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The Maine Attraction

How do you know the difference between Pop!Tech and Amateur Night at the Apollo? At the Apollo, when a hot band comes on stage, members of the audience stand up and dance in the aisles. At Pop!Tech, when a hot band comes on stage, members of the audience flip open their computers and check their email.

How do you know the difference between Pop!Tech and Amateur Night at the Apollo? At the Apollo, when a hot band comes on stage, members of the audience stand up and dance in the aisles. At Pop!Tech, when a hot band comes on stage, members of the audience flip open their computers and check their email.

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At last night’s gala concert at the Camden, Maine, conference, dozens of contented techies tapped their feet and fired up their Pentium processors while the Howard Fishman Quartet jammed. Just another groovy night at this annual Nerdistan event. Of course, this is the same place where the lunch time entertainment was a young singer/software designer, Jonathan Coulton, crooning a poignant love story: to his laptop. It featured such poignant lines as: “You make my lap hot/underneath your aluminum case,” and “In a year or two, you will seem big and heavy and slow/I will carry you to wherever laptops go.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

Pop!Tech, which bills itself as the preeminent conference exploring the impact of technology on people — with an emphasis on the future — is the brainchild of Bob Metcalfe, inventor of the ethernet, and now a venture capitalist with Polaris Venture Partners, and BobJohn Sculley, former CEO of Apple Computer and now a venture capitalist with Rho Capital Partners. For eight years, the two have gathered cutting edge thinkers and tech gurus (now, evidently, called “swamis”) to the quaint seaside town of Camden for a three day intellectual fiesta.

This year’s conference, deep in the heart of Red Sox Nation, began by paying homage to the home team’s glorious victory over their arch rivals the previous night. The first screen of the opening Power Point featured this lure: Pop!Tech: a once-in-a-lifetime metaphysical sports victory included free with every registration.” The crowd went wild.

Even without the MLB bait, however, the event is pretty irresistible. This year’s theme is “The Next Renaissance”: are we on the cusp of a second blossoming of intellectual and creative expression — or on the brink of ecological, political, and global disaster? Is it possible to have more fun? Consider the intellectual firepower crowding the docket to present evidence on both sides: Malcolm Gladwell, Frans de Waal, and Joel Garreau on human nature; Richard Florida, Jim Rygiel, and Bruce Mau on global creativity; Thomas Barnett, Joseph Chamie and Philip Longman on demographic and military opportunities — or meltdowns. And that was just the first day.

Here’s just a sampling of the big ideas floated at Camden’s little opera house:

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Gladwell (who was accompanied by his charming father, an eminent Canadian math professor and author): Discussing the creation of Herman Miller‘s Aeron chair, Gladwell noted that when it was first introduced, it was uniformly thought to be comfortable — but ugly — by facility planners and office equipment buyers. It subsequently went on to become the best-selling chair in history. What happened? At the time, the design was so radical, focus group members didn’t have the language to describe it, so they fell back on what they knew, as a basis of comparison. This, Gladwell says, points out the hazard not just of focus groups, but of asking any group of people to say what they like. “Asking them to explain when they don’t have the language, forces them toward less sophisticated, daring and radical ideas.” Innovators, beware: that thumbs down you got might just mean your product is so revolutionary it leaves people literally speechless.

Frans de Waal: Emory professor and author of “Bonobo: the Forgotten Ape”, shared the findings of his studies of primates, and noted how the behavior we’re currently seeing in the presidential campaign is not dissimilar to that of two apes competing for primacy. For example, he said, chimps are prone to form strategic coalitions, even with enemies, as a way of challenging another chimp’s power. Cut to a slide of the infamous McCain/Bush hug. In another experiment, he discussed how capuchin monkeys reject unequal pay. If one chimp gets a slice of cucumber (tasty, but not yummy) in exchange for a pebble, and his pal in the next cage gets a grape (tasty AND yummy), the cucumber-trading primate will eventually retire into the corner of his cage in a snit. Can a lawsuit be far behind?

Garreau: the author of Edge City and The Nine Nations of North America, previewed the findings of his upcoming book, Our New Selves: The Future of Human Nature (rejected title: While God Wasn’t Looking — Garreau says the publisher feared the righteous wrath of the religious right). Soon, he says, we’ll be living in a world of bio-enhanced people — and not just Barry Bonds. While spending a year hanging out at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the central research and development organization for the Dept. of Defense) Garreau met a telekinetic monkey named Belle who can play video games with her brain — a handy skill, it may turn out, for guiding an F-22. He also discovered a team of telepathic marmosets who can transmit messages to each other mentally — sure to lead to a sequel to Bringing Down the House. On the human horizon, Garreau sees pills that will improve memory, give us better immune systems, strengthen our skeletons, endow us with talent in the arts, math, and languages, or give us Olympic class athletic talent. “All the comic book superpowers are already in existence or are in engineering now, and will be ready for humans before your mortgage is paid,” he says.

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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