This week the Erskine crew headed down to Brighton for dConstruct, an all day event that navigated the tumultuous and the sometimes frightening theme of communicating with computers. From cyborgs and toasters with personalities to community infrastructure and feeling the deep, moaning rumbles of an organ's infrasound – the talks were a delicate sequence of heart wrenching delight, mechanical whimsy and straight up nerd love.
Watching the fields pass as we caught the train to Brighton, I had no idea what to expect though. Last year I missed the conference due to some work I was doing in Reading and couldn't spare the time. A year later and I now wince at the thought that I might have bumped into my hero of heroes – James Burke – whom, of course, gave an all-or-nothing talk that was predictably mind melting.
I don’t want to write about this year’s event that much and how it supplanted all of my expectations. There’s been plenty of note taking and talking about it that puts everything into words better than I ever could. But I do want to write a little about seeing however, about perspective and attention, since the event showed me how negligent I’ve been and how much should be within my field of vision.
dConstruct tried its damnedest to focus on the fundamentals of computers, design and technology in general, so throughout the day I couldn’t stop thinking about the work of Jef Raskin. The grandfather of the Macintosh and the author of the finest book on interface design was likely to pop into my mind from time to time as so many of his writings and the speakers’ thoughts overlapped. But it’s the author’s description of what he called the locus of attention that I’ve been unable to shake for all these years:
I use the term locus because it means place or site. The term focus, which is sometimes used in a similar connection, can be read as a verb; thus, it conveys a misimpression of how attention works. When you are awake and conscious, your locus of attention is a feature or an object in the physical world or an idea about which you are intently and actively thinking.
Whereas to focus implies volition, we cannot completely control what our locus of attention will be. If you hear a firecracker unexpectedly exploding behind you, your attention will be drawn to the sound.
This idea has all kinds of ramifications for interface design but I find that it leaks into unexpected fields such as art and music, typographic systems and video games. It’s also a good way to think about what motivates you on a day to day basis - where is your locus of attention and where are your thoughts leading you?
After I’ve heard a great set of talks or a brilliant seminar, anything that’s mesmerising or important, I tend to crave realignment. In order to reconnect all the various tissues in my brain that have been juggled about and slapped into place by a fantastic speaker I often head out for a walk and catch my breath.
So once the talks were over, I nipped out and sat on the beach by the pier. The sky had cleared over the course of the morning so I was lucky enough to soak up what must have been the final, wheezing gasps of summer, or at least I tried to with all of the pulsating flashes of organ groans, slash fandom, recordings from the dead, patent readings, cat tits and YouTube comments tumbling about in my brain.
I realised that I often laugh and smirk at new technologies without giving them a fair chance, I focus too much on keyboards and mice and touch screens. With each talk I felt a punch to my vision as the speakers challenged the conventions and ideas that I’d grown comfortable with; I shrug off security issues and happily ignore old technology, I don't ask the right questions at the right time, etc.
I felt that dConstruct was a part of a greater discussion about that sort of thinking. Primarily it was about realignment, taking your locus of attention and shaking it about until it made your head ache. There wasn’t any real practical advice - no specific tools or techniques were suggested, but thanks to this the talks were made that much better.
What does all this talk of realignment and focus mean for me? I’m not sure yet, but I'll be sure to keep you posted.