So here I am in the heart of Don Rumsfeld's "Old Europe" -- Munich -- and it feels like the most dynamic, exciting place on earth. At least for anybody who finds new ideas about media, design, social networking, communication and connection interesting -- and that certainly includes everyone at the third annual DLD conference. The acronym stands for "Digital, Life, Design," which is a pretty high bar to set for a two-and-a-half day conference. But so far, expectations are more than met.
The first thing that struck me was that, although the United States may have invented the internet, now it's anybody's -- and everybody's -- game, and there are a lot of incredible ideas about new ways to use it coming out of Europe.
Starting with the host of the conference, Dr. Hubert Burda, an Old Media magnate who "gets" the New Media digital future and is thoroughly engaged in it. "Last year," he said, "we made one billion from our old media properties, and 500 million from our new media ones..." (The editor-in-chief at Burda's magazine Focus has said he's "never met a publisher so focused on connecting traditional print with online branches.") He's an art historian, a writer, a painter, a publisher, and Germany's most important old and new media mogul. With both his feet firmly planted in the Old World, Dr. Burda is "all in" with the new digital world, and has assembled here a large number who can help take us there.
I arrived from LA Sunday night, and drove from the airport with Miles Beckett, who was one of the creators of LonelyGirl15, and had flown in on the same flight with me. We dropped off our bags at the Bayerischer Hof, where everyone is staying, and went straight to dinner at what was described as Burda's "student flat." But this didn't look like any student flat I've ever seen -- and certainly not like the ones I lived in during my student days in England. There were Lichtensteins on the walls, musicians performing here and there, jugglers walking around (remember, this is Europe), as well as everyone who's doing anything on the internet in Europe.
Burda himself was walking about in a pinstripe double-breasted suit and tie surrounded by his jean-clad guests (note to you Huffposters who commented during the DC swearings-in that I only told you what the women were wearing -- now I'll only tell you what the men are wearing: jeans, jeans, jeans, and tennis shoes -- in other words: Los Angeles).
Stephanie Czerny, the Managing director, Marketing & Communications at Burda Media, was a tireless hostess, making sure she introduced everyone to everyone. I tried to do my part, introducing Craig Newmark of Craigslist to Burda. Craig, as some of you have probably read, refuses to sell Craigslist -- even for offers of hundreds of millions of dollars. "Money is not the real power," Burda agreed. "So what is the real power?" I asked. "The real power is the ability to invent something new that makes you happy and helps change the world," he said.
And it seems like everybody here is taking his advice. Everywhere I turned, someone had a gadget to show. Like Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of M.I.T's famous Media Lab, showing Esther Dyson and me his $100 laptop. He created it for his "One Laptop per Child" organization, with plans to give laptops to poor children throughout the world. And he's already getting it into Libyan classrooms.
Negroponte and I were not the only Greeks. Miltos Manetas is a Greek artist, whose subject is the digital world. Lately, he's been doing oil paintings of computer hardware. He's also the creator of several art websites, including jacksonpollock.org, which was named one of the 50 Coolest Websites of 2006 by Time Magazine. (And trust me, it's completely worth checking out.)
I spent quite some time talking with Tariq Krim, the founder of generationmp3.com, the world's top blog in French. Krim started out as a journalist and is now one of the top French web thinkers. His latest venture is Netvibes, a personalized web portal.
One of his funders is Martin Varsavsky, who lives in Madrid, and seems to have a hand (and quite a bit of money) in virtually every interesting European web project presented here. His latest is FON, which he founded in 2005 and is now the largest Wi-Fi community in the world. It's basically a Wi-Fi version of take a penny, give a penny. You sign up to freely broadcast your own Wi-Fi signal, and, in turn, get access to the signals of thousands of other people doing the same throughout the world.
I left the party with Martin, Tariq and David Sifry (Technorati's CEO, who's also receiving some funding from Martin Varsavsky), and returned to the hotel where we were joined about half a dozen other European internet entrepreneurs and kept on talking. I kept ordering caffè lattes (four, five, who's counting?) trying to fight my jet lag, but not wanting to tear myself away.
One of the most fascinating conversations I had was with Hubert Burda, during Monday's lunch, about how the digital culture is changing the idea of the self-portrait. Sitting across from us was Caterina Fake, the creator of Flickr, (expecting her first child in July). Flickr, Burda said, is the present day version of what the 15th century portrait painters were to the middle class -- a way to present oneself and express one's identity -- only much more open and accessible. This was typical of the ease with which Burda weaved the old culture with its latest internet progeny.
My panel was titled "Where are the Editors?" and with me on the stage were Tariq Krim, Craig Newmark, Jim Spanfeller, and Dave Sifry. The panel was moderated by Jochen Wegner, the editor of Burda's Focus Online -- the most widely read German-language news magazine. "What's your exit stragy?" Jochen asked Craig, alluding to all the offers to buy him that he's turned down. "My exit strategy," said Craig, "is death." (I bet you are all dying to know what Craig was wearing -- well, he was in a black Kangol cap, black shirt, black jacket, black pants. "I'm all in black," he said, "but more Leonard Cohen than Lou Reed. Leonard Cohen is the closest I have to a liturgy." As for Tariq, he was in a Diesel jacket, and shirt and tennis shoes that were a replica of 70s Austrian shoes by Belgian designer, Martin Margeela. Have you had enough?)
Part of the panel centered on the battle between old media and new media, although frankly, I never understood why this debate is presented as if it were the war on terror: Who's winning? Who's losing? Are Old Media dead or merely suffering from Alzheimer's (and soon to be dead)? My point was that it's a huge mistake to frame things as a competition between Old Media and New Media because the distinctions are not either/or. The New York Times is certainly Old Media but has an incredibly popular website. Same with the Washington Post.
We don't need to choose sides. Are you into TV or YouTube? Yahoo News or the New York Times? Blogs or Newsweek? The answer doesn't matter, because the question is faulty. This kind of either/or talk no longer has real world relevance. So give me blogs... and my hard copy of Time (especially the one with You/Us on the cover!). Let me watch stuff on TiVo, DVD, YouTube, on an iPod... and on cable TV.
This has certainly been confirmed here in Munich. As I was looking at Hubert Burda in the front row, I felt like Jon Landau: I have seen the future of European media (Burda), and it looks a hell of a lot like its past (Burda).
It was snowing by the time we walked out of the conference hall for dinner.
I'm off to Davos in the morning, where's it's below 10 degrees... stay tuned.
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