywhere from 10-20 prototypes before a book would go into production.
The fundamental process of making a book: write, sketch, prototype, is almost identical to the process that I follow now.
Could you speak a bit more about how books are interactive?
Sure, well, a book is merely an inanimate object until someone opens it. Access to the content can’t happen until that first interaction happens. It’s all about hands and touch. Touch interfaces, ease of use, readability, portability, people have been working on these problems for hundreds of years through the form of the book.
It’s a highly evolved piece of technology that took centuries to get to a point where you don’t have to consciously think about the fact that it’s a complex piece of interaction design.
So as a bookmaker, I was interested in exploring these ideas, deconstructing the interaction, and exploring book forms where more interaction was necessary to unlock certain content. In all of the artist books that I’ve made, there is text that can’t be read unless someone does something in addition to just opening the book.
When I would make books, I would find myself watching people use my book prototypes to try to figure out ways to make them easier to use, or consider affordances to cue people that there was something more going on. I loved thinking about the intimacy of the form as a kind of play that would invite a deeper relationship between the content and the person.
Why did you make the jump to digital?
Learning about the history and the technology of the book was the gateway drug into wanting to be a part of something that was technologically relevant. Through making and researching books, I became interested in the idea of being at the edge of something, like when all of these different technologies—paper making, book binding, and printing—were at the edge and converging. This is what pushed me into switching the atmosphere of my practice from art and craft into design.
It was when I was living in a tree house, without an Internet connection, and for a period of time without electricity, when I started reading Fast Company and getting excited about what was happening online.
Okay, back up, we can’t let this pass. You lived in a tree house?
The tree house is a structure on a friend’s property in North Carolina. When I left my very first job, I retreated to said tree house for several months. Then I went and worked for some friends of mine who are weavers in Italy for several months for the winter. When I came back in the Spring, the friend and I decided we wanted to make the tree house bigger. So I drafted plans for an additional part and we hired a carpenter. For about four months, I worked on building the second part of this tree house, which I then lived in for several years after.
You’re drawn to the making of physical things.
I’m a builder.
Of books, of tree houses, and also of shoes, right?
Oh gosh, shoes, yes! As I started getting more and more involved in bookmaking and my work began to be collected, I would see my books go into special collection libraries, put behind glass boxes in exhibitions, and stowed away deep inside buildings, never to be handled again. I also observed that, because the books were perceived to be so precious, people were afraid to touch them. This was antithetical to why I wanted to make books. The possibility for a piece of artwork to be handled was, coming from an art school background where everything hangs on walls, the part I fell in love with.
Making shoes is a way to take the tools, materials, and processes I know and understand as a bookmaker, and using them in service of making a utilitarian object.
So you start off making art books in a tree house in North Carolina, and shortly after you find yourself working at New York Times Digital. How’d that happen?
In coming out as an interaction designer, I recognized that living in a tree house in the middle of North Carolina was like falling in love with marine biology while living in Kansas. My whole life became about getting to water as quickly as possible. New York, in this way, is my ocean.
And so I moved out of the tree house, found a mentor and just kind of put my head down on pursuing this one thing. When I finally moved to New York for the job at the Times, I was mentally prepared for it. And absolutely excited.
One of the things you’ll talk about at Webstock is how publishers are adapting to the post-PC (and post-print) era. They’re moving from the intimacy of the print era to the intimacy of the touchscreen. Are publishers in a way better suited than other industries to make this transition?
There’s definitely a fantasy that publishers have about what the iPad could be, and while many of their fantasies are about revenue, they have other possibilities in mind as well. I think some of their fantasies are around that connection that people have with the brand and how that could potentially extend to devices like the iPad or iPhone.
A real strength of analog technologies like magazines and newspapers is the opportunity to turn off and focus, and go more deeply into something. I believe there’s a need and a desire for human beings to have “off time.” There’s an opportunity there for digital designers to explore and solve these kinds of problems.
I’m interested in an idea that Mark Weiser coined and started writing about in the ’90s: the idea of “calm technology.” The central idea behind calm technology is that it should move into the periphery and away from being the center of our attention. Our smart phones and connected devices are still very much at the center of our attention, but I hope that over the next few years, this will start to change.
I’m personally interested in finding ways to allow technology to move to the periphery. It’s something I thought about when I went out to Cupertino to work on the first New York Times iPad prototype at Apple. I wasn’t thinking, “can this replicate the newspaper?” but rather, “can this app provide a kind of mental space for someone wanting to delve into long-form content?”
Do you think of the iPad differently from the iPhone in that respect?
Definitely. I don’t open my iPad up in line to check my email and see what’s new on Twitter. The iPad is usually not far from my bed or somewhere under the couch, and something I pick up here and there, not too frequently, but every couple of days. I personally think of it more as a domestic device, but that’s not to say that there aren’t these huge opportunities for the iPad in education, health care, and enterprise.
But if you look at the way Apple marketed the first iPad, it was through these giant advertisements of people laying on their couch with the iPad on their lap. And that was the marketing campaign for an entire year. That says a lot about how they were thinking about how the iPad would be used. That it’s exploding in all these other areas and that it is making it’s way into the workplace is a bit of a surprise. I definitely didn’t observe that when interviewing people the summer after the iPad came out.
When you went to Cupertino, it was two or three weeks before the iPad announcement. Your team was invited by Apple to hustle to build the New York Times iPad app to present onstage with Steve Jobs at the keynote announcement. You had the chance to interact a few times with Steve as he was vetting the app and giving you feedback. What did you learn from those experiences?
My colleagues and I had a rare and, in hindsight, amazing opportunity to meet and interact with Steve Jobs. We had one meeting in particular with him in the very beginning where we were invited to ask him questions about the iPad. One of the stories he told us was this: when the Industrial Revolution was first beginning, businesses and homes had one motor to run everything. As the technology matured and became cheaper, motors became ubiquitous. So now everything has a motor. There are hundreds of motors in our homes. He then made the connection between what happened with the ubiquity of motors, and what he predicted was going to happen with computers, where screens and sensors will pervade every corner of our lives, that every room in the house would have an iPad.
The most impressive part about meeting him was seeing how involved he was with everything to do with the launch. Our first full demo and critique was in front of him.
Yikes, I bet that was terrifying.
Yeah, we were a little bruised after that experience.
What is his manner in critique?
It’s unforgiving. I mean it’s everything you read about him. He didn’t mince words. He was brutally honest but invited that same kind of honesty in return. If we didn’t like something about the iPad we were told we could tell him. So it was a two-way street.
You got to critique Steve while he critiqued you. Speaking of critique and app-building, you’re doing a full-day workshop at Webstock. What will people get from the day?
It’s about quickly building app prototypes. One of the things people will get is a kind of religious zeal about looking at their designs on a device and as quickly as possible.
For the last fifteen years, web designers have been designing in the same context and with the same tools that their work will be seen and used. So, when you have a mouse in your hand, you’re thinking very clearly about mouse-click interactions. You’re designing using the same tools that the people using your designs will ultimately use. But when you’re designing on the desktop for a touch device, you’re not in the same frame of mind when your making decisions.
When designing for touch, we have to get our work on the device as soon as possible, and at every stage of the process. This kind of rigor will evolve our thinking about what’s possible and also poke holes early in some of the flawed thinking we might have because we’ve been designing on a desktop for a desktop.
Does that mean we have to use different tools, too, when we conceive and design apps?
The tools that we have available to us are not perfect. So there’s still a bit of fiction and storytelling we have to weave into our prototypes. And I don’t have definitive answers, but I do have some ideas.
I started teaching a class called “Designing for Touch” at Parsons New School for Design this past Fall. I was particularly impressed by one student who filmed all of the gestures available in his team’s game, and juxtaposed them with a keynote prototype of the game actions. He did this using very simple tools we all have access to.
So it wasn’t so much a pure on-device prototype but it was this proposal he put together that helped us all visualize and think about whether or not the gestures made sense and were intuitive.
It’s going to be the same deal in the workshop, right? You’re not just going to talk about this stuff. You’re going to put people to work.
I’m a taskmaster when it comes to workshops.
Concept videos are becoming more important in the prototyping process to help demonstrate gesture interactions. The smart folks at BERG are great examples of this. Do I have it right that you’ll be doing some video work in the workshop?
Yes, we will be making some tiny films as part of the workshop, what I like to call interaction sketches. One really incredible thing about using technologies like Keynote is you can very quickly make little videos that you can put on a device to get a sense of possible interactions.
There are a lot of parallels between film as a form and interaction design as a form. You have to think about time, movement. And there’s an emotion you can capture in a film that you can’t necessarily capture in an on-device prototype. So in the class I’ve been teaching, we did our touch prototypes first and then the students made a video about their product. It was fascinating to observe how much more clear and coherent their ideas came through in the video than in the on-device prototype.
Making and showing a video can convince people. It’s a believable medium. You can make an idea look very evolved in a video even if it’s held together by chewing gum and paperclips.
We’ve excited about the BNZ Start-up Alley and we’re already getting some great entries in!
Nat Torkington will be the MC for the event on the evening of Thursday 16 Feb at Webstock. Each of the six finalists will have 3 minutes to pitch to our panel of judges and then face a grilling of five minutes of questions. Nat is also part of the selection panel choosing the finalists.
We really pleased Nat agreed to do this and, honestly, can’t think of anyone better for the job. We recently talked with Nat about the competition, what he’s looking for and the NZ start-up scene.
Webstock: When we asked if you’d like to be involved in the competition as MC for the “Pitch to judges” session and as part of the panel selecting the six finalists, you wanted to know more about what sort of finalists we were looking for. In particular, you were adamant that the focus needed to be on companies with a product, with working code, with customers. Rather than someone with an idea. Why’s that important for something like this?
Nat: To be brutal, ideas are cheap. To be sure, Facebook was just an idea at one stage. But so was Ferret. How can you tell the difference? You build it and you see if people like it. There are a lot of business plan contests which, unless they actually check to see how the company is doing, reward people for being great writers. I wanted to make sure we didn’t fall into that trap: someone with a great idea doesn’t need a trip to San Francisco, they need to get their hands dirty!
Webstock: What role do competitions like this have in supporting and fostering a start-up environment or ecosystem?
Nat: At a high level, anything that normalizes the idea of startups is great. Many New Zealanders have an innate shyness about setting out on their own to make a mark on the world; our meritocratic instincts kick in when we think about being more than self-employed, and “ambition” is a dirty word. Yet, for the country’s sake and for our own, we need more of it. So contests like this are social proof to would-be entrepreneurs that it’s okay and not incredibly deviant to start a project that might just change the world.
And practically, the rewards are going to be good for some of these startups. Webstock has some brilliant and connected people in the audience, so the ability to make yourself known to those folks is golden. “Hey, we’re making these widgets and need help breaking into Europe!” is quite likely to be met with “I worked for a widget distributor in Germany; here, let me make introductions!”, as much as “Getting the iPad site going is kicking my ass” will be met with “hey, we can share our stylesheet tricks”. And then there’s the chance to spend time in San Francisco … there’s nothing quite so energising as being surrounded by brilliant people who support ambitious dreams of hard-working entrepreneurs. It’s like being at Webstock, only it never ends! (The coffee and design aren’t as good, though!)
Webstock: You’ve read Rowan Simpson’s recent post on the NZ start-up scene. What’s your thoughts? Is he spot-on?
Nat: Rowan and I go back and forth on this. He’s arrived at a place where he’s skeptical of everything but his sleeves-rolled-up get-amongst-it approach. I see success stories who got their start in business plan contests, who came out of incubators and flew, who took dumb money and still succeeded.
Success is where you’ve built something people want, and more people are paying you for it today than paid you yesterday, and you didn’t run out of money before you had more income than expenses. Everyone takes a different path to that point, and there’s no magic bullet that’ll get you from idea to your own island. Different people need different things at different times.
That said, it’s bloody hard to be helpful to a startup. It’s easy to give them money. Sometimes money is what they really need, but most of the time the money is necessary but not sufficient for success. It just gives you longer to find that thing people will pay you for, and to get sales growing faster than expenses.
Sometimes a startup needs help figuring out how to make money. Sometimes they need help with the product. Sometimes they need help closing deals. Sometimes they need The Meeting with The Person. Rowan’s genius is that he’s focused on helping the startup get past obstacles and delays, much more so than most other investors and incubators and similar startup mechanisms.
The BNZ Startup Alley is a targeted intervention: you think the Webstock audience and publicity can help you get past roadblocks? You think a trip to San Francisco will help you close deals with customers or partners? We can help you. You just have to survive the hard questions from Sam Morgan on stage in front of hundreds of your peers…
Webstock: Finally, what sort of things will you be looking for in helping select the six finalists? What’s going to make them, their start-up and their product or service stand out from the crowd?
Nat: I’m looking for variety: finalists who are going in different directions and need different things. It’d be a dull night if we had six todo list companies, each of whom needed help pitching for funding!
Thanks for your thoughts Nat. And for everyone intending to enter, the competition closes on Friday 13 January.
One of the pleasures of being involved with Webstock is the opportunity to meet people like Rob Malda and Matt Haughey. And the chance to get the founder of MetaFilter to interview the founder of Slashdot just seemed too good to pass up!
We’re privileged to present this interview for you. Rob talks about standing on the shoulders of a previous generation near the end of the interview — those of us working in the web today stand on the shoulders of Rob and Matt. Enjoy the read…
Matt: I was a daily reader of Slashdot from about 1997 onwards (I usually ignored the Linux stuff but liked everything else), and it was a key inspiration for me starting MetaFilter. I thought I could combine the new (for late 1998) short link style of blogs like kottke.org, peterme.com, and jjg.net with a community setup like Slashdot, but I specifically wanted a simple comment UI, so I basically looked at slashdot and made sure there was no threading, no ratings, no sorting, no extraneous form elements so it could just be a big textarea and a post button for comments.
What’s your reaction to hearing that? Did you ever wish the UI/design of early Slashdot could be different? What did you think of the big first wave of blogs around the year 2000 starting to take off?
Rob: That’s a lot of questions 😉
Regarding the simpler UI, initially Slashdot had a fairly simple UI as well. For the first 10 months there weren’t even user accounts: all posts were anonymous. But as we grew in size, the other cruft had to be added to allow defensive measures. By mid-1999 we had the roots of our moderation system in place, which existed for 2 reasons: To stop spam/trolling/garbage, and to promote quality content. But the latter was the byproduct of the former. The thing I tend to forget is that from 1997 to 2000, I was basically the entire engineering for the site. Also, I was the primary writer. And I was starting a business. So when the dust settles, the UI was pretty good for the era, but filled with compromises that I wouldn’t have to make today.
Regarding the first wave of blogs, I guess if I’m honest about it, I often feel like Slashdot never got the fair credit it deserved. As “Blogging” became a mainstream buzzword that you’d hear about on CNN, Slashdot simply got lost in the history. From my perspective, we figured out many of the details of Social Media Aggregation years before, and then a second generation came along and got all the credit… and it wasn’t because of their UI or technology or skill, it was because Slashdot was ALWAYS a niche operation. I stuck to my guns for my entire ride that Slashdot was one specific subject. A specific tone. A certain culture. In the earliest years, that niche represented a sizable percentage of the internet community. Blogging was completely mainstreamed by the time the Bush/Kerry campaigns and the networks made it conventional wisdom. At that point, bloggers were no longer “Nerds”, they were just people willing to type.
Matt: Looking back, I seem to recall Slashdot sort of aligned itself with more of a “we are a forum!” mantra back then. I remember in all the weblog early history stuff people would mention Slashdot or The Drudge Report as having some quasi-blog like elements but not really calling themselves that or embracing it. Does that mesh with your memories of the time? I seem to recall that for some reason in the late 90s, a lot of people felt it was important to say they weren’t blogging or blogs, but were instead journals or forums or everything/nothing (remember e/n?).
I recall weblog and blog being associated with a new fad around 1999 and there being some backlash — do you think that might be why Slashdot isn’t really considered an early blog but more of a paleo or proto kind of blog-like thing?
Rob: Slashdot was a lot of things, which is probably why it never gets pigeon-holed into any single bucket. We were a blog, a forum, a community, a social news system, and in fact we were a social network (you can still friend/foe people!) years before the term was popularized by that Book website and others. Since we were all of those things, we’re generally thought of as something else.
I still shun the term Blogging just as I shun the term Tweeting. It’s all just writing. It’s like trying to subdivide Novelist, Columnist, Blogger, Tweeter. Words are words. It’s not really interesting to keep slicing and dicing and sub-categorizing to me. I just write some stuff or share some stuff. Distinguishing between “Journalist” and “Blogger” is a waste of time. I’m all of those things and none of them.
Matt: I know the late 90s were kind of crazy for everyone, definitely including Slashdot, but if you could sum up your time at Slashdot through the following decade (2000-2010), how would you describe it? What were your day to days like during that stretch of the 2000s?
Rob: For me personally, I feel like Slashdot was very strong in the first half of that time. If you wanted to mark a few milestones, the bursting of the dot com bubble and then 9/11 represent sort of the end of Early Slashdot. At that point we knew what we were and what we were doing. We continued down that path for many years. Our traffic continued to grow, and since we were cheap to run, the rest of the business mostly ignored us. I don’t think people really understand how small scale of an operation it all was: we had 2-3 engineers for much of this time, and 3-4 writers. This basically was our entire operation and production teams. We were lean and mean, but it meant that we were unable to perform significant engineering changes. For the first 2-3 years, when I was doing all of the engineering I could simply sit down and build a new feature. But at some point, the mere act of maintaining a stable platform for our users, with our incredibly limited human and hardware resources became problematic. For a former hardware company, we had a remarkably limited amount of hardware. So instead of engineering new functionality for our users, we engineered more optimized systems. We became very scalable. And eventually this caught up with us. By the mid 2000s, the next generation of social media came onto the scene: the Diggs and Reddits of the world, and we didn’t have the resources to compete.
By the end of the 2000s and up until I left last summer, my focus shifted to be more on the editorial side. I wanted the product side to succeed: to add new features for the users, to fix bugs and stuff. But it was really hard to accomplish anything significant. For awhile, Slashdot’s engineering was a single guy. He was responsible for anything anyone wanted. Just one guy. Now he was an awesome engineer: but a solitary person can’t handle all the engineering and operational responsibilities for a site like Slashdot. The system has parts that are a decade+ old. So while the editorial group was able to do some good work, the site itself remained almost unchanged for the last few years save for a few superficial changes.
Matt: Did you have any big side projects during your time at Slashdot? Anything you’re most proud of that isn’t Slashdot?
Rob: These days I spend a lot more time with my 2 boys. I also did some early work on Everything2, I wrote a column for a magazine for several years. But I was pretty intensely focused on Slashdot for 14 years. The job was good to me too. I was well paid, and got to see some amazing things (like a Shuttle Launch and the inside of Pixar!). And it continues to sort of payoff for me: I’m looking forward to going to Webstock. I’ll meet some interesting people, and with any luck get to see something awesome connected to The Lord of the Rings. I’m told New Zealand is lovely in Feb.
Matt: What’s it like these days, I imagine it’s weird to view the site as a user and not have god-like admin controls. Do you still check in on the site?
Rob: I read Slashdot now exclusively via RSS. I’m still pleased with the majority of the editorial work being done. I’ve submitted a few stories anonymously too. But the day that all my admin controls disappeared I basically logged out and it truthfully hurts to go back. I miss it tremendously, and really wish that they had granted my request to be allowed to continue to post as an occasional special contributor or something. I suspect I’ll always feel like a piece of my heart is missing.
Matt: What’s next for you, do you have any general areas of the technology world that interest you these days?
Rob: I promised my wife that I would take a few months off from work before I began looking for a job. That time is now at an end, so it’s basically time for me to start shoving my resume out there and seeing what my next chapter looks like. I’m very interested in the way internet news is created and replicated. I’d love to find a way to work in that field again, but not directly as a news editor. I’d like to perhaps work on the tools that people use to consume. Alternatively, I love photography and writing, so I’d really like to have the chance to do more in depth writing on the subjects that interest me. Slashdot was always pretty limiting: 100-200 words was the typical max. It rarely afforded the opportunity to witness an event first person, or directly ask a question to someone who might add insight. I think it did some bad things to my short term memory- spending 14 years focused on such short snippets of information has done a real number on the attention span. But I’m still following very closely the tech world, especially gadgets, tablets, phones, open source, sci-fi, movies… Slashdot was after all based on the stuff I was personally interested in. That will never change.
Matt: Huh, I think of you as more of a creator and a maker than a guy that has a regular job. Have you considered building your own new thing or collaborating with various news organizations that could use your technical expertise? (I’m thinking of all the database-journalism stuff going on with people like Adrian Holovarty that helped launch Everyblock and what places like MSNBC are pushing and what the Boston Globe and The Atlantic are doing, or heck even what the Poynter Institute is trying to do with pushing reporters to learn some coding to better present data)
Rob: I tend to engross myself pretty hard core into things, so I just had to go cold turkey for a few months. You describe me in a very flattering light. I guess I’ll find out in the next few months if it’s deserved. I think I have some really unique skills and experiences that I hope will be useful somewhere in a way that provides me with interesting and meaningful work. For so many years Slashdot meant so much to me: I felt like the work i was doing mattered so much more than just a paycheck. Anyone who has been lucky enough to be in that sort of position would understand I guess. I imagine your work on MetaFilter might be similar- and since you’ve had the good sense to retain ownership, you are able to continue to shape your creation according to what you think is best. That matters a lot.
Matt: What’s your favorite bit of technology that you’ve encountered in the last year?
Rob: I saw the final shuttle launch. I cried. It’s really such an old technology, but it brought together my childhood and adult dreams in a single moment.
Matt: What’s your biggest disappointment in the tech world these days?
Rob: The internet is simply not as free as it was when Slashdot began. Government is increasingly legislating away our rights and criminalizing actions that are impossible to regulate. I know it’s inevitable, but it’s still disappointing to witness. The joy of logging in to an IRC chat room in the early 90s, to talk to people who were innovating powerful technologies simply for the sake of it was absolutely intoxicating. To be able to talk to the guy who was responsible for some component of your system. We were all pseudo-anonymous strangers brought together by the technology that we loved, and the belief that an open future was spread out before us. The future will be exciting for my children, but I’m afraid that their technology will come in boxes welded shut at the factory. Their software locked down. Linux, and the Internet broke everything wide open. It’s taken 20 years to get a lot of it boxed back up again. I hope there are still air cracks by the time my kids are old enough to jam screwdrivers in there.
Matt: Yeah, I definitely see that trend as well, there seems to be a real push-pull on the consumer side with simplicity and control. The iPad is a technical wonder, but it does have real limitations on what software you can run and what kinds of files you can view on it. People have speculated that perhaps by 2015 you might buy a Macbook that doesn’t have write access to the hard drive, and part of me understands why that would revolutionize computing for a lot of people but be absolutely horrible for power users like you and me.
Rob: And not just to power users, but to the next generation. We all stand on the shoulders of the generation before. This is true in EVERY medium. Writers, Artists, Programmers, Engineers. The trend in the last few decades to lock everything down… be it with rivets and welds, or with patents and copyrights that never expire… we’re crippling the next generation. The joy I felt being able to gut a PC, from the hard drive to the kernel during my formative years… you’re right: an iPad is amazing. I own one and love it. But what I got out of my first PCs in the 80s was more than what my kid will get out of an iPad today. I’m not trying to wax nostalgic, but there’s a potentially dark future out there. We’re crippling the next generation in the name of quarterly profits. Creativity and innovation requires more balance.