Tony Stark on Etech

In the final pages of Iron Man #1, the reboot/takeover by Warren Ellis comes a scene between alcoholic billionaire technologist arms-dealer Tony Stark and Maya Hansen (who looks to be a central character in the 6 part series)

They are at a bar in the conference hotel, and Starck is bemoaning the lack of “Genuine outbreaks of the future” that he’s seen there.

They are at a conference called "WestTech", which seems pretty obviously to be O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology conference…

The line up for 2005’s Etech has been posted, and so far it seems like the same people talking about the same pet subjects. Not many ‘genuine outbreaks of the future’ so far.

Now, I know that I maybe jaundiced by the fact that I have been to every Etech so far – that’s 3 years on the trot (no blog-software pun intended, much), so perhaps take this with a pinch of salt.

There are lots of interesting things on the schedule, including what sounds like a great workshop by Tim Igoe and Raffi K, and m’colleague Chris on tangible computing. There are a fair few brits there again, including The Beatles of post-broadcast technology, Coates,Webb, Biddulph and Hammond (I’ll let you decide which is Ringo… but does it make Hill = George Martin?)

It’s just that the topics on offer: y’know – the copyfight, social software, bloody blogs, web services etc. might still be worthy topics for discussion, but I feel like I’ve been around those blocks quite a few times now, and I want some genuine outbreaks of the future.

Erupting technologies, not emerging ones…  Surely these topics have crossed the chasm to be at the front-of-mind of the business world, if not the consciousness of what might be called "the mainstream".

I thought with the advent of the Web2.0 that some of the stuff that Etech had covered so well in the past would be retired, moved over for the $2000 suits to chew over – clearing the decks for some really out-there stuff. The current schedule suggests this is not the case.

What would I have there instead? On the hardware side: more mobile! Might be heresy coming from me, but how about someone from Qualcomm? Or even better, Ningbo Bird! Fuel cell technology, flexible displays,  printed electronics, multiradio – Flarion, Wimax, Ultrawideband, and their implications for cities, suburbs and rural communities.

More robots, toy manufacturers, Rodney BrooksNatalie Jeremienko and/or Neil Gershenfeld as keynote…  On software and services: more simulcra and simulation… Ben Fry on working with bioinformatics and the genome, get Alan Kay again… or David Gelertner … 

What’s going on with agents and distributed computing, autonomic computing – is it on the way after the hype-cycle of the mid 90s? Artficial life and AI – what’s the state of the theoretical art and the practical applications happening right now?

NBIC – the confluence of Neuroscience, Bioengineering, Information Technology and Cognitive Sciences. Bioinformatics, biometrics, and exploring the ethics of engineering in these fields. Get some sociologists in – what are these sciences and the new fields of convergence they bring doing to their domain of study and it’s application to our collective future?

Which leads me to society and technology, the unacknowledged but most interesting part (for me) of etech usually –  some contrarians and tech-inspired creatives to prick the conscience: John Thackara and/or Michael Crichton and/or Warren Ellis.  Lessig and Shirky, much as I love them, aren’t the only ones who can deliver a tubthumper. Patch-ecologists, biologists, cognitive psychologists! Anyone but the same old silicon valley apologists!

I know there are a fair few months for big hitters and game-changers to find their way into the programme, so perhaps this is unfair – but the theme of the next conference is ‘remix’ and at the moment it seems to be much more of a ‘retread’.  Ok, rant over.

If I do go along I guess I’ll be getting pissed in the corner with Tony Stark.

0 comments
  1. Jyri said:

    Good suggestions Matt. I fully agree that if eTech wishes to retain its edge, it needs to ease off a bit on the web content emphasis and feature the avant-garde thinking on mobility, urbanism and social aspects of bioengineering.

  2. adam said:

    Maybe it’s not fair to expect this from a conference dedicated to emerging technologies, but I’d actually like the opposite: Less. Slower. Fewer.

    I had a moment of genuine future shock the other day – dizzying, vertiginous and profoundly unpleasant. (It was brought on by a clumsy but well-meaning Flash animation about the future of media and the eventual convergence of Google, Amazon et al.) And I thought: wait. Just…wait. Let me wrap my mind around this stuff before we move on, OK?

    And I’m pretty well-adapted to change, and especially to technological change.

    I don’t necessarily want to know about erupting technologies, in other words, thank you very much. At least not at the moment.

    I also cannot help but notice that things are worse, less free, more dangerous now than at any other moment in my adult life, and feel like someone should be remembering to ask what all this technic is for if it can’t address the truly determinative forces that act on our lives.

  3. simon said:

    What is the flash animation of which Adam speaks? Anyone?

  4. mattw said:

    Heya Matt, I’d go to that conference.

    Etcon, to me, is also about the ‘hey, I could do that.’ It’s that the tools we have, right now, are more than enough to geocode the web, or simulate ants delivering liquid oxygen in France, or figure out new channels for communication, or make networked physical objects do magical things.

    I agree the schedule seems to be missing the brain buzz so far, I hope that’ll come, and I hope it’ll be the people you said. But equally you take futureshock wherever you can find it, and maybe (for a while) it’s not going to be at conferences, or rather: It’ll come from being opened up to remix from the sessions, and then talking about the cool shit in the bar afterwards and mixing the two together. Or even: Taking the plug-this-into-thisness of the sessions, and figuring out how to put that same need-fulfillment in a billion pockets.

  5. I know what you mean MattJ. I always thought “Emerging Technology” was a bit of an overly general misnomer – it’s always web/net stuff, with a few other things tacked on.

    I guess if you accept it as a “you can do this too” kind of conference, as Webb suggests, it’s fair enough. But I’d love a *real* emerging technology conference, with web stuff as only a small part of it. Really, most of the presentations should be things we know almost nothing about, rather than the same old topics – I’d bet even *non* emerging ideas in many fields of technology would be eye-openers to the likes of us.

  6. hfb said:

    I don’t know, but most of the people really working on the technology thought it was a pretty silly conference, seemingly mostly comprised of blogger ‘A-listers’, when it declared the ‘trackback’ the emerging technology of the year. It’s the same recycled stuff you’ve been reading in all the buzzlink blogs for the past 3 years. It’s bloggercon only it’s hosted by O’Reilly.

    There’s a lot more interesting stuff going on in the sciences and such, but many of those folks are likely under an even more strict NDA than you and anyone else in telecomm land. Maybe there should be an NDA track where everyone can talk about different clauses in their NDA.🙂

  7. Anon said:

    The second picture looks slightly like a leaner version of you.

  8. nick said:

    My first experience of ETCon last year reminded me of something from my time at college: you learn most from the margins, from the stuff that happens between the presentations (notwithstanding the power of those sessions as catalysts). Which isn’t so bad. But you’re right: there’s a self-selecting element that’s invariably going to become embedded.

    Perhaps Tim (or rather, Cory and Rael) ought to institute an ‘and one’ rule, whereby everyone invited to speak gets to invite one fly in the ointment — a Warren Ellis, or a Charlie Brooker, for fuck’s sake. And they’re not there as decoration, but as part of the mix.

  9. nick said:

    That said, I actually think it’s the British invasion which tends to grab ETech by the throat and point it in new, smart directions: why, thank you, Mr Heathcote, Mr Webb, Mr Coates, and Mr Jones. Among others.

    (Btw, I found the Powerpoint from your ‘Cowboys’ presentation on a completely random PC I happened to be using a couple of months ago… talk about meme traffic.)

  10. To be honest, I’ve been so confused by their selection of papers this year that I don’t know how I feel about it either. I’m beginning to think that the conference and I must either have radically divergent understandings of the future or that I must just not be doing terribly interesting work. We put in two papers this year, and I honestly think if they were going to select one of them that they choose the wrong one. By quite a margin.

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