Hacking the language

Carl Morris describes an innovative conference being held this weekend aimed at increasing Wales’ presence on the web

According to the American inventor and author Danny Hillis, technology is “everything that doesn’t work yet”. This is a useful insight. Inventions like the car, television set, chair and a pair of shoes were all once new. They succeeded when they became part of the background of our lives. All around the world people are fixing technology to meet their needs. Unless we find ways to adapt technology and bend it to our will, it will continue to fail to work properly. In some cases it may even work against us.

In Wales I believe we can actively influence the use of technology for constructive ends, for creativity, for business, for education, for democracy and many other applications. This doesn’t happen by itself and these opportunities may not present themselves if we leave the work to others.

I am a co-organiser of Hacio’r Iaith, a community of people who share a love for the Welsh language and its use in technology and on the web. We include media professionals, coders, creatives, academics, bloggers, campaigners, policy makers and designers.

We are a diverse group from all ages and backgrounds. There isn’t a single viewpoint, personality or emphasis but I often find my fellow Hacio’r Iaith colleagues to be experimental, playful, curious, fearless – and open.

These are the traits we celebrate in the ‘unconference’ event format known as ‘BarCamp’, which we have adopted. The next Hacio’r Iaith unconference is being held at Aberystwyth University on Saturday.

Unlike traditional big ticket conferences there are no keynote speeches by headline speakers. The entire programme is generated and delivered by all the attendees, a unique collection of people in time and space. In the weeks leading up to the event, people are encouraged to register their names, suggest sessions and gauge support. This happens on the web, on our wiki. On the morning of the event the programme and scheduling continues on a flipchart with sticky notes (pictured).

There will be discussions, presentations, talks and practical sessions. For example, at the moment people are planning a discussion about multiplatform television, a practical session to bring a Welsh interface to Android phones and possibly a discussion about theatre and technology. Additional sessions may be rather more spontaneous and planned over coffee or lunch.

Two is the minimum number of people needed for a session – a small session is fine if it’s useful and interesting to the people there. The sharing permissions of any given session can be decided by the attendees but this generally defaults to as open as possible, with quotes being attributed to names. The findings and discussions are documented and shared further via video, photos, blog posts and notes on the wiki.

The BarCamp format began in the technology field, but there is nothing to stop other kinds of unconference taking place. Around the world it has spread beyond technology to education, medicine, arts, politics and even faith groups. Entry is usually very cheap or free.

As a format it is ideal if you want to have a productive gathering of diverse people but have no desire to get into the “conference business” as such. Nobody owns the event – so in a way, everybody owns it.

I believe that sharing will begin to trump proprietary information. Just look at the web where information is now abundant. Linking, open conversation, open source software, and open licensing such as Creative Commons are growing. More and more companies will win on the basis of execution and reputation rather than outmoded models of trade secrets.

If we apply it well, all this global sharing of tools and knowledge will be good news for a small language like Welsh – and a healthy strategy for the future.

Hacio’r Iaith is at Aberystwyth University on 29th January 2011. Entry is free but please register by signing your name on the wiki, as a only a limited number of places remain available. For those who are not Welsh-speakers, simultaneous translation into English is available, but must be requested in advance.

Carl Morris is a digital media consultant based in Cardiff.The featured poster is by Iestyn Lloyd of Sbellcheck. The photo is by Sioned Edwards.

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