PopTech Rebels Rage Against the Tech Machine, From Within

Xconomy Boston — 

The coastal town of Camden, Maine, is a beautiful setting in late October, even in a Nor’easter. The drive takes three and a half hours from Boston—a little longer in the pouring rain—but once you get there, it feels very far from the daily rat race.

The Camden Opera House, built in 1894, is the site of the annual PopTech conference—an elite gathering of several hundred technologists, designers, artists, and entrepreneurs. It’s a venerable place full of charm, mystique, and old ghosts.

It’s also far too small for 600 people to mill around in when the weather’s so miserable they can’t go outside. Yet PopTech co-founder Bob Metcalfe said the venue is a key reason why the conference, now in its 18th year, has endured.

Any program that starts off with morning yoga has a high bar to clear. Over the next two days, the audience would hear their share of new-agey, motivational phrases from the stage. We are all human “beings,” not human “doings.” We need to “zerotask,” not multitask. We need “contemplative technologies” that promote concentration, compassion, and wisdom.

My fears were quelled when I talked to some of the other attendees about technology trends. Hoon Joo Lee works in research at Nike and picked my brain about harvesting energy from wearables and apparel. Luke Segars works for Google and gave me a grand tour of the possible futures of virtual/augmented reality and 3D printing.

Instead of people staring at their phones all the time, Segars suggested, they could interact with a virtual screen around them as a mobile interface. Instead of buying stuff in stores or online, they could print more of what they need at home—which could eventually turn the manufacturing and retail industries on their heads. (This has nothing to do with his work at Google, which makes it all the more interesting.)

The big theme of the conference talks, hosted by design guru John Maeda, was “rebellion.” Joi Ito, the tech investor turned MIT Media Lab head, described some connections between rebellion, creativity, and education. At his lab, he said, “I don’t want obedience. I want rebellion as a key factor” in the faculty and students.

Ito lamented the traditional school system that has “stamped out creativity in our kids.” As for education, Ito said he doesn’t even like the word. “‘Education’ feels like something that people do to you. Learning is what you do to yourself.” (For his part, Ito said he dropped out of college three times and got kicked out of kindergarten.)

His take-home message on education: “We need to transform the system to be more rebellious and creative. This is the only way we’re going to survive.”

The irony of a maverick like Ito rising to prominence in the tech industry—and now being part of the machine, where he brings in funding from companies like Fox, Google, Intel, and Twitter—was not lost on Ito or his audience. Or on Maeda, who quipped, “When rebels mature, they make institutions.” (Maeda is the former president of the Rhode Island School of Design and now works at a big venture firm.)

“We all like rebellion, because it’s cool and it reminds us of our childhood and it feels good,” Ito said. “But who pays for all of it, and how does it build itself into the system?”

PopTech 2014

Indeed, the day’s speakers uncovered a persistent tension between the need for institutions—which provide structure, discipline, a unified message—and the need for rebels to challenge them and make them stronger. Which is hardly a new idea; it’s been said that the best companies, and industries, disrupt themselves.

Anil Dash, a Web entrepreneur and CEO of ThinkUp, took one of the biggest swings at the tech machine. Given that “software influences culture in a deep way,” he said, technologists and companies “have to take responsibility for what’s bad.” That ranges from Web companies’ nefarious terms of service to their being “lousy about civic duties,” to excluding women and minorities from their staffs (actively or not).

What’s more, tech entrepreneurs need to “respect our institutions,” he said, citing Uber as a darling of the startup community that continues to face legal and regulatory hurdles in various markets.

“All of us have to hold app developers accountable,” Dash said emphatically. “We can do better.”

The conference’s greatest selling point, perhaps, is that the hype machine known as the “Internet of Things” was not even mentioned until Day 2. And when it was, it was in the context of the maker movement—and another type of rebellion.

Ayah Bdeir, the CEO of electronics startup littleBits, railed against the fact that people are intellectually out of touch with the systems and devices they use every day. Few of us really understand how our smartphones work, or how the financial industry is run, or what happens when the power grid fails, she said.

“We resign ourselves to being consumers of these technologies, and I believe this is a very dangerous thing,” Bdeir said.

She called for a “coup d’état,” to “rebel against our things, technology, and mental laziness.” For Bdeir, the answer is to “democratize hardware” and make it more modular and self-service. Her company makes electronics kits that provide simple building blocks—circuits, components, and so forth—so that non-technologists can experiment with putting hardware together and creating their own gadgets.

So far this has led to rudimentary projects like a doorbell that sends a message to the owner’s phone, and quirkier ones, like a communication system that lets a pet bunny text a family when he’s hungry.

These are admittedly small steps for a broader tech industry that is starting to have more pockets of self-awareness. It seems constructive, at least, that people at different levels in the system are willing to speak out about their place in society.

All of which is to say, rebellions are a long haul—you have to start somewhere.