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The Daily Need

Celebrating failure, and other novelties, at Pop Tech

Alan Rabinowitz, David de Rothschild and Susan Casey at PopTech 2010 in Camden, Maine. Photo: Kris Krüg

CAMDEN, Maine —  Need to Know has arrived in Camden, Maine, the site of this year’s Pop Tech conference. Two producers — Abigail Leonard and Alex Nikolchev — and I will be reporting from this bucolic summer colony on the coast of Maine, where a diverse array of musicians, artists, programmers, scientists and social entrepreneurs is gathering to share their successes — and failures — in attempting to change the world.

The schedule is a dazzling list of innovators, policymakers and celebrities (John Legend and OK Go are here, and we’ll hopefully be talking to one or both of them in the next several days). And there’s so much going on. Right now, Amishi Jha, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami, is on the stage of the Camden Opera House on Elm Street talking about “failures of attention,” and her work — funded by the Department of Defense — teaching what she calls “mindfulness” to members of the military: “Paying attention in the present moment, with a nonjudgmental and nonreactive stance,” as she describes it. “Cultivating a present-moment experience.”

Naturally, when we first arrived at Pop Tech, we had many questions: What does it mean to “think wrong”? What do rock music and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have in common? How does one become a “disinformationist“?

And especially: Why Camden?

As it turns out, this seaside redoubt has served as something of an enclave of tech industry titans since the mid-1990s, including John Sculley, the former CEO of Apple. They come here, surely, to dock their boats and sample the renowned lobster rolls. But they also began organizing an informal series of discussions among Silicon Valley bigwigs and their tech-savvy friends about the transformative nature of technology, and its sociopolitical implications. Those meetings began in the well-furnished living rooms of tony waterfront townhouses. Soon enough, they spilled out into larger venues in Camden. Later, organizers decided to broaden the scope beyond technology — and Pop Tech was born.

Now, the summit is a showcase for social entrepreneurs and innovative ideas, no matter their provenance. The conference embraces unintended breakthroughs born through risk-taking and, especially, failure. Entire panels here are dedicated to topics like “Thinking Wrong” and “How (Not) to Change the World.” Mistakes are embraced, if not celebrated. The stories behind those mistakes are the heart of the Pop Tech conference.

And yet, the city of Camden is as much a character here as anything else. Celebrity lore hangs over this small vacation resort like a fog, supplying much fodder for conversation (J.J. Abrams supposedly docks his boat at the port here; Kirstie Alley is a considerable presence as well). There is a constant fragrance of wood-burning, as if the entire town — population 5,254 — were one big sitting room, warmed by a communal hearth. The aroma of seafood also wafts through the air. It can be distracting, but organizers warn you, don’t wander blithely into the street. Camden citizens are prickly about jay-walking, and they demand that you cross within the designated lines. Large signs painted onto the road read, “Stop. Wait. Wave.”

Thankfully, the speakers here are less averse to ranging out of bounds. Susan Casey, the editor of O magazine, is here talking about “rogue waves,” a phenomenon she studied for her latest book, “The Wave.” She’s describing a picture of the Chopu, a lethal species of wave that hydrographers describe as “freakish.”

“People get their faces torn off on this thing,” Casey said.

Her discussion of these rogue waves, and the people who brave them, prompted one audience member to ask about “the relationship between fear and risk and passion and failure in these experiences.”

David de Rothschild — the adventurer and environmentalist who has journeyed to the North and South Poles and, most recently, sailed across the Pacific Ocean on a raft composed of plastic bottles — suggested that fear is a necessary component of innovation.

“If you’re passionate about something, there’s always going to be an element of fear, and there’s always going to be an element of risk,” de Rothschild said. “When stuff starts to go wrong, you’re passionate about it, and you know what you want to do, and that helps you get past it and let stuff percolate through.”

If you think that sounds off-key for a conference that’s supposed to inspire people to change the world, you’re not alone. Even the participants find themselves unmoored by this line of thinking. Alan Rabinowitz, a wildlife conservationist and one of the foremost big cat experts in the world, summed it up succinctly when he was asked the same question about failure: “I’ve never been to a conference like this.”