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PUSHing the Future

I've been meaning for weeks to report on PUSH 2006, a very smart, cool three-day conference in Minneapolis sponsored in part by...Fast Company.

PUSH—this was the fourth annual iteration—was created by Cecily Sommers, the founder and strategic principal of an "innovation think tank" called Unit 1. Her object was to gather a bunch of thinkers and performers who could help steer us into the future. It's a consciously risky conceit, since not all of these leading-edge creatives have played in prime time before. Mostly, though, it works quite well.

There was for example, Feng Mengbo, a Chinese computer artist who announced, cryptically, "I believe in kids and the future of people. I don’t believe in people themselves, sadly." We watched his 1999 short film, Q3, in which he cast himself as a character inside the video game Quake 3—a war correspondent interviewing a clone preparing to enter battle. It was a commentary on violence, but also a jarring vision of the blurring between real and virtual worlds. (Ultimately, Mingbo, swayed by the clone's reasoning, joins the warring troops—setting the stage for Q4U, his customized version of the game itself.)

Mengbo shared the stage with Julian Dibbell, a technology writer whose brand-new book, "Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot" (Basic Books) describes his year spent exploring, and making a living from, so-called massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMPORGs). The "millions" refers to online currency—but Dibbell did make actual, real-world dollars by buying and selling virtual stuff, magic swords, enchanted breastplates, attractive carpets.

Like Mengbo, Dibbell was plumbing several tensions at once: real vs. virtual, work vs. play. What does it say that he could make more money than he ever had as a writer, selling digital—let's say it: non-existent—assets on eBay? What is it, in the end, that gives something economic value? Buy the book, or read Dibbell's blog account.

More on PUSH tomorrow...