Reflections on Refactor Camp 2019

Last weekend, we held the 7th Refactor Camp, in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, at the lovely (and for our purposes, aptly named) Philosophie offices, on the very au courant theme of Escaping Reality. Here are a couple of early reflection posts, from John Palmer and Lisa Neigut. Another participant, J. Chris Anderson, sent me this succinct reflection over email that I think hits the nail on the head:

The biggest unspoken theme for me was how coherent the zeitgeist is. It’s not like the theme constrained the topics. I bet a conference on escaping reality would have a totally different set of concerns in five years / after reality has been permanently escaped.

You can find links to the raw recorded livestreams at the refactorcamp.com website, and catch up on the conversation via the #refactorcamp2019 hashtag on Twitter. You can also follow this Twitter list of participants. Edited individual videos will be available on the Refactor Camp YouTube channel in a few weeks.

Among the interesting new elements were a chalk mural created by artist Gracie Wilson during the event, and a schwag book of mazes courtesy Dan Schmidt (who has a guest post this week, connecting his interest in mazes to the themes of the event). And to round out the theme of the week, Ian Cheng (who couldn’t attend in person) has a very apropos post this week in our Worlding Raga collaborative blogchain.

I just realized I haven’t actually posted personal reflections since the very first Refactor Camp in 2012. Many of this year’s younger attendees were still in high school then.

It’s all turned into an entangled 7-year blur of online and offline conversations I can’t reconstruct. I’m going to have to go back and dig up other people’s reflections for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018 (we skipped 2017). If you wrote a reflection for any year, I’d appreciate a link in the comments. Anyhow, let me capture some thoughts for 2019 while they are still fresh in my head.

2019 Personal Highlights

A personal highlight for me this year was meeting and hearing from so many of the long-time collaborators on this blog at the same time. Sarah Perry (whom I met for the first time), Drew Austin, Renee DiResta, and Tiago Forte all delivered excellent keynote talks that built on the themes they’ve written about for years.

Several other contributors (including a few graduates of the Art of Longform course) were also there, either doing talks, or just attending: Chenoe Hart, Ryan Tanaka, Jordan Peacock, Nolan Gray, Toby Shorin, and Mike Travers. Apologies if I missed anyone. This airport of a blog has seen a lot of traffic — and thematic traffic jams — over the years.

There were, of course, several speakers and participants besides ribbonfarm contributors. Among these talks, I personally really enjoyed the very cool keynote by Guvenc Ozel about the bleeding edge of VR technology, the raucous, crowd-pleasing performance piece on Xenoreaction by Moritz Bierling and Anders Aamodt (which I suspect many will be watching again just for the raw entertainment of it), and Lisa Neigut’s primer on quantum realities.

On the fun and games side, I also got to try out the Magic Leap AR device for the first time (courtesy Megan Lubaszka) and run a play-testing session for my quadrantology game.

All in all, it was a great weekend for me personally, both in terms of meeting old friends and making new ones, and enjoying a big old mind meld around a lot of themes that I’m thinking about these days, with a lot of people who know a lot more about those themes than I do.

I want to thank everybody involved: Darren Kong (overall coordination), Toby Shorin, Patrick Atwater and Bryan Lehrer (logistics), Megan Lubaszka (website, AR demo, artwork liaison), Nolan Gray (logistics, AV), and Ryan Tanaka (music). Thanks to Kye’s Montana and Tuk Tuk Thai for the great food, and Dusty Gonzales for the livestreaming and video editing.

I’ll hold off on commenting on the themes and ideas we talked about until we have the edited videos, but I do want to share some thoughts building on my closing remarks on Sunday.

Ribbonfarm and Refactor Camp

Darren Kong, who was instrumental in pulling the whole thing together, shared these rather touching words about his involvement in the event over the years, that really get at the connection between Ribbonfarm and Refactor Camp in a way that is perhaps hard for me to see, since I’m too close to both:

The side of Ribbonfarm that is hungry to identify phenomena in the wild that don’t seem to die, and to name them so that they are enduring tools for others to see and act anew. This voluntary desire to surf chaos, metabolize it into new order, and then do it all over again, is sometimes called “walking with god.”

6 years ago when I started reading Ribbonfarm, I was grasping at threads to transcend the work I was doing in media/tech, reaching for the idealism I once had before going to college. Flying to Refactor Camp 2015 on a whim coincided with a period of personal change. While I didn’t necessarily find myself at home, there was a certain comfort (+1 to Venkatesh’s airport analogy). The ribbonfarm vernacular afforded a rich toolset, inspiring new ways to view the world even amidst a widely divergent set of perspectives and personalities. Surprisingly, refactor camp became a turning point for my own life. Although not much of a writer/blogger, i’ve considered myself a kindred spirit, trying to contribute where I could. since then, I’ve never looked back.

A volunteer-run, high quality, low cost, zero profit event is, by nature, unsustainable, and so, it was a special indulgence for me to help reconvene refactor camp for 2019. An indulgence that isn’t good for one’s career or bank account per se but rather an indulgence for the soul. If the conference is an arduous ritual in which we physically concentrate mindshare by burning dollars, jet fuel, and sleep-deprived nights in foreign beds, there is an organizer’s hippocratic oath where we pledge to make an event worthy of the carbon emissions, bad coffee, and spent brain cycles.

With your help, I believe that oath was satisfied. I’m humbled by the sense of exploration, new and old friendships, and willingness to grapple with where we are at in 2019. I hope Refactor Camp 2019 may be as pivotal and remarkable for others as Refactor Camp 2015 was for me.


To most of you who read this blog, it is primarily something like a magazine, a source of reading material from a handful of writers, and a maze of connected ideas within which it is easy, and hopefully fun, to get lost. But to Darren’s point — there’s more.

The ideas that are published here have deep, living roots in subterranean conversations that have been going on continuously over nearly a decade in various places.

Beneath the small maze that is ribbonfarm, there is a very big maze out on the open internet. Refactor Camp has, over the years, been the connection between the two.

The metaphor of the fungal internet came up a few times over the weekend, and that’s exactly right. The individual writers, and their works that you read here, are like the visible mushroom bits you can see above the surface. Underneath, there is a whole network of connected idea flows and signaling pathways on the very edges of subcultural evolution. It flows through Twitter and Facebook. It flows through various DM conversations. It flows through personal coffee meetups.

It’s a whole, entangled, timey-wimey mishmash of entangled ideas, constantly changing shape, continuously creating and destroying reality around our collective minds, and it is a very exciting headspace to be part of.

Refactor Camp has been a part of that broader scenius over the last 7 years, so I want to say a little more about that.

Airports Over Communities

As I mentioned in my closing remarks, I don’t like to think of Refactor Camp, or the loose conversation space around this blog (including various Facebook groups, illegible networks on Twitter, a Mastodon site) as a “community”. To apply the themes from Drew Austin’s talk on cities as weakly escaped realities, to the extent this is a “community”, it is one of those fake community-like Los Angeles neighborhoods, that is blatantly open about not only not being authentic, but subverting the very possibility of authentic community.

To me a community is a shared sense of normalcy, which is definitely not what we have here. What we have here, rather, is a set of periodically intersecting individual intellectual journeys, among which mine happens to be particularly visible on this blog.

What we have here is a shared space of atemporal weirdness, and I’m in one sense a sort of journalist, covering that space as my beat. This is a set of (to varying degrees) gonzo lives periodically examined in the funhouse mirrors of other lives.

The metaphor I came up with for this was that of an airport. Perhaps an airport with mall in the terminal that pretends to be a little medieval Italian town with a piazza, but an airport all the same. One defined by planes taking off and landing, and people coming and going, not by people living out lives within it (Los Angeles neighborhoods are rather like that, except with highways rather than flight paths).

At this point, Refactor Camp is an airport several hundreds of people have passed through one or more times. A few, like me, have been part of every Refactor Camp since 2012. Others have passed through once, never to return. A lot of friendships — and a few beefs — have been cemented over the years. There’s even been a marriage and a baby. These days, it takes an airport to raise a child.

Every time we do this, it ends up being about 50% familiar faces, 50% new ones. Every year, there is an element of jarring, disconnected evolutionary jumping from the previous year, and familiar themes refracted through a new lens.

I like it this way. I really do. I much prefer it to the continuous sense of connection one experiences in a community. I like that unsettling mix of being out of place and at home at the same time. Of being comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. Of being always a beginner and newbie. Of always arriving and leaving.

I think airports are rarer and more valuable than mere communities, especially on such a small scale. I suspect it generally takes thousands or even tens of thousands of people to create an airport-like atmosphere. We pull it off with just around a hundred (this year, we had about 120 participants, just around 2x the first one in 2012, when I think we had 55 or so).

This sense of a chaotic, divergent intersection of subcultural streams is pretty rare. I imagine, once upon a time, cities along the Silk Road had this feel about them. I’ve been reading a lot of Terry Pratchett lately, and Ankh-Morpork is another intersection-of-streams I like.

Seven Years of Traffic Jams

Communities are easy to do. They are fundamentally about people sticking around in roughly the same place, with the same people, for years, talking about the same things, slowly growing more insular, and simultaneously codependent on, and sick of, each other. Airports — and stream intersection loci in general — are much harder to do. Especially when people think they want their conferences to resemble Italian towns. Trust me, you don’t. I’ve been to those sorts of conferences. They suck.

Trying to create an airport-like social condition is a bit like trying to engineer a traffic jam. One of the reasons we keep moving the location and changing the theme of the event is to ensure we retain this quality of mobility and conceptual stream intersection in the conversation. I mean, just look at the themes of previous years. We really do jump around a lot. There are perhaps a few rhymes and harmonies, but this is a conference with a serious case of ADD. Every year is Year One, like in Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness.

I like it this way. I really do. I much prefer it to the continuous sense of accumulating thematic history one experiences in a community style conference.

A tidbit: before there was Refactor Camp, the social activities associated with this blog were much more literally nomadic. We did a bunch of field trips in 2011: to the houseboats in Sausalito, to the Computer History Museum, and even into the storm drains under Las Vegas. Those early field trips and meetups had only about 1-2 dozen attendees each. The storm drains one was just me and Laura Wood. Barely even a meetup.

While I appreciate the richness that comes with bigger conversations and larger groups, a part of me misses the wandering, nomadic, adventures we had in those 2011 field trips. At the time, I was also writing a bunch of things romanticizing — perhaps fetishizing — nomadism, and also practicing it, logging somewhere north of 10,000 miles crisscrossing the lower 48, meeting people on the Tempo road trip.

What, I wonder, could we do to rediscover some of those elements of the past, without being constrained by them? How do you keep an event like this fresh and new, when it’s also inevitably old and full of memories — disjoint, atemporal Year One memories though they may be?

I’ve called this blog an Elderblog. What do you do with an Elderconference?

An Elderconference Future

I know several of you disagreed strongly with the opinion I offered in my closing remarks — that this year’s Refactor Camp was not only the best ever, but also as good as it was ever going to get in this format, given the scale and energy constraints of an entirely non-profit event run by a changing cast of amateur volunteers every year.

In my closing remarks I also said there were 3 ways we could move forward:

  1. Shut down the event, quit at the top while it feels so great
  2. Keep it the same, accepting an inevitable growing staleness
  3. Blow it up, and reimagine it from scratch somehow

Obviously, I’m in favor of the 3rd option. I particularly want to try and figure out how to make fully virtual events, which can include a lot more people, at a lot lower cost (both dollar and carbon emissions), and with a lot more variability in formats, work.

Our 2016 edition was a successful, but limited, experiment in this direction. I’d like to see a lot more imagination and creativity brought to the existing and emerging tools available for virtual community airport building and traffic jam engineering in the future, not just Zoom sessions that uncritically port offline conference models online.

Going Virtual

It doesn’t have to be 100% virtual. I’d just like to see a lot more bang-for-the-buck and bang-for-the-carbon-ton. Perhaps we can have just 10% of the attendees travel to nearby cities, creating a bunch of parallel local tracks or something. This year we had 120 people. Imagine if next year we had 6 cities with 20 people each attending a local track, with 2 people attending from out of town. That would be a nice blend of offline and online. Or we could do a speed-dating type deal where people are paired up to do recorded Zoom conversations that are then published.

There’s a lot of room for creativity here.

If you’re interested in helping figure this out, let me know. I think in 2020, we should try to take everything we learned this year about VR/AR technology, reality escapes, and so forth, and try to use it to reinvent the conference itself. Refactor Refactor Camp.

Even if only use Zoom, we should use it in a way that isn’t just an online version of a bunch of people listening to one person talk at them with slides in meatspace. There’s got to be more interesting potentialities in virtual tools that we’re barely beginning to understand. There’s got to be a way to escape the reality of conference models that have remained essentially unchanged since those early salon gatherings organized by Abbe Mersenne in the 1630s, at the dawn of modernity.

So comment below and/or email me if you’d like to be part of reimagining conferences like Refactor Camp for the Anthropocene.

At a Personal Crossroads

While I’m of course, always in a mood to blow things up to reinvent them, the feeling has been particularly strong and poignant for me this year.

It feels like I’m at a personal life turning point, and in a highly experimental, trial-and-error mood for the first time since 2011. I’m about to start wandering again, after 7 years in Seattle (the longest I’ve spent in one place as an adult). While I don’t think I’ll be doing big solo road trips while couchsurfing with readers again, I’m going to be wandering in some form. I just don’t know how. I have a hankering to go global nomading, something I haven’t done since I went backpacking in Europe in 1998 (short business trips don’t really count). More generally, I need some intellectual wandering as well.

As a first step, I’ll be moving to Los Angeles next week to take up a year-long fellowship with the Berggruen Institute (details in this Twitter thread). I’ll hopefully be working on a second book (after Tempo, not counting all the ebook compilations).

Besides that, I have my new, experimental Art of Gig newsletter. I am making a card game. I am significantly retooling the blogging style here, with blogchains. I’m messing around with new ideas for Breaking Smart. I have some fun new collaborations going.

So yeah, I’m in a bit of a mood here. So I’d like to take the sledgehammer to Refactor Camp as well, break it down, and rebuild it.

Anyhow, thanks everybody who participated in Refactor Camp 2019. It was great, and hope to do something very different, yet somehow the same, next year. Look out for the post with all the videos in a few weeks.

And if you’re based in Los Angeles, holler. I’ll be hosting a few meetups once I’m there.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Hand in the air for London, UK local track.

  2. Hand in air for Helsinki, Finland local track

  3. Deepa Shiva says

    I want to fight tooth and nail to keep the refactor camp alive; If we get to veto, I will veto #1. Refactor camp has enriched my life with strong friendships and meaningful conversations; I would really like this to be part of my life and want my son to grow up with that kind of philosophical discussions. I volunteer to organize.

  4. I love the thought of blowing things up & rebuilding them, and I think no group of people is as capable of reinvention as the creative intellectuals I met a few weekends ago. That said, let me list a few things that I think are nice about the meatspace conference format:

    physical proximity – you just don’t bump into people in quite the same way online, and, particularly for us introverts, there’s an increase in the comfort level when you’re around a group of people for an extended period of time.
    selection – making the choice to spend time and money on getting physically together is a selection filter, which though it excludes lots of desirable people, does also exclude people with more of a drive-by interest.

    So let the creative destruction flow, but what drew me down to Santa Monica was the opportunity to spend focus time with a bunch of nerds, despite being able to reach any of them online.

  5. Evan Vidar says

    Hollering from Los Angeles! Missed the Refactor camp but would love to attend a meetup or event in the future. Thx, Evan

  6. Not sure how much I can organize, but I’ll light the bat-signal for a Berlin Refactorcamp in Berlin in 2020.

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