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Hackers and Painters in Seattle

August 26, 2009

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(cc) photo by kk
I'm simultaneously exhausted and energized by the two days of Gnomedex. I very much enjoyed it, this being my second time going (I was there two years ago). Reflecting on my experience, my thoughts are still buzzing so this is a bit "stream of consciousness". I may edit it later, but if not, I apologize for its unstructuredness and rambleosity (and made up words).

In wanting to write something about the experience, I kept circling around one particular point, what is Gnomedex? Some people describe it as a technology conference, that's not exactly right. Others have taken to calling it a "social media" conference. Again, not wrong, but doesn't really get at the heart of the entire experience. I think it was this year where I realized what Gnomedex represents to me and what I believe to be the underlying current that Chris Pirillo has tapped into.

I think that it's a conference about the human joy of creating things. For me, Gnomedex is a concentration and celebration of modern creativity, technologies that enable new kinds of creativity, and the expression of that creativity. It is the love of the craft, whatever that may be for you: journalism, photography, programming, writing, music, knitting; all expressions of innovation as a creative endeavor. It is a geek conference where the menagerie of different geeks can all share their passions for their particular pursuits.

Thinking about Gnomedex in this way reminded me of Paul Graham's essay "Hackers and Painters":

When I finished grad school in computer science I went to art school to study painting. A lot of people seemed surprised that someone interested in computers would also be interested in painting. They seemed to think that hacking and painting were very different kinds of work-- that hacking was cold, precise, and methodical, and that painting was the frenzied expression of some primal urge.

Both of these images are wrong. Hacking and painting have a lot in common. In fact, of all the different types of people I've known, hackers and painters are among the most alike.

What hackers and painters have in common is that they're both makers. Along with composers, architects, and writers, what hackers and painters are trying to do is make good things. They're not doing research per se, though if in the course of trying to make good things they discover some new technique, so much the better.

Paul Graham - Hackers and Painters

Technology is an important part of the conference, but it's not about the technology per se. Technology represents new ways to create and connect. People who love the creative process are often drawn to others who practice it in other ways. I loved the presentation about "nerd craft" which was mostly about knitting. I will likely never knit anything in my life and have no interest to learn, but I loved listening to Beth Goza beam her enthusiasm for knit/geek culture. While it may sound cliché, it's a place where ideas and passions are cross pollinated.

There also seems to be a secondary thread to Gnomedex, one that's closely related to creativity, the love of ideas. Both times I've been to Gnomedex there have been presentations on deep, far reaching, ideas that really made you think and fired the imagination.

It's in this mental framework that, for me, most of the presentations link, connect, and relate. The presentations that interested me most fit into four kinds: creators and makers, connections and influence, ideas, and affecting the world. Most presentations fell into one or two of those categories.

There were creator presentations, like the art of the interview by Warren Etheredge, presentations on "hacker Journalism", and Beth Goza's nerd craft.

Presentations on connections and influence included Chris Brogan and Julien Smith's book "Trust Agents" as well as Micah Baldwin's great presentation on how to become Awesome-er.

Most of the presentations overlapped two or more 'types'. For example, Drew Olanoff in dealing with the wrenching personal and emotional load of cancer, is using technology, connections, and creativity with his site Blame Drew's Cancer to draw attention to the cause of cancer and improve people's lives. Jay Grandin & Leah Nelson turned their passion to create into a way to change the lives of people halfway around the world with their movie "Bongo".

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(cc) Gnomedex 2009 pictures courtesy Social media team at www.networksolutions.com
If I had to chose my favorite presentations, they would be Bre Pettis talking about his makerbot and Amber Case and her discussion about "Prosthetic Culture". I liked the makerbot presentation because it represented a synthesis of not only the joy of making things but also the profound and potentially far reaching ideas of distributed and personalized design and manufacturing. Simple and profound at the same time.
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(cc) photo by kk

Prosthetic Culture has such sweeping and deep ramifications for the future of humanity and human+machine potential that it's just fun to let your imagination run wild. We truly do live in interesting times.

I'm still working out how I'm I'm going to do it, but I definitely plan on attending Gnomedex 10. I think different people take different things away from the experience, but when people tell you it's a tech or geek conference, that's not the whole story.