ETech 2006 thoughts

I'm back from ETech. The theme this year was The Attention Economy, and I have to agree with Matt's Thoughts on etech that I didn't walk away with much new information about attention. But ETech is always about more than the theme, and a 2nd emerging theme from the conference was ubiquitous computing. In fact, Bruce Sterling's opening talk was called The Internet of Things where he discussed his concept of Spime—a virtual object that manifests itself physically for a time while retaining the trackability of a virtual object. (As I understood it.) For example, shoes could be digitally designed, fabricated, and made location-aware. That way you could simply Google them if you can't find them in the morning. (His extended thoughts on Spimes are in Shaping Things.) Many sessions touched on ubiquitous computing and controlling the physical world in a more fluid, digital way.

Another emerging topic was Yahoo!, with three or four sessions devoted entirely to Yahoo! products. Of course I'm very interested in Yahoo! after working on Yahoo! Hacks, but their presence felt heavy-handed. (Granted, many members of the ETech selection committee were acquired by Yahoo! over the past year.) But the sessions I saw were straight product-pitches with little or no bearing on the conference theme of Attention Economy. I don't mind seeing demos or product pitches if they're within the context of larger ideas. Yahoo! wasn't the only offender there. Just to compare: Google was absent from the conference, and I only saw one pitch from Microsoft.

My favorite sessions were about big ideas: Maribeth Back's reading rooms, danah boyd's G/localization, Derek's distributed communities, and Clay Shirky's patterns for social software. I think what I'm personally looking for is a more academic, less commercial conference devoted entirely to social interaction mediated by technology. That's a convoluted way of saying Social Software Conference, but I'd also like to hear about trends in ubiquitous computing and networked devices as well.

Once again, I came away from ETech with notes full of ideas to digest and play with. And even though I might not have a better handle on attention, it's often the unexpected threads that emerge from the conference that turn out to be the most valuable.