Ten years of Foo Camp

The purpose of Foo Camp and a look at emerging themes from the latest gathering.

The weekend of June 8-10 marked the 10th Foo Camp at O’Reilly’s main offices in Sebastopol, Calif. Ten years of evolving connections, experiences, themes and memes. More than 1,500 people have attended at least once and there is no counting the number of connections and ideas that were first seeded among the tents.

Foo Camp is an important part of our idea pipeline. So, every year we carefully curate attendees for their proximity to the topic areas that are important, will be, or should be. But the real goal is to create a space for intentional serendipity. The campers come from data, health, government, DIY, new economy and etc.; and some are invited because they are just interesting people, but when they get to talking around the foo bar the really interesting stuff happens.

There is a frisson when all those worlds collide and the instant buzzes with possibility. We aren’t Von Neumann and Wiener at the Macy Conferences, but I hope that in our own place and moment we we are creating interdisciplinary collisions that are similar in kind if not scale of import. The best part of Foo Camp is the collision-induced brain buzz and if we’re lucky it keeps on demanding our attention even after we’ve gone back home to our lives and jobs, until we do something about it.

This year we we hosted:

  • 11 people who are involved in the new economy / creative economy, which includes organizations like Etsy, TaskRabbit and others.
  • 10 with a focus on design, including software, hardware and overall user experience.
  • 13 who are working on big data products, services or projects (that was probably too many!).
  • 16 people affiliated with academic institutions.
  • 7 that are part of the evolution of government.
  • 7 who work in the Make / DIY / hardware hacker/ robotics world.
  • 6 working in education, though they’re not necessarily associated with traditional schools.
  • 3 working at the intersection of personal health, health technology and the quantified self.
  • And a whole bunch of others.

    These might not have been that much different last year, but are quite different from five years ago. Much of what works at Foo Camp works because of the ever-changing mix of participants and the interplay of ideas they bring with them. So we work hard to keep that mix fresh. This year 42% (113) of the participants were first timers and many of the previous participants were at least one year removed from their previous visit. That means that at least 75% of attendees hadn’t previously camped together at the same event. This camp felt particularly rich with first-time interactions and next year we’ll work even harder to increase the proportion of first timers.

    While I listed a few numbers because they signal some of the things we are thinking about, Sara Winge was quick to point out after reading my first draft of this post that Foo Camp really isn’t about numbers or topics or anything else that is easily enumerated, named or listed. After all, it put the “un” in un-conference. It’s also fun, energizing, ambitiously naive, sometimes silly, stubbornly emergent, occasionally mind blowing, surprising, and unless a camper is particularly blessed, it might just ruin a bunch of the conversations they have when they get home. Not everyone’s social circle will be held rapt discussing whether the Internet will Destroy the State or the State will Destroy the Internet.

    One example of surprising themes that we might not have predicted from the invite list was a growing emphasis on life outside of work. Lots of conversations that might best be described as “The Whole Geek.” A growing recognition that the technology we make isn’t the goal, that it should serve our lives. Lives that have breadth and dimensionality.

    I heard at least one person refer to this as the transition from “quantified self” to “qualified self.” I’m not sure that really captures the notion though. “Qualified” seems like the wrong root to me. But at least it makes the point that we are more than the data that describes us. Of course, perhaps it’s even more telling about who we are that such a thing requires an aha moment in the first place.

    In any case, it appears that the religion of technology is wearing thin for at least some Foos and they are making room again for souls comprised of an indeterminate ether rather than bits, friendships mediated in person over a beer rather than via the edges of an enormous graph, and a personal life that starts with presence in a moment. If even the alpha-geeks are thinking this in our micro-measured always-on uber-connected techno-deterministic time perhaps the backlash has begun.

    There was also an awakening sense of “what hath we wrought?” best illustrated by a session on “A Hippocratic Oath for Technologists.” Privacy loss, centralization of the web, Stuxnet, and the like have left some with bruised web idealism. Foo Camp certainly wasn’t an exploration of William Gibson dystopia, but there were new cautionary elements sneaking into the conversations. It seemed, at least to me, like this was the Foo Camp where the philosophers heeded the call and showed up. I think we’ll be more intentional next year with our humanities invitations.

    While we definitely learn from Foo Camp, maybe it’s fair to say that the event itself is less about idea sourcing than about relationship cementing. It’s a chance to establish and strengthen human connections that will challenge us to think about the world just a little bit differently, both at the event and during later conversations. So with that, let me point you to what a few other campers had to say about their experience.

    Finally, this year Mac Slocum sat down with a few Foos to find out what they are working on or thinking about. We’ve posted two of these interviews already (Kris Hammond and Nina Paley) and in the days ahead we’ll be highlighting more. Watch for those here.

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