In the headlong rush for better, faster, cheaper, stronger, smaller, and more powerful, a few individuals have paused to catch their breath and think about the implications of progress on humanity. I was fortunate to spend a weekend in late October with more than 500 hundred people of this ilk in Camden, Maine, at a conference dedicated to the topic “Being Human in the Digital Age.”
Organized by the Camden Technology Conference (CTC) under the “Pop!Tech 2000” name, the event featured more than two dozen speakers of the first water: makers of opinion, actors on the national stage, and defenders of privacy, freedom, ethics, and democracy. The attendees were no less involved, ranging from corporate CEOs and other executives, to nonprofit staff members, to high school teachers and other educators.
The conference focused on how technology has added to and subtracted from basic notions of humanity, including both human and civil rights. For example, Li Lu, one of the Tiananmen Square uprising organizers, gave a moving account of his life, and how the increase in communications led to the uprising and the more subtle and less-reported ongoing follow-up. Ellen Ullman spoke about the fallacy of engineering, which reduces everything, including human consciousness and physical being, to collections of simple machines. Megan J. Smith, the CEO of PlanetOut, provided examples of how people who identify themselves as members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities can use technology to improve their lives by transcending distance, language, and culture.
To say that the spectrum of topics was broad is an understatement, and my head has been swimming with ideas ever since. What follows are some of the more provocative sessions from the conference.