Foo Camp Takeaways

As many of you know, we held our annual Foo Camp in Sebastopol this past weekend. Foo Camp is a weekend geek campout that’s been described as “the wiki of conferences,” because there’s no program beforehand. The program is developed on the spot on Friday night by people swarming a set of big whiteboards with rooms and time blocks. (This year, courtesy of Rabble’s “foocal”, we also got an online version.) Foo Camp is free to participants, but invitation-only — not because there aren’t thousands of great people who wouldn’t be fabulous participants and contributors, but because we only have room for a few hundred, and we want to select people who are exploring areas we’re interesting in, or people we want to introduce to each other.

We hold Foo Camp for a number of reasons:

  1. To learn about what’s next. I’ve often quoted William Gibson’s observation that “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed,” and noted that “alpha geeks”, who are bending technology to their own interests, are often already living in pockets of a future that will one day spread to the rest of us. We learn a lot from what people present about that is NOT connected with their jobs or their startups, and we encourage people to talk about their passions and interests, not just their work. For example, last year, we had three or four independent presentations on human augmentation, suggesting that cyborgs are in our future.

    This year, one of the interesting takeaways for me was the disappearing laptop. In past years, there were lots of people lugging laptops between sessions, taking notes, hacking away and the like. This year, I saw lots more people whose principal technology artifact was their phone, and even more who were giving up on any form of technology mediation, and just going for the fuller bandwidth of simple human communication. Meanwhile, there were presentations like “How to eat like a caveman,” “the 4-hour workweek”, and “what if everyone followed their passions?” that suggest people are looking for more than they can find on a screen. One participant told me “I found myself not having any conversations about technology, but just asking people about their lives.”

    (Mitchell noticed the lack of laptops too, and so did Leo, and each of them had separate hypotheses as to the reason. While there may have been local social dynamics such as they surmise, I believe there is a broader trend on display.)

    That being said, there were lots of cool technology presentations, with my own favorite news from the future being the update from Drew Endy and Christina Smolke on the state of synthetic biology, including a demo (developed by a high school team) of e-coli engineered to smell not like sh*t, but rather, either a banana milk shake, or wintergreen mint. Bio-engineering is in the stage equivalent to the transistor era of William Shockley, but the real whiff here is of a future era where people are hacking our code.

    Another major theme that emerged for me is one that I’ve been watching already, namely the idea of computing breaking the bounds of the “screen and keyboard” paradigm. Some of this comes with the increase in phone based applications, but we were also treated to quite a few robotics talks, various kinds of large-scale games (often using phones and other portable devices), speech interfaces, and applications of RFID technology. I believe fairly strongly that we’re heading for a paradigm shift point in computer interfaces.

    There were also a number of very interesting talks and demos about energy, confirming our idea that energy is on the hacker radar as well as the Silicon Valley radar. (Hence our Energy Innovation Conference.) And there were quite a few talks on the social implications of technology, or how to make this a better world. But on both of these topics, there is at least some attendee selection bias at work, versus the “disconnection” meme that I mention above.

  2. To test out new product ideas, and to find new authors, conference presenters, and possible investments. We get lots of great ideas and input for our books, conferences, and investing. For example, I was able to pick the brains of about 30 great people who know a lot more than I do about one of my latest brainstorms, the parallels between Web 2.0 and Wall Street. The attendees also have a great opportunity to test out their ideas on a knowledgable and passionate audience.
  3. To spark other people. Our businesses flourish best in periods when innovation is bursting from the seams. So creating more cross connections between people who can spark each other is good for us, good for the participants, and hopefully, good for everyone who isn’t here, but will benefit from what the participants learn and do. Some of my personal best moments include watching some of my favorite hackers, like Adrian Holovaty, Avi Bryant, and Andy Baio show each other their latest work.

    Adrian Holovaty, Avi Bryant, and Andy Baio at Foo Camp 07

    In addition, we hope to create a neutral ground where competitors can meet and share ideas. In the closing session, when we ask people what they particularly liked, many people remarked on this aspect. For example, when Larry Page, Jimmy Wales, Jason Calacanis, Peter Norvig, Danny Sullivan, and Mitch Kapor can get together to discuss the tradeoffs between algorithmic and people-enabled search, that’s a good thing.

  4. To meet new people, and to introduce our friends to each other. We meet new people, and we are always saying to each other “You’ve got to meet…” Sharing friends is one of the most satisfying kinds of sharing.
  5. It’s a blast. Exhausting, but a high point of our year. (My personal “fun” high point was a ride in Ian Wright’s electric race car, 0-60 in 3.0 seconds. Made me glad that I’m not Donald Trump, as my hair would have been back in the parking lot if I didn’t still have my own….) A close second was watching Adrian “Django” Holovaty play Django Reinhardt in real life.