Refactor Camp 2019

June 18, 2019

When I was thirteen years old, I traveled outside of the US for the first time, on a vacation to Europe with my family. On that trip I felt a certain kind of nervous energy I had never felt before.

Somewhere deep in the stack of my normal thoughts and emotions was an exciting discomfort. Where was it coming from?

The new cities I visited were interesting in their own right, but I don't remember thinking they were that interesting. This feeling was something else. It wasn't just that I was arriving in a new place for the first time, but more so that I had left a familiar place for the first time. I was missing context that in my normal life was never missing. I was feeling a contextual void.

That void opened up room for curiosity and play. It became natural and easy to ask questions I never asked in the US. I got to fill the void with my imagination, even subconsciously, as I tried to spot the differences between where I was and where I usually existed.

Stick with me, I think this will make sense.

As I've grown up, it's been harder to find that feeling again. I get it in small doses here and there, but I think it's more difficult for adults to find a place where they have no context. And that makes it really hard to clear that mental space and play with what might go there instead.

There's a lot to say about Refactor Camp 2019, but if I had to write a quick summary, it would be this: I got to feel that weird lack of context again, and spend a weekend playing in it.

Conference Experience

What's causing the feeling of a contextual void?

  • People: There's no core thing we all have in common, like at an industry conference or something. There's no default intro question.
  • People: Everyone is actually a little weird.
  • People: I'm aware of or have met many of these people on the Internet but never in real life. How do you address that in person? Especially if I know someone but they don't know me.
  • Conference: I've never been to this before. I don't know what's supposed to happen here.
  • Conference: It seems like the explicit purpose of this conference is to pursue interestingness. That's creating a weird feeling.
  • Conference: The "Escaping Reality" theme. The talks are addressing new ways of looking at the world. They're rather abstract. They are addressing base assumptions about "reality."
  • People: There's one guy here who is taller than me. What the heck?
  • Jet lag from flying in from New York
  • Staying in a really weird Airbnb

In the spirit of mediocrity, I'm just going to leave it at that and then write some random bullets below this about what I liked.

Random Other Thoughts

In a way, I'm lucky I had never attended Refactor Camp before. It being my first time there, combined with the theme of "Escape Reality," led to so many moments where I felt curious, confused, or excited at my lack of context. Shoutout "xenoreaction" talk.

I'm really glad Sarah Perry's talk on "How to See Voids" was first. It kind of became a lens through which I saw many of the other talks. I'm even thinking about it now as I write about a unfamiliarity leading to play, by forcing you to fill a contextual void with new ideas.

The theme that stood out most to me was spatial thinking. Sarah's talk on voids, followed immediately by Guvenc's talk on architecture as a spatial computer. Then Chenoe's talk, "Auto-montage." I'm going to write a full essay on this next month.

I wish Chenoe's talk was an hour long instead of just 15 minutes. I was smiling throughout the entire talk, and there were so many quick points she made that could have been full talks on their own. It was packed with insights and it was also hilarious. Win win.

Even though I think everyone at Refactor Camp, myself included, leans a little socially awkward, I've never felt more comfortable in a conference crowd. I definitely felt comfortable just talking to any random person. And there was plenty to talk about because the talks were so good.

Refactor Camp 2020: Venkat wants to do the conference online next year. I think we should run the conference in software where we control our own characters and literally sit in chairs and watch people give talks on a stage. Essentially, a Conference Simulator. If you want to hear more about why I think this would be a good idea, you'll have to subscribe and wait for my essay on spatial thinking in software next month.