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Ignite Boston shows the way to beat commerce interruptus

I felt like was I drifting back to the dot-com boom last night during

Ignite Boston
.
Movements that I saw getting stalled seven years ago seem to be
finding their way forward again.

Ignite Boston, a party held every few months by O’Reilly, draws people
from around the region who are interested in technology and
socializing. Last night, the approximately 325 attendees packed two
floors of a bar, and it’s a good thing the street outside was closed
off because there were plenty of celebrants out there as well,
escaping the noise inside to have a conversation.

All the formal talks were intriguing and delivered well. Several could
be filed under the category "socially beneficial applications of Web
2.0."
For instance,
HealthMap,
which tracks reports of disease outbreaks around the world, serves as
an important resource for the Centers for Disease Control and
government agencies.
CO2Stats
determines how much your web site contributes to global warming,
estimating your energy usage as well that of your visitors and the
networks they traverse.

Microsoft’s
WorldWide Telescope
makes it so easy to create a video of space objects that a
sophisticated six-year old can use it. This falls under the category
of “make science exciting” projects I praised in a
blog
about
Maker Faire.

Other presentations recalled the experiments O’Reilly documented in
the book
Peer to Peer.
Here’s where I felt technologists were picking up again on the themes
of the dot-com era.

Tool developer Jesse Vincent is promoting a distributed database
system called
Prophet
as a way to break out of the walled gardens maintained by portals and
social networks. His idea is that those services disempower their
users by holding on to their data, and that users can create their own
networks without giving up control.

Noting that the popular
Twitter
site goes down from time to time (including this week), causing
all twitterers to be disconnected during such periods, Joe Cascio
proposed a Distributed Twitter service based on communicating
servers. He compared it to the distributed server approach in Jabber
(XMPP). His diagrams also reminded me of the superpeer approach added
to Gnutella as it grew.

Our Ignite Boston events regularly fulfill their goals, one of which
is to show that Boston has a lot of inventive technologists doing cool
stuff. I think such projects, nationwide, will pull us out of the
slump that left so many dreams in the bit bucket after 2001. The
question is whether the upcoming recession will trash the tech
recovery. But I don’t think it will.

The costs of developing software tools and web presences have come way
down since 2001, thanks to advances in infrastructures. Open source
projects and peer production (which I highlighted in an

article

two weeks ago) lower the barriers to successful projects even more.

The recession can actually inject new life into small-scale projects.
Knowing that some paid jobs are out of reach, people may turn to open
source and do things that seize their imaginations instead. (The
dearth of computing job opportunities that Europe provides, relative
to North America, is often credited for the greater participation in
open source projects there.)

People are also turning away from the pursuit of glossy fashion and
unnecessary material things. They are taking to heart the realization
that consumption for its own sake is bad for the planet.

And they might be reading the psychological studies showing that
you’re happier if you spend money to help somebody else than to buy
something for yourself. When we all learn this, advertisers will turn
from glorifying luxury and envy to urging investments in social
causes.

Commerce will continue, and it will be better commerce. We’ll still
enjoy seeing people such as Shava Nerad–who has given so much of her
career to helping the world through
Tor
and other projects–express a child-like glee to find herself earning
money from a machinima project she started with friends for fun. We’ll
share more of what we have, and appreciate it more too.

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