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ETech 2009 roundup
Jeremy Faludi, 17 Mar 09
Mary Lou Jepsen (Pixel Qi) on stage at ETech 2009.
Photo credit: James Duncan Davidson
Last week in San Jose was ETech, O'Reilly's emerging technology conference. It was a fantastic conference, and a pity I could only spend a day and a half there; but here are some highlights (including a couple I watched online after the conference was over, which you can do, too.)

Alex and I both spoke; he's already mentioned a couple quips of his that made the rounds. My talk was a list of priorities for green design, which I'll be posting as a series of articles later, but which for now is available here.

Tim O'Reilly, head of O'Reilly publishing and instigator of the conference, began the conference with a call to action for technologists to work on things that matter, work on solving the big problems of our time. And not in the sense of work for nonprofits or aid organizations -- they're great and important, but you can't have solutions be a side dish in the world's economy, technology, and society. Improving humanity's lot and the world as a whole should be the main entree, so we can aim our careers and companies squarely at the heart of things. Historically, people have assumed that you can't make money that way, but we've seen that assumption go from specious to laughable in the last decade. The big problems of today -- energy, transportation, buildings, etc. -- are all places where there's a great deal of money to be made by having a game-changing solution. (Or even an incrementally better solution.)

Mary Lou Jepsen, formerly of One Laptop Per Child and now of startup Pixel Qi, talked about bridging the digital divide and how doing so actually helps drive high-end electronics as well. This should be no surprise to anyone who's seen the OLPC's XO laptop; for the last couple years I've wanted "normal" laptops to have screens as good as the XO -- daylight readable, and at a fraction of the power. Why has it taken laptop makers ten years to figure out the importance of daylight readability?! Thankfully, this is exactly what Pixel Qi is for -- making that display technology more widely available, better, and cheaper. Jepsen made an excellent point that technology innovation today works like trickle-down economics. All the smart people work on the highest-end tech for the richest users in the tiny top of the pyramid. Innovating at the base of the pyramid, however, drives much more massive change, just like tax breaks for the middle class stimulate the economy more than tax breaks for the super-rich. When you innovate at the bottom of the pyramid, you make the pyramid simultaneously wider and taller. Just as OXO GoodGrips kitchen utensils were designed for an extreme user (senior citizens with arthritis or dexterity problems) but radically improved the mainstream market, the XO laptop was a design for extreme users (off-grid, where low power consumption is king) that is now starting to revolutionize mainstream computing and portable electronics. Finally, she showed that the base of the pyramid is an extremely recession-proof market; you could consider it a market in perpetual recession, that can't get any lower, and if you make things affordable there, they're affordable anywhere; and in a recession they may be the only things that are affordable anymore. Jepsen's final big point for the future was that the CPU wars are over -- even mediocre speeds these days are faster than most of the market needs. Today is the age of the screen wars. LCD, OLED, e-paper, and Pixel Qi's on unique reformulation of LCD.

Andrea Vaccari of the Senseable City Lab at MIT gave an enticing though ultimately not fulfilling talk on bringing city-scale data into real time. I only say it wasn't fulfilling because it had such great premises but didn't seem to have follow-through. For instance, the project Real Time Rome mapped real-time population density across the city of Rome by locating cell phone calls, and overlaid that data with public transit route maps to see how well they correlate. This is a fantastic idea, and provokes interesting possibilities like having the frequency of buses on a given route changing based on where people are at the moment, or maybe watching real-time data for a few months and moving bus routes to better match trends. But they didn't do anything with the data yet, haven't even done analysis to make recommendations. They did do a great job of the info-porn, though, showing example after example of excellent data visualization for that and other projects, such as NYTE globe encounters, Los Ojos Del Mundo, Raster Cities, and more. Then there was the art piece Digital Water Pavillion, which was also fun.

The urban homesteading talk by Mark Frauenfelder of MAKE magazine was fun, mostly because it's nice to see modern hipster high-tech geeks getting into gardening, canning, and making your own yogurt like my mom does back in rural Wisconsin. So much of geek culture throws out the past, ignoring it as being irrelevant to the technological synthetic world that we live in today; but no matter how fabricated, how designed, and how technological our world is, it still rides on the back of the world made of plants and dirt, of animals and our own hands, of sunshine and thunderstorms. We need to not forget it, not just stay acquainted with it, but be involved and deeply engaged with it.

Two other particularly interesting talks were RedMonk on Smart Grids and Adobe talking about its sustainability initiatives; see the separate posts for notes on both of these:

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Thanks much for the thoughtful posts on ETech, Jeremy. We really appreciate your participation at the show as well, it was great to have you there.
Suzanne, O'Reilly Conference team

Posted by: Suzanne Axtell on 18 Mar 09

Nice article.

I would like to share with you one startup that aims to save money and environment:

neighBORROW is a “green” web-based start-up that facilitates the borrowing and lending things among neighbors or other groups. neighBORROW combines the traditional notion of borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbor with modern technology, using the Internet to facilitate borrowing and lending of nearly anything among people in local networks. The website, currently in pBETA, uses accountability metrics such as deposits, user reputations and borrowing history and customizable privacy settings to help ensure the safety of its members’ property. Users have the flexibility to decide what and with whom they are willing to share by participating in private and public networks. These “neighBORROW-hoods,” have been created in apartment buildings, dormitories, offices, and other natural localities, and have been used to pool and catalog extensive online inventories of CDs, DVDs, video games, books, tools, sporting equipment, baby items and many other durable goods...

Posted by: fog on 19 Mar 09

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