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Techsploits

Aggregate!

By Annalee Newitz

I AM HIGH on data. It started last Monday, with a chunk of information about how to turn your car into a file-sharing, video-conferencing, web-surfing machine. Later, I figured out how to hug somebody from 3,000 miles away and find orange pictures of Tokyo in a database of photographs built collaboratively by tens of thousands of people. Also, I found out why early computers killed mice.

Then the process accelerated, as I plunged myself completely into a cacophonous world of digital information ringmasters. These are people who share data as fanatically as others might hoard money. Of course the two things are not mutually exclusive. At the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference (fondly known as E-tech), there was no shortage of what blogger Merlin Mann called "L.A.-style relationships" that start with unctuous bullshit and end with multimillion-dollar business deals. But for the most part, the event was like hanging out with cyberlibrarians on acid—really, really good acid that makes you want to change the world.

I spent a week with the E-tech crowd in San Diego. Our downtown hotel was packed with mad scientists, info aggregators, gadget liberators, visionaries, post-bloggers (blogs are so 2002!) and good old-fashioned technowankers.

Crypto author Steven Levy played me a novelty song about internet porn on his iBook, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos sat next to me in a conference hall, Blackberrying spasmodically, and hacker-for-great-justice Bunnie Huang showed me some cool hardware hacks that would stop government and industry from controlling what you do with your computer.

E-tech made me realize how much I take my technology for granted, never pondering the coolness of what we can do with the crap that we carry around in our backpacks and pockets every day. As social-software pundit Clay Shirky said at one point, "It turns out that the cell phone is a surprisingly great platform for two-way voice!"

We're so caught up in being grumpy about the shortcomings of our tech—and weird new pseudoapplications for it, like cell phone calendars or cameras or whatever—that we forget just how awesome it is to be able to call people from just about anywhere.

But more importantly, at E-tech, I learned answers to the following two questions: 1) How can I secretly turn my friends into broadcasters? 2) How can I tell time by hooking an electrode to a prawn sandwich?

The answer to the first question came from the understated indie entrepreneur Ben Trott, whose San Francisco company 6 Apart is sort of the 20th Century-Fox of the blogging industry. And I use the old name for the conglomerate-owned film company for a reason—6 Apart is like 20th Century-Fox back in 1915, when the movie industry was about as old as the web is now.

Trott gave a short speech at one point about fun blog hacks, the kinds of things people are doing now that blogs are so ubiquitous that the next generation of media is starting to grow out of them. One idea Trott discussed was the "personal friends aggregator," which searches for your friends across the web by looking for them in web broadcast feeds and in special file formats like the infamous friend-of-a-friend (FOAF) format.

The result is a webpage full of stuff your friends are publishing all over the Internet, all collected together into one easy-to-find place. If you combine that with Trott's "feed splicer," you can add news and weather to the page, so your aggregated friends can also tell you how hot it is and how deeply Comcast jammed that big fat stick into TiVo's ass over the CableCard deal.

But turning my friends into my own personal daily broadcast wasn't quite as cool as watching the inimitable James Larsson do a demonstration of how he hooked a shrimp and some mayonnaise to an electrode and used their rate of decay to plot the passage of time.

Later, Larsson showed us how to turn an old computer monitor into a bug zapper and how to control your date's mind with microwaves (OK, so the latter didn't work very well).

By the fourth day of the conference, I was getting complete information overload, but luckily, British expat tech writer and activist extraordinaire Danny O'Brien was there to save me with some words of wisdom. "Turn off your sodding computer," he said.


Annalee Newitz (voodoocategorization@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who has never actually wanted to talk to the fish, although she does think they make marvelous batteries.


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From the March 23-29, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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