Digital Outcasts at World Future 2013

July 24th, 2013 by Kel Smith | Filed under About the Book, Appearances, Innovation, Inspiration

Promoting a book can be an exhausting series of lows and highs. I experienced both within the span of one hour at World Future 2013 in Chicago last weekend.

Digital Outcasts placard at World Future 2013My session was scheduled to start at 6:30 PM on Saturday, with a “Meet the Author” book signing immediately following at 7:45 in the conference bookstore. As of 6:28, just two minutes before my session was to begin, I found myself sitting in a empty conference room with no attendees. None. Just me and a roomful of sad, empty chairs.

Another session was about to take place next door to mine, and I watched the blur of bodies scurrying by my door on their way down the hall. I decided to stand in the doorway facing the hallway in an effort to attract some foot traffic. Over the balcony I could see the hotel bar, where a number of attendees (quite loudly) enjoyed conversation over drinks. Meanwhile, folks averted my gaze as they hurried past me.

Rock Bottom

At 6:29 two young men showed up. Finally, an audience! I thought, but it was not to be. “Sorry,” one of them muttered. “We need a couple of extra chairs for the session next door. There are no more seats, it’s so crowded.” What cruel dichotomy! I pictured a Beatles concert circa 1965 taking place in the same building as a Bill Fay performance. “Who’s that?” you’re wondering. Exactly.

At that moment, I was close to officially declaring the Chicago stop of my Digital Outcasts 2013 Book Tour an unmitigated disaster. I told myself I’d give it one more minute. Just in case, though, I started making mental preparations for an evening of melancholic failure accompanied by copious amounts of New Belgium Ranger IPA.

Just as I was thinking that, a woman from Ottawa walked in and sat down. I know she was from Ottawa because we shared small talk on how most people don’t realize that Ottawa is the capital of Canada. A woman from Columbia, MD followed. Then a man and woman from Houston. The room slowly started to fill up. I engaged in self-effacing small talk until about 6:33, when we had maybe half a dozen folks in the room. Showtime.

The Show Must Go On

Having done a lot of public speaking, it doesn’t take much effort for me to ramp into character. I’m passionate about the topic of digital innovation and accessibility, so I always try to present my subject matter in a way that delights, intrigues and surprises. I’ve spoken in front of groups with as many as 700 people and as small as 4. Both audiences deserve the same effort and this was no different.

Usually when I give a presentation, I like to change the pace halfway through by playing a video or audio clip. I’ve found that this helps break up the monotony of someone having to hear my voice over a length of time. It also provides a break for me to take a sip of tea and generally recenter.

While the video was playing, I happened to glance around the room. To my surprise, the seats were very nearly full! Folks must have arrived late through the back doors without my realizing it. Either that, or I was concentrating so intently on individual faces that I simply didn’t notice other people coming in.

In any event, by the time I opened for questions I had a very full room of inquisitive, knowledgable people, one or two even standing near the back. Many of them had strong opinions on the role innovation plays in healthcare design, with a few respectful challenges put to me and the group at large.

I always enjoy the opportunity to engage on this level, because it exposes me to unique perspectives that would otherwise go unheard. There is always an undiscovered context within which any well-intended hypothesis can be further pressure-tested. And it’s evidence that people were actually paying attention.

“Best Thing I Saw Today”

After a spirited discussion, I regretted that I needed to get downstairs for my “Meet the Author” session. I arrived to find a number of folks already with the book in hand. Their kind remarks sincerely humbled me, with more than one person mentioning that this was the best session they had seen during the day.

Digital Outcasts bookstore displayBesides selling a few books, the experience was a valuable one for me personally. I was reminded what a privilege it is to have the opportunity to speak in front of a group, no matter what the size.

I also felt a great responsibility for the people represented in my book, and deep gratitude for those who trusted me enough to share their stories with me. Without them this book would not exist, and I certainly wouldn’t be gallivanting around the country talking about it.

During his Friday night keynote, Nicholas Negroponte described the emergence of an orthogonal future in which there would no longer be a sense of ownership over digital data. In some ways, I feel as if the true theme of this book is about shared experience; the digital outcast is very much a prototype of a future that each of us will experience in some form or another.

As such, I am not the “owner” of Digital Outcasts nor of any themes supporting the book’s contents. Accessibility and innovation are aspects of life that we all share, and to which we are all accountable for assessing, defining, optimizing and pursuing. Thanks and appreciation to an enthusiastic collective in Chicago for reminding me of that.


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