October 11, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
New Yorkers: We're geeks too
Consequently, it might seem odd that this week, a host of hip tech outfits will be showing off their newest products, ad campaigns and ideas at the DigitalLife trade show.
Organized by Ziff Davis Media and held at the cavernous Jacob Javits Convention Center, the event boasts previews of new game titles like the latest "Dance Dance Revolution," as well as titles for PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360. The 200-plus participants, a melange of gadgetry, entertainment and Web 2.0 companies, are slated to include online marketplace Zazzle, telephony service Skype and social media site Imeem, to name a few. And a few blocks away, Times Square will be home to a celebration of "Final Fantasy Day," complete with a costume competition.
DigitalLife and the events surrounding it, which have been officially sanctioned by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as "Digital Technology Week," ought to make Manhattan--or at least the sliver of midtown where this is all taking place--a geek's paradise. But like Yankees fans, many of New York's digerati are longing for the glory days of the late-1990s.
New York's "Silicon Alley" crowd, of course, had its moment of glory during the dot-com boom. However, like every other Silicon Valley knockoff, from the "Silicon Hills" of Austin to Scotland's "Silicon Glen," it had a me-too quality to it. And the Alley, unfortunately, had far fewer tech bust survivors than the Valley.
"I wish it were more geeky around here," mused Mark Mangan, co-creator of Flavorpill Productions. "It's hard to find people who are out programming and building cool things. So many get snapped up by Wall Street."
But others insist that people who think New York isn't a geek's playground just need to look a little harder. The Big Apple, they say, definitely has its geek crowd; they're just not as easily defined by their love of technology.
"There's sort of this philosophical argument that it really depends on how you define geekiness," said Dana Spiegel, who spearheads the NYCwireless forum and Wi-Fi advocacy group. "You have a lot less of this visible techno-geek stuff, but there's a tremendous amount of media-geek and financial-geek stuff going on."
New York, locals are quick to point out, has a thriving culture of blogs, like Rocketboom's video clips and Gawker Media's various publications. And it has hot tech names, like the online publication Flavorpill and edgy personals site Nerve.
If you ask Dennis Crowley, founder of mobile networking service Dodgeball, this is a city for more than the stereotypical, lonely heart gamer or programmer; it's for people who are living a Flickr-loving, Wi-Fi hot spot-using lifestyle.
"(It's) more about augmenting your life with this data, collecting your life," Crowley said. "Everyone's always reporting on what they're doing."
"The archetypal New York geek actually gets out and hits the city," Mangan said. "I've had a lot of great programmers who worked for me who are musicians, photographers, people who go out and are social creatures."
Indeed, the social factor is crucial to New York's tech culture, allowing enclaves of programmers, gamers, entrepreneurs, new-media types and enthusiasts to pop up where they might otherwise be nearly invisible. This is, after all, the starting point for Scott Heiferman's Meetup, which fused online networking with real-life social gatherings.
Social tech has expanded beyond Meetup, too. Last month, the Come Out and Play Festival saw Manhattan's streets as a platform for "big games": large-scale versions of Space Invaders and Assassins, digital-camera-driven scavenger hunts and pay phone races.
The whole event had its roots in a course taught in New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, the master's degree track that also spawned Dennis Crowley's Dodgeball. And early in October, a whole host of New York techies, including Crowley and Spiegel, gathered for an overnight "un-conference" called BarCampNYC.
While Skiff admitted that he and his co-workers are well aware of the popular view that Silicon Valley is the center of American technological innovation, he's eager to stand up for his city. "In reality, there are tons of start-ups here doing innovative and amazing things, mixed with campuses from every major tech company you can think of," he said. After all, Google (native to Silicon Valley) did just open a block-long complex in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.
NYCwireless' Spiegel backed the notion that his hometown can be thought of as an innovation city rather than an invention city. "Overwhelmingly, our innovation is in taking something that's inaccessible technology to the greater population and making it available to them in an understandable way," he commented.
When the DigitalLife trade show opens its doors to the public on Thursday afternoon, very few of the ideas and products showcased will be native to New York. But chances are good that somehow, at some point in time, many of them will see new uses and evolve into new niches that bear New York's influence.
"New York City simply moves faster than anywhere else," Mangan said. "And what's the greatest thing you can do to any market? Give it efficiency."
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