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Review: 2nd Annual O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference

In the final week of April, I had the good fortune of spending four days at The Westin Hotel in Santa Clara, California. Now, for those of you who are familiar with Silicon Valley, this might not immediately sound like the sort of thing one would actually enjoy, given that The Westin sits in the middle of an industrial office park that is about as interesting as, well, an industrial office park. Living a scant ten miles north of the hotel, however, I came not for the view but to fill my brain with the collective wisdom, curiosity, and enthusiasm known as The O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference.

“…the obvious subtext [was] that technology has reached a point where users — actual real people — are the defining element of the human/computer relationship.”

The conference was organized by perhaps the most prolific publisher of technical books. So many books, in fact, they appear to be running out of animals for their covers. The company’s namesake, Tim O’Reilly, describes the purpose of the conference thusly, “The Emerging Technology Conference is a way for us to frame what the hackers and alpha geeks are showing us about new technologies into a coherent picture, think about the implications, and share it with interested—and interesting—parties.”

That last little phrase can’t be overstated. This was a conference in which the technorati turned out en masse. Attendees roaming the buffet line included the CEO of a well-known online bookstore, a smattering of recognizable venture capitalists, a fair number of authors, a host of engineering icons, and bloggers galore.

The four days, including one day of tutorials, were divided between conference-wide keynotes in the morning and smaller sessions in the afternoon. As if eight hours of cognitive input wasn’t quite enough, there were also a variety of birds-of-a-feather meetings and social gatherings to fill the evening hours. The full conference schedule is still available online if you’re interested in the gory details.

The conference focused on four themes: rich internet applications, social software, “untethered,” and nanotechnology and hardware. I was somewhat relieved by the surprisingly non-technical nature of each keynote and even most of the sessions, particularly since this was a conference largely attended by people who would unflinchingly refer to themselves as “geeks.” That’s not to say that there wasn’t some level of tech-talk, it’s hard to talk about “Identity, Security, and XML Web Services” without eventually getting down to brass tacks. However, the bulk of the sessions and all of the keynotes were decidedly non-technical. For example, Howard Rheingold talked about “Smart Mobs”, Alan Kay spoke on the future of computing, and Clay Shirky presented on group behavior and how it effects social software.

With over fifty sessions in a period of 96 hours, I obviously had to make some choices about where to spend my time. As such, my notes and observations are consistent with an interest in social software and rich internet applications, leaving the subjects of untethered and nanotechnology to the reader’s imagination.

Howard Rheingold: Smart Mobs

The author of some ten books, Rheingold’s current interest, as described in his recent effort Smart Mobs, is in the idea of collective action. Rheingold envisions a future where cell phones have evolved into powerful, mobile internet terminals, and the concept of connectedness is pervasive, if not ubiquitous. A world such as this challenges our ideas of trust and reputation, and leaves Rheingold wondering why we’re so quick to trust people we meet online when we have no real way of judging their intentions or trustworthiness.

One of the more interesting threads he spun surrounded the question of innovation and his ongoing concerns about the efforts of government and industry to limit innovation through political and regulatory enclosures. He talked about the unique nature of the Internet as media outlet, pointing out that it was the only medium ever devised where the consumers of the medium also functioned as contributors. Posing the question “Are we going to be consumers or users?,” Rheingold challenged us all to recognize and exercise our power as owners and stakeholders in the vast collective actions known as the Internet, the Web, and Open Source.

In a less political moment, he also uttered an observation worth noting by the readers of Boxes and Arrows: “Only geeks mess with defaults.” As designers, we often think that providing preferences and options is a way of empowering users. Rheingold, however, shuts down that avenue of escape and reminds us that our decisions have serious consequences for all users, even when there is a way for them to override our choices.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) in Practice:
Rights, Restrictions, and Reality

Moderated by Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News, the most notable comments from this panel were made by Cory Doctorow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (among other things) and Joe Kraus, founder of DigitalConsumer.org. Other panelists certainly contributed their fair share, but the eloquence of Cory and Joe was most memorable.

As someone who has spent way too much time in the halls of Silicon Valley, I was particularly intrigued by Joe Kraus’ comments. Joe has obviously paid his dues in our nation’s capital, and one of his most insightful observations was about the differences between Silicon Valley and Washington. As an engineering-based culture, Silicon Valley assumes fact-based decision-making. In other words, if you don’t agree with me it’s because you don’t have all the facts, so let’s go over this one more time. By comparison, Washington assumes politically-based decision making. In other words, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch Fred’s, who owes me a favor and will get three people to scratch Ted’s, who will in turn make sure that Matt gets back to you.

The message of all this being we can’t assume that decisions and legislation related to digital rights will be based on facts. We have to realize that they will be based on politics, and therefore our only way to influence the outcome is to participate in their process.

Cory Doctorow, perhaps best known for his work at BoingBoing.net, also waxed poetic about DRM and consumer/user complacency in the face of industry executives who are overly committed to the concept of intellectual property. Comparing Napster to the Library at Alexandria—a questionable comparison, but apropos for someone of Cory’s enthusiasm—he noted that Napster had more registered users (~57M) than George W. Bush received votes for President (~50M). Continuing the metaphor, Cory also noted that all 57,000,000,000 users quietly sat on the sidelines watching as the “library was burned to the ground.”

Cory is a passionate guy.

As the session closed I found myself thinking, “Dang! I didn’t even know DRM (Digital Rights Management) or DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) were acronyms, but now I’m mad as hell.”

A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy: Social Structure in Social Software
by Clay Shirky

Right off the bat I have to admit that before this conference I had never heard the phrase “social software.” As I sat through my first session, I thought the din of keyboards was actually rain rather than a cadre of attendees “blogging in real time.” It turns out, however, that social software is all the rage amongst the emerging technologists, and few carry the flag higher than Clay Shirky.

During the hour in which he held court, Clay spoke less about technology than he did about psychology and group dynamics. Revealing a political bias tending towards Libertarianism, Clay described for an almost surprised audience why groups require structure, codes, and moderators to survive. Venturing into the “soft sciences” of psychology and sociology, he noted that social software is much closer to economics and politics than it is to traditional programming.

Echoing some of Rheingold’s comments, Clay noted that anyone creating social software has to accept three things: First, you cannot separate technology from social issues. Software may determine what people can do easily, but it doesn’t determine what they can do period. Second, members are different than users. Any group includes both active and passive participants (you lurkers know who you are). Third, the group itself has rights that trump individual rights in some situations. For example, an Open Source project has the right to survive even if it means alienating a few people here and there.

Clay was a great speaker and very intelligent guy. If you’re interested in such things you should check out his site.

Takeaways and conclusions

As you undoubtedly noted from all those comments left between the lines, my biggest takeaway from the second annual O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference was that emerging technology is not nearly as interesting as the emerging uses of technology. What I heard had a lot more to do with politics, power, individual choice, and collective action than it did with PHP, CSS, XML, or XHTML.

Most interesting for us as a community of designers and user advocates was the obvious subtext that technology has reached a point where users—actual real people—are the defining element of the human/computer relationship. It is an encouraging sign that a conference for “hackers and alpha geeks” was at least as concerned with the question of what as it was with the issues of how.

This article was originally published on May 26, 2003 in the online journal Boxes and Arrows. I encourage you to read the comments posted by their readers.