Washington, DC—September 15, 2017—Spoke designer Mallory O’Conor and copywriter Tom Littrell absorb industry wisdom from emerging and veteran creators alike at ContraryCon — an “anti-conference hosted by ISL that exposes unique thinkers while elevating the DC creative community.”
Purple balloons bubbled out the entrance to the Wonderbread Factory Friday 9am as designers, coders, writers, and visionaries of every flavor poured in. The day was set to be quite interesting.
As the crowd settled in, coffee tapped and notebooks in hand, Joseph Price took the stage. The Washington Post’s Senior Product Manager woke us up.
“How many of you speak to your tech?” Price inquired, alluding to voice-controlled AI. Hands shot into the air.
“How many enjoy it?” He followed — hands sinking back into laps.
After lauding the Amazon Alexa team (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Post) and recounting merits of aural AI, Price spoke to the many weaknesses of the emerging technology.
Human vocal communication is complex. We speak in coded language layered thick with tone, eye contact, and other bodily nuance. Phrases are shortened, twisted, turned upside down. A computer only knows how to relay textual menus with audio — not hold a two-way communicatory session with its user.
Machine learning is on its way to improving this functionality, but until then, don’t count on AI to walk you through a cooking recipe — something more intricate than one may assume.
Price’s takeaway? Do not invest so much in creating new experiences, but iterate on nostalgia until finesse becomes the experience itself.
NPR Invisibilia’s Abby Wendle then took the stage. A quirky embodiment of the podcast itself, Wendle delighted. She introduced us to the mind of John Cage, a musical revolutionary of decades past.
Through Cage, Wendle learned the essential art of being mindful — the ability to absorb surroundings by tuning into the present.
11:30am. Our minds were full — brimming, even. But our stomachs were on empty. A flat-rim hatted host tapped the microphone.
“Please turn off your phones. Put them away. Seriously — no Tweeting. Zero photos. We have a special guest for you all this morning. For security purposes, this must be kept private,” said hat-man, wearing a big grin.
A video of launchpads flickered on the projector. Rockets bursted. Out walked the Director of Advanced Projects at SpaceX, Dr. Steven Davis.
Those who keep up with SpaceX Creator Elon Musk’s endeavors were shook. Even those out of the loop had heard of the rocket building company. Everyone sat up in their seats.
A roaming puppy, satisfied from donut crumbs between folding chairs, perked up and trotted onto the stage.
“Ah! Haha, I, er, I’m not a huge fan of dogs. Even the little guys spook me,” the doctor announced with genial grimace.
The man who plays with rockets is peeved by pups. Quite the character trait. It was this human nuance which was most exciting to experience at the Con.
Davis railed off on trial and failure, experimentation with tunneling, the boons of electric engines, and the tedium of property law. That immense mind unloaded but a sliver of its surface.
We broke for lunch.
Having Chef José Andrés speak after the food break was either strategic genius or fortunate happenstance. He immediately revealed images of his culinary art. We immediately watered at the mouth.
The chef carried endless wisdom in that jolly gut. By the end, the audience would learn to appreciate even the most mundane beef frank. He encouraged us to use our dreams for good and to metaphorically, if not literally, “Milk the clouds.”
Amy King and Rachel Orr of The Washington Post’s The Lily spelt out an incredible tale of brand building. Composite Co’s Christian Dutilh & Jacob Weinzettel turned our ears toward the values of non-negotiables in the creative process.
Just after 4pm, Pakistani investor Kalsoom Lakhani graced the stage. She wrapped up the conference with an inspirational narrative of entrepreneurial growth where it is needed most.
Lakhani left us with the message that if markets can be built to last in countries with greater restrictions than the United States, minority groups within the US can learn to take advantage of the domestic market via startup community team-building.
For startup culture and the great minds it attracts, this is only the beginning.
ContraryCon exposed the DC creative community to an expanse of thought-churning wisdom. It allowed a force of designers, writers, coders, and creators to lean back from the laptop glow and take in the vast experience of others in the field.
With that newfound knowledge, we return to work — refreshed.
by Tom Littrell