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Foo for Thought

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Last weekend I had the extraordinary privilege to attend Foo Camp, an annual gathering of about 250 Friends Of O’Reilly (aka Foo). Tim O’Reilly, Sara Winge, and their colleagues have amazing friends, as you can see if you scan this unofficial list of attendees working on big data, open government, computer security, and more generally on the cutting edge of technology and culture (especially where the two overlap).

Foo Camp is an unconference, which merits some elaboration. No fees, no conference hotel (many attendees literally set up camp in the space O’Reilly provided), and no advance program aside from some preselected 5-minute Ignite presentations. Attendees proposed and organized sessions, merging and re-arranging them to optimize for participation. It was a bit chaotic (especially the mad rush after dinner to secure session slots), but very effective.

The minimalist format brought out the best in participants.

For example, I am passionate about (i.e., against) software patents, so I organized a session about them. I did a double-take when I realized that one of the participants was Pamela Samuelson, perhaps the world’s top expers on intellectual property law. I braced myself to be schooled — as I was. But she did it gently and constructively. Specifically, she pointed me to work that her colleagues Jason Schultz and Jennifer Urban were doing on a defensive patent strategy for open-source software (including a proposed license), as well as reminding me of the Berkeley Patent Survey supporting the argument that software entrepreneurs only file for patents because of real or perceived pressure from their investors. I also heard war stories from lawyers who have done pro bono work against patent trolls, reinforcing my own resolve and also reassuring me that the examples I’ve seen at close range are not isolated.

Another session asked whether we are too data driven in our work. What was notable is that this session included participants from some of the largest internet companies debating some of the must fundamental ways in which we work, e.g., do we actually learn from data or do we engage in assault by data to defend preconceived positions (cf. argumentative theory). Like all of the conference, the discussion was under “frieNDA”. so I’m being intentionally vague on the specifics. But it was refreshing to see candid admission that all of us know and have experienced the dangers of manipulating an audience with data, and that there are no algorithms to enforce common sense and good faith.

I won’t even try to enumerate the sessions and side conversations that excited me — topics included privacy, the future of publishing, a critical analysis of geek culture, and irrational user behavior. I missed the session on data-driven parenting, though others have pointed out to me that you can only learn so much if you don’t have twins and perform A/B tests. The best summary is intellectual diversity and overstimulation. If you’d like to get a general sense of the discussion, check out the #foocamp tweet stream. I also recommend Scott Berkun’s post on “What I learned at FOO Camp“.

As someone who organizes the occasional event, I’m intrigued by the unconference approach — especially now that I’ve experienced it first-hand. Moreover, I feel strongly that the academic conference model needs an upgrade. But I also know that open-ended, free-form discussion sessions are not a viable alternative — indeed, a big part of Foo Camp’s success was how it inspired participants to organize sessions — and to vote with their feet to attend the worthwhile ones. And of course part of that success came from inviting active, engaged participants rather than passive spectators.

Many of you also organize events, and I’m sure that all of you attend them. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about how to make them better, and happy to share more of what I learned at Foo Camp. After all, Foo is for (inspiring) thought.

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