I got back to New York after a four-hour bus ride that dropped me off at the Port Authority at 12 in the morning. It would’ve been a pretty miserable ride, except Steven Jackson was there to keep me company, I managed to get a slight bit of work done before my laptop battery totally died, the bus driver was really funny, and he almost kicked some kid off the bus in the middle of nowhere for smoking in the bathroom. Plus, being a Peter Pan and not a Fung Wah, meaning, the bus was actually owned and operated by Greyhound, the rest of the passengers were a pretty good source of amusement. Most of them were on their way from some podunk town in the Northeast to some other podunk town in the midwest. Only abut 5 people actually got off the bus in New York. It really didn’t compare to the car ride up- I’m talking heated leather seats, all the crappy radio you can sing along to, and an extreme and unapologetic mac-attack at a rest stop in Connecticut.
So now that I’ve had a chance to sleep lying down and digest everything (I’m talking about the conference, not the big mac, which I’ll be doing some yoga later to combat the effects of), I just wanted to mention some stuff I didn’t get to in my last post. For one thing MIT is a pretty amazing place. We actually stayed in Harvard Square so the difference in going from one campus to the other was pretty stark. There’s something more inviting about Harvard, like if you were to get lost it wouldn’t be so bad – you’d run across a coffee shop or a bar and it would be full of other Harvard students, where as MIT is very large and imposing and, I imagine, less forgiving to the lost wanderer (why do they not believe in street signs in Boston?).
I stayed later than I thought I would – it turned out that the demos and drinks session was in the MIT media lab building, so I somehow felt obligated to go and drink the free booze and try to sneak around to see some stuff. As it turned out, I didn’t have to sneak at all, as we ran into ITP grad turned MIT RA Alyssa, and she took us around. The lab we saw was like the giant playroom of some messy child, housing the Smart Cities, Infinite Kindergarden and Lego Learning Laboratory projects. (I’m sure I’ve just gotten these names wrong but I’ll look them up later. Except for the Lego Learning Lab. There were really, like, a bazillion legos in there, all organized by color, size and shape in little clear boxes on the walls.) Around the perimeter of this giant room were little offices, and all looked like they were stuffed to the brim with random toys and junk. In the back, Alyssa showed us their laser cutter, water cutter and four, yes FOUR 3D printers. It must be nice to have such great facilitiies. At the same time, though, the vibe in there was something I wouldn’t trade ITP for in a million years. The people were jumpy and kind of rude, probably an unavoidable side affect of being simultaneously the bitch and the golden child of Corporation X for your two year graduate stint.
We only spent about 30 minutes on our tour, so I did still manage to check out some of the things people were demoing. As I mentioned before, this year’s conference was focused specifically on participatory democracy, so there were lots of get-to-know-your-legislator type projects. The standouts were OpenCongress.org (launches Monday – oops!), Congresspedia (both funded by the Sunlight Foundation) and Metavid (a horrible name, but a smart idea – these guys use the closed captioning from CSpan video to index the entire catalogue, so you can search for or subscribe to certain keywords and watch all of the relavent activity based on that). The Democracy player guys were there, showing off their brand new version. And, of course, the $100 laptop was there. The OS looked terrible (there were 6 of us standing around prodding it like a group of monkeys for about 10 minutes before someone got it to do something) but DAMN is it cyuuuute!
But before we went and got buttered up with free food, there was a report back from the midday breakout sessions. Most of the groups were only vaguely successful (I mean, really, how can you tackle a problem like Law and participatory media in a three hour session?) but there was one in particular that I can see as being really successful. Bill Swersey, Director of WNYC Digital Media, ITP alum and friend of Bryan Nunez, reported on a project two years and two conferences in the making, that I think could really be potentially successful. It’s called Pubforge, and the idea is to provide a space where public broadcasters can collaborate and share solutions to problems of a technical nature. It is also a place where programmers can share or “donate” code. Not only is this a great idea in the way it allows people with skills to volunteer in different ways to their favorite PBS or NPR station, but it really touches on something that, as a former employee of a non-profit organization, I don’t think non-profits always have the forsight to do. Maybe I’ve mentioned this quote here before, but it’s one that sticks with me and that is particularly relevant to this project – I once heard idealist.org founder, Ami Dar, say something to the effect of “If given the choice between a free million dollars towards their cause or a free million dollars towards their particular organization, most non-profits would take the money.” So many people keep trying to reinvent the wheel – why? Is it pride? Or maybe it’s just that, when it comes to technical things like software that does what you need it to do, so many people who come with ideas for what they need or want don’t have a technical background, and so don’t realize that what they think is a crazy idea is not only totally doable, but that most of it has probably even been done before. How nice it will be for them to discover this and be able to use this resource. Now they just need to give their website a makeover so it doesn’t look like something only some open source code monkey can understand.
The conference left me with a lot on the brain, and dug up some old thoughts, and some old mementos on net-neutrality, an issue that, if technology has done anything for participatory democracy at all, these democratic participators should be able to combat. We’ll see, though. Verizon is still spinning its rhetoric, and the tech geeks are still doing their best to appeal to other tech geeks. The Save the Internet campaign was great, but I think, next time around, someone will have to find a way to reach all of those AOL and hotmail users out there, the older people who actually vote and who probably aren’t as well versed on the finer points of the internet like the Peter Pan guy.