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[- Geeks, Commerce, Politics, and Fun with Technology
By amy, Section review-a-rama
Posted on Sat Feb 14th, 2004 at 04:19:22 AM EURODISCORDIA TIME
I've often wondered: could Southern California (or anywhere in the US) ever have a cool geek conference like the Chaos Computer Club holds in Berlin? I don't mean I expect the CCC to hold conferences in the US rather than their home of Germany. I mean: could US computer culture - steeped in pragmatism and capitalist necessity - ever support a geek conference focused on politics and/or recreational hackerdom? After all, San Diego's infamous annual hacker conference, ToorCon - isn't a Hacker conference at all, it's an "Information Security" conference. There's a big difference.

So, with a mix of high hopes and skepticism, I paid a visit this past week to the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego.


[ --------------------------------------------- ]

O'Reilly seems to position itself as a politically correct/aware publisher - as well as one who appreciates the fun of geekdom - but not at the expense of business. The publicity for the conference seemed to mimic this Jekyl-and-Hyde approach: a corporate structure of Keynotes, Sessions, and expensive hotels and registration fees, juxtaposed with some politically-relevant events like the Digital Democracy Teach-in and a couple of collaborative mapping projects. (The latter seem to be becoming ubiquitious, and I'm wondering why: are they really helping "the people" map their environment in some useful or amusing way? Or are the big winners Starbucks?) Anyway, unfortunately I was only able to attend the conference on the last day, after these presumably-democratizing events had ended. But from what I can tell, they only existed as side events in the lobby: the sessions themselves seemed decidedly commercial/technical/pragmatic in nature. This is no surprise, I guess, since the expensive registration fees were paid for most attendees by their employers. But more unofficial politics emerged from the attendees themselves: postings on the message board ranged from a handmade proposition to organize geeks against Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's policies on home health care to one sarcastically instructing hopeful job-seekers to Google for the name of their desired job and the word "India."

But, commercio-technical though the sessions were, some not-so-conventional spots managed to emerge:

* Electric Sheep. A project by Scott Draves, it's a distributed screensaver project, along the lines of SETI@home , but without the mission to hunt for extraterrestrials (or anything else.) Electric Sheep's mission is to generate psychedelic graphic animations, and users collectively vote for their favorites, which then are allowed to increasingly reproduce. A-Life computer art projects are of course nothing new, but Draves' perspective - practical Darwinism applied to grooviness - is refreshing in its honesty about doing nothing serious and important - it's A-Life just for kicks.

* Networked Objects. Tom Igoe's presentation of some of his New York University students' networked physical computing projects, including the E-mail Clock (time marches on as the kilobytes fill your inbox), The Protest Button (Floodnet style DOS attacks for street protesters - push a physical button instead of clicking at your web browser) and the Sensing Bed (feel your partner in bed when s/he is away - reminiscent of the infamous FuckU-FuckMe.)

And, somehow an appropriate swan song, this talk during the last session of the conference:
* CarBot. It's a car PC - not a new idea, admits Los-Angeles based Damien Stolarz, its creator. But Stolarz takes an approach rarely seen since the dot-com euporhia days, when tech startups believed they could make money doing just about anything. Stolarz unabashedly designs Carbot (price point still a mystery) for the gadget-head who has everything, and doesn't worry about "what do you need *that* for?" - assuming instead that the uses will emerge. So the CarBot has functions like reading your e-mail (and spam) in an exotic female voice with a British accent (It makes spam much more enjoyable, according to Stolarz.) Of course, CarBot is still a commercial product, whose purpose is to make money, and whose inital target group is presumably the financially well-off. But there's more to it than that: Carbot says a few things about the culture that spawned it. Its mission is to provide a bittersweet sort of entertainment in their rolling homes to Los Angelinos, who unfortunately often spend more waking hours in the car than in their house or apartment. But it also harkens back to the paradoxically consumerist-yet-not-so-commercial tech culture of the dot-com boom... when, despite (or because of) all the venture capitalists and materialist excess at its core, tech culture seemed to have enough breathing room to actually be a culture, not just an industry.

So O'Reilly hasn't provided an American answer to the CCC conference, of course, and it's unrealistic to expect that a corporation would. I still wonder though, if non-corporate US tech culture could ever produce such a thing. Or if enough non-corporate US tech culture still exists to do so - if it ever did. And if someday soon, we'll be able to ride our Segways to our cars.



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Geeks, Commerce, Politics, and Fun with Technology | 9 comments
[new] H2K(4) (Avg. Score: 2.00 / Raters: 1) (#4)
by Anonymous Stranger on Tue Feb 17th, 2004 at 06:24:12 PM EURODISCORDIA TIME

2600 ( has a very similar conference set up for every two years in NYC. This year the dates are the weekend after July 4th (I think). It's a very politically charged conference, with guests from EFF and in 2002, The Mentor was there, and rumors are flying that Kevin Mitnik will be at this years, but so far, I havne't been able to substantiate them.

<a href="">Elwing</a>

[new] The Return of Political Correctness, -- Not (Avg. Score: none / Raters: 0) (#6)
by Anonymous Stranger on Wed Feb 18th, 2004 at 04:10:02 AM EURODISCORDIA TIME

what always strikes me about looking at websites of the o'reilly conferences is the apparent white-men-around-50 dominance. it's a bit creepy really. they even underline that with the photos on the site. did not that bother you? or would you go with the argument that there probably were no women of color or younger women or guys that were good enough for this solemn occassion? i don't know but feel it's more about how hard people look for work by minorities.

[new] spaces and attitudes (Avg. Score: none / Raters: 0) (#1)
by Aileen on Sun Feb 15th, 2004 at 03:47:33 PM EURODISCORDIA TIME
(User Info)

Obviously there is nothing very helpful that I can say to this, but two things did occur to me as I read it. First of all, I wonder how representative or typical slashdot might be. "Fun" is hardly the first description that comes to mind when I read slashdot. Most people who post to slashdot seem to have such dogmatic views on everything that I find it hard to imagine how an interesting discussion could be conducted on that basis.
The next thing that comes to mind is Peter H.'s description of difficulities encountered in trying to liven up a very formal festival and exhibition in Boston. Again, I don't know how typical this might be of other places in the US (like San Diego), but I think the kind of interesting exchange that you are referring to needs spaces where people can feel comfortable.
When I was in Berlin, I especially wanted to talk to some people from CCC about the blinkenlights project. Not being a highly extroverted person, when I got to the space where that was being discussed and unexpectedly found myself alone, since the friends I was meeting didn't arrive until much later, for me it was helpful to be able to hover around the edges drinking wine and smoking, observing the situation until I was ready to approach someone, then it worked. Are there comfortable spaces in the US where strangers can hover around the edges drinking and smoking - or whatever other strategies they might use - until they feel ready to talk to someone?

Geeks, Commerce, Politics, and Fun with Technology | 9 comments

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