Rub The Felt: Looking Back At ETech 2007

I’ve just spent the week in San Diego at O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology Conference – aka ETech 2007. The theme was the old Arthur C. Clarke quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I came out to San Diego for two reasons. The first was intentional: my job has an underlying requirement that I be aware of what’s going on in the tech world, and I can’t think of a conference more targeted at that line of thinking than ETech. The second was unintentional: in the time since I booked my conference registration, I have burned out very hard on a serious personal project, and I grew to look forward to this time as a chance to reboot myself in terms of technological interests.

In both respects, I believe it was a success.

Sessions

A rough count of my notes shows that I attended twenty-seven sessions across what was essentially three days. Averaging together my reactions leaves me at what I can best describe as “reasonably pleased”; there were some I loved, some I didn’t have much of an opinion on, and some that I really didn’t get into. Some of the ones in the last category were terribly snark-worthy, but as I’ve used up my snark talents for the week in the backchannel, I shall only be touching on those I really enjoyed. Here are the top five, with the salient points for me, in no particular order.

Creating Alternate Realities

Speaker: Jane McGonigal, PhD.

As one of the key people in the ARG scene, I was eager to hear what motivates Jane to do the things she does. Her faith lies in the idea of doing work that brings people increases in their quality of life. Happiness, in any of three realms (pleasure, engagement, or a sense of meaning), is the new capital in the world.

A cut-up manifesto was presented from a survey of various puppetmasters, and some lines stuck out at me.

“We believe a well-designed game can improve a life that is boring, or routine. It can help change for the better someone who is work-obsessed, or even a dick.”

“A ubiquitous game can wake you up if you are sleep walking through life.”

“Wanting to be in the game is the game.”

Some of her work I was familiar with – I Love Bees was mentioned, of course. I wasn’t familiar with other portions, however, particularly The Ministry Of Reshelving. A fantastic idea if I ever heard one.
The final point of her talk was about “the deathbed test” – the concept that something is truly worthwhile if it will be recalled on a deathbed. While a bit morbid, there’s a lot of truth to that.

I’ll close with what I jotted down of Jane’s call to action:

Invest a portion of your time, energy and resources towards understanding and innovating happiness. Make your technology not only feel good, but also do good and expose good. Build your culture around quality of life.

The Core Of Fun

Speaker: Raph Koster

Raph is from the MMO world, and his talk focused on breaking down fun into more discrete components. (This may seem to be the exact opposite of fun, admittedly.) The eight components were the core mechanics, the ability to prepare, the territory of the experience, a range of challenges, a choice of abilities, variable feedback, good return on good investments, and a cost for failure. I won’t break these down any further – you can read the slides.

The point I found most interesting was that game structure is fractal – games are built on top of other games, and the deeper you look the more subcomponents you can find. Hadn’t really thought about it that way, but it’s true in many senses.

A New Animism

Speaker: Adam Greenfield

Adam’s talk may have, in some ways, been the most controversial of the conference – if such a thing is possible. I only say this because it flew squarely in the face of the theme.

The talk started with the expected focus: launching from his book Everyware, talking about ubiquitous computing, and talked about how magical objects from folklore (say, the magic mirror from Snow White) could be replicated with technology (in this case, integrated voice recognition + RDF+XML + a projected avatar interface).

But then Adam threw me (and perhaps others) for a loop:

“If this is the emerging consensus, I want to chop it off at the knees.”

What followed was a push back against the idea of seamlessness. It causes too many problems when things break. It stops interactions from being shared across multiple devices. “Magic has no hooks for extensibility”.

Adam instead pushed the idea of “seamfulness, with beautiful seams” – which gives the user chances to understand what’s going on, understand the interactions, perhaps change it.

Someone in the backchannel posted a quote from Greg Costikyan which I thought was terribly appropriate:

“Supposedly, virtual worlds will eventually be our interface for everything online, a far friendlier and more fun and “easier” interface than, say, eBay. This is, when you think about it, a crock of shit; when I want to buy a shirt, I for sure don’t want to walk through a virtual mall. In fact, the reason I go online to buy a shirt is to avoid walking through a goddamn mall. Give me quick access to your shirts and swift checkout, and I’m a happy puppy. Search and shopping cart in a web browser is what I want, thanks, not some high-concept notion of a high-touch universe. 3D worlds are lousy ways to find most of the things you want, precisely because they use the phenomenological universe as a metaphor.”

It’s a lot to chew on. I ran into Adam at the airport on the way home and had a nice chat with him, and I can’t agree more that his talk would’ve been perfect placed back to back again the keynote with Mike Kuniavsky.

Adam’s closing quote:

“Magic as a metaphor has existed for a very long time in all cultures on earth. I think magic is for children. I proclaim childhood’s end.”

From Pixels To Plastic

Speaker: Matt Webb

Matt covered so much, I don’t know if I can do it justice. Here, how about I just touch on two points… (Who am I talking to in this hypothetical tone?)
We are in the midst of Generation C. We bring ourselves into communities; we are connected both socially and electronically; we are creative, making our own interfaces and designs as we see fit; we do this because we are controlling* and we want to own the experience; we are not afraid of **complexity. This is essentially the internet sensibility.

Designing products for generation C is hard – and you need to make your products extensible. Let people write the interface to their washing machines via an API. Why? Because the internet is enabling small players to talk to manufacturers; hardware creation is becoming nearly as agile as software. If you don’t build your products this way, someone else will.

Great stuff.

Lessons Learned From Building Social Software

Speaker: Joshua Schachter

Joshua’s talk was, as they say, made of awesome and win. So many lessons from building del.icio.us were shared that were useful/insightful that I left feeling full, like I had just had a fantastic mental meal. Here’s three of them:

Identity & Reputation: Many systems don’t expose this, but they should. Stats about people, picture, etc. Be careful, though: “Any time you show numbers on the screen, people are going to try and make them go up”. Feedback mechanisms (think Flickr favorite count) provide positive loops.

Syndication: 60% of delicious’ traffic is syndication. RSS feed on every thing that can change in the system – people, tags, given bookmarks. Not every user is sophisticated enough to use it, but people who want to be experts will use it and evangelize for you if they can see you all the time.

Measure & record stuff even if you don’t need it now, because you will someday.


How Does This Jive With Education?

This is the question I’ve really had to grapple with this week (otherwise, how do I justify going again next year?). So much is going on in the technological world – how do all of these lessons apply into the educational world?

I’ve dealt with technology in education in three forms: high school, college, and my current professional endevours. Each has faced me with different opportunities (I wrote my high school’s web page), challenges (OS X upon release wasn’t terribly friendly on Cornell’s campus), and experiences (launching services in my current position) – but there’s also been a lot shared between the three, so I think I can generalize with some degree of accuracy.

In each and every one of these situations, Matt Webb’s points about generation C have held true. There has always been an effort by the users to carve out the new, to allow for greater control. Why can’t we design services to serve this need?

Between Raph and Jane, it’s apparent that fun, happiness, and quality of life are important things. Is it possible to provide these things within education? Sure is. We may not be running ARGs or MMOs, but our systems don’t have to suck the life out of things. We should allow users to, whenever reasonable, create their own experiences. Students should be able to self-assemble in web spaces they control. Policy needs to be balanced between empowering the college and empowering the user.

I think Adam’s talk is also precient in that we should not be trying to hide every last seam away from our users. Schools always try to bundle a lot of things up, hide them away to decrease the complexity away from the end users – but all educational institutions have savvy users. And these users can become your best friends/advocates, or your worst nightmare. It’s worth the effort to make them happy, and to listen to them when reasonable (as per Joshua).


Other Notes

  • Powerpoint Karaoke is possibly the most fun you can have with a projector. I really want to find a way to have it as a regular thing in NYC.
  • I can’t make a lot of comparisons, as the variety of conferences I’ve gone to is small, but ETech runs really smooth. Abundant power strips, reasonably good food, well planned breaks – the conference going experience was pleasant.
  • On the other hand, there were way too many “infomercials” (product pitches by sponsor companies) stuck in the keynote slots. Lessons learned sessions are fine (see Joshua’s talk); sales pitches are not. If you’re designing a conference, plot your sessions to avoid these pitches during time slots that no one can avoid. (The title of this post comes from the Yahoo session detailing how great Hack Day was – which focused so much on Beck’s presence that they closed with a video of a puppet saying he was going to “rub the felt”. It was surreal and more than a little out of place.)
  • Backchannels are essential. Sure, they lead to snark and backbiting and inside jokes, and they can cause drama when projected, which they never should be. But they are a positive force in conferences. They provide a space to talk out the points being presented, research points glossed over, and fact check in rapid fashion. It certainly helped my note-taking. Cheers to everyone who came out to the lunch on Thursday.
  • Twitter is played out. And I say this as someone who uses it frequently.
  • This sounds like a conference that would be right up my alley. I should try to come next time. Is it annual?