O’Reilly’s Foo Camp: Assessing the “Tech Backlash”

European Straits #82

Dear all,

I’m just back from California, where I participated in the 2018 edition of Tim O’Reilly’s FOO Camp. It was three intense days of discussing ideas and building new relationships!

I’m sure most of you know Tim O’Reilly. If you want to learn more about the man, you can start with this article I wrote about him and his book WTF. But to give you an idea here, Tim, whose company O’Reilly Media is specialized in technology and business training, defines himself as a “mapmaker”. His focus is on connecting with those he calls “Alpha Geeks”—people who are racing ahead to try and decipher the future. He and his team then disseminate what they’ve learned by producing books, interactive content, workshops, and conferences, all designed to develop a better shared understanding of what’s coming.

The FOO Camp (with ‘FOO’ standing for “Friends of O’Reilly”) is one of O’Reilly Media’s many formats for gathering “Alpha Geeks” and putting them to work. It’s an “unconference”, which means that there is no predetermined program. Instead, it’s up to the 150+ participants to design the sessions they are interested in. Some come mostly to hear what those attending have to say; others act as speakers, sharing their knowledge and experience with the crowd.

All this went on at the O’Reilly Media campus in Sebastopol, just north of the Bay Area. I didn’t stay longer than the time to attend FOO Camp, and I can’t say I explored the surroundings or met the locals. But my impression is that despite its low density this part of California is a vibrant place impregnated with progressive values, environmental friendliness, and an inspiring devotion to individual freedom.

The landscapes are typically Californian: large roads, big cars, shopping centers, parking lots, garages and gas stations. The real difference lies in the details, as in Sebastopol, unlike what is seen in Southern California, a significant number of buildings are Buddhist temples or stores selling locally produced organic food (and quite a few wine stores as well, as it’s Sonoma County).

Two topics dominated the discussions at FOO Camp. One was the “tech backlash”—the fact that so many people hate tech companies now. Indeed the industry has had a rough year. For the many campers who take part, there was a real sense of worry and even some relief at being able to share their experiences and questions in a friendly environment. Regular campers pointed out that the mounting pessimism was something that didn’t exist when FOO Camp started 15 years ago.

The other topic was a mix of various cutting-edge technologies, which was a useful reminder that whatever political and economic problems the world has, Silicon Valley is still focused on the frontier. Many sessions were dedicated to discussing crypto protocols, consensus mechanisms, ultra-scalability, virtual reality, and life-lengthening technology. One example: if you’re familiar with season 5 of the parodic Silicon Valley series, you’ll be interested to know that Richard Hendricks’s vision of a “New Internet” already exists with a decentralized version of the legendary Internet Archive.

As for me, it was my first time participating in such an event. On the one hand, the format is difficult. There are so many people and so many sessions that choosing is a real challenge and you mostly feel a bit frustrated, like you’re always missing out on something. On the other hand, I saw how unconferences have the great merit of emphasizing what actually matters: the people rather than the program.

Because indeed there was a great, diverse group of people. For the respect of all, I don’t want to name names, but let me share a few facts. All spheres of the tech world were represented, from the industry to academia to government to the media. The gender balance wasn’t bad, with about 60 women and 90 men (I counted in the FOO Camp’s book). Diversity also went beyond gender, with very different people in terms of political leaning, origin, color, age, expertise, and background. I’m very grateful to Tim and his team for the opportunity they offered me to get involved with such an amazing group!

That being said, diversity fell short on one front: the vast majority of participants were American, most of them residents of the Bay Area (I was one of the rare Europeans). There are practical reasons for this, of course, since not everyone has the luxury to travel long distances to spend just a few days in California in the middle of August. But another reason is more structural: Silicon Valley is already so attractive and so diverse (see above) that it doesn’t feel the urge to open up and go see what’s happening in other parts of the world.

It’s both a strength and a weakness. As an ecosystem, being insulated frees Silicon Valley from interference from the outside. But in the context of the “tech backlash” that becomes a weakness, as there are adverse consequences to being isolated from the rest of the world. That’s not to say that FOO Camp or similar settings should transform their goals, nature, or attendance. But such opportunities to build friendships among interesting people should be complemented with many more attempts at building bridges between Silicon Valley and the rest of the world—starting with Europe.

As you know, I wrote Hedge in large part to try to be part of that effort. So if you haven’t already, there’s still time to get your copy by clicking on the relevant link depending on where you are: 🇺🇸US, 🇬🇧UK, 🇫🇷FR, 🇩🇪DE, 🇮🇹IT, 🇪🇸ES. (And hurry, because like I mentioned in a previous issue, we’ll raise the price of the book at the end of this month 😘.)

Another important thing: this week my wife Laetitia Vitaud and I will be the guest curators of Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View! It’s high time you subscribe to it, not only to read what Laetitia and I will have to say next Sunday regarding platforms and the future of work (and a few other things!), but also because EV stands out as one of the best technology newsletters out there 🔮.

As it’s summer, I can’t not share a reading list, this one related to technology, Silicon Valley’s unique culture, and how mapmakers like Tim O’Reilly have played a key role in shaping it:

Warm regards (from Normandy, France),

Nicolas