Wow. Weird. The Defense Department / Many-to-Many technologies session turned into some kind of weird recruitment/intimidation drive from a marching shouty soldier man. What a creepy and kind of dirty-feeling waste of time! Such a shame, I was really looking forward to that one because I actually thought it might be about many-to-many technologies – ways of helping people self-organise in war-time situations or to organise logistics – stuff that could have particularly interesting parallel peace-time applications – particularly given all the stuff that people were saying about use of instant messaging in Iraq. But no… Terrible shame.
For the most part the ETCon keynotes are pretty much high-concept fluff. They’re fundamentally high-profile, high-glamour bits of hardcore tech that (often) are completely outside the practical experience of the so-called Alpha geeks that attend these events. But they have their value – they’re designed, I imagine, to be more brain-openers than brain-developers, they’re there to extent the aspirations, intentions and creativity of the people who attend the event rather than to be of direct use to them. Nonetheless if you’re not blown away by the technology or awed by the future tech on display, they can seem like more of a waste of time. Bring on the stuff I can actually use…
Last year the troubling session of this kind was from K. Eric Drexler on Nanotechnology, which most people had already read about in great length but there wasn’t a lot of apparent movement upon. The geeks in the room were interested in the theory but wanted results or something they could participate in. Intrigue fought with frustration and in the end – I think – frustration won. This year that balance was never more in evidence in the second keynote of the morning: Robots: Saving Time, Money and Lives.
Helen Greiner from iRobot Corporation came on stage and seemed surprisingly nervous. She started talking about the Roomba automatic robotic hoover and did so at considerable length. The immediate interest (“I want one”) faded quite rapidly as people gradually tired of the technological challenges of sensing walls, picking up dust and getting in close to the walls. Watching something of technological interest but distinct from the activities of most of the people in the room just seemed to gradually cease being that fascinating. But all that changed when she moved onto the military applications and particularly the Packbot [See the brochure].
The first reaction to the Packbots is fascination and a certain amount of awe. Comments like “I’ve seen this movie!” and “I want one” mix with awed responses to the robustness of the devices concerned. A video is shown where a Packbot is thrown through a window, lands with a thump, bounces a bit, rights itself, looks around and wanders off. One zooms up a staircase. One falls from a second story window and survives intact. Murmurs of delight from the audience at the new toy on offer reverberate through the room.
But gradually the mood changes and anxieties start to appear. Questions about the applicability and potential uses of the technology start to collide with the natural utopianism of the geek audience. What will these robots be used for? Who will control them? Where are the controls? It’s not immediately clear exactly where the anxiety is coming from – we all appreciate that weapons have to be built, that there is a need for the armed forces. But there seems to be something different about using robotics. Thinking about it I come to the conclusion that maybe it’s about a sense of automated killing – an absence of human presence that makes the whole thing resonate with the increasingly mechanised processes of death that echoed through the last century. Is keeping people further out of the equation actually a good idea? Does it discourage or encourage conflict if your side can eradicate another country without suffering any losses at all? Those human horrors of shell-shock and war-weariness – the insanity caused by human-upon-human violence suddenly seem to me almost preferable options – deterrents to conflict designed to stop us arbitrarily exterminating people and going to war.
I’m not going to judge the people involved – I don’t have that right. We all know that warfare and the technologies of warfare must evolve and adapt. The arms race still exists, and will continue to do so as long as state feels under threat from other states or from terror-attacks. It’s just that I didn’t expect such an early brain-opening session to ring such alarm bells or to give me such concern for the future… On occasion, this country I’m visiting feels like it believes itself to be under seige – like some kind of gated-community surrounded by paramilitary, robotic guards…
Day Two of ETCon and the network horror starts. Rendezvous isn’t working for me, so I can’t see or connect to any other SubEthaEdit documents. I can’t IM anyone, I’m trying to download IRC but the network is collapsing. All very frustrating. It’s like being mindblind.
Two more Digital Democracy Teach-In events come and go. The guys from meetup.com put together a couple of presentations including some useful statistics and a few nice punchlines, but I’m not sure I learned anything particularly new during it. Certainly I didn’t feel my head trying to articulate itself into any strange new shapes. And next up the political weblogging panel, which I’ve decided to abandon almost on principle – not because it’s about weblogs, but because political weblogging as an end unto itself seems to me not to have matured past tabloid tactics of name-calling, mischaracterisation and “Am I right? Am I right?“-style calls to the converted. My general impression of this part of the event is that it’s more aimed at explaining current fairly-mainstream technologies and approaches to politicos rather than looking at the emergent technologies that might interest the geekier audiences (and me).
Rapid recontextualisations make my head hurt. Nonetheless today I’m not in Los Angeles having fun with friends in drag. Today instead I’m watching Joe Trippi talking about American politics and the consequences and effects of the Dean’s internet-enabled online fund-raising and campaigning tools. The basic conclusions of his talk are quite simple:
- Broadcast media was supposed to give people greater access to democracy, but instead it’s failed us completely;
- All it meant was that to persuade people in the country, candidates had to go to the people with the real money in order to buy screen-time;
- Let no one believe that campaigning isn’t about the money – it is;
- We have to give the ownership of politics back to the people;
- The only medium that can restore that ownership back to the people – both in terms of getting funds raised from the grass-roots and getting home-grown organisation happening among the people – is the internet;
- If the people are paying for the campaign then special interests have less impact;
- The tools weren’t there a couple of years ago, but they are now;
- The press are describing the Dean campaign’s online strategies as a failure – as a ‘dot-com crash’;
- But how can it be? They raised an enormous amount of money from the grass-roots, and a year ago Dean was absolutely nowhere.
- That now we have to find new tools in order to help this kind of people-owned democracy happen in the future.
The weirdest part of the session was the pretty-much standing ovation at the end of the event that revealed the whole thing to be (as suspected) pretty much more of a political rallying speech towards the web community than a descriptive or didactic piece. Nonetheless, some interesting insights in amongst the passion.
One thing that did occur to me, though, was whether or not – given the importance of money to politics – the BBC could possibly think about adding a fund-raising tool into iCan. I can imagine the outrage that could surround that, but it would be tremendously interesting and useful to have an independent arbiter displaying nothing but statistical information about candidates and political parties and then helping to actually engage the general public by allowing people to donate money directly to a campaign.
Another thing was how useful UpMyStreet Conversations could be in terms of poltical campaigning (or at least political organisation). I think I might have to introduce the concept into the proceedings at some point. It’s not a system that would necessarily work terribly well in the US – given that their ZIP code system is so radically different from UK Postal Codes – but in principle I think it could be a tremendously useful mechanism for getting campaigners in contact with one another, for advertising and promoting events and for having local discussions about policy. [Although I guess if it was possible, someone might have done it already, given the fact that apparently Clay Shirky introduced Al Gore to the site a year or so ago].
Addendum: Please forgive me for the obvious and rampant discontinuity of posting styles – drag-act nurse babes (hey Sean) and American Politics / technology may not be obvious bedfellows. Although come to think of it, I’m sure there are associations and relationships that could be drawn between the two…
So first things first, after considerable soul-searching and fiddling around with finances I’ve found a way to go to Emerging Tech this year to cheer on my BBC other half’s paper: Glancing: I’m OK, You’re OK. Last year the conference completely blew me away and acted as fuel for one of the most creative periods in my working life to date (although unfortunately not all of that creativity ended up being expressed coherently or in the public domain). Hopefully this year’s conference will be just as good…
One thing that I found last year that I wasn’t expecting was how many like-minded people I met – or if not like-minded, how many people there I felt comfortable around. I felt that I understood their world-view even if I didn’t understand anything else that came out of their mouths. That got me thinking about what particular elements or lifestyle attributes we had in common – and that in turn made me thing about all the things things that we might not have in common – and that in turn led me to think about whether or not these events are bastions of heterosexual maleness and whether many of the people present might be gay. So as a result of that, I’m putting a kind-of poll into the field to see if there are going to be any gay people at ETCon this year that would like to get together at some point for a drink and a chat.
I’m back in the UK, and it’s half-past midnight and I feel as fresh as a daisy despite only having slept for about half an hour in the last thirty-six… My mind still feels like it’s got too much Emerging Tech stuff in it that I need to digest, contemplate, post about, link to, think about and (hopefully) get into fights about – but I don’t know when I’m going to get the chance to do it. So in the meantime, I hope people can forgive my fragmentary writing – it’s simply reflecting the state of my mind… Over the next few days, expect massive catch-ups on what’s been going on elsewhere around the world, random pictures being displayed completely out of sequence as-and-when the urge takes me, discussions about the stuff we talked about in Santa Clara as well as the stuff that has crept blinking from my mind over the last couple of weeks. Also expect griping about the state of my financies, anxieties about the future of UpMyStreet.com, the posting of a just-in-case CV/resumé and as many of the intelligent brain-scrapings as I can muster over the next few days (before they go stale)…
If I say nothing else about the whole experience, let me say this: If you are working on something innovative or cutting-edge or interesting – anything with wider implications that you think could matter to anyone else – and you feel that you’re lacking a community of engaged and interested peers to connect with and relate to, then you should seriously consider going to Emerging Tech 2004. In the meantime, I think it’s about time those of us in the UK persuaded Danny O’Brien to start another XCom (for the altogether scruffier UK alpha geeks and their fans). See you all next year!
So. A bit delayed. Sorry to all concerned. I’ll post later about the experience of delivering a paper at Emerging Tech later, when I’ve had a chance to assimilate the whole experience, but if you’re looking for the PowerPoint presentation then here it is: UpMyStreet Conversations: Mapping Cyber to Space (5.7Mb). The paper was cowritten by myself, Stefan Magdalinski and Matt Webb.
“Mad props” to Webb by the way, who somehow managed to keep me sane through the whole thing and forced me to finish writing the thing by suggesting he might cause me physical pain – I’m a bit euphoric so I’m going to say that he’s one of my favourite people in the world at the moment. If people notice any hideous typos or mistakes through it, then let me know and I’ll amend it straightaway.
So I’m hiding in the Speaker’s Room with Vee McMillan – trying to get my stuff printed out for my paper (T minus one hour, fifteen minutes) and this woman comes into the room saying that she thinks she really wants to see Clay Shirky and she doesn’t know where to go to see him. And Vee says that she thinks it’s almost over and the woman looks a bit flustered and says that actually it doesn’t matter, she just really wants to see his face. Vee tells her where to go. She leaves. Excited. Groupie? Fan? Mother? The world needs to know…
So on Thursday I’ll be delivering a paper at O’Reilly Emerging Tech called “UpMyStreet Conversations: Mapping Cyber to Space”. The paper, which I have co-written with Matt Webb and Stefan Magdalinski, will be mostly about the basics of how Conversations works but will also include a more rigorous investigation of three areas where geocoded communities present new challenges to developers of social software.