Thoughts on etech

I just got back from etech, exhausted a bit more than usual considering I didn’t partake in any sort of debauchery. Everything is still fresh in my mind, so I better jot my thoughts down before they escape me.

The Good

My favorite talks from the event were George Dyson’s, danah boyd’s, and Scott Berkun’s. They were fun, interesting, and filled with good ideas. There were a lot of product demos (more in a bit) but two stuck out as fun to watch and I couldn’t wait to use reblog and (someday in the distant future) a multi-touch interface (which is absolutely incredible). It was fun to drive around in a hydrogen powered car. The food was better this year, and having three nights of free open bars was very generous for the sponsoring companies, though I never had more than one drink. This year’s etech also had a futuristic streak — where topics of what computing and life would be like 30 years from now was heavily discussed and while that may have no bearing on my own work I found it refreshing and stimulating. More talk of robots, more crazy art student hacks, and more discussions of future RFID universes of things, please.

It was great to see everyone and I came away with lots of good ideas for things to build into my own projects (mostly from conversations, not presentations though).

The ‘meh’

The conference was sold out, so it was crowded everywhere, which is to be expected. But it did suck to miss talks because the rooms were overfilled. Once a day I couldn’t get into a talk I wanted to see and couldn’t get into alternate talks either and had to sit in the hallways instead. On the last day, talks were moved to smaller rooms with almost the same number of people so it was very difficult to see all the talks you wanted to see that day. I showed up ten minutes early to the ones I got into and still barely got a seat. I don’t know how to solve this problem when a conference is popular, but it would have been nice if the last day still maintained the larger rooms (that still filled up the previous two days).

Oh, as a result of the crowds, the wifi was borderline unusable. When you could get a connection and load a page, it was like a slower-than-normal dialup, frequently taking a minute to load a web page with lots of timeouts. It was a tech conference and everyone had a laptop, so I know it’s a tough crowd to manage bandwidth for, but I would have been a lot happier this week if I could check email and my sites during down times. Maybe Cisco or Verizon can sponsor it next year and wow us with fiber speeds in the many multi-megabit per second range.

There were a lot of product pitches thinly disguised as talks this year. A handful were interesting. In addition to the ones I already mentioned, the Root Markets talk and even Ray Ozzie’s copy/paste demo were fun to watch and showed how a product could save you time. The rest of these demos felt out of place. It was especially clear during the morning keynotes. You’d have one or two interesting talks and there would be some momentum between the audience and presenters but then… bam! a boring shill from some company demoing their latest patch that added ajax to a product I didn’t care about before and won’t care about in the future. A boring product demo or two combined with a slow internet connection meant an otherwise fine morning of talks was often soured by the 20 minute infomercial I couldn’t escape from. Don’t get me wrong, some demos are cool but so many of them this year fell flat on their face — were the presenters oblivious to the audience? It sure seemed like a few companies had no grasp on what the conference was about when they gave their talks. I’d say the Microsoft, IBM, and Adobe/Macromedia demos felt the most off-kilter with the audience.

Sponsorship of conferences and product launches/demos aren’t going away and aren’t categorically bad things, so I hope future etechs can strike a balance between companies wanting to get the word out and audience expectation of compelling talks and information. It’d be great if all the demos could be put into a big morning slot where everyone gets ten minutes to show their latest product. It’d be a great incentive for startups to launch big new ideas at etech and I bet the demos would feel less like an infomercial and more like something I’d be excited to attend and see for the first time.

The theme of the conference was about attention economy — how to conserve what time we have and maximize our output amidst the information avalanche that hits our desktops daily. I wasn’t convinced talks and demos were working towards that. Everyone seemed to mention the word “attention” and tweak their introductions to fit the theme, but I saw very few mentions of practical advice, approaches, or tools to help me get through the glut of email, rss, and the web. I wasn’t expecting a GTD seminar or anything, but it would have been nice if presenters dropped tips or let the audience look over their shoulder as they worked, metaphorically speaking.

Overall, I had a good time, ate some good food, talked to and met a lot of great people. It was a fun trip but not a perfect conference (etech has been the perfect conference in the past).