Tech conference meets summer camp at Catskills Conf

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By the time the last three speakers at this weekend’s CatskillsConf gathering at the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge got their turn Sunday morning, October 23, almost everyone had a distinct woodfire scent to them. As many in the audience were knitting a crowdsourced blanket as were attuned to their smartphones.

Kingston residents Micah Blumenthal and Joe Concra talked about plans to expand the O+ Festival concept beyond new strongholds in Chicago and Petaluma, CA to Portland, Oregon, Kansas City and other locations, reminding everyone that “in the end we’re all activists.”

Pamela Pavliscak of SoundingBox, a web company that measures “emotional experiences” and teaches at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, said her talk would be followed by a TEDx talk in a few weeks. Her focus was on ways to improve online experiences, from observations about how people meet each other now in person asking to “get a tour of your phone” and its apps, despite the actual screen’s cracks, to the “force fields” that HSPs (“highly sensitive persons”) like herself activate in their quest to find new and creative thinking patterns and income-earning careers through mash-ups of random research, cool visual experiences, online friendships, and consistent, persistent, obsessive online activity.

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“How can we humanize technology?” she asked. “Technology has been designed to keep people in a digital world. What we do is solve problems.”

Event organizers Aaron Quint and Kale Kaposhilin described the program for the rest of the day, from the loading of buses back to New York City in mid-afternoon, to mealtimes, and to the many ways “doers” can make things happen. Both are digital guys, and maintain numerous avenues of employment and creativity. They’ve gathered five or six dozen attendees for the conference.

“Juggling chainsaws?” Kaposhilin quipped before introducing the event’s final speaker, Matt Stinchcomb of Good Work Institute. “We can figure it out.”

“I’m a doofus,” Quint confessed self-deprecatingly.

 

Ugly e-Bay

Stinchcomb had driven in from delivering a lecture at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics in Great Barrington. He’s on their board. He introduced his two young sons, who bounded about the front of the stage, and described his background, showing a slide of a wooden computer designed by his former roommate, Rob Kalin, who went on to found Etsy.com eleven years ago when he realized that “e-Bay was just too ugly.”

“He built the site with three web developers,” said Stinchcomb, “and I became the marketing guy with no experience, which meant I had no preconceptions of what marketing should do.”

Stinchcomb’s talk focused on the effort he’s started with a generous donation from Etsy to replicate and expand on its ideals of not only building on CSR (corporate social responsibility) concepts, but teaching business in new, more sustainable ways. “The ‘less bad’ ideal is not good enough,” he said. Economic growth was not necessarily an effective end in itself any more. “We can work in ways that are net-positive, that are regenerative instead of degenerative.”

Stinchcomb provided references to, and many quotes from, the author-activist Wendell Berry and E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.  He described the new set of business tenets his institute was teaching classes of “students” on scholarships. These included the honoring of place, building of community through work with others, embodiment of integrity both structural and ethical, “nourishing the whole human,” growing appropriately, and maintaining openness and curiosity to change and adaptation.

With a focus on the Hudson Valley, the Good Work Institute sponsors five-month all-expenses-paid fellowships involving a day’s work every two weeks in addition to a three-day immersion. Fellows to date have ranged from artists to regional bankers, as well as organizers of the O+ Festival and the conference itself. A number of the participants were at the CatskillsConf.

 

The perfect cell

In a closing statement following the Good Work Institute lecture-pitch, Quint apologized for using the term “lean in” to describe participants’ involvement over the past two days, noted the eight-hour campfire experience on Saturday night, and thanked corporate sponsors, including AT&T and the Ulster County government economic development office.

Electricity had gone out in the early hours Sunday, meaning that everything since had been made operational by generators.

In the Ashokan Center parking lot next to the Trailways bus readying to whoosh participants back to Port Authority, a young man named Ricardo spoke about how he’d come up with his class from Hunter College, and particularly liked meeting Jonathan Mann, a singer and songwriter who’d made a successful business of his avocation.

“Everyone here started their own little thing. That’s all I want to do,” he said. “I know now that little things get big. That it’s okay to make a mistake. And I have lots of cohorts now.”

He introduced his teacher, Mike Zamorsky, whose wife had led the knitting experiment, and had given a talk on Friday. It was his second year at CatskillsConf.

“I love what’s going on in the Hudson Valley,” Zamorsky said. “It’s like getting a bunch of kids and getting them started right. It’s about community. This thing is tech-conference-meets-summer-camp. New York City is so bottom-line and politically driven. I see this awesome opportunity up here.”

His students acknowledged Zamorsky as a mentor, a great teacher they looked to for guidance and inspiration.

How would the new economy work in the Hudson Valley? What was the role of events like CatskillsConf?

“This is the perfect cell,” Zamoesky replied. “I have a lot of friends at big companies and they’re finding it’s getting harder to get a senior team together in the city. The senior developers want more of a life. This is their perfect cell…”

Was anyone pushing for giant entities like those in the Pacific Northwest or California in the Hudson Valley? Might there be a new-era IBM-like presence in the region?

“I’m just a teacher,” Zamorsky replied. “But the right tech people will see what I see. The area’s ripe for the next generation of all this to come up.”

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