The Main Event

The Forum: PopTech, the annual technology-and-society conference held in October
The Speakers: Futurist John Naisbitt, investor John Sculley, and Microsoft visionary Linda Stone, among others
The Insights: The times they are a-changing, and technology is changing faster than our poor human selves can handle it. But we -- entrepreneurs, educators, and government -- are in a position to shape our own future.
The Details:

Each year, in the unlikely venue of a tiny opera house decked in gold-and-rose shells, the nation's technology elite gather and give voice to big ideas. PopTech is a three-day think tank in Camden, Maine, at which you're likely to hear a discussion on "what it means to be human" before heading off to Cappy's Chowder House for lunch. This year's conference, the fifth annual, explored how the omnipresence of technology continues to change the way families, businesses, and institutions work. The synopsis:

Unfamiliar Territory
Several speakers shared a sense that we're at the dawning of some new age in terms of technology, of ethics, and of human history. Keynoter John Naisbitt, author of Megatrends, claimed that new technologies, especially genetic engineering, are causing "a confrontation only seen in the times of Galileo and Darwin." As science advances at increasing rates, "social accommodation to new technologies has lagged further behind," he said.

But all is not lost. Naisbitt and others suggested that as we witness the new era unfolding, we can help shape it. For example, Josephine Green, director of trends and strategy at Philips Design in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, told the audience in a videotaped presentation that for too long, technology has been driven by economic factors. Now, Green said, tech designers are focusing more on human needs. Thus, regular folks are now "cocreators of the future," she said.

Naisbitt's suggestions for a more human future: we should have a poet in every classroom. "Most of the energy and the money is going to the computer at the expense of the poet and at the expense of art, music, and the humanities. We very much need to keep them in balance," he said.

Entrepreneurs will play a starring role in shaping whatever is to come, said Marc Canter, one of the inventors of the multimedia software Macromedia Director. Unlike corporate research-and-development guys, who Canter claims have a disincentive to ship product because they then essentially lose their jobs, entrepreneurs innovate relentlessly to survive. Canter sank $4 million of his own money into his multimedia technology company, Broadband Mechanics, and eventually lost his house. But compared with a researcher working in the safety of a multimillion-dollar organization, he said, "I guarantee I will create more results because it was my money." As if to illustrate Naisbitt's balanced ideal, Canter, a trained opera singer, treated the crowd to a few bars of Die Zauberflote.

The Always-On Society
John Sculley, former CEO of both PepsiCo and Apple Computer, predicted that wireless devices and networks would be "at least as big as the PC. It's an entirely new way of being able to relate on this planet." (Sculley's investment firm, Sculley Brothers LLC, has backed wireless companies.) Sculley envisions some sort of wearable, always-on wireless connections that haven't been invented yet. But we're already on our way: everyone at the conference had at least one device -- cell phone, PDA, pager, or laptop. The Opera House was rigged for wireless Web access, so it was possible to instant-message friends or read The Onion while paying only slight attention to the speakers onstage.

That's just the way it is nowadays, said Microsoft's Linda Stone, vice-president of corporate and industry initiatives. Despite her bureaucratic title, Stone is a creative thinker who has coined the term continuous partial attention to describe the way we cope with the barrage of communication coming at us. It's not the same as multitasking, Stone says; that's about trying to accomplish several things at once. With continuous partial attention, we're scanning incoming alerts for the one best thing to seize upon: "How can I tune in in a way that helps me sync up with the most interesting, or important, opportunity?" She says: "It's crucial for CEOs to be intentional about breaking free from continuous partial attention in order to get their bearings. Some of today's business books suggest that speed is the answer to today's business challenges. Pausing to reflect, focus, think a problem through; and then taking steady steps forward in an intentional direction is really the key."

Jill Hecht Maxwell is a reporter at Inc.

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