Bath Is Brilliant: The Digital Economy vs. Physical Reality

A few years ago, everyone was worried that our obsession with the online world and social media were "fractionating" our real communities.  An example:  in 2006, everyone in the USA thought that their candidate for president was going to win the election that year by a landslide, when in fact it was another tie (in terms of statistical significance).  People were only talking to the people that agreed with them, and the Internet facilitated this.  The debate was: did it matter?  Should people know about their neighbors, or should they be able to talk to experts in the things they were really interested in?   As of last week, I think that debate is a false dichotomy.

In early 2010, shortly after coming back to Bath from Vienna, I attended a meeting of Bath Camp, by invitation of a colleague from Computer Science, Guy McCusker.  Bath Camp is held at 8 in the evening roughly once a month in a space owned by the University of Bath right by the Bath Spa train station.  As I understand it, it is entirely organised by local entrepeneurs / .commers, for no money. It costs nothing to attend and apparently the university charges nothing for the space.

I was shocked, I'd never been to a meeting like this.  It was entirely full of people who were clearly geeks, yet were also well-dressed, poised and successful, and about 40% female.  It was like two different worlds–programmers & professionals–had collided and made something really shockingly cool.  I felt a bit old, scruffy and jealous (why hadn't programming been like this in the 1980s when I was a programmer?) but mostly really happy.  The world was changing in a positive way, young people like I had been could meet, date, be successful in life and have families as well as cool jobs.

To be fair, the topic of that meeting was Getting Things Done.  There was a fairly famous speaker, and I've never seen Bath Camp quite so well-dressed and gender-balanced again.  But still I wasn't too far from wrong.  And Bath Camp is just the tip of the iceberg for Bath.  There's BathSpark, (which is a bit older than that page says it is, I think they've just moved servers) and the new BathDigital with over 700 twitter followers, and a big ten-day BathDigital festival in March.

Who are these people?  Locals who realise that they're lives are better if there are more people like them around building more cool stuff, sharing tips, employing more of their friends, building success.  A bunch of them are dads – that's how Guy McCusker first met them.  A bunch of them are recent graduates from our department that had their own companies set up before they graduated.

They use the Internet in a fundamentally different way than I do.  First, they make money on it.  I make money from academia and use the Internet to give my research output away.  Secondly, they use sites like Twitter like they were IM.  I have followers from around the world and a number of disciplines, people I want to know if I publish something cool.  I'd lose them if I went blathering too much (maybe I do :-).  So in my very first Bath Camp meeting I created another Twitter identity, @j2blather, just so I could keep up with the way the audience was all communicating.

As I said, I thought this was the way the world had gone.  In fact, the twittering during talks was just like my niece Rebecca's favourite way to communicate.  Once when I was visiting she took me into the family study, turned the music up loud, and got into IM with a few friends and I.  That was the longest conversation she & I had that visit.  She said real talking was slow & boring, and after just a few hours of her way of communicating I agreed, it was weirdly like shifting down a speed to go back out & talk to the rest of my family.  So if you can find it in a 16 year old American Midwesterner and Bath I thought it was universal.  I was wrong.

I'm now disappointed to go to conferences and not be able to chat with the other participants, but I've hardly ever found a group as engaged at the GTD Bath Camp that way.  Is that just because academia has a high latency?  After all, in some sense we are society's memory, we're bound to be older and slower.  Well, apparently not.  I was just at a meeting of two of the four EPSRC Digital Economy Networks (I'm in Community & Culture and Sustainability & Society, both because I think it would be useful to turn my simulations of how societies function into citizen science / philosophy for "co-creation"  (new buzzword) of and engagement with our new social realities as change accelerates.)  No one else knew of anything like what I'd seen, and everyone was jealous of Bath.

Why would Bath be different?  At least four possibilities:
  1. Something special about Bath. It's just the right size (a city, but a small one) so there's enough people for critical mass but not so many that people become anonymous, it has two universities that both turn out good technical people, it's beautiful but expensive so already pre-selects for people willing to pay a cost for aesthetics.
  2. The guys who built Bath Camp etc. are unique, and we're fantastically lucky that they met each other and came up with this stuff.
  3. It's not special, this is going on in every city, but academics don't come down into town enough to know.
  4. Possibility's 1 & 2 are part right, but that just shows why Bath got here first.  And in fact, the importance of geographical proximity, of kids playing together, shared parks, policing, digital infrastructure etc will work in combination with the increased communication of the digital age to help people find those who share not only interests but space.  In other words, as we get better at communicating well on line, we'll get better at building and governing our local communities in the real world.
Obviously I hope 4 is the answer.  And I think it is, it makes sense from what I know about how society and communication work.  Which isn't to say we shouldn't work on facilitating this.  As I said earlier, the world is changing, and change may accelerate a lot, depending on the rate for example of climate change.  The sooner we can help communities get better at self-regulation, the more robust our society will be to all these challenges.

I have to say though that I think 3 is a bit true too.  I probably wouldn't attend Bath Camp if my partner hadn't been away half the time and I hadn't been lonely – it's hard to find the time and energy for new communities.  And there is an obvious disconnect between the academics and the rest of Bath Camp despite the number of alum that sort of bridge us.  I had forgotten how even people in prestigious & geeky careers like high tech view academics as sort of weird aliens, maybe aggravated by the old power dynamics of school when there was an age difference too.  And I forget how many academics have never held a job in business.  I've been forgetting that since I went to MIT (my Edinburgh MSc was almost entirely people coming back from business, but the MIT postgraduates were almost entirely people that had never been out of school or made more than $14,000 in a year.)

But anyway, in the near term, it turns out I'm lucky to be in Bath.  In case anyone missed it, the title of this post is a pun – Bath is brilliant in the UK sense because it's brilliant in the US sense because its bright minds are brought together physically via social media.
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