Organized Chaos Reigns at Bil, the Alterna-TED

The annual TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Monterey, Calif. is a terrific, mind-expanding experience for all who attend. Or so I’ve heard: The $6,000 price tag has, so far, kept it well out of my reach. That’s why I checked out the Bil Conference, also in Monterey, a free, two-day, open-ended un-conference whose organizers cast it as a kind of complement to TED.

At Bil, as at other un-conferences, the agenda was set by whoever shows up. If you wanted to present on any topic, you just added your name to the wiki and to the whiteboard, then got on stage at the scheduled time. With that kind of event, everything depends on who shows up, and it seemed clear that the Bil crowd was an interesting, talented, passionate group of people with a keen interest in applying scientific and technological ideas to areas as diverse as transportation, security, art, body modification, life extension, and computer programming.

I organized two small sideshows. One was a half-hour of experimentation with kids, where we made two kinds of slime from recipes in Mark Frauenfelder’s excellent book, The Mad Professor: Concoct Extremely Weird Science Projects. The other was a twenty-minute discussion about open source journalism, in which I talked about some of the crowdsourcing experiments we have been doing at Wired.com in the past year. I also collected some interesting suggestions about what we could be doing (finding ways to encourage editors on our How-To Wiki, playing with new data visualization tools) and what kinds of tasks crowdsourcing is best suited to (sifting through large data sets, generating original content from people’s personal experiences and/or creativity).

Unfortunately I didn’t get to attend many other sessions, due to my family schedule. (Other than the kids’ experimentation session I organized, Bil was not especially kid-friendly.) The ones I did hear were terrific, including a great presentation on educating gifted children by KV Fitzpatrick, a presentation on how to be a successful heretic by anti-ageing researcher Aubrey de Grey, and an interesting discussion of business lessons you can learn from social insects by Mark Fitzsimmons.

For a fuller report on Bil, stay tuned — we’ll have an article by freelance writer Quinn Norton up later today.

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Organized Chaos Reigns at Bil, the Alterna-TED