Close-Up: Picnic's festival feel fires imagination

International tech conference challenges speakers and delegates to 'bring something' to the event.

"What are you bringing?" the Picnic strapline asks (a bit arsily, I thought, a nanosecond before the pun kicked in and I was the arsey one).

Picnic is the five-year-old tech-hippy child of the international conference circuit. Held in Amsterdam over three days in the former 19th-century gasworks of the Westergasfabriek "Culture Park" complex, it bills itself as more of a festival than a conference. As evidenced by the pun failure, it took me a while to calm my London-honed hysteria into the relaxed pace of things.

2010 was my first time at Picnic, but the premise ("innovative ideas for business and society") and the location had always appealed - what better city than Amsterdam for a conference/festival?

I arrived a day into proceedings, for what friends agreed was the busiest middle day. Thousands of attendees and speakers mill about the gorgeous, blissfully lit, slightly overheated dome for lectures, labs, workshops and tea-drinking.

Picnic is a curious thing in that it's the only international tech conference outside the US I can think of that attracts a serious number of Californians. The US equivalent would probably be South by Southwest in Austin, Texas (not that I've been, but I hear tell of hippy ways, Guinness in the cinema, and arcane, uncleavable bonding). The technology industries, the broader creative industries beyond them, media and press all intermingle here, and Yahoo!, Google, Apple (Michael Tchao, the global vice-president of product marketing, was very pleasant after I knocked over wine near his iPad) and TV owners all have a notable presence.

That hippy vibe

On the whole, the tech conference circuit seems a little more exploratory than the media or advertising equivalents. The onus - which, generally, I like - tends to be on what's possible rather than what's probable or likely. Advertising conferences and forums, by contrast, are often either fear products or based on an adversarial model, I find.

At Picnic, you are still buying something aspirational, but there is something a little more hopeful, sleeves-up and "2.0" about it. The flip side can be a weird kind of evangelism. Like one of those dodgy religious "Pathfinder" cults that swept through school, where you weren't supposed to challenge obnoxious people about things because everyone must be supported and everyone's view was valid. (Although it was comforting to see an iPhone-controlled UFO toy land on one obnoxious Picnicker's head from a hovering height of 15 feet.)

Basically, though, it works, and the spirit of it is lovely. Attendees wander from frozen yoghurt stall to lecture hall, to gaming area, to the Fab Lab workshop, to restaurants by day, then drink and dance at the sponsored BBQ. And to that extent, it is like a festival. That kind of movement encourages spontaneous, unlikely meetings and introductions, if not drug-taking and whistle-blowing to ragga in a field.

Murky depths of DRM

The big highlight of the lecture hall was the ever-impressive Cory Doctorow, who spoke on "The Penumbra of Authorship: Fetish Objects and Digital Notoriety".

He took the opportunity to tackle the stringent digital rights-management policies of Apple, among other digital publishers, but his main concern was of more interest: namely to find a path of value in the land of the free.

With this, Doctorow addressed a preoccupation facing anyone adventuring through the morphing media landscape every day. Cory is a brave force and speaker, with a refreshingly positive stance - he describes artisanal experiments that artists are making to add value to their intangible downloads as a "glorious arms race" and a "perfect storm of maker culture".

What he calls his "bet" - that making a digital object really well known will increase the value of the physical objects associated with it - is also a persuasive and smart one that doesn't strike me as an easy or simplistic answer. It makes me want to go and make both rare and brilliant digital and physical objects. His basic position is probably best summed up in his aphorism (appropriately inspired - with credit - by Tim O'Reilly) that his problem as a writer is not piracy, it's obscurity. Cory's talk is posted at

Ignite's "Pecha Kucha" session was another highlight, and great in parts; Matt Cottam was awesome on the subject of his spare-time job outside industrial design (volunteer paramedicine), John Poisson was a pleasure on ways to share and enjoy digital photography ("make a magazine"), while musician Moldover told us about his brilliant SyncoMasher (a five-player electronic musical instrument - see

Experiential picnic

Then there's the cliche of the "bits in between". It made me appreciate the art of building a conference because, really, you're curating an environment and an experience. It's brave to make it a festival and leave it as fluid as Picnic does. It is making the rules for an environment of play, conversation and education, encouraging people to be proactive.

Yet something gets a bit lost with this set-up. Alongside the usual caste system of speakers and attendees, the disparate climate can produce a disparate experience.

I found myself craving the brilliant shared phenomenon of Russell Davies' Interesting conference, where one of the reasons it works is that everybody gets excited about the same thing at the same time, and the caste system is beautifully side-stepped through the variety of speakers and the emphasis on the personal and unusual as subject matter.

Picnic's strapline is fitting for the popular tone in these circles, as summed up by Matt Jones' "Get excited and make things" take on the old "Keep calm and carry on" war poster. Anti-pontificating, pro-active enthusiasm is what's cool. Don't just talk about things, make them, and if you can't make them, you should probably shut up.

Yet it runs deeper and steelier than that: there is an anti-advertising feeling in these parts, and with good reason. The people busy creating, especially in technology and design, feel advertising - and the definition tends to be traditional - brings nothing to the table, but just turns up to nick the lemonade.

Beeker Northam is the executive planning director of Dentsu London.


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