Live Active Cultures

Auto manufacturers. Newspaper publishers. Opera companies. Across our economic ecosystem, once-untouchable giants are gasping their last. If evolution has taught us anything (an iffy proposition in Florida), it's that when dinosaurs die off, smaller species have an opportunity to expand. The scrappy mammals likely to survive our current industrial apocalypse are those able to harness the high-tech tools of an open-source, viral-media, socially networked future. Conventional wisdom says that conventions — and the corporate-funded extravagance they imply — are destined to decline in today's economy. But nerds are never ones to take "no" for an answer, so two radically different gatherings aimed at the dork demographic took place last weekend. Look out, because the geek may inherit what's left of the earth.

On April 18, BarCamp Orlando 2009 held its third annual anti-convention for creative computer-literates. This edition was actually held in a bar complex, Wall Street Plaza, at One Eyed Jack's and Slingapours, along with the Gibson Guitar showroom; the combination of geniuses and Guinness made for an enlightening afternoon.

The BarCamp concept began in 2005 as a free web-programming conference with format and content dictated collaboratively by its participants. In other words, anyone can sign up for a half-hour slot to present on any subject. Topics here ranged from the technical (like Derek Bender's "The Path to Good Interface Design" and Nick Baker's "Shandor XUL Java Applications") to the not-so-technical ("Sketch Comedy Marketing," by Night of the Nightwolf, and a discussion on "What Kind of Journalism Would You Pay to Support?" led by Etan Horowitz of the Sentinel?).

My first session was a preview of the Ruby on Rails 3 web programming language hosted by Gregg Pollack. His warning of "advanced programming topics" wasn't idle; after 15 minutes of class aliases and on-the-fly code generation my head was spinning. But I did love his flashy Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy—like presentation software.

Claudio Luís Vera's talk on the "Future of Healthcare IT" was more comprehensible, but discomfiting. Obama's stimulus earmarks millions for computerizing medical records, but the government-funded VistA data system is opaque and unsupported, and the committees tasked with standardizing the technology keep punting. Meanwhile, corporations are establishing de facto standards: Wal-Mart offers doctors a seductively priced $25,000 turnkey system to promote its proprietary format. In the war between mercenary developers and cultish open-sourcers, our last best hope ends up being Google Health.

Murray Izenwasser of Starmark International presented on an informative case study of social media marketing, based on a campaign for Nova Southeastern University. He emphasized that technology like Twitter and Facebook are tools and tactics, not strategic goals. Also, don't invite everyone to your site until you've "set out the chips and dip" (posted fresh content), and be sure to use the most visible websites. (Hint: Photobucket gets indexed by Google more thoroughly than Flickr.)

Throughout the day, I learned about using XMPP to push information to mobile devices; low-cost office sharing at downtown's CoLab; Orlando's burgeoning "wizard rock" nerd music scene; and the struggles gay geeks face fitting in. My visit concluded with an encore of Brian Feldman's txt_show, a Twitter-driven performance piece that was hobbled by technical gremlins. Finally, S. Mora demonstrated how to use Quartz Composer to create impressive live video effects and animations in real time. It's amazingly powerful, and it comes free with new Macs (look for "XTools" on the OS X install DVD). With a supportive creative community and powerful tools within affordable reach, it's a great time to be a geek.

Across town at the Orange County Convention Center, the lighter side of nerd culture was amply represented at the 20th annual FX International. Like hundreds of similar sci-fi and fantasy cons held across the country, FX demonstrates the current cachet of fanboy culture: Sci-fi and comic books fuel Hollywood, which is itself being eclipsed by video games and viral media. This year's headliner was Leonard "Spock" Nimoy, who has a comeback cameo in J.J. Abrams' upcoming Star Trek big-screen reboot. A hall full of fans paid from $125 up to $250 above admission to attend a Q&A with Nimoy, proving there's still some disposable income left in the galaxy.

I've long preferred FX's manageable size (and relative absence of obnoxious cosplayers) to its flashier competitor MegaCon. Sadly, in our warp-speed sprint to the future, we're leaving something behind. Randy C. Fry, longtime vendor of vintage toys, is packing up his classics and heading north with no plans to return. He blames this year's scheduling shift (FX was formerly held in winter) for the absence of his customer base, snowbird baby boomers. Next year you'll still find plastic crap from the latest Star Wars spinoff; but where will you go for your Flying Nun bubble gum and Monkees View-Master reels?

[email protected]