kottke.org posts about PopTech
PopTech is a TED-like conference that takes place in Camden, Maine each October. I’ve been three or four times…it’s a good conference. This year, they’re streaming the whole thing live…not bad for a $2000/ticket conference. There are a few names on the schedule that you may recognize (Kevin Slavin, Rodney Mullen, Charlie Todd) but it looks like they’ve done a good job gathering folks other than the usual suspects.
The PopTech conference is going again in Camden, Maine, but you can watch the whole thing online for free from the comfort of your desk, blogging couch, or podcasting lair.
This was one of my favorite talks at PopTech in 2004: Janine Benyus on biomimicry. From her web site:
In Biomimicry, she names an emerging discipline that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s designs and processes (e.g., solar cells that mimic leaves, agriculture that models a prairie, businesses that run like redwood forests).
The PopTech conference has started in Maine and on the web. They’re streaming the whole conference live on their web site.
As they did last year, Poptech is streaming their entire conference live on the web for free. October 18-20. They also take questions from the web audience, several of which they used last year on stage.
Video of Rodrigo y Gabriela performing at PopTech. Here’s my writeup from October. What isn’t apparent from the video (at least through my puny laptop speakers) is how loud the bass was from them thumping their guitars.
Notes from day 3 at PopTech:
Chris Anderson talked about, ba ba baba!, not the long tail. Well, not explicitly. Chris charted how the availability of a surplus in transistors (processors are cheap), storage (hard drives are cheap), and surplus in bandwidth (DSL is cheap) has resulted in so much opportunity for innovation and new technology. His thoughts reminded me of how surplus space in Silicon Valley (in the form of garages) allowed startup entrepreneurs to pursue new ideas without having to procure expensive commercial office space.
Quick thought re: the long tail…if the power law arises from scarcity as Matt Webb says, then it would make sense that the surplus that Anderson refers to would be flattening that curve out a bit.
Roger Brent crammed a 60 minute talk into 20 minutes. It was about genetic engineering and completely baffling…almost a series of non sequiturs. “Centripital glue engine” was my favorite phrase of the talk, but I’ve got no idea what Brent meant by it.
Homaro Cantu gave a puzzling presentation of a typical meal at his Chicago restaurant, Moto. I’ve seen this presentation twice before and eaten at Moto; all three experiences were clear and focused on the food. This time around, Cantu didn’t explain the food as well or why some of the inventions were so cool. His polymer box that cooks on the table is a genuinely fantastic idea, but I got the feeling that the rest of the audience didn’t understand what it was. Cantu also reiterated his position on copyrighting and patenting his food and inventions. Meg caught him saying that he was trying to solve the famine problem with his edible paper, which statement revealed two problems: a) famines are generally caused by political issues and therefore not solvable by new kinds of food, printed or otherwise, and b) he could do more good if he open sourced his inventions and let anyone produce food or improve the techniques in those famine cases where food would be useful.
Richard Dawkins gave part of his PopTech talk (the “queerer than we can suppose” part of it) at TED in 2005 (video).
Bob Metcalfe’s wrap-up of the conference was a lot less contentious than in past years; hardly any shouting and only one person stormed angrily out of the room. In reference to Hasan Elahi’s situation, Bob said that there’s a tension present in our privacy desires: “I want my privacy, but I need you to be transparent.” Not a bad way of putting it.
Serena Koenig spoke about her work in Haiti with Partners in Health. Koening spoke of a guideline that PIH follows in providing healthcare: act as though each patient is a member of your own family. That sentiment was echoed by Zinhle Thabethe, who talked about her experience as an HIV+ woman living in South Africa, an area with substandard HIV/AIDS-related healthcare. Thabethe’s powerful message: we need to treat everyone with HIV/AIDS the same, with great care. Sounds like the beginning of a new Golden Rule of Healthcare.
2.7 billion results for “blog” on Google. Blogs: bigger than Jesus.
Photographer Clifford Ross shared his list of the necessary ingredients for invention and art at PopTech:
3. ready to embrace the unexpected
4. ability and willingness to collaborate
Ross showed some rough results from his new pano-camera. I love Ross’ Hurricane series:
Some notes from day 2 at PopTech, with a little backtracking into day 1 as well. In no particular order:
The upshot of Thomas Barnett’s entertaining and provacative talk (or one of the the upshots, anyway): China is the new world power and needs a sidekick to help globalize the world. And like when the US was the rising power in the world and took the outgoing power, England, along for the ride so that, as Barnett put it, “England could fight above its weight”, China could take the outgoing power (the US) along for the globalization ride. The US would provide the military force to strike initial blows and the Chinese would provide peacekeeping; Barnett argued that both capabilities are essential in a post-Cold War world.
Juan Enriquez talked about boundries…specifically if there will be more or less of them in the United States in the future. 45 states? 65 states? One thing that the US has to deal with is how we treat immigrants. Echoing William Gibson, Enriquez said “the words you use today will resonate through history for a long time”. That is, if you don’t let the Mexican immigrants in the US speak their own language, don’t welcome their contributions to our society, and just generally make people feel unwelcome in the place where they live, it will come back to bite you in the ass (like, say, when southern California decides it would rather be a part of Mexico or its own nation).
Enriquez again, regarding our current income tax proclivities: “if we pay more and our children don’t owe less, that’s not taxes…it’s just a long-term, high-interest loan”.
Number of times ordained minister Martin Marty said “hell” during his presentation: 2. Number of times Marty said “goddamn”: 1. Number of times uber-heathen Richard Dawkins said “hell”, “goddamn”, or any other blasphemous swear: 0.
Dawkins told the story of Kurt Wise, who took a scissors to the Bible and cut out every passage which was in discord with the theory of evolution, eventually ending up with a fragmented mess. Confronted with this crisis of faith and science, Wise renounced evolution and became a geologist who believes that the earth is only 6000 years old.
The story of Micah Garen’s capture by Iraqi militants and Marie-Helene Carlton’s efforts to get her boyfriend back home safely illustrates the power of the connected world. Marie-Helene and Micah’s family used emails, mobile phones, and sat phones to reach out through their global social network, eventually reaching people in Iraq whom Micah’s captors might listen to. A woman in the audience stood during the Q&A and related her story of her boyfriend being on a hijacked plane out of Athens in 1985 and how powerless she was to do anything in the age before mobiles, email, and sat phones. Today, Stanley Milgram might say, an Ayatollah is never more than 4 or 5 people away.
Lexicographer Erin McKean told us several interesting things about dictionaries, including that “lexicographer” can be found in even the smallest of dictionaries because, duh, look who’s responsible for compiling the words in a dictionary. She called dictionaries the vodka of literature: a distillation of really meaty mixture of substances into something that odorless, tasteless, colorless, and yet very powerful. Here an interview with her and a video of a lecture she gave at Google.
Juan Enriquez had a nice idea for rebalancing the priorities in the voting booth: proxy votes for parents of children under 18. That is, if my wife and I have two kids, the family gets four votes, not two. Juan’s rationale for this plan is that the voting public is currently made up of a lot of baby boomers, who are going to begin to vote for things that benefit their age group, which can be thought of as an investment in the past. By voting on behalf of the 0-18 year-olds, the parents might support issues that benefit that age group (education, etc.) and invest in the future instead. Here’s a quote from Juan in CIO Magazine:
Why not give parents of kids under 18 one proxy vote per child? Only then will there be a strong voting block to counter growing gray power. It is also time to quit spending more than we earn. And above all, it is time to realize just how fragile countries can be.
If you missed his talk on PopTech Live, the CIO article covers some of what he talked about.
One of the coolest little gadgets at PopTech is Onomy Labs’ Twisty Table. This one is round and it’s got a satellite map of the world projected on it. When you spin the table, the map zooms in and out and tilting the table scrolls it. Here’s a photo of the table in action at Foo Camp.
A couple from Ireland (by way of Mexico), Rodrigo and Gabriela totally blew the audience away here at PopTech with their thrash metal-influenced Latin percussive acoustic guitar. I know that’s not much to go on, but trust me on this one. Check out some of their stuff on YouTube and then buy their new CD. (Best part of their set: they threw in a little Enter Sandman by Metallica, which went over the head of everyone in the audience over 35, i.e. almost everyone.)
Hasan Elahi ran into some trouble with the FBI in 2002 (they thought he was a terrorist) and ever since, he’s been voluntarily tracking his movements and putting the whole thing online: photos of meals, photos of toilets used, airports flown out of, credit card receipts, etc. His goal is to flood the market with information, so it devalues the information that the authorities have on him.
Since my internet access has been somewhat spotty at the conference (I’m trying to pay attention and power is hard to come by here so the laptop is closed most of the time), I’m going to do rolling wrap-ups as I go, skipping around and filling in the blanks when I can. Here we go, soundbite-style:
Alex Steffen: Cars equipped with displays that show gas mileage, when compared to cars without the mileage display, get better gas mileage. That little bit of knowledge helps the driver drive more economically. More visible energy meter displays in the home have a similar effect…people use less energy when they’re often reminded of how much energy they use. (Perhaps Personal Kyoto could help here as well.) At dinner, we discussed parallels between that and eating. Weighing yourself daily or keep track of everything you eat, and you’ll find yourself eating less. In the same way, using a program like Quicken to track your finances might compel you to spend less, at least in areas of your life where you may be spending too much.
Bruce Sterling is the Jesse Jackson of technology. He has this cadence that he gets into, neologism after neologism, stopping just short of suggesting a new word for neologism. Wonderful to experience in person. Perhaps not as upbeat as the Reverend, though.
Bruce also related a story told to him by an engineering professor friend of his. The prof split his class into two groups. The first group, the John Henrys, had to study and learn exclusively from materials available at the library…no internet allowed. The second group, the Baby Hueys, could use only the internet for research and learning…no primary source lookups at the library. After a few weeks, he had to stop this experiment because the John Henrys were lagging so far behind the Baby Hueys that it is was unfair to continue.
Kevin Kelly noted that the web currently has 1 trillion links, 1 quintillion transistors, and 20 exabytes of memory. A single human brain has 1 trillion synapses (links), 1 quintillion neurons (transistors of sorts), and 20 exabytes of memory.
Kelly also said that technology has its own agenda and went on to list what it is that technology might want. One of the things was clean water. You need clean water for industrial manufacturing…so water cleanliness is going to be a big deal in China. In a later talk, Thomas Friedman said, “China needs to go green.”
Hasan Elahi, during his ordeal being mistaken for — what’s the term these days? — an enemy combatant, learned that language translates easier than culture. That is, you can learn how to speak a language fluently way easier than to have the cultural fluency necessary to convince someone you’re a native. In his interrogations, Hasan liberally sprinkled pop culture references in his answers to questions posed by the FBI to help convince them that he was a native. Workers at call centers in India for American companies are not only taught to speak English with an American accent, they also receive training in American geography, history, and pop culture so as to better fool/serve American callers.
“The best laid plans of mice and men turn into a nonlinear system.” — Will Wright, with apologies to Robert Burns.
Speaking of Wright, a couple of Spore trivia bits. The data for a creature in Spore takes up just 3K of memory. And entire world: just 80K. And these worlds are amazingly complex.
Brian Eno: With large groups of people, the sense of shame and the sense of honor that keeps the members of small groups from misbehaving breaks down. The challenge for larger groups is to find ways of making honor and shame matter in a similar respect.
Stewart Brand: “We are terraforming the earth anyway, we might as well do it right.” Stewart also noted that cities are very effective population sinks. When people move to cities, the birthrate drops to the replacement rate (2.1 children per family) and keeps on dropping. Combine that with the fact that by early next year, more people in the world will live in cities than in rural areas, and at some point in the next hundred years, the earth’s population will start to fall.
The Brian Eno/Will Wright session kicked things off quite well at PopTech. Lots of interesting stuff to say about this one, but I quickly wanted to highlight two things that Eno and Wright said independently in their presentations. Eno:
Art is created by artists so that the viewer has the opportunity to create something.
Later, Wright said in relation to games:
The real game is constructed in the player’s head.
Eno started his presentation by wondering about a overall system for describing culture, from high to low. He and Wright may be onto something here in that respect.
77 Million Paintings, a generative artwork by Brian Eno. “Work that continues to create itself in your absence.”
Onstage at PopTech just now, Brian Eno said that a musical piece by Steven Reich had a huge influence on how he thought about art. He said that Reich’s piece showed him that:
1. You don’t need much.
2. The composer’s role is to set up a system and then let it go.
3. The true composer is actually in the listener’s brain.
I’d never heard of Reich, but the name sounded familiar when Eno mentioned it. I realized I’d seen it yesterday when reading about Cory Arcangel’s show at Team Gallery in reference to his piece, Sweet 16:
Cory applied American avant-garde composer Steven Reich’s concept of phasing to the guitar intro of Guns and Roses’ track Sweet Child O’Mine. Rather than use instruments, Cory took the same two clips from the song’s music video and shortened one clip by a single note. As the videos loop, the two intros grow farther apart until they are back in sync.
He’s veered away from video games, but Cory’s new work is looking really interesting these days.
Postings around here may get a little sporadic because I’m heading up to attend the PopTech conference in Maine. PopTech is near the top of the heap of all the conferences I’ve attended and I’m really looking forward to this year’s event, especially since I didn’t get to go last year. Speakers include Thomas Barnett, Richard Dawkins, Homaro Cantu, Juan Enriquez, Stewart Brand, Thomas Friedman, Will Wright, and Ze Frank, as well as the sleepers that I’ve never heard of that inevitably knock everyone’s socks off.
If you didn’t get yourself in gear to make it to PopTech this year, no need for despair. For the first time, they’re broadcasting the whole thing, live and for free. I will also be doing some blogging from the audience (as will others, I imagine), so stay tuned for that as well.
IT Conversations will be streaming presentations from PopTech 2005 live…Windows Media Player required. :( From Etech to the AIGA Design Conference to Web Essentials 05, more and more conferences letting those of us who can’t attend listen in anyway.
Here’s a sampling of the rest of the AIGA Design Conference, stuff that I haven’t covered yet and didn’t belong in a post of it’s own:
Juan Enriquez gave what was probably my favorite talk about what’s going on in the world of genetics right now. I’ve heard him give a variation of this talk before (at PopTech, I think). He started off talking about coding systems and how when they get more efficient (in the way that the Romance languages are more efficient than Chinese languages), the more powerful they become in human hands. Binary is very powerful because you can encode text, images, video, etc. using just two symbols, 1 and 0. Segue to DNA, a four symbol language to make living organisms…obviously quite powerful in human hands.
- Enriquez: All life is imperfectly transmitted code. That’s what evolution is, and without the imperfections, there would be no life. The little differences over long periods of time are what’s important.
- Enriquez again: The mosquito is a flying hypodermic needle. That’s how it delivers malaria to humans. We could use that same capability for vaccinating cows against disease.
- Along with his list of 20 courses he didn’t take in design school, Michael Bierut offered some advice to young designers:
1. Design is the easy part.
2. Learn from your clients, bosses, collaborators, and colleagues.
3. Content is king.
4. Read. Read. Read.
5. Think first, then design.
6. Never forget how lucky you are. Enjoy yourself.
Nicholas Negroponte: If programmers got paid to remove code from sofware instead of writing new code, software would be a whole lot better.
- Negroponte also shared a story about outfitting the kids in a school in Cambodia with laptops; the kids’ first English word was “Google”, and from what Negroponte said, that was followed closely by “Skype”. He also said the children’s parents loved the laptops because at night, it was the brightest light in the house.
- Christi recorded Milton Glaser’s mother’s spaghetti recipe. “Cook until basically all of the water is evaporated. Mix in bottle of ketchup; HEINZ ketchup.”
- Ben Karlin and Paula Scher on the challenges of making America, The Book: Books are more daunting than doing TV because print allows for a much greater density of jokes. In trying to shoot the cover image, they found that bald eagles cannot be used live for marketing or advertising purposes. The solution? A golden eagle and Photoshop. And for a spread depicting all the Supreme Court Justices in the buff, they struggled — even with the Web — to find nude photos of older people until they found a Vermont nudist colony willing to send them photos because they were big fans of The Daily Show.
Bill Strickland blew the doors off the conference with his account of the work he’s doing in “curing cancer” — his term for revitalizing violent and crime-ridden neighborhoods — in Pittsburgh. I can’t do justice to his talk, so two short anecdotes. Strickland said he realized that “poor people never have a nice day” so when he built his buildings in these poor black neighbohoods, he put nice fountains out front so that people coming into the building know that they’re entering a space where it’s possible to have a good day. Another time, a bigwig of some sort was visiting the center and asked Strickland about the flowers he saw everywhere. Flowers in the hood? How’d these get here? Strickland told him “you don’t need a task force or study group to buy flowers” and that he’d just got in his car, bought some flowers, brought them back, and set them around the place. His point in all this was creating a place where people feel less dissimilar to each other…black, white, rich, poor, everybody has a right to flowers and an education and to be treated with respect and to have a nice day. You start treating people like that, and surprise!, they thrive. Strickland’s inner city programs have produced Fulbright Scholars, Pulitzer Prize winners, and tons of college graduates.
- I caught 30 minutes of David Peters’ presentation of Typecast: The Art of the Typographic Film Title and realized I should have gotten there in time to see the whole thing. I could sit and watch cool movie titles all day long. Among the titles he showed were Bullit, Panic Room, Dr. Strangelove, Barbarella, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Superman. The title sequence for Napoleon Dynamite (which was discussed on Design Observer last year) was shown later in the main hall.
- At the closing party at the Museum of Science, we checked out the cool Mathematica exhibit that was designed by Charles and Ray Eames, two designers who were also pretty big science/math nerds.
- And some final thoughts from others at the conference. Peter Merholz says that “form-makers”, which make up the vast majority of the AIGA audience, “are being passed by those who are attempting to use design to serve more strategic ends”. (That’s an interesting thought…) A pair of reviews from Speak Up: Bryony was a bit disappointed with the opening Design Gala but left, like everyone else, in love with emcee John Hockenberry while Armin noted that the preservation of digital files is a big concern for museums in building a collection of graphic design pieces…in 35 years, how are you going load that Quark file or run that Flash movie?
For more of what people are saying about the conference, check out IceRocket. There’s a bunch of photos on Flickr as well.
As part of my ongoing series of thoughts about conference badge and program design (Poptech 2004, Web 2.0 2004, PopTech 2003), here’s a quick review of the AIGA conference badges and programs. The badges are pretty good. Both first and last names are printed in large type for easy glancing and the schedule fits in the badge holder.
The badge lanyards are not the usual string/cloth, but a simple length of thin hollow plastic tube that’s looped together with a small piece of plastic that fits inside the tube like so:
If the lanyard is too long (as they often are at these things) and your badge is hanging down to your belt buckle, just grab a scissors, cut a bit off one end of the tube, and stick it back together. The program is a small thick book which I’ve left in my hotel room the entire time, preferring to rely on the Web site for event descriptions and the smaller schedule that fits in the badge holder for times, room numbers, etc. The schedule is actually not a booklet, but a series of folding pieces, one for each day of the conference, so when Friday is over, you can take the Friday schedule out of your badge holder and leave it behind, which is kind of handy.
Michael Hawley gave the Poptech audience a wonderful tour of Bhutan and the giant book that resulted from his journeys there. A couple of photos of the book at Poptech:
Turning the pages involved a short walk. If you’d like to own this baby, it’s available for only $10,000 on Amazon.
One of my favorite talks at Poptech was Janice Benyus’ presentation on biomimicry, or innovation inspired by nature:
Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems, e.g., a solar cell inspired by a leaf. [It] uses an ecological standard to judge the “rightness” of our innovations. After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned: What works. What is appropriate. What lasts. Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature. It introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.
In the talk, Janine outlined 12 ways in which nature can inform the development of technology:
1. Self assembly
2. Chemistry in water
3. Solar transformations
4. The power of shape
5. Materials as systems
6. Natural selection as an innovation engine
7. Material recycling
8. Ecosystems that grow food
9. Energy savvy movement and transport
10. Resilience and healing
11. Sensing and responding
12. Life creates conditions conducive to life
Those are a little vague and I wish I’d written down more notes, but it was hard to type and really listen at the same time. To fill in the gaps, you can listen to the audio of her 30 minute presentation.
I’ll write more in-depth about a few of the speakers here, but for now, here are some soundbites (my comments in brackets):
- Andrew Zolli: All societies have an image of the future. Those that have optimistic images have better outcomes than those with pessimistic images. [The US right now seems optimistic overall, but getting a bit more pessimistic. At PopTech this year and last, about 1/2 the speakers said during their talks something to the effect of “we’re screwed”.]
- Malcolm Gladwell talking about a chapter from Blink:
One of the many ways in which asking someone what they think isn’t necessarily the best way to find out what they want: people move away from the more sophisticated idea and they go for the simpler choice because they don’t have the necessary “vocabulary” to explain their real feelings. [You may prefer The Hours to Goldeneye, but when asked to justify that choice, you may find yourself favoring the Bond flick more than you would if you didn’t have to justify it.]
- Frans de Waal studies primate behavior to gain insight into human behavior. One of his findings: aggression does not disperse, it brings primates together more often than normal. [Destruction is creative. Creativity is destructive. Or something.]
- Bruce Mau: Not all countries have embraced democracy, but most have embraced traffic (individual transportation). [There are many different ways in which openness can be introduced into a culture.]
- Thomas Barnett: China is 30% Marxist Communist, 70% The Sopranos.
- Phillip Longman: Secular societies that cannot reproduce will be replaced by fundamentalist countries where children are an economic asset and a gift from God. And in Brazil, television viewing time predicts birth rate…the more TV a woman watches, the less likely she is to have children.
You can always tell (well, I can always tell) I’m enjoying a conference when I’m not writing much about it at the time. I’ve got the computer open for taking notes, but that’s about it…not doing a lot of connecting the dots with online research or anything and not trying to write any of it up yet. In lieu of actual content, here’s some random stuff from the last day or so:
- The conference badges here are fantastic. The names are huge for easy glancing and the entire conference booklet (with schedules, author bios, etc) fits in the badge holder. It’s got all the info that you need and it’s still small enough that it doesn’t weigh you down.
- There is a 2 square foot area in the park across the street from the conference that is the only area in a 30 mile radius in which my cell phone gets reception. Hi-tech conference, hell.
- Driving to the conference this morning, I noticed a car from New Hampshire in front of me. The state motto was emblazoned on the license plate: “live free or die”. But the screws affixing the plate to the car were positioned in such a way that it actually read, “olive free or dio”. Hmmm.