Pop!Tech? You're Soaking In It

Image: 2005's Pop!Tech conference at the Camden Opera House. I only get white guilt around white people. I missed the opening conferences for yesterday's Pop!Tech conference, but I managed to make the cocktail reception at a private club on the bay in Camden, Maine, to sip red wine among the coifed and fleece-clad attendees, who may not be here to change the world, but certainly wouldn't mind doing so if they have the opportunity. There's skepticism and then there's pessimism. While I tend towards the latter I've been trying to reach for the former, especially since so many of the people at the conference are doing legitimately interesting and capital-G "Good" projects in both science and technology. They're why I came. I hate conferences, but know I can't remold my grim, outmoded look on life in front of an RSS reader in my apartment. Maybe it's Camden. It's a resort town on the New England coast, with a too-precious downtown strip of art supply stores and sweater vendors, where even the cheap motel I'm at is staffed by friendly townies proud of their new set of Wi-Fi antennas hidden under whitewashed gables. But even ignoring the dread inherent in hazy russet hamlets like Camden fueled by Lovecraft stories and cult movies, there is a malaise here that pop-in conference goers may ignore but its residents cannot; Camden had for a time one of the highest teen suicide rates in Maine. Or perhaps I'm still angry at the women in the room above me, whose yodeling orgasm woke me in the middle of the night. I was about to tip my nightcap to her and go back to sleep until I realized it wasn't midnight, but morning. Oh, God, no no no. It is my intention to be inspired by others today. If I'm drinking my bitters before the meal, forgive me. I just hope that I'm not in the middle of another circle jerk of intellectuals and affluent activists, trumpeting multiculturalism and change while taking yacht rides through the bay. And worse, by participating in their celebration of human endeavor yet contributing nothing myself—or worse, enjoying myself*—I'm twice as culpable. Pop!Tech's theme this year is "The Human Impact." You can watch live steams of the talks online. In fact, I'm not even sure why there is any need for bloggers to be here, except perhaps to be cranky and dubious. * When in New England, try the local Puritan self-loathing.
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10 Responses to Pop!Tech? You're Soaking In It

  1. Anonymous says:

    Just to clarify, Andrew Zolli does not drive an expedition. As his assistant of 3 years who books all his travel, our first choice is always a hybrid when available. Failing that, we ask for the next most fuel efficient car. This year we requested a Toyota Corolla but ended up being issued a Volvo. As anyone who has ever rented a car knows, you don’t always get what you ask for no matter how long you plan in advance.

    I don’t mind constructive criticism but spreading blatant lies is not a productive use of anyone’s time.

    Kind regards,

  2. pork musket says:

    Wow, there’s never been a blog entry that made me so happy I don’t own a yacht. Hope it doesn’t suck as bad as you seem to think it will!

  3. JazzLobster says:

    PopTech is kind of strange for me. I live in Maine and attended for a few years at the beginning. Although I am in no way an a-lister, I embrace technology, and in the past got a great deal of benefit from this conference, and in the early years it was less than $1k to attend.

    Fast forward to today. Unless you are reporting on it, have presented in the past, or are somehow politically connected to the organization, you have to pay dearly to attend. Dearly to the tune of $3.500 for a 3 day conference in Maine, plus accommodations. It’s no longer accessible to the normal Joe. The logic I heard about the price hike was that they’re comparing themselves to TED. I don’t think so.

    I tuned into their webcast briefly today to hear Andrew Zolli shill for the Poptech/Ebay carbon credit program. Guess that makes him feel better about driving around Maine in his Expedition.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This is why I’m moving from D.C. back to Miami.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Camden is not a resort town. Full of tourists in the summer, yes, and Main Street is indeed lined with dinky shops. The rest of Camden and the rest of the year is different. Camden is full of low income and lower middle class people who love living in a beautiful town which has the wisdom to celebrate high tech along with everything else a rural setting has to offer. Most people in Camden are not affluent jerks, and most of them are never allowed to set foot on the yachts. If going to a conference makes you cranky, don’t take it out on the town.

    • Joel Johnson says:

      The longer I’m in Camden, the more I like it. It’s cornball as hell in the downtown, but it’s a nice little berg overall and the locals I’ve met have been pretty awesome. (At least until I told them the Red Sox could burn in hell for all I cared.) There’s clearly a difference between the summer fly-ins and the rest of the Camden/Rockport folks, although Camden isn’t exactly a poor town, either. I would imagine it’s boring as all get-out to live here full time, though. And while I think it’s clear that any perceptions of malaise I might have are at least partially colored by my own, there is weariness here from the locals. Some of it has to do with dealing with PopTech, I know, but it seems like there is something else. Maybe it’s the feeling of a small town and I’ve just been away from them for so long I’ve forgotten the tenor.

      Also, does Zolli really drive an Expedition? (I know that was another comment, but omgloulous.)

  6. fubar says:

    Part of the weariness is almost certainly due to the locals having yet another heard of out-of-towners to get in the way. Actually, two heards: pop!tech and the leaf-peepers. While much of Camden lives on the tourist trade, Fall was always looked forward to as it gave everyone a chance to wind down and for things to return to “normal.” No more constant streams of traffic and people gawking, getting in the way or acting superior to the locals. Okay, less with the latter, but all of the tourist traffic wears people out even if they don’t like to admit it.

    jm123’s comments are pretty spot on, but I think that there’s a bit more to Camden regarding the current line between the haves and the have-nots. The story isn’t a new one: large, affluent company comes in, throws money around and “Makes life better!(tm)”. In this case, it was MBNA in the ’90s. They certainly brought a great number of good things to town, but ~15 years on and with MBNA all but gone from the area, things have changed. The most obvious downside has been real estate prices: while coastal prices have always been large, MBNA’s property buying spree drove the prices of regular homes well into the suburban Boston range, and they really haven’t come down much since then. I also think that many of the locals were not well prepared to be on the receiving end of the MBNA money firehose. While there has always been a local wealthy segment, most of the area is fairly low income.

    Also, Camden and the local teenager population have never gotten along particularly well. Some residents want Camden to be a quaint little tourist/resort town and teens riding skateboards on the sidewalk interrupt that vision. Some just wanted them to grow up already and get a job. The teens mostly just wanted to be teens, but I won’t deny some of the apples are/were rather more rotten than not; drug use has been increasing as, I thinks, has vandalism. Camden has tried various programs over the years to cut down on the problems, but it always seemed to me that rather than finding something the kids wanted, it was ended up giving them what they thought they needed. It appears that the situation has gotten better in recent years, though, so there’s some hope.

    On the lighter side, if the weariness or anything else starts to get to you, the area has plenty to offer to take your mind off it. Head out to the apple orchard in Hope and wander around some and pick a few apples, or up to the top of Mount Battie for some stunning views, or nip off to the Owlshead Transportation Museum and see some of the really neat exhibits.

  7. Anonymous says:

    As the person who first said “don’t take it out on the town” I’m glad to hear everyone’s thoughts! Camden is definitely a complex town that is often much different than it appears at first. Having grown up in Camden, I always try to image what a place is *really* like when I go to visit. I sure do miss Camden — can’t wait to see it at Christmas!


  8. jm123 says:

    I echo JazzLobster’s remarks about the cost, which has separated the economic wheat from the chaff, for sure. I attended for years, but the cost is now far too much for my budget. (I’m also hyper-aware I’m not their target demographic.) That said, I’m grateful for the live streaming, which almost makes me feel like I’m there (plus I can move around without disturbing my seatmates). And while I didn’t realize what Drew drove, it’s pretty impossible not to acknowledge some hypocracy (water bottles, anyone?); however, I do still think the net balance is positive.

    There have been some troubling developments over the past few years (the moniker ‘East Coast TED’ amongst them), but the conference attendees really do some good, when the VCs get together with great causes, and when kids are actively sponsored and ‘scholarshipped’ to attend.

    As far as the locality comments are concerned, it’s too easy to see Camden as a cardboard ‘perfect New England town’, and it’s true that it has hosted a troublingly high teen suicide rate. Like most of Maine, there’s a sharp line between the affluent and the poor. Adolescents trying to fit in with the ‘cool kids’ feel that disparity more than some other age groups, certainly. I don’t know how Camden has addressed the problem, but know they must be doing something to combat it (I mean, how could any community not address such an immensely troubling issue?). But possibly your discomfort has more to do with plain old ‘urban west coast’ vs. ‘rural New England’ culture shock. We’re not perfect, you’re not perfect, but we all do our best to play the hands we’re dealt. My advice, for what it’s worth, is to just chill out and enjoy the weekend. It might really surprise you, and in a good way. In any case, it won’t last long.

    Finally, if Drew really drives that Expedition, I hope he sees the error of his ways, and takes action. I think he’s a good guy at heart, although that’s sometimes difficult to see.

    • Joel Johnson says:

      Great commentary, jm123. Thanks for taking the time to add those.

      I’m not so cocksure that I think I can gauge the soul of a town in a couple of days, but I think off-the-cuff observations might be interesting or useful, too. (God, I hope, because I’m not capable of much more!)

      Also, fwiw, I live in Brooklyn, which is urban, but definitely not the West Coast. And I grew up in small towns and rural areas, so I’m not totally coming from a big-towner-infantalizing-a-small-town perspective.

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