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Staying Inspired When We Can't Converge: Revisiting Eyeo 2019

By
Jonathan Kaiser
/
April 29, 2020

Remember public gatherings?  The energy of a crowd, the delight of running into old friends or meeting new ones.  The excitement of exploring a new environment and discovering -- a hands-on workshop, a spontaneous discussion, a tasty drink,  a cool souvenir.  Walking out the door into a warm summer evening with mementos you can hold in your hand and the laughter of people sharing questions and insights.  There’s something special about being there in person.  But just a few weeks into nation-wide social distancing, cancellations and postponements have filled our inboxes, and all of that IRL inspiration seems like a distant memory.  Brick and mortar is on hold, and virtual has become the new normal for classes, concerts, meetings, lectures, the list goes on. 

Obviously, for someone (like me) fortunate enough to have up-to-date devices and a fast internet connection, there are some positives to the sudden widespread availability of remote events.  I can see my favorite musicians perform from their homes across the globe, without having to wait in line.  I can take a yoga class from my living room without having to navigate rush hour traffic.  I can hang out on Zoom with friends from across the country because it apparently took a global pandemic to make us realize that it’s a completely reasonable way to stay in touch!  

Still, I maintain that there’s always going to be something special about events that draw groups of people together into the same physical space.  Whether they travel around the block or across the ocean, everyone in attendance has a shared commitment to a time and place -- and to each other.  But while safety puts a limit on our ability to congregate, we can still take some time to connect with inspiring new ideas.  For anyone interested in the intersection of creativity and technology, a great place to start looking for that inspiration is Eyeo.

Eyeo Festival opening night at ARIA in Minneapolis, 2019

What is Eyeo?

The Eyeo Festival is a gathering that takes attendee community-building as seriously as its top-notch roster of speakers.  The festival’s slogan, “Converge to Inspire” sums up its ethos.  Eyeo (Think of the pronunciation as “Eye Oh” or “I/O,” depending on how tech you are), is a week-long conference held annually in Minneapolis.  It’s roughly equal parts academic conference, tech industry networking event, and educational skill-share workshop… with a healthy dose of party.  

Eyeo attracts presenters and attendees from around the world to engage in talks and workshops on topics ranging from creative coding and data visualization to culture and ethics.  Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it -- despite enjoying widespread acclaim, the festival is intentionally a well-kept secret.  At 2019’s opening event, organizer Dave Schroeder talked of intentionally limiting the size of the festival in order to maintain an inclusive community atmosphere without the kind of overcrowding and tiered-pass stratification that can afflict larger events. 

Attendees line up to check out discussion topics at the Code+Libraries workshop at Minneapolis Central Library

The result is a remarkably open and casual atmosphere.  Last year, on the first day of the festival, I found myself in a breakout discussion with a lead operations engineer from Apple, a UX designer from the New York Times, a contemporary artist from Munich, a couple of college students, and 10 other technologists of varying backgrounds.  We were all passionate about creative applications of technology, we all were at Eyeo; in that moment, it made perfect sense to be sitting around a table together, learning about linked data in libraries, sharing ideas.  Of course, the side effect of keeping the festival small is that it fills up fast, and tickets are not cheap.  Nevertheless, the organizers offer some scholarships and fellowships to keep the event accessible to students, artists, and people from marginalized communities.

The Next Best Thing

June of 2020 would be the 10th year of Eyeo, but as with most large public gatherings, it has been cancelled this year to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. I had been looking forward to this year’s round of talks, discussions, and workshops -- but also to the impromptu coffee hangouts between sessions, the after-hours parties, the lunchtime skill-shares.  

Instead of dwelling on what we’ll miss out on, this is a perfect time to rediscover some of the inspiring ideas presented in past years.  Luckily for the quarantined, Eyeo offers free access to its entire archive of videos from 2011-2019.  

I’m going to share a few personal recommendations from when I attended in 2019, but I encourage you to browse through all the titles to get a feel for the awesome range of topics and perspectives.  For now, we’ll have to stay inspired without converging -- here’s hoping that next year can bring a delayed 10th anniversary for Eyeo, and many more safe gatherings in public.  We’ll all appreciate sharing space together that much more.

Emily Saltz at Eyeo 2019

Emily Saltz
Super Sad Autocomplete ↗

I’m going to start my recommendations off short and light, as Eyeo does with their series of 5-minute ‘Ignite’ talks on opening night.  A standout from last year’s Ignite talks was Emily Saltz’s funny and thought-provoking investigation of how Google’s autocomplete reflects the fixations, neuroses, and biases of the people who use it: us.

Sara Schnadt at Eyeo 2019

Sara Schnadt
How Designing a Space Mission is Like Creating Installation Art  ↗

Sara Schnadt’s background creating intricate 3D art installations has led her to the incredibly cool job of being a UX designer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.  I’m not planning any missions to outer space (yet), but I share Schnadt’s career trajectory from art to UX.  I’ve always seen some natural parallels between the way artists and designers rethink complex systems and find ways to communicate new perspectives.  Schnadt’s insights on the subject are thoughtful and profound.  Plus, missions to space!  Come on!

Adam Harvey at Eyeo 2019

Adam Harvey
Megapixels: Face Recognition Datasets ↗

An American artist based in Berlin, Adam Harvey explains some of the science and statistics of facial recognition technology, while sharing some shocking findings from his research into the murky emerging market for facial recognition datasets.  Spoiler alert: nobody asked your permission before selling a detailed model of your face to the highest bidder.  In addition, Harvey shares some of his inventive and subversive art projects, which combine fashion design and tech to address issues of surveillance and personal freedom.

Amon Millner at Eyeo 2019

Amon Millner
Unruly Approaches to Empowerment, Play, and Programming ↗

Amon Millner is a professor of computing and innovation at Olin College, and one of the inventors of the Scratch programming platform during his time at the MIT Media Lab.  I loved the way Millner’s talk shares his personal experiences -- his parents’ divorce, his childhood realizations about racial bias, his early discovery of computers -- to explain how his phenomenal work in technology and education has grown to where it is today.

Nadieh Bremer at Eyeo 2019

Nadieh Bremer
Visualizing Connections ↗

Amsterdam-based Data Scientist, Nadieh Bremer takes us behind the scenes of some of  her work in data visualization, on subjects as diverse as astronomy and homelessness.  She demonstrates how thoughtful analysis of data can reveal surprising connections, and how the subjective choices of a designer can influence our perception of that data’s significance.

Benke

This is Benke (pronounced ben•kuh). He's a one year old rescue. He's afraid of big bags and loves cuddling on the couch.

- Travis Meyer

Kuri (Maori for dog)

Kuri acts more like a dog than a cat. She once found her way into a drywall resulting in us having to cut through our wall to get her out. She has lived in several countries, and 9 different houses/apartments with me.

- Per Kvanbeck

Flynn or Flynnigan

At the first glance, he may appear a tad dopey, but once you get to know him you see that his charm is that he is a love-able lug that just wants to be a part of the pack and please his humans. Getting up there in years, you will find him asleep in whatever room the rest of his humans are in.

- Leana Stone

Lou and Winnie

This pair of energetic pups love to bark at seemingly nothing. With kids around and a constant need to eat anything that hits the floor, you will often find Lou with food somewhere in his fur or Winnie with the occasional popcorn bag on her head.

- Joe De Jarnett

Nori, Dee, and Janet

Here’s my cool, calm, and collected bunch. This is Nori (a Norfolk Island Pine – left), Dee (a Bird of Paradise – back), and Janet (a Dracaena Janet Craig – right). Despite their tropical roots, they seem to have adjusted nicely to their Minnesota home.

- Kelsey Schwalbach

Cabela

Cabela enjoys long walks in the park, hunting for pheasants, grouse and crumbs off the floor. She can nap just about anywhere but she is a champion dock jumper. Flying through the air at the ol’ age of 10 just makes makes her feel like a young pup!

- Sarah Bruss

Groucho

This is Groucho, my adopted stray cat (we checked for previous families.) He started following me while I was walking our dog. We fed him for a winter, a summer, and another winter, and only then he finally decided to let us bring him inside. This is a particularly glorious BLEP he gifted me that lasted several minutes.

- David Middlecamp

Jerry

This is Jerry. I mean what else can I say? We love him and are glad he is faring well, even while at our Foundry office.

- Foundry Office

Hunter

Hunter was found alone in the middle of a freeway when she was 8 weeks old. She’s a year and half old german shepherd/chow mix. She enjoys attention more than anything: from dogs, cats, people, you name it, she wants to be your friend. Her favorite toys are extra small...preferably cat toys.

- Mika Albornoz

Franny

Meet my dog. She makes no effort to help around the house, and gets depressed on car rides. Her Olympic level shedding is world renowned. When she’s not trying to get me to play instead of work, she sleeps. And sleeps. Her hobbies include barking at people we pass on walks, removing her toys from the bin and evenly distributing around my office, and tricking me into feeding her dinner twice.

- Robert Nelson

Hamlet

As much as I hate to admit it, he runs the house. He even has his own bedroom and sleeps all day on his queen-sized bed. When he’s awake, he wrestles with his brother, but it’s hard to tell whether or not he’s having fun. He also yells at his humans constantly for food when his bowl is clearly full. He won’t eat if he even sees a speck at the bottom of the bowl. You know, cats.

- Ashley Kim

Europa

Together with Io and Callisto (Europa's cat siblings) they almost complete the set of Jupiter's four Galilean moons. We Just need Ganymede...

- Nils Hansen

Rachel and Oliver

When they’re not chasing each other in circles around the apartment, Oliver enjoys sitting on laps and Rachel enjoys biting feet. Rachel uses her extra thumb to get an exceptionally good grip to scratch furniture, while Oliver prefers to serenade us in the middle of the night with a variety of his greatest hits, including “Mrreeeeww” and “Brrrrwwoowww”.

- Claudio Rivera

Podrick

This is Podrick. He’s a happy, smart, and stubborn corgi with a passion for blueberries (and anything that his grandma sneaks him, really.) He prefers humans over dogs, but he’s pretty good when it comes to the ladies. In his free time, he enjoys destroying toys, harassing his brother, napping on the couch and borking at nonexistent sounds.

- Ashley Kim

Emerson and Noodle

No introduction required.

- Evan Kearney

Baymax

This is Baymax. We have tried multiple times to grow our favorite herbs and have failed miserably... To our rescue is our new buddy, that helps us grow our herbs and vegetables. With Baymax’s help, we hope to have cilantro to add to our dinners!

- Andy Stone

Pudd’nhead

This is Pudd’nhead. She is a #cat.
- Jason Spidle

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Jonathan Kaiser

Product Designer

Unendingly inquisitive, Jonathan's approach to product design places product utility and user empathy at the forefront. Though we haven't yet received a laudatory letter praising Jonathan's design direction from a user, it's fully expected. In response to such a letter, Jonathan might treat that user to a solo cello concerto or a fresh batch of fermented veggies.

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