Five Things I Saw at Contactcon

Host Doug Rushkoff on the stage at Contactcon (via Flick user Steven Brewer)

On October 20 I had the luck to join a group of some of the brightest and most creative people from every part of the tech spectrum at Contactcon. Held at the beautiful Angel Orensaz Foundation Center (see above), the conference was a flurry of energy and excitement, never lingering on one point of focus too long. As befits the format, below are five events or situations that caught my attention at Contactcon:

  1. Unendorsed sharing. Wifi was provided in the center by KeyWifi, which had set up eight or so networks and handed out pieces of paper with passwords to one of the hotspots. They hoped to evenly distribute them among participants to keep all the networks running. When I went to the table to get my password, it was clear that wasn’t working: “Just please don’t tell anyone the passcode!” a poor Key employee asked me. People were giving out their codes and overloading the access points. I guess you couldn’t stop them from sharing with those in need.
     
  2. Unattempted procedures. The structure of the conference — though I’m sure a lot of participants would object to that word — was based on a series of short provacations and then a series of project meetings established on the spot. I’m always skeptical that people come to events like Contactcon ready to work and think outside their comfort zone, but the attendees really were. The board quickly filled with great ideas, from an alternative currency for Occupy Wall Street to new ways to dodge internet censorship. People grouped with whatever proposal they liked and got started. Judging from the list-serv I’m on, they’re very much still at work.
     
  3. Unparalled hosting. In addition to being one of the most original minds working on questions of technology and society, as well as one of the most radical thinkers to crack the mainstream media, Doug Rushkoff is incredibly good at keeping people on track. With an open format and people suggesting different workshops, Rushkoff kept things moving by making sure anything too vague or self-serving got passed by, with a good sense of what the group did or did not support. Plus, you could hear the bile dripping from his voice when he had to announce the Pepsi sponsorship. The man is a dynamo.
     
  4. Unexpected radicals. Occupy Everything and Occupy Wall Street in particular had a big impact on participants’ thinking. I was surprised to see a group project on getting people to pledge collectively not to pay their student debts attract wide support at the conference level. Some of the participants who would have been in a small tech bubble a couple years ago are now actively looking to use their talents and ideas to support global social movements. There was a big focus on technologies that used international networks to overcome parochial restrctions to access. And a few of these tech-minded folks have better political imaginations than I’ve seen in policy circles. Contactcon showed me that their are not just people, but communities out there waiting to meet each other.
     
  5. Unlikely bedfellows. I’ve heard Contactcon described as a meeting of the top pro-human technologists, and that turned about to be the case. A campaign based around food justice was one of the most popular projects at the conference, and all the participants anchored their thoughts and projects in very human problems. That is, except for the Makerbot printing out plastic shells for homeless hermit crabs. Apparently people like collecting shells they use as housings, and now crab populations are in need of some man-made assistance. 3D printing isn’t exactly made for problems like this one, but it could have been. And maybe the next generation of tech solutions will be.