The weirdness bar was set pretty high at last week's Emerging Technology Conference (ETech) in San Diego. Even so, a lot of the techie presenters cleared it with room to spare. These certainly included the University of California, San Diego, professor who spoke of unleashing "feral robotic dogs" on contaminated landfill sites. Ditto for the giggling British tinkerer who set up a complex system of wires, sensors and potentiometers in order to tell time by measuring the deterioration of a prawn-and-mayonnaise sandwich.
All of this delighted the audience of 750, heavily tilted toward geekitude. But the point of the conference was not to single out strangeness, but argue that such acts were only extreme examples of an increasingly commonplace process: people using cheap and accessible digital tools to "remix" the world around them. Just as music producers sometimes go back to the original components of a tune--boosting some instruments, sweetening the tone and maybe adding a voiceover--consumers can view the formerly one-size-fits-all aspects of their environment as a jumping-off point for hands-on customization.
"It used to be that when you wanted something, you went and made it. Then we turned into a bunch of consumers," says Joshua Schachter, whose Web site, del.icio.us, allows people to remix their browser bookmarks with those of other visitors to the site. As conference chair Rael Dornfest put it, we're remixing our music consumption by buying songs online one at a time instead of in CD collections. We're remixing our TV behavior as TiVo-style video recorders let us "make every night Thursday night." We're remixing our media by grabbing online articles from dozens of different sources--and then broadcasting our own opinions with blogs. When you get down to it, the remixing metaphor applies to almost any area you can think of. Some of the sessions at ETech bannered the remixing of radio, DNA, politics and culture.
This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom, which posits that most people are couch-potato types who like their media and their products pret-a-porter. Certainly, substantial masses of people already overwhelmed by new technology will be horrified to hear that they're now supposed to get nerdy and remix the stuff they've barely gotten used to. Despite the terrific hype of some of the new digital gizmos, the adoption curve often stretches over decades. And even when the new is thoroughly entrenched, folks often miss some of the hard-wired pleasures of the obsolete.
But if you look at the population as a continuum, with the hackery ETech people at one end of the spectrum and the overloaded neo-Luddites at the other, there's a vast middle ground, some more open to remixing than others. "We distinguish between the iPod mainstream and the Coca-Cola mainstream," says Caterina Flake, cofounder of a collaborative photo-sharing Web site called Flikr. Obviously only the former crowd will consider using her product to blend its photos with the collective snapshot output of thousands of strangers. On the other hand, even the Coca-Cola mainstream has adopted the technology of digital photography.
In fact, the ubiquity of the computer and the Net has already put the scaffolding in place for a widespread remix movement. The fact that ordinary people perform once unthinkable acts every day--like adding soundtracks and special effects to their home movies, or searching through a billion documents for an obscure fact, or publishing our thoughts worldwide with a mouseclick--is actually weirder than anything the ETech gadgeteers can come up with. Except maybe the prawn-sandwich clock.