Arvind Narayanan (arvindn) wrote,
Arvind Narayanan

Slightly dazzled: Impressions of a Foo Camp first-timer

Last week on Google+ I wrote:
Foo Camp: best f*ing conference I've been to in my life.
In this post I’d like to elaborate on that statement.

The first thing that hits you when you walk into Foo as a first-timer is that even though you haven’t met most of the people, many, perhaps the majority of the names are familiar. You look at the badges and go, “oh wow, it’s [person who did cool thing X]” about 20 times in the first five minutes. Some of these people are well known in their respective communities, some are well known more broadly in tech, and a few can’t walk around on college campuses without being mobbed by adoring fans. No, really.

But if that were all there was to it, it would be nothing more than a schmoozefest. But you soon realize there’s a lot more.

A glimpse of a post-credential world.

Initially it struck me as odd that there were no affiliations listed on the name badges. But it didn’t take long to realize the true significance. Your credentials and affiliations count for little or nothing here; you’re not defined by who you are, but by what you’ve done. This works because everyone here has done something cool that you can immediately see the value of, even if you haven’t already heard of it. It felt liberating not to be put in a box — something that happens frequently in academia (“oh, so you’re a security person?”) — and to lose the tendency to put others in a box.

The value of filtering.

Foo is an invite-only conference. In addition to the doing-cool-things filter, there seem to be others in play. One of them seems to be “interestingness”, which I won’t try to define; it gives a certain character to the crowd. And whether or not it’s because of an explicit filter, sexism was noticeably absent from the event, something that all tech-related conferences can learn from. (But I'm a dude; anyone care to corroborate or refute?)

Where are the immigrants?

Tech in the US is a field with a heavy immigrant representation, and so is entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley. I would have expected the demographics at Foo to roughly mirror this, but I was surprised. I met maybe one or two other Asian immigrants (although there were a small handful from Europe/the UK/Australia and other countries). I have my guesses for why this is the case, but I just want to bring it up as something to think about.


I’ve written before about the sexing up of hackerdom. While I had a negative tone in that post, I got to appreciate the awesomeness of it at Foo. The quality of speakers at the Ignite session was amazing and the atmosphere was electric. Overall, the majority of Foo participants have great social skills and story-telling skills, and I suspect many of them could walk into a random party and be the center of it.

Is it worthwhile as an academic?

Needless to say, this was way outside my normal academic ambit. I’ve heard academics say in the past that they couldn’t see the point of it. But I think that’s an unfortunately narrow view, and you shouldn’t expect this to be like an academic conference. It’s pretty close to the antithesis of one. I didn’t come away with much in the way of actionable ideas; the group was too unfocused for that to happen. I suspect SciFoo might be different. (On the other hand, if you’re a hacker looking to build things, I’m sure Foo works well to find ideas and collaborators).

Instead I was inspired and learnt a lot about a diverse range of topics, and that alone was worth it. It’s also a good way to get a feel for what the future is going to be like in a few years. And given that this community is so different from academia, it made me constantly notice things that we could be doing differently as academics. Obviously, not all of the differences are pertinent, but a few are.

On that note, I led a session debating the value of academic research with three very smart people, Anthony Goldbloom, Pete Warden and Hadley Wickham. We ended up agreeing a lot — Hadley and I are both practically-minded academics, and Anthony and Pete are research-minded entrepreneurs. We heard a lot of great perspectives from the others in the session as well.
Tags: awesomeness
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