Thoughts on a Webby World
Doug Bernard | Camden, Maine
When in doubt, just stare at the clouds and keep your mouth shut.
It’s earlier this afternoon; I’m sitting in the BWI airport, killing a few hours before boarding a flight to Portland, Maine, and the 16th annual PopTech conference. PopTech is a yearly gathering of techno-savants and Internet evangelists who meet in the seaside village of Camden – a town on the lip of the ocean and the forest. As suits its Warhol-esque name, PopTech (technically “Pop!Tech”, but we’re not so exclamatory) is hipper than hip. “It’s like a TED mash-up” one attendee told me over airport pizza, referencing both the mega-popular “Technology, Entertainment, Design” – or TED – gatherings and the social media ‘mash’ phenomena in just five words. I’m not sure what she means, but I nod.
Like a lot of similar events, PopTech draws a hyper-wired crowd ready to share, crowd-source, buzz, optimize and just about any other techno-lingo verb you can toss in. “Hyper” doesn’t even convey it; you almost feel like everyone is walking around with a web address slung over their neck, rather than a name-tag. “Hi! My name is http://…”
And that’s not far from the mark. Every year PopTech attracts a wealth of talented thinkers, each one of them pushing for some new new NEW idea of how technology will transform human societies. And everyone – everyone – is doing so on several platforms at once. They talk and they tweet, they TwitPic and Ustream and Tumbler, they Storify and Ushahidi and who knows what else; all simultaneously. Everyone here is a giant, glowing Internet hot-spot.
Which makes it all the odder, as all of this techno-clatter is happening at what feels like the edge of the woods and the fringe of the Internet.
Let me back up. Although I cover the web and culture for a living – and enjoy it immensely – I’m a bit of a skeptic. I hear pronouncements of how the Internet will fundamentally transform human culture, but also see how it exposes our frailties. I talk with people who see an electro-future ahead, but listen to our own correspondents reporting from places far removed even from regular electricity. Daily I see people punching furiously at their smart phones…and intentionally I won”t buy one, because I don’t want to stop seeing the people right in front of me.
Which brings the story back to the airport. Pizza gone, I have no option but to wait to board, and talk up some of the other attendees. My computer is packed away, my dumb phone isn’t getting good signal, and I’m – for the moment – cut off from the Web.
I can’t read the latest headlines of Gadhafi’s death. I can’t check my email to read frantic notes from my colleagues. I can’t tweet, I can’t watch, I can’t distract myself; I can’t do anything but finish the crossword in the local paper. All this while chatting up another PopTech visitor. I am, I think, a fraud.
Perhaps not. The pleasant young woman I’m speaking with is eager to share her ideas about the future, and how the Internet will shape it. She asks me a question or two about the latest news; I shrug and, failing a clever answer, stare out the window at the clouds.
She waits a beat or two, and then begins thinking aloud of how the web might shape the next revolution somewhere else in the world. Interesting stuff.
And I might never have heard her thoughts if I had a smart phone handy, ready to regurgitate what was already floating around on the web before hearing her thoughts.
So, here in Camden, people are gathering to talk about the Internet. In a place so remote that Internet access is a valuable thing.
And I can’t help but think about what would happen tomorrow if, suddenly, everyone at PopTech lost access to the web.
What would we say? And how long before we just looked out the window, stared at the clouds, and listened to each other?