I haven't been going to tech conferences too much in the past couple years so I decided on a whim this year to attend the Emerging Technology 2009 conference (I think I last attended in 2007). I've been to many of the previous iterations of Etech, way back from before Flickr launched at the conference.
Over the years, it's gone through some changes while always striving to look towards the future. My first memories of the 2002-2003 events featured lots of talk about programming, content management, and server infrastructure. The 2004-2005 events seemed to revolve more around social software, mobile devices, and futuristic applications. The 2006-2007 events started to bleed in bits of green energy and the keynotes talked about subjects we'd encounter in 20-30 years instead of things just a few years down the line. In a sense, it feels like Etech looked towards the future, but we eventually arrived at it and got to live within it, so the subject matter must shift forward each year.
For 2009, the session schedule looked a bit all over the map, blending half of what you might see in an issue of Make Magazine with the other half devoted to the kind of far off green energy/architecture future. Now that I've attended, I must say as much as I've liked the event over the years, it's going through a real identity crisis. Over the course of a couple hours one day I heard about what urban megacities might look like after the year 2050, what japanese teens have on their cellphones, exciting plans for future amusement park technology, and what food people typically grow in their Los Angeles backyards. Taken together, the subjects are all interesting, but trying to package that up under one banner seems almost schizophrenic.
Overall, I knew what I was getting into and I was looking forward to hearing about a bunch of topics outside my normal day-to-day study of current best practicies in community/content management/server performance. Building fuelly last year with pb was a new direction compared to my other projects and I was hopeful I'd glean some ideas from this year's Etech towards where I should be headed with it, or other projects I could build to solve future problems.
In the end, the hit and miss subject matter of the conference ended up being hit and miss in terms of what I got out of it. Sometimes I felt presenters were being a bit patronizing by telling us exactly how the future would be (ignoring numerous variables that can't be predicted), sometimes the subject matter was ethically dubious (gathering data in the name of data while ignoring privacy aspects), and sometimes the talks were just out of left field (the "why is this talk taking place here?" moments). The ratio of fascinating to not-so-fascinating talks was about 50/50 and nothing came across as completely mind-blowing as in years past. Audience size was definitely down due to the economy and the tone of talks was mostly downbeat about the future (someone should have coined The Long Doom since everyone seemed to agree on a general decline in economics, environmental health, and social issues), but outside of the current economic slowdown I kind of fear for the future of Etech. I don't exactly know who Etech is aimed at anymore or who will attend it in upcoming years. The organizers have moved a lot of the web tech talk and near-future discussion over to the Web 2.0 expo and conferences around the world. The far off future thinker stuff gets a lot of coverage at events like TED and there are loads of conferences about urban design, green cities, and architecture taking place elsewhere. I hate to say it, but I'm no longer sure what void Etech is filling in the calendar anymore.