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Bobos in Camden: Four essays on the Pop!Tech 2000 Conference

"Arguing in My Spare Time, No. 3.25"

Arnold Kling

Oct. 31, 2000

Recently, I attended the Pop!Tech 2000 conference, in Camden, Maine. There were many currents and eddies running through the conference. For example, many speakers were calling attention to the public policy vacuum that exists concerning the Internet and new technology. At the same time, there was considerable skepticism about the desirability of trying to use centralized hierarchies, including governments, to fill that vacuum.

But I will not attempt to summarize the conference. Instead, below are four short random essays that were stimulated by it.

1. Robert Metcalfe vs. the Pecking Order

Most conferences with an academic flavor enforce a strict pecking order. The organizers seem to maximize the extent to which ordinary attendees are degraded, while speakers and some other favored few preen their feathers.

I was expecting the same thing here. I sort of figured that this was going to be Robert Metcalfe's personal salon, and the rest of us were just there to crane our necks to try to get a glimpse of the stars.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Throughout the conference, an effort was made to make the speakers accessible to everyone. For the most part, the speakers were "trapped" in Camden, as opposed to just flying in and out for their talks.

The most dramatic illustration of the approach was during Metcalfe's wrap-up speech. It was the final item on the agenda. He started out by asking if there were people in the audience who had things to say that they had not been able to say during the conference Q&A. What he was doing was giving up some of his own time in order to let people in the audience speak. His generosity left me speechless--but several others took up his offer.

It was a brave and generous thing for Metcalfe to do. He demonstrated that, contrary to my expectations, he respected the egos of the audience at least as much as his own.

2. The King-Lu 2004 Ticket

The conference took place less than two weeks before the Presidential election. As a voter, one tends to view most such elections as an exercise in damage control, this one particularly so.

My head, my gut, and my heart pulled in different directions on Gore vs. Bush.

It's too late for this year, but I have a ticket I want to propose for the 2004 election: Angus King, the governor of Maine; and Li Lu, a former Chinese dissident. Both spoke at the conference.

Governer King came across as unlike any other figure in public life. He was intelligent, plain-spoken, and humble. When he discussed Internet taxation, he sounded as skeptical as Hal Varian or me. And he's a governor!

Li Lu spoke passionately on the subject of freedom. He was very active in the Tiananmen uprising. He is the opposite of the self-indulgent Baby Boomer politicians to which we have grown accustomed. When I wrote In Search of a Collective Conscience, I nominated Li Lu for a position as an "ethical grandmaster."

3. The Robert Nylen Peace Process

Robert Nylen showed a different type of courage, in that he told a very embarrassing story about himself. Nylen, the founder of, a website for the soul, described how he recently became involved in a fistfight.

Apparently, he was crossing a street in Manhattan, when someone on a scooter ran through a red light at a high rate of speed and nearly ran into him. Nylen tried to get "ScooterMan's" attention, and he succeeded. ScooterMan gave a disdainful gesture, and Nylen pursued him. Words were exchanged, and at some point ScooterMan said "Go ahead and hit me." And Nylen did!

Before revealing that he had been one of the participants, Nylen polled the audience as to who was the bigger jerk in the story. A few people voted for ScooterMan, but most people thought that Nylen was the bigger jerk for allowing himself to get so angry that he punched someone.

It struck me that this could be a metaphor for Israel and the Palestinians. Like ScooterMan, the Palestinians are doing provocative things. Like Nylen, the Israelis are responding with force in a way that ordinarily they would find immoral.

When I have been in Nylen's shoes in similar situations, I always have backed off as soon as the other person raised his or her voice. For example, once I had been waiting over 15 minutes in a line and was just about to be reach the counter when a woman butted in front of me. When I pointed out that there was a line, she started shouting at me, "You know I was here first!" I said, "fine."

Would that work for the Jews in Israel? Leave the holy land and say "fine"? Come back in ten years, after the Arabs have settled down or killed each another off? Sounds like an unappetizing approach, but so are the alternatives.

4. John Perry Barlow and Selective Reality

John Perry Barlow, the keynote speaker, had just come back from a gig in India. To the Camden audience he announced, "India gets it."

Hold on a minute. Here is this American Bobo. He examines one particular thread in the complex tapestry of Indian society. And he pronounces himself fit to judge whether or not "India gets it." (Incidentally, I have not yet read David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise, but I think you can get what he means by a Bobo just by scanning the reviews.)

The arrogance of that scares me. It reminds me of the attitude that led America into Viet Nam. It reminds me of the attitude that led us to think that a few diplomats riding in limousines to exotic locations such as Oslo or Wye River or Camp David could constitute a peace process.

I don't mean to pick on Barlow. The generic problem here is something I would call selective reality. There was an undercurrent of selective reality running through the entire conference.

Here is an indicator of selective reality: out of about five hundred people at the conference, there were three people of color. You see more guests who are black at a typical bar mitzvah! Camden was quite jarring to me. In Silver Spring, Maryland, where I live, there is no majority ethnic group at the local mall or public high school. I have nothing against white people, but the homogenous nature of the audience symbolized some narrowness of experience.

For example, given Governor King's enlightened views on some issues, I went up to him after his talk and asked where he stood on vouchers. "I'm not there yet," he answered. "I still think we can get the public schools to work."

Afterward, I realized where he is coming from. If you think back on it, the public school system did not appear to be hopeless in 1962. Well, in Maine it still is 1962. For example, I'll bet that there are more children of non-English-speaking parents in my daughter's middle school than there are in Governor King's entire state. I see breakdowns in efficiency and equity that are out of his line of vision.

Perhaps the most striking example of selective reality is that everyone at the conference took it as given that technological progress and economic growth will accelerate in the future. I was a minority of one in holding onto the old-fashioned economic notion of diminishing returns. You'd think that being a minority of one in such a distinguished group would make me start to re-think my position, as expressed in my review of Kurzweil or in The Second Derivative.

But as Robert Metcalfe said, no one ever changes their mind.