|Monday, October 14, 2002|
The Conferenza Premium Reports (CPR) folk have just extended an offer to Pop!Tech Bloggers. The will gladly send you free copies of their Pop!Tech reports. Just email Shel Israel email@example.com and say “Pop! Me.”
Stephen Wolfram Heads Strong
Roster As Pop!Tech 2003 Examines
By Shel Israel
Editor, Conferenza Premium Reports
Oct. 17-20, 2002, Camden, Maine
Preview Report, Oct. 9, 2002
Pop!Tech isn’t exactly a technology conference. It’s more about life, and technology’s impact on it; about ethical decision-making in the Information Age, and how technology and humanity continuously change each other. Attendees are not just from the technology sector, but also academia and public services, ranging from governors to librarians.
It would be easy to say that Pop!Tech probably isn’t an ideal venue for a venture capitalist looking for startups with PowerPoint presentations. Yet it was founded, and a majority of its agenda decided by, venture investors generally respected for seeing the world from a 30,000 foot level or higher.
Most who have attended it speak passionately of the experience. Things we first understood at last year’s Pop!Tech impact our actions today a full year later, like last year’s lead off talk by Megatrends author John Naisbitt, who told us that 9/11 didn’t change everything: It only changed one thing, and the rest of our world remains as it was. As MIT Media Lab’s Michael Shrage said from the dais last year, “Pop! is what your brain does.” The investors who do attend are those trying to identify human-related trends that provoke technology opportunities a few years down the road. This is a brain-food conference, more like TED than any other event. But Pop!Tech, a.k.a. Camden, is folksier, friendlier, and almost always more controversial, according to those who have attended both.
Pop!Tech’s theme for 2002 is “Artificial Worlds.” Steven Larsen, this year’s honorary program chair and a venture partner at St. Paul Venture Capital, says the four-night, three-day event will attempt to explain why human beings are so dissatisfied with reality, and the role that escapism has played in literature, theater, film, television, and just about every other way we occupy or entertain ourselves. On a larger level, the conference will examine how artificial worlds have impacted the development of civilization itself.
On the Dais
The headliner (debatably) is Stephen Wolfram, developer of the enduring scientific calculation program Mathematica. Wolfram has been called one of the most original thinkers in the scientific community, as well as a victim of “intellectual egocentrism.” Wolfram’s recent book, “A New Kind of Science,“ attempts to define core principles underlying development of the universe. Weaving together disciplines as diverse as physics, cosmology, and biology, Wolfram identifies formulas that he believes prove the widespread randomness we perceive in the universe is defined by a knowable number of rules. His audaciousness clashes with scientists whose diverse disciplines he tries to knit into one. His talk should spark heated debate.
We say Wolfram is only debatably the headliner because the roster is filled with others who have the potential to be inspiring, provocative or informative. Other speakers include such diverse and accomplished players as:
· Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, the U.C. Berkeley Ph. D. who invented numerous psycho-active drugs, including Ecstasy, the mainstay of teenage rave parties;
· Gen. Paul Gorman (Ret.), a pioneer in the Army’s use of information technology;
· Gerard Jones, former comic book creator and author of “ Why Media Violence is Good for Kids;”
· Ray Kurzweil, inventor of speech recognition and music synthesis;
· Judith Donath, head of MIT media labs Social Media Group;
· Will Calhoun, a prolific drummer who has recorded with Mick Jagger, B.B. King and Harry Belafonte;
· Jaron Lanier, who coined the term “virtual reality,” and was an early pioneer in technology-enhanced artificial worlds; and
· Bruce Damer, founder of DigitalSpace, a company currently modeling a Mars mission for NASA. Damer has authored a book on avatars, those digital stand-ins for real people, and is among the developers of the pioneer Xerox Star interface, early progenitor of the Apple Macintosh’s desktop metaphor.
· Also, people who attended last year advise us to stay until the end, since
they rate co-producer Bob Metcalfe’s wrap-up talk as a usual highlight.
How Pop!Tech Popped Up
Two of the technology industry’s early architects, Metcalfe and John Sculley, founded Pop!Tech as a non-profit effort. Sculley is the former CEO of Apple Computer, and Metcalfe founded 3Com and invented Ethernet -- which Scott Briggs, an angel investor and former president of Ziff-Davis publishing, recently told Conferenza was “perhaps the biggest pure gift anyone has ever given our industry.” Metcalfe’s day job is as a general partner in Polaris Venture Partners and Sculley is a principal in Sculley Brothers investment firm.
Both Sculley and Metcalfe own homes near Camden, and they launched the conference so that, as Metcalfe says, “We could get our friends to come to Maine when it is most beautiful.” Mid-October in Camden is indeed New England at its best, and the town doesn’t seem to mind that the annual event extends the tourist season for an extra week, filling restaurants and hotels.
There’s a built-in folksiness to Pop!Tech. First, the vintage 500-seat Camden Opera House, built in the 1920s, gives the event a New England town meeting feel that can’t be replicated at fancy hotels. Attendees stay at local B&Bs, then walk the short distance through brisk autumn air to the Opera House. Instead of banquets, meals are served at local chowder and lobster diners, where small, random Pop!Tech groups dine amid locals and dais luminaries. There is one conference-wide reception dinner buffet held in the area’s aeronautical museum.
Another of Pop!Tech’s unique aspects is that speakers stick around, mingling with attendees throughout all four conference days, becoming part of the group dynamic. Larsen notes that though some on the roster command fees elsewhere upwards of $20,000, at Pop!Tech they only receive expenses and an occasional spousal free pass.
Is the Theme the Thing?
Each year, Pop!Tech has a central theme. Seven years ago, producers claim, it was the first event to explore virtual reality. In 2000, the theme was “Being human in the Digital Age.” Last year, it was supposed to be digital access “Everywhere, All the Time,” but the producer’s wisely morphed it to address the ethical and social issues following the 9/11 catastrophe. It was where some attendees first became aware of the mounting dichotomy between privacy and security.
Many attendees will tell you, Camden doesn’t really need an annual theme. The recurring focus on the human impact of technology and social change is an endless source for speculation on where technology will go and who will follow. But working within that theme, conference producers seem to enjoy spicing things up with a bit of controversy. A couple years back, a transvestite gave an onstage demonstration of safe sex. This year, it’s the father of Ecstasy. “But somehow,” says Metcalfe, “[the conference] never goes over the line,” and the controversial parts seem to be part of a program that tends to also include the informative, the thought-provoking, and occasionally the inspirational, as last year’s attendees called both philosopher John Perry Barlow and Naisbitt.
Metcalfe reports that attendance is a bit off this year for a conference that usually sells out, so registration is still available at www.poptech.com. While Metcalfe points notes many conferences are falling short of attendance goals this year, past attendees have told us that they weren’t attending in part because airline logistics have changed, making Camden more remote from the West Coast. Also, at least one regular attendee said he wasn’t going because the topic sounded like “Virtual Worlds,” which he felt was a dated and dull subject.
“’Artificial Worlds’ is completely different from virtual reality,” Larsen responded. “Human beings have never been completely satisfied with reality. Beer is an ancient invention. So are fantasies. Likewise, the impulse to make changes that make life more interesting, more exciting and fulfilling,” he maintains is part of humankind’s history.
“We've sought to create Utopias, or failing that, theme parks. We evade reality in theaters, sports stadiums, concert halls and travel,” Larsen says. “In short, we've used all our skills and brainpower to improve or duck reality. Now, we are using our newest technologies to create improved replacements for reality capable of providing total escape.”
But no matter the theme, Pop!Tech remains high on the Conferenza favorites list.
Conferenza’s contributing editor for Life Sciences, Gail J. Pomerantz previews the Oct. 21-22 Venturewire Lifescience conference in San Francisco, and next week Conferenza co-founder Gary A. Bolles goes to Phoenix to tell you what’s on IDG’s Agenda for this year.
####(Conferenza Premium Reports (CPR) provides technology industry insiders with news, analysis and commentary on the industry’s top tier executive conferences. Individual subscriptions are $199 a year and great site license rates are available. Contact: Shel Israel, firstname.lastname@example.org for additional information.)