Etech 2003 Stories

by Tim O'Reilly

[ Editor's Note: Tim sent the following letter to this year's Emerging Technology Conference attendees. Included after the letter are some of the interesting responses he received. If you have a story to add, please use the "Comment on this Article" link at the bottom of the page. ]

Thanks for being a part of the smart mob at the second O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. If your experience was anything like mine, you're still reverberating from the whirlwind of provocative ideas, mind-bending tech innovations, and great conversations that is Etech.

Last year's conference led to the invention of the weblog trackback feature and inspired Amazon's Jeff Bezos to give his blessing to Amazon's web services initiative. This year's conference was also rich with creativity and community, and we can't wait to see what comes of it.

This Etech saw the introduction of Hydra and Confab, two group blogging tools that were a powerful way for the attendees to share the job of documenting fast-talking presenters. But the experience of melding social software and face-to-face interaction was just the tip of the iceberg. Every day was packed with intriguing moments that added up to a snapshot of the future.

My own favorite moment was hearing Mena Trott of Moveable Type try to talk Jeff Bezos into using trackbacks for Amazon book reviews, so that people could write reviews on their own blogs. Jeff seemed completely on board with the idea--I'm going to follow up with Mena and the Amazon tech staff to see if we can make it happen.

What was your best moment? What ideas from Etech do you think will gain traction? We want to hear from you, and we'll do what we can behind the scenes to turn ideas into reality.

If you haven't already done so, I also encourage you to submit your conference and speaker evaluation forms. Your feedback is critical for our continued success, and will help us put together an even more amazing event next year.

See you then,
Tim O'Reilly

I have to say that I was looking forward to this year's Etech very much. There were several technologies that I found interesting.

First, I thought the use of Hydra as a group documentation tool was excellent. I don't think the authors ever envisioned 20 or 30 people working on the same Hydra document, but it seemed to work really well. This enabled me to get access to the most complete set of notes from a conference I have ever seen. I hope that the authors of Hydra take some of the suggestions they got from Etech participants and run with them.

Alan Kay's talk was amazing. I think his current work has a great deal of potential. The simplicity he has brought to computer programming is revolutionary and I hope that it takes off. I would love to see my mom writing programs to suit her needs, rather then settling for whatever MS comes out with.

Finally, I was very impressed with the GNU Radio presentation. This is a technology that has the potential to be revolutionary. While other things presented at the conference were interesting and cool, this technology was the one that had me thinking. I'm quite sure that software radios will become the standard for RF devices in the future, they will enable us to have multi-function devices in a single form factor. It will also allow greater innovation in the field of RF communication. Suffice it to say that I am very excited about this technology.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this year's Etech, and I'm already looking forward to next year.

Allen Hutchison

As well as the usual Rendezvous demos for my session, Zero Configuration Networking with Rendezvous, I had also planned a little real-world audience-participation experiment using Hydra, the Rendezvous text editor. My plan was to show Hydra early on, resume my presentation, and then see how long it took for the audience to realize that I'd left Hydra running in the background and they could connect and add their comments to the document. Little did I know that the audience was already way ahead of me.

I launched Hydra, clicked the "Share" button, and within seconds--before I could even pick up my second laptop to demonstrate it--eight names had appeared in the list, and their typing was appearing in the document window for the whole audience to see on the presentation screen. I was stunned. In my plan, I had expected that some people would get the idea, find Hydra on the web, download it, and by the end of the session some would have connected. This was so fast that these people couldn't even have had time to launch Hydra, much less find it and download it. To connect so fast they must have had Hydra already running. Why?

Unknown to me, Hydra was already the big hit of the conference. It was only the first day of the conference, but group note-taking with Hydra was already the norm in every single session. In a later session I heard an unexpected ripple of laughter pass through the audience. I was a little puzzled, and so was the presenter, because he hadn't said anything funny. Then I looked down at my laptop computer screen and saw the cause of the laughter--one of the audience members had made a funny comment in Hydra.

Wireless networking, Rendezvous, and Hydra have irreversibly changed the dynamics of conferences and presentations. Giving a talk will never be quite the same again.

Stuart Cheshire

It was so awesome, being able to take notes with other people. While some were bashing away at their keyboards, trying to keep up on their own, we (Hydra users) were able to collaboratively and accurately document the events and happenings. We were even able to get notes on things that we weren't able to attend, such as with conflicting schedule choices.

One of the most interesting things I noticed was the lack of presumed conflict that one might think would arise in such an environment. On the contrary, I found that the people were able to cooperate even without person-to-person communication. Different people were able to do different things without consulting anyone. For example, I would usually spell check and rephrase things, another would organize an outline of the information, one would go out and find related links and snippets of information, someone would ask questions about various topics, and one would just sit back and enjoy the reading of the information being added.

Cortland Haws

This year's conference was such a proof of concept for so many communications tools that one has to ask whether the quaint, old physical-presence (QOPP) aspect of it was really necessary. My answer is that the QOPP was a nice complement to the real conference going on in virtual spaces with varying degrees of ad-hockitude. And it was fun to see whose hair was longer (Esther's) and whose was shorter (Stewart's).

Mike Swaine

I was amused at the O'Reilly Etech Conference that people had completely fallen back to business cards as a way of exchanging information. All the custom bar codes and scan codes, Palm PDA beaming, and other high-tech ways of automating information exchange that Wired magazine has been promoting for years as the next next big thing have come to nothing, even in a group as techy as the Emerging Technology Conference. Inside my attendee bag when I checked in was a "Who's Who" list printout. None of the peer-to-peer technologies running at the conference helped anyone actually socially interact in any personal way. The wikis and "who is where" type apps were all cute, but none of them helped people who might have like interests, and who might be able to help each other, meet. One presentation from an M.I.T. spinoff promoted Smart Tags: an LCD panel around your neck will announce the wearer to you as you approach with your tag on. I joked with Clay Shirky, saying that perhaps his tag would say "Hi Todd, My name is Clay and I am also into bestiality." Is this what twenty years of the Internet has brought us to?

The punch line to all of this is that at the conference, someone kept putting up a laptop on the wireless network with an ad hoc network name that had the same name as the access point network, thus jamming everyone in the radius of the laptop. If we can't make technology work for a group of very technical people, how are we going to get "average Joes" to adopt it at home or at the office?

To put this in a positive light, I think there are still huge opportunities for us to add more social behavior to the web. In one of the massively-multiplayer game BOFs, I joked with Jeremy Bornstein that we should take a massively-multiplayer structure and apply it to real life, so Indymedia "subscribers" could earn levels and points for going to protests, getting arrested, etc. . . . It's a silly idea at first, but not so far from some of the reputation, rating, and social blogging aspects discussed at the conference.

Thanks for a thought-provoking conference.

Todd Dailey

My favorite session was probably hearing Ethan Zuckerman talk about Geekcorps. We later talked in person and brainstormed a bit about what is needed to make IT volunteering more of an exchange between geeks and less between large NGOs. How can this idea get traction? Perhaps this problem boils down to the question, How can technology facilitate a sense of familiarity and community where information is exchanged in the same way as it exists within current, thriving, online geek communities? People get help from one another via many online mechanisms, but the thread that they all have in common is that each online group has something specific in common, such as a programming language, a location, or a recreational activity. But a developing country doesn't tend to have easy entry points into such online groups. I don't see any easy answers to this, but I was happy to see someone at Etech who wanted to begin the discussion.

[ Editor's Note: We're also interested in furthering the activist causes that Ethan discussed. Along those lines, O'Reilly & Associates is sponsoring a Geek Volunteerism Summit at our upcoming Open Source Convention in Portland, Oregon. Don't miss the Geek Volunteerism panel discussion that will cover the progress made at the summit and explore ways you can help developing countries create innovative, sustainable IT cultures. ]

Another technology that I really enjoyed learning about was GNU Radio. If the price of hardware goes down a bit for the HDTV A->D boards, I think this technology will easily gain traction among the alpha geeks, and will perhaps evolve into a new HDTV market of some sort.

Thanks for asking. See you at OSCON.

Cere Davis

"This was the first talk I'd been to since Etech and given my inability to concentrate on such things I realized how boring talks can be without the distraction of Etech's ranks of laptops and Wi-Fi. I desperately wanted to exchange instant messages with friends about what was going on or force myself to concentrate by getting stuck into some collaborative note-taking. Looking at your neighbor's notepad just isn't the same."

If education were like Etech all the time, as opposed to just for three days, there'd never be any problem getting students to attend classes. I've never found an environment so automatically accommodating to the needs of a thousand people, without breaking the fragile social connections that bind them.

Hydra, the Rendezvous editor, has totally surpassed all the possibilities I could dream of for workflow shifts. The user interface alone makes CVS merging amazingly simple. I'm glad I was a participant in that; it's not something I'll ever forget.

The best venue of the entire week was the balcony eating area upstairs. From dawn until midnight it was continually populated, for four solid days, a thriving ebb and flow of a community that had never been in the same room like this, somehow coexisting and interacting beautifully.

Something I have missed forever since is a target market for my thoughts. I found myself submerged, unexpectedly, in an ocean of people who care about similar things as myself--social software, adaptive networks--the reasons I came! Deciding that my role in the conference would be "catalyst," I was able to connect two people four times, to some effect; the ripples have spread in several directions, and I think they're for good (for instance, Esther Dyson now has a blog).

The chance to do that, just for a day, would entice me more than any job in my life has offered. The chance to do that for a year in an educational setting would change my life. Thank you for the three best days this year.

Richard Soderberg