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Chris riley’s take on poptech

October 26, 2008

I asked Chris Riley a few days back if he would share a perspective on his first PopTech experience with Influx.

He generously agreed, so here’s his take on his last few days in Camden, Maine.

Dear Ed and Influxers,

To create a “blog” about each individual presentation here at PopTech is sort of unnecessary because you can see everything at poptech.org. Most of the presentations here are worth watching and, together, they create an extraordinarily insightful pattern of knowledge that would change your views on pretty much everything.

So, I will do my best and try and capture some of the themes as I respond. The issue, of course, is that there are 500 people here in Camden so I assume there will be a minimum of 500 perspectives, not including the many thousands of people tracking PopTech online.

The event is hosted, compared and inspired by the brilliant Andrew Zolli. He is a master of ceremonies and someone who can capture Big Ideas and articulate them very well. I have known Andrew for a while now and would recommend him as a speaker/conversationalist to anyone who wants to think about the future.

Obviously, thinking about the future just got a lot harder. This is one of the implicit themes at PopTech. The kind of laissez faire techno utopianism that has characterized “future thinking” for the last twenty years seems weirdly out of place in the context of the      
massive inflection we are experiencing today. But I think that is why this is so enjoyable. The PopTech crew have assembled a great cast of remarkable people who are doing things that reveal future possibilities, illuminate our current condition and inspire us that as we come to the end of Reaganomic Imperialism there is great stuff going on.

For example: You could be pretty pessimistic about the economic future. In reality it seems as though the question we should ask is one of narrative. Which economy do you feel you are in? The media, themselves trapped in a Reaganomic narrative, would have you believe that the world is coming to an end. When in fact it is only the end of one story line: free markets defining everything and society left at the mercy of bankers and snake oil salesmen, I’m sorry, I meant the people who created and traded in derivatives. In fact we had a scary presentation last night that focused on that story. If I hear the word “trillion” one more time ….

There is, of course, another story. That story is about the rest of humanity. The illiterate Indian Grandmothers wiring villages with Solar Electricity, the Bhutanese democracy that puts media power in the hands of teenagers, a robot that hugs, countless young entrepreneurs working hard to solve problems faced by the poor, the Chicago organization, Ceasefire, that interrupts violence as though it were a communicable disease. The point of PopTech and its theme of Abundance and Scarcity is that you may feel a sense of scarcity when in fact there is an abundance. Well, that is one theme anyway.

Another theme seems to be that Big is being bested by Small. The scale of the Western organizations that define our society is its own horror. But at the scale of a village, or a family or a small business, things seem far more human and more possible. A $20 incubator for poor people who have premature babies was one example. Global Citizen is a small organization that intends to create the opportunity for American kids to actually experience the world. Games for Good is about changing the role of video games in our culture. The list is endless. After PopTech you are less convinced that the institutional mass marketed big business culture we have been in for the last twenty years will be able to move humanity forward. But we will move forward.

Another idea here is one that has been gestating in my mind for a long time. It was abundantly clear here this week that we need to change our perspective on the poor and the non industrialized world. There is a vast amount of knowledge out there. It is locked in languages being destroyed by globalism or it is present on the ground in and among ancient communities. The change we need is simple: we have a lot to learn from them, maybe more than they have to learn from us, and that is a lot. The poor are not poor in terms of ideas, knowledge and skills. It is the West that has commoditized culture and leeched it of intrinsic value.

Go to PopTech.org and you will see the presentations, every single one of them is enlightening. We, in advertising and design, are the storytellers, there are lots of stories that need telling and lots of new ways of telling them. I think the real inspiration for me here is that scarcity breeds innovation and abundance breeds a dull conformity. This is an exciting time not a frightening time and those of us who love telling the stories, finding the audiences and getting it right have an abundance of opportunity to improve the world.

Camden is a sleepy wooded town on the coast of the fury of the Atlantic. It seems an appropriate metaphor. You can look out at the ocean and wish to cross it or you can stay at home and secure yourself against the inevitable storms. There are a lot of sailors here.

Posted by Ed Cotton

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