This is a post on takeaways from Foo Camp, 2009, which I took part in last weekend. Foo Camp is an event whose mission is to ‘create new synapses in the global brain’ by facilitating new, unexpected, and interesting connections between people and ideas.
What is Foo Camp?
FOO stands for Friends of O’Reilly (Media), and it is a camp in the truest sense of the word. Campers living in tents for the weekend behind O’Reilly Media's offices (a large rural green with more open space - an orchard - behind it); or sleeping under desks in the actual office space itself.
We are well-fed, fully taken care of and made to feel safe. The structure is loose, but nonetheless, it is structured so that it’s broken into a bunch of one-hour time slices, physically spaced across O’Reilly’s many varied indoor and outdoor spaces. (Tent-based sessions were my favorite.)
Foo Camp is hosted by Tim O’Reilly and Sara Winge (thanks, guys, it was a life experience), and it’s an eclectic mix of artists, educators, media folk, policy wonks, entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes, financial types and makers.
Worth noting is that the O’Reilly Universe is a constellation of nice people, and at Foo Camp there is no sense of boundaries or hierarchy so the event emanates from that, which is a gift that I am sure all attendees were grateful for.
How Foo Camp is Launched
In a frenzy of very few minutes, the agenda for Foo Camp is established. Just like that (with some smart editing/finessing behind the scenes).
It’s very organic and fertile. Every night crescendoes with live performances. One type of performance was Ignite, where a set of chosen Attendees each present sessions of 20 rotating slides to deliver a narrative on their presentation topic in five minutes.
As Ignite’s makers say, ‘Enlighten us but make it quick.’
In another performance, Ge Wang, co-founder of Smule, demonstrates the legacy (and still dominant) technology behind Ocarina, an iPhone App and Service that marries computing and music.
The session, as much as anything, underscores the physicality of the iPhone. Also, worth noting is that while there was not one Apple attendee at Foo Camp, it was a love fest for the iPhone, albeit with some definite signs of Android among attendees (and a ton of Googlers in attendance).
Ge’s demonstration pays off big dividends when the next night, Zoe Keating performs a multi-tracked musical arrangement with live cello as the centerpiece (watch/listen to the mesmerizing 'Escape Artist' here).
Literally moments earlier, I wondered how tough it was going to be to follow MC Frontalot’s rapper sensation scat in ‘Message No. 419.’
As to the sessions, they are created on the fly, subject to the session leader’s style and the audiences’ own vector.
These are strong, opinioned people, some are experts, others are just impassioned in general, so it's the proverbial cat herding exposition.
Over the course of the event, I participate in nine sessions, and it's through this rapid fire that you come to realize that some people you have more convergent paths with than others (by virtue of running into each other at the same sessions), which is a nice side touch of the event format.
At the same time, there are enough meals, snack and beverage set asides that you get to zig/zag between modes and conversations with whoever is in front of or behind you in line; next to you or across the table.
That said, the formal sessions are my fave because you really get a 360-degree perspective on a topic, inasmuch as at least a couple of fully formed arguments on the topic are put forth, and then refined a bit further, and of course, you feed your own arguments and conclusions into the mush.
The eclectic nature of the people mix (there were ~300 people at Foo Camp) proves that different buckets of approaches work for different people (i.e., there is no one RIGHT recipe for success), a point that the sessions truly crown, which is both encouraging and humility inducing at the same time.
Sessions and Takeaways at a Glance
A simple truth is that people are often less nice when they are anonymous, and there are trolls and spammers, too.
At the same time, there are valid reasons that we consider the right to be anonymous a civil liberty. Plus, there are pragmatically sound decisions for ensuring anonymity, such as to protect whistle blowers.
A really thoughtful point is raised that maintaining a pseudonym (e.g., hypermark versus my real name) doesn’t necessary equate to anonymity.
A counter-measure to anonymity, though, is focusing your energies on making authentication and verification a virtue within your service; namely, by figuring out the cases where users want to be verified and recognized to begin with.
Meanwhile, multiple sessions tackle the topic of Data munging, modeling and visualization, how the Cloud emerges, how brittle information capture is not only within computer systems but in certain physical places of the world (e.g., afghanistan voting data), and what that means in terms of systems thinking/solutions.
Another spirited discussion picks apart the topic of native versus web based Mobile Applications for developers; a decisioning path that is pretty much defined by the relatively uniform consensus that the iPhone is the only platform that matters today (for developers, at least), and that the bar is pretty much set as requiring access to device attributes, purchasing mechanisms and robust SDKs, an area where Apple is clearly best of breed (today).
Bunnie Huang of Chumby presents a really great framework for understanding the economics and logistics of Hardware Device based businesses. Excerpt: "You can do anything once, but once you try to do something a million times it is A LOT harder."
Is print dead? Does Kindle turn it into a $9.95 download default pricing model?
Do people even still read? Will Apple’s rumored iPad Tablet device change the game? I will be writing a post shortly on this topic.
Countering the rumination of the Book are sessions on Augmented Reality, which juxtaposes nicely for me personally when I spend a good 90 minutes in Google’s Holodex; essentially, the Google Earth application with a really good hand controller and eight (8) 50” HD video screens vertically tilted and interconnected to create a 320 degree concentric viewing periphery. Jaw-dropping visual WOW!
The session ‘Let Twitter handle that’ uncovers a truth about Twitter as a company. They are still targeting the developer hacker with their platform (versus enterprises and big ticket customers), even while understanding the responsibility that goes with being a platform in terms of SLA’s and what not.
There is an interesting discussion if when you tweet is it inherently in the public domain or do usage rights require formal granting (there were some discussions on creative commons and legal factors in this area, too).
Me-thinks a public tweet is public domain, but mixed opinions on this one.
Facebook’s long-term monetization 'tax' on Facebook Platform developers and where apps fit within the Facebook site structure (in terms of visibility/accessibility) is the key gate to social gaming startup, Zynga, going public.
Why? Zynga has built a (rumored) $100M business on the back of Facebook, but still doesn't know what Facebook will charge them to continue access to that base of users (e.g., 30% ala Apple iPhone or equity AND rev share ala Comcast/TCI); or, whether Facebook will wake up one day and decide to muck things up (by burying apps or favoring certain developers over others, etc.).
Also, a session on startups and incubators, uncovers the nugget that for startups, having good graphic design aesthetics is a often predictor of success!
Apparently, it speaks to a level of caring about the presentation, experience and little details that ripple over into a lot of other areas.
As he notes, while both events were driven by:
- Global financial imbalances (Then: Reparations and War Debts; Now: US-China current account deficit/surplus);
- Collapse of speculative asset bubbles IN THE US (Then: stock market; Now: housing);
- Global crisis of financial confidence drives demand for cash (Then: fear of currency depreciation/inflation; Now: loss of confidence in financial models);
- Collapse of international trade;
- Global economic contraction
Here’s the good news (or more accurately, less horrific news).
the world went from financial crisis in 1931 to the Great Depression by 1933,
we will NOT because:
(1) Then, the Gold Standard acted as a constraint on policy response since there were fears of hyperinflation if we left the gold standard. We aren’t hindered thus, as no longer on gold standard so central banks can supply liquidity demanded by private sector;
(2) Scale of Public Sector: Then: US Federal Government <2% of national economy; Now: US Federal Government = 20% of national economy...and still smallest share of the developed world. This makes an enormous difference in cushioning the collapse in private spending and making it even possible for fiscal stimulus to offset the decline.
(3) Conceptual Framework. Then: built into the worldview of economists and policy-makers was an analytical framework that assumed all resources, including people, are fully employed at all times, so any government borrowing and spending can only generate inflation. They held to this in the face of 25% unemployment and falling prices (Deflation). Thanks to Keynes in particular, most policymakers and most economists understand that government borrowing and spending can and should offset a major collapse in the private sector such as we have had globally now.
(4) In 1931, no government tried to offset the decline in the private sector. Today, the US and the Chinese governments have been most vigorous in offsetting the decline in private sector borrowing and spending by vigorous fiscal action. Note that "we" - not the Chinese - are now funding our government's fiscal stimulus: the $1 trillion of government borrowing just about exactly offsets the $1 trillion decline in household borrowing over the past 12 months. Even the Germans, who badmouth "crass Keynesianism" are actually running substantial (and welcome) deficits.
BUT, the danger remains that residual fear of government deficits will induce a withdrawal of stimulus too soon (as in 1937 in the US and in the mid-90s in Japan), resulting in an extended period of stagnation as the private sector continues to rebuild its balance sheet by trying to save more and borrow and spend less.
Netting it out: Foo Camp was simultaneously a brainstorm session on steroids (and/or coffee, red bull, wine, beer); a cultural social event (ala Maker Faire); and a state of mind that left one and all both inspired AND exhausted.