But generally, the subject matter is familiar. The talks are repetitive. The insights are for the here and now, things you begin to implement when you get back to work. And the biggest value is the networking, the opportunity to reconnect with existing or prospective clients and partners.
Moogfest is different. As I sit here processing two days at the Asheville technology, art and electronic music festival last week, my biggest 'Aha' is how different it made me think.
The panelists, artists, musicians and inventors here aren't just doing things differently, they're thinking differently about the things they're doing. And they bring perspectives from around the globe into close-knit settings.
They're the type of people who want to collaborate to craft a better future, using technology, using art, using music. That mindset is missing from the technology conferences, art festivals and internet summits that I've ever attended. Heck, "futurists' futurist" Jerome Glenn, a man who collaborates with Presidents, United Nations leaders, heads of NGOs, University Chancellors and the world's most admired corporate CEOs provided his email address and phone number, and invited attendees to speak with him after the event.
So, the takeaways. The things that will stick with me long after last week in Asheville, the insights I'll share with other big-thinking friends. Here are mine, but I'd love to hear from others who attended the conference? What stuck with you? What made Moogfest unique?
We have to think about the consequences of what we're building in the long term.
I can't say that University of Oxford Philosophy Professor Nick Bostrom was the most entertaining speaker in the world. But the insights he shared about the risk that our biological and technological innovations could have on the human race were just fascinating. Could the research we're doing, if put in the hands of the wrong person or organization, provoke tyrannical rule? Or could we make computers so smart that they have no need for humankind? No one knows the answer to these questions, but Bostrom's poll of the top 100 futurists around the world revealed that most believe the superhuman computer will be invented well within the next century, and so far, we're forging ahead without much regard for the societal impact decades from now.
Don't take everything at face value. Be curious.
This lesson comes from Nicolas Collins, a musician-turned-professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and author of The Art of Hardware Hacking. When a new gadget hits the market, most of us can't wait to buy it and see all the ways it makes our lives better or more entertaining. But Collins has a different approach—he's a hacker, so devices like oscillators, tape recorders and compact disc players have been the impetus for new inventions based on their technology. He didn't use a CD player to listen to discs, but to manipulate the technology to create a new musical instrument.
What if we all had that kind of curiosity when presented with a new technology? How do we teach the next generation to think that way?
Don't expect there to be rules or a plan. The best discovery happens when you get something out in the world and let someone play with it.
A team of developers and designers from New York (called Odd Division) was commissioned to design an interactive digital experience for festival-goers. What they came up with was Conductar, augmented reality technology that involved brain wave sensing headsets, electronic music, geo-mapping, interactive graphics and a mobile application. As I walked through downtown Asheville with the headset on, staring at an augmented version of its buildings and setting on an iPhone and hearing music that responded to my mental energy, I couldn't help but want to know the strategy.
Rally around synergies; don't divide over competition.
This one comes from the Millennium Project's Glenn, who brought up the excellent point that in business, we talk more about competition than we do about collaboration. We secure patents and intellectual property, and raise money from investors, to keep our competitive advantage and grow faster than the rest. His point is that much greater, more creative things could come if both parties put their talents and insights together. (Arguably, this is happening as Google, Facebook and others gobble up the most promising new technologies and the entrepreneurs behind them, though it's hard to say what sort of creativity that unleashes in the acquired teams).
Recognize that your brain and ability grows when you mix things up and challenge yourself to try something new.
I'll admit right here I've never created an electronic device. And despite being the daughter of an electrician, circuits, cables and wires scare me. I'm also not the most musically-talented, despite years of
Sure, you're changing an industry. But appreciate its history.
The MIT Media Lab has a research group called Opera of the Future, which intertwines robotics and electronics with the ancient performance medium to engage new audiences. The thesis for the project, said PhD candidate Ben Bloomberg, is the same as when Opera began, to mash up voices, theatrics, set design, instruments and lighting on one stage. But the group's first opera, Death and the Powers included electronic instruments, robot performers, and ways for Internet viewers to interact with the set. Many other speakers started their talks with a history of the technology they're manipulating—History gives context for future creations.
There's a value to revealing how things work. Seeing the components of a machine inspires curiosity, creativity.
As an Apple generation, we're used to technology that's hidden in a silver box that gets slimmer and smaller in each iteration, all while operating faster and more efficient. But instrument design over time (MIT Media Lab robot instrument builder Andy Cavatorta tracked back 400 years to clockmakers) reminds me of the beauty of complexity. Seeing a system of gears and sprockets and circuits, oscillating bows and pneumatic tubes makes me want to understand the inner workings of technology. If we want to inspire future generations to tinker and invent, perhaps we need to unveil the complexity behind the gadgets we use every day. Or, we need to teach people how to create the gadgets.
MIT Media Lab graduate and Maker Research Scientist at Intel Labs Jay Silver is well on his way at this. His Makey Makey invention kits, which came to life after a $568,000 Kickstarter campaign in June 2012, let people turn every day objects into software-controlled touch pads.
Check out the electronic harp Cavatorta designed for the musician Bjork here, and four instruments he created for the Cold War Kids using Stella Artois glasses here.
Exercise control, but know when to let go of the reins.
Inventing means taking control of some aspect of your surroundings, turning it into something that serves you or the world better. There's a power in having that kind of control. But there's also a point to let go of control and see where customers, users or others take what you've created. In the documentary, Moog was obviously amazed at the music created by people who bought his synthesizers and the tweaks they made to take his invention to unanticipated places.
Silver would say the same. His invention kits turned fruits, balloons, silverware, and many more objects into sound makers. His presentation was all about the surprising things people came up with using the kit. Check out videos of many projects here.
Invest in the lives of others. Have that be your legacy.
I'm reminded after this trip not to get so consumed with business goals and day-to-day operations, that I forget to consider how what I'm building lives on in another generation. Many Moogfest presenters discussed the importance of next generation of creators. But Zimmerman is a true example of practicing what he preaches. The man has 40 patents—he's the inventor of an early virtual reality device called the Data Glove and the personal area network. Today he's putting sensors on North Carolina sea turtles to notify preservationists of laid eggs. (In a hackathon last year, he converted data created by a driving car into an electronic music soundtrack.) But his most exciting and fulfilling work happens in schools in impoverished San Jose, where he's forced to work within constrained budgets and with limited resources to open the minds of young people and inspire them to create.
He's got a National Science Foundation grant worth $1 million to run an after school program where kids repair broken cars, build guitars and electric drums. A library of his electronics projects using materials like cardboard, PVC pipe, hot glue and simple circuits can be found here.
A particularly inspiring moment for me happened after a couple dozen middle school students filed into the morning talk by Glenn. I expected them to be distracting and unruly—I was completely wrong.
The students seemed mesmerized by Glenn's list of ways technology can make for a better future, and the ways in which we're already moving in that direction. At one point, Glenn turned to the students and gave a piece of specific advice all young people should hear:
"You should be taught how to know who you are and how do you manifest that on the Internet to attract markets, rather than how to go for a job that doesn't exist."