ETech, O'Reilly's Emerging Technology conference, took place last week in San Diego. Hundreds of engineers, entrepreneurs, hackers, innovators, disruptors, makers, magicians, marketers, journalists, and tech professionals gathered in the ballrooms, lobbies, hallways, and towers of the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel. The conference theme was articulated by a notable quote from science fiction writer (and prescient futurist) Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Conference attendees were treated to a mind-expanding menu of tutorials, keynotes, sessions, and special events that included participation by dozens of Yahoos from all corners of the company, which was a gold sponsor.
- Yahoo! Music engineer and Flickr Hacks author Jim Bumgardner presented an advanced Flash tutorial. You may have seen some of Jim's metamagical fun and games at KrazyDad and CoverPop, including his recent Yahoo! Local hack, Wheel of Food.
- Chad Dickerson, head of the Yahoo! Developer Network spoke to a packed house about the magic of hacking Yahoo!'s corporate culture. Hacking at a big company like Yahoo! is about opening APIs and platforms on the Yahoo! network. It's about hack days. But it's also about bringing on the rock and roll, reminding a public company how to laugh at itself, and turning off the automated campus sprinkler system before a crew of hackers (not crackers!) pitch their tents on your campus green.
- Pasha Sadri and Jonathan Trevor, from Yahoo's Advanced Development Division, presented "Pipes, A Tool for Remixing the Web." Pipes launched nearly two months ago to accolades from Tim O'Reilly and the Web 2.0 community. At ETech, Yahoo! Developer Network evangelists and members of the Pipes team demoed Pipes to hundreds of visitors. We watched a stack of Pipes t-shirts vanish from the Yahoo! booth on Tuesday and reappear in the wild as the week wore on.
- Yahoo!'s Joshua Schachter, founder of social bookmarking service del.icio.us, shared pragmatic product wisdom with a standing-room-only crowd. In "Lessons Learned in Scaling and Building Social Systems," he talked about paying close attention to the details of how people interact with del.icio.us. Some lessons from Joshua: Design registration so it's lightweight. Make people's data portable. Choose interaction language thoughtfully to encourage sharing behavior. Make RSS easy. And never stop listening to your users — to what they say and what they do. Respond. Tune. And keep listening. Presto, del.icio.us.
ETech's evening entertainment opened with math professor and mental-math magician Arthur Benjamin performing lightning-fast calculations. His mathemagical prowess elicited oohs and ahs from the audience. At a mini-Make Fest, crafters and inventors showed their wares. Other special events included the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Awards fundraiser dinner; "Half-Baked Dot Com," a weirdly wonderful exercise in entrepreneurial improv; "Powerpoint Karaoke," a carnival of spellbinding presentation arts; and "Werewolf," a game of group behavior played after dark.
As in the world of Harry Potter, sometimes when powerful wizards gather, unforeseen dark forces are set loose alongside good spells and benevolent insights. News of Kathy Sierra's unexpected absence from ETech resonated throughout the conference week and rippled across the blogosphere. The disturbing circumstance of cyber threat triggered a standing wave of passionate conversation about issues that weren't on the schedule: hate speech vs. free speech, anonymity vs. accountability in blog comments, cyber bullying, and censorship. As ETech attendees, we were forced to look deeper and became a bit wiser about ourselves.
Here's a question I'm holding in my mind from this year's ETech: As we navigate new frontiers of identity, privacy, and individual freedom in this ubiquitous digital habitat we're creating, how can we continue to cultivate civility and advance knowledge for the common good? Do we need spells and talismans to ward off the trolls or an honorable-yet-flexible blogger's code of conduct? What do you think?
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Photo from Scott Beale / Laughing Squid