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Distributing the Future

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 6
Column Tag: Emerging Technology

Distributing the Future

The O'Reilly Etech 2003 Conference

by Vicki Brown

    "The Future is here; it's just not evenly distributed yet"

    - William Gibson

Innovation Showcase

If asked to say what O'Reilly & Associates does, most people would probably answer that they publish books and run technical conferences. If pressed for more, some might add that the company performs market research, technology advocacy, and technology incubation. Tim O'Reilly, founder and president of O'Reilly & Associates, sees the company's goal as something much broader: "Changing the world by capturing the knowledge of innovators".

To achieve this goal, O'Reilly must be constantly on the watch for innovation, finding new, transformative technologies that they can catalyze. They accomplish this by:

  • Knowing what's cool and important and evangelizing it

  • Recognizing "alpha geeks" (techies that are consistently ahead of the curve) and leveraging their expertise

  • Reducing the learning curve and enhancing the depth and quality of information about new technologies

  • Listening to and speaking up for the interests of user and developer communities

  • Brokering dialogue between competitors in the interest of open standards

  • Exercising common sense

Tim is an avid follower of technology and technologists. He continually seeks out interesting people and ideas, then works to "amplify their effectiveness by spreading the information needed for others to follow them". One place where much of the newest, coolest, most transformative technology is showcased is the annual O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference (

In his conference session entitled The O'Reilly Radar, Tim explained the philosophy outlined above and argued that the most interesting emerging technologies meet the following criteria:

  • the technologies are "disruptive"; disruptive technologies cause changes to the way we think and work

  • their uptake (adoption) is accelerating

  • they have grassroots (bottom-up) support; support from a few large institutions is less important than support by the larger developer and user communities

  • there's a real need for information

  • the technologies have professional practitioners (with real-world applications)

  • they provide a possible business ecology

  • they have deeper social implications

  • they inspire passion

For the attendees, organizers, and presenters at O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference, the future is definitely here. For one week in April, Etech 2003 distributed some of that future.

Day One

The first talk I attended, entitled Biological Computing, was presented by Eric Bonabeau of Icosystem Corporation. The content of the presentation wasn't anything like what I thought I expected. Attendees were treated to a fascinating discussion of biological "swarm" computer models - how to use ideas gained from observing ant colonies, bees, wasps, etc. to make new and efficient computer systems. The ideas were described as "simple rules" and "bottom-up modeling". They sound simple, but they work. When Southwest Airlines applied these models to their air cargo transport, they improved their efficiency by 70% and saved millions of dollars, by using a "traveling sales ant" algorithm.

After lunch, there was a presentation for an Open Source semantic search engine project, given by a speaker from NITLE (the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education). The presentation was made even more interesting because the initial set of data used for the project was from Steven Johnson's book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. More swarms... apparently there are (no?) coincidences in the area of "emerging technologies".

We then stopped by to chat with the folks at the Internet Archive Bookmobile. The Internet Archive is collaborating with numerous libraries to digitize as many texts and books as possible, The Bookmobile is making "out of print" (and/or out of copyright) books available to people one book at a time from the back of a well-equipped minivan containing an HP duplexing color printer, a couple of laptops, a desktop binding machine, and a paper cutter.

The Bookmobile is a demo of a public domain application. It addresses the basic question: "What good is the public domain?" One thing the public domain excels at is cost reduction. The folks in the bookmobile project estimate that they can print and bind a book for less than it costs a library to lend out and re-shelve that same book. (Of course, this doesn't apply to books currently under copyright, but it's an interesting idea all the same!)

Day Two

The first keynote speaker of the second day was Alan Kay, one of the inventors of SmallTalk. He gave a well-attended talk on User Interface history, entitled Daddy, Are We There Yet, complete with video clips. Many of the things we take for granted today were in research labs 40 years ago... yet some of what was in those labs still hasn't made its way into currently available computing interfaces.

The second keynote, Personal Interfaces, was presented by Kevin Lynch of Macromedia. The talk focused on what Macromedia is doing to turn Flash (originally an animation engine) into a much more functional development system. The result will be the ability to create desktop Internet applications that will still work even after being disconnected from the Internet.

The third keynote was an energetic and very interesting discussion of social structure and social software, with the intriguing title, A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy. This talk was presented by Clay Shirky. Clay has achieved a place on my short list of "must hear" speakers - no matter what the topic, if he's speaking, attend the talk!

Social software is software that supports group interaction. Prior to the Internet, the last invention that really affected the way people communicate with each other in groups was the table. Today we have forums, email, wikis, IRC, and more; all work to one extent or another, supporting some form of social communication patterns. As Internet "grouping" has become easier and more popular, we have passed the mid-scale groups sizes where people can easily have conversations and get things done.

Using real-life examples, Clay showed how groups start out, grow, change and (sometimes) destroy themselves from within. Every group eventually reaches a "constitutional crisis". How the group handles (or mis-handles) that crisis determines its survival. Although our software is technical, groups are social; group interactions (and problems that arise as the result of those interactions) cannot be handled in a strictly technical manner. In group interactions, social and technical issues are inextricably intertwined.

Day Three

We missed the first keynote on the third day, but caught the second. Google, Innovation, and the Web was presented by Craig Silverstein, the first employee hired by Google's founders and now Google's Director of Technology. The talk really impressed me. Google, Inc. combines careful hiring practices, a short but articulate mission statement, innovation, experimentation, focus on user experience, and a firm understanding of the need for process. Not only that, they have been successful with this combination and believe they will continue to be successful. Here's a company that actively pursues code reviews, status updates, engineer testing, and product maintenance - and they admit it in front of an audience.

Eric Drexler's keynote provided a fascinating, animated discussion of the past, present, and possible futures of nanotechnology, entitled Nanotechnology: Bringing Digital Control to Matter. He began with an interesting question: What is the main digital storage system on the laptop computer in front of you? The surprising answer: It's not the hard disk. It's the DNA in the myriad bacteria that are contaminating the surface of the machine and its parts.

Nanotechnology can harness and combine principles demonstrated by the bacteria; principles demonstrated in nature by chemical reactions, biological systems, and physics, as well as the principles of computer science. The starting point in understanding what nanotechnology can be is to realize a fundamental principle: If a given thing exists, things like that other thing are possible. Nature shows us that molecular machine systems can exist: cheaply, cleanly, and working with molecular precision.

If you are interested in the future of nanotechnology, take a look at the sites for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology as well as Dr. Drexler's organization, the Foresight Institute.

Mac OS X Innovators Contest

The O'Reilly Mac OS X Innovators Contest debuted in March and received nearly 100 entries for its first round of competition. Winners were announced on the second day of the conference, with a reception that evening.

Second prize was awarded to Rob Beale for Spring, described as a "wildly innovative universal canvas". First prize was awarded to Brent Simmons for NetNewsWire, considered "one of the most popular new apps for Mac OS X".

Closing Thoughts

This was easily one of the best conferences I have attended in some time. No session that I attended was quite what I thought I expected going in. Every session gave me something to think about and to discuss for days afterwards. No session was boring or uninteresting. I think this is the first conference I have attended where I can truly make all of those claims.

As the week ended, I was already wondering what technology will be emerging next year. I'll be at the 2004 conference to learn more. You should be sure to attend, too.


Session summaries and follow-up coverage of Etech 2003:

Information on past and future O'Reilly conferences:

Swarm Intelligence: An interview with Eric Bonabeau:

The National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education:

The Internet Archive Bookmobile:

Lessons from the Internet bookmobile:

Social Software and the Politics of Groups:

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology:

The Foresight Institute:

Mac OS X Innovators Contest:



Vicki Brown has been happily following the latest emerging technologies since the early 1980's. Some of her favorites include Unix, Mac OS, PDAs, and the WWW. She can't wait to see what emerges next year.


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