Tim O’Reilly, now shall I compare thee to a city state

City_state Once it was enough for a corporation to make widgets.  Now it must also make ideas.  Especially if it wants to keep making widgets. 

Capitalism was once ruled by a rough and ready, mechanical, pragmatism.  No pointy headed people need apply.  Now ideas are the first order of business. And this gives advantage to the people with higher degrees from Stanford.  I give you the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. 

Let’s put this another way.  Capitalism used to belong to the guys who stole lunch money.  Now it’s much more likely to belong to the kids who surrendered it. 

We have lots of institutions that make ideas.  Universities, institutes, laboratories, for instance.  And we have institutions that see to the dissemination of these ideas: books, magazines, and conferences used to serve nicely. 

I can’t be the only one who has noted a change.  Call it the conference that isn’t a conference.  Take the Foo Camp invented by Sara Winge and Tim O’Reilly at O’Reilly Publishing.  This appears to illustrate that famous William Gibson line about the future being badly distributed. Foo Camp appears to bid (dare?) the future to "assemble here."

There is the Andrew Zolli’s PopTech, and TED founded by Richard Saul Wurman.  There is SxSW and Burning Man.  There is Dave Isenberg’s F2C, Jerry Michalski’s retreat, and Pip Coburn’s dinners in NYC and SF.  There is Russell Davies’ Interesting2007.  There is Piers Fawkes at PSFK.  I think Roger Martin is doing something like this in the context of a business school. 

None of these are conventional approaches to the convention.  I haven’t done my homework here, but I expect all of them exhibit have the structural properties: relatively egalitarian, more interested in expressive individualism than instrumental individualism, more concerned with intrinsic more than extrinsic rewards, suspicious of power and rank asymmetries, playful, dramatic, less interested in intellectual due process and more interested in the counterexpectational, the ad hoc and the improvisational. You have to be nimble witted to take advantage of these things.  And you come away more nimbly witted still.

But the thing that really strikes me is that these exercises are so person centric.  Almost always there is someone at the center of things, duly humble, not an all imperial, but there nevertheless, initiating, organizing, enabling, sustaining.  What’s odd about this is that not so very long ago, this task of bringing people together used to belong to institutions working out of the routinized logic of their role in the world.  These institutions are falling silent, even the very great ones seem to be somehow displaced in the larger, idea production, scheme of things.  It is as if knowledge and knowledge makers now gather at the behest of individuals not institutions. 

This makes me think of city-states for some reason.  I can’t say I know very much about city-states but here’s what I think I know: that they are exercise in "order-out."  The city-state exists in a larger domain that is relatively chaotic.  It creates order, most intensely within the walls of the city proper, but also in the concentric rings that run out into the ever more lawless countryside.  Nation-states, on the other hand, are "order-in."  There is an embracing idea, and an embracing bureaucratic order, and the domain of order they make possible. 

I think Tim O’Reilly’s Foo Camp is order-out.  At the center of a Foo camp, knowledge gathers.  (There’s a book to be written about these people, O’Reilly, Winge, Zolli, Wurman, Isenberg, Michalsky, Coburn, Davies. Who are these people?  And who is going to organize the meta-foo camp that brings them all of them together?)  And then it begins to filter out into the provinces, the places the future is reluctant to go.  It is carried by simple monks and not so simple courtiers, people who have had a chance to glimpse the glory of this order or that court, and laden with its intellectual riches, go out into the world. 

It’s a medieval model, no? (I know next to nothing about the period, so I proceed with caution.)  And the question is why this order-out model should now be flourishing when indeed we have magnificent post-monastic institutions in place, richly founded, magnificent in their gravitational powers, indubitable in their authority.  In the words of Max Weber, the great scholar of the modern world, "What gives?" 

The answer has got to that the knowledge produced by these events is newly nimble, spontaneous, improvisational, responsive, in a word, liquid.  Big institutions can’t produce this kind of knowledge because they are predicated on another model of knowledge, one that is, for all the many things it does well, inclined to grind fine and slow, and mostly slow. 

In the Foo Camp and its many counterparts, we are looking at an adaptive response to a world that is itself newly nimble, spontaneous, improvisational, responsive, in a word, liquid.  Large institutions are being in the words of Thomas Kuhn, "read out" of the field.  The knowledge required of a liquid world must almost necessarily come from liquid events, the only places, we now suspect, that liquid knowledge and news of the future now consent to gather. 


O’Reilly, Tim.  2007.  Foo Camp Takeways.  here

Wikipedia entry on Foo Camp here.   


To The Airfields for the image above.  See their website here

4 thoughts on “Tim O’Reilly, now shall I compare thee to a city state

  1. gugoda

    I came away from your article with two impressions.

    1. Man, I never knew Grant was a Foo Fighter (couldn’t resist)

    2. The accompanying picture brings to mind the wonderfully surreal image from The Time Bandits by Terry Gilliam.

    What is the role of behemoth, slower-moving institutions in today’s faster-moving world? It is a question that out of Darwinian necessity many institutions should be asking themselves of course.

    “Here’s to the crazy ones”. The apple commercial of yore paid tribute to entrepreneurial, innovative creators. The Foo club and similar organizations seem to attract sharp minds of a similar ilk. But what is missing is scale. In your wonderfully vivid analogy, the monks may indeed stream out to the parishes to commence their proselytizing. But the reach and speed is slow. If nothing else, it is the sheer magnitude of attendance which institutions enjoy that is a source of their strength. Dissemination and examination of issues of the day can be far quicker. This is an age of fragmentation. Change is inevitable. Not all bold ideas are good ones however. There should be some solace in the fact that the institutions which are slower moving take longer to digest the consequences of ideas can be a healthy part of a naturally occurring ‘checks and balance’ system.

  2. communicatrix

    I think you’ve hit it precisely (or as precisely as one can hit such a thing) with the idea of the nimble being more valuable than the staid. I realize that life has probably been accelerating since anyone thought to call it that, but my beloved gramps, who stayed alert and nimble-minded to the end at 92, remarked more and more toward the end of his days (in the mid-90s) that I couldn’t possibly understand how things had accelerated in his lifetime. And now, at a much younger age (46), I get it.

    Seth Godin (and, I’m sure, plenty of others) speaks often of the divide between the digerati and everyone else, and how quickly it’s growing. For as long as the infrastructure remains in place, that’ll probably continue, I imagine. There’s just so little lag time in communication nowadays.

    Lovely piece, this.

  3. srp

    TED usually brings news of speakers’ long-term projects to the attention of its audience. Those projects are often nurtured in universities and traditional research institutes. They are not half-formed, brainstormy sorts of things, but pretty polished (and often astonishing) advances that do affect your thinking about what is possible.

    So for at least some of these conferences, there is an ecology at work, with idea development occuring in the traditional places and idea dissemination occuring at the fluid mega-salons. I don’t know about the more marketing-oriented get-togethers, though.

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