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Monday January 16, 2006, 03:17

The umbrellas did not fare too well against the elements last night. As I walked home from Barcamp, I passed 32 broken umbrellas. 13 of them I picked up and deposited in trash bins along the way, and the others were either in traffic or were too mangled to even pick up. There was also a pair of pants lying on the sidewalk, legs spread, covered in snow. I did not pick those up.

Anyway, in the spirit of contributing more and bitching less, or really just in the spirit of wanting this weekend to go on a little longer, I would like to think more about what it is that I just spent the weekend doing. After all, I most certainly did not spend the weekend reading the newspaper, which is still number one on the items in my life most likely for me to fall behind on week to week. And I did not go out for a bike ride, because it was both too wet and too cold (Saturday and Sunday respectively), which is falling to number two on that list, though I did get myself a cycling jacket and a warm base layer thing, so once the temperature creeps a bit above freezing I'll be good to go. Oh, and I also got myself some cycling shoes, and while they're probably not the right thing for me, they're still ok, and I'll try them out and I'll wear them I'll like it (while walking to school five miles each direction etc.) and again there's something more to be said about decisive actions that I'll hold off on until later.

No, this weekend I spent downtown, in an office full of people I didn't know, sitting and standing, eating and talking, listening and contributing and overall participating in a fully immersive, incredibly geeky, not entirely too nerdy, real life chat room. There's more to be said about where the idea of Barcamp came from, and how it ended up on the east coast, but that's all left as an exercise to those who are more interested in things like history and the emergence of a thing. Which would probably be someone like me, actually, so it's interesting that I don't really have the whole story. What I do know is that there is a conference that is run in California, and it's invite only, and some Bay Area nerds didn't really like that exclusivity so much, at least when it came to their not being able to participate in what really can be considered some amount of magic, so they pulled themselves up by their bootstrap and started their own un-conference based loosely on the Open Space Technology model of conference facilitation.

The most interesting thing about my experience of Barcamp is that I have actually participated in an Open Space meeting before, as part of the work that I was doing at the consulting firm where I was working for a year. We ran a conference at a telecommunications company, and our internal counterpart was an expert Open Space facilitator and brought us into the process with him for our first conference with the employees we were working with. And when I first read the description of Barcamp, I thought to myself, "wow, that really sounds a lot like Open Space." And, sure enough, that was one of the foundations off of which the weekend was run.

So what was it? Did I really spend my weekend at a nerd camp? Well, yes. Throughout the two day conference (and while it was billed as an un-conference, there were too many similarities between th event and a conference not to consider it a conference) there were sessions in four different meeting rooms on a variety of topics. Those topics ranged from the technical (Open Source server virtualization software, Lucene and its Ruby counterpart, Ferret) to the social (educating tomorrows technologists, outsourcing) to somewhere in between (semantic tagging, discussions of solution providers building on Open Source CMS systems and the business models they employ). I'm not sure if there was an underlying theme, though I'm sure there's someone out there to correct me on that point, but if I had to put one around the entire event it would have to be "Building the Future."

I think there was a future element to everything that was discussed, whether it was very literally a session led by a computer science/IT professor talking about what the future of technology education looks like, to technical sessions meant to inform the participants about technologies they could directly employ to build their future applications, to sessions about the currently fresh and soon-to-be huge web projects and the future of business, all the participants had in mind some sort of ideology of "we are here, and we're going to do something about it."

What didn't impress me about the session was that the loosely structured schedule worked, or that I met so many interesting people, or that I learned so many interesting things. No, what really impressed me about the event was that it got up and running in the first place. I guess that I have become someone boring in the past several years, with the people that I hang out with, with the projects that I am working on, with the technologies that I know. Working for myself and on my own, it is very difficult for me to remember that there is a world of ingenuity out there, that there is a world of creativity, and a world of passion, and that given that world, there is a group of people who will want to talk about it.

I consider myself incredibly lucky that a friend of mine told me about the event, and I find it interesting that of all the technology people that I know in the city, that none of my New York technologist friends were in attendance, either through me (though I learned about it late myself) or on their own, through their own desire to be there. It could have just been a function of awareness of the event (like me for example), but it could also be a function of the types of people I spend time with now, versus the kinds of people that I spent time with in college. While I don't know that it is necessarily a function of the academic world, I do feel that the people that I was spending time with this weekend had a different outlook on technology than the ones I interact with on a daily basis. While both groups of people are driven by curiosity, and are both driven to innovate, I think that the farther away you get from a school-like setting, the more commercial your pursuits become, and the more that curiosity about the world is driven by commercial interests than by some grander vision of what is wrong with the world and what should be done to fix it. Not what can be done and what is reasonable to be done within the strict parameters to which we must all adhere in this post dotcom age, but what should be done, simply because that's the way the world is supposed to work.

Which is not of course to say that half of the presentations and most of the people at this conference were people who had no commercial interest at heart, whose products were not out to make money and who were not to some extent successful technology entrepreneurs of some sort. But at the same time, it takes a particular personality to want to walk around for two days, participating in a conference, shooting the shit until 2 in the morning, just on the off chance that you might connect with some ideas that you like. Of course the upshot of all that is that the type of person who attended this conference was likely to enjoy talking to the other people who would attend, based purely on the fact that they are the kind of person who would (and did) attend.

The point? The point is that the temperature has finally dropped to winter levels in this city, and as I walked home from a heated debate over whether or not every human perception can be reduced merely to a problem of misplace semantics, with the wind whipping past my face and my fingers freezing in my glove, I could not wait to get home, to flip open my computer and pick up right where I left off with the people that I'd just left, all heading our separate ways, but all going in the same direction.

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