Requiem for a Strange Loop
The last instance of the Strange Loop tech conference in St. Louis just wrapped up. I’m so glad I was able to be here. This conference made an important impact on me in my early career, and this year’s experience inspired me to write my own farewell.
Up up and away
In 2010, I was 2 years out of university, working at a cool startup with an amazing team. We were pair programming full time and it felt like I was learning at a hundred miles an hour every day. I was a few years junior to the team, but we were all in our early-to-mid twenties working our asses off to turn code into a bootstrapped startup. Due in part to our age, in part to the personalities on the team, and in part to the zeitgeist of those years, it felt like the air was electric with enthusiasm and optimism about all things tech.
One of our team was from St. Louis and encouraged us to go to this seemingly-esoteric tech conference in his hometown. My first year attending was 2011, where Rich Hickey keynoted with his now-iconic “Simple Made Easy” talk. I was in love. This was industrial philosophy! We had tech luminaries! Nerd rockstars! (We still used that word unironically back then.) And they were full of mind-expanding ideas to push our craft forward! The whole place felt like it was filled with such smart people talking about tech so deep that I could barely follow their ideas. But damn did I want to!
The next year I remember being absolutely delighted to see that Daniel Friedman, the author of my favorite textbook from school, was just as joyful and weird as his writing. He presented “Relational Programming in miniKanren” with his research partner (and co-author of the later Schemer books) William Byrd. They both playfully bickered the whole time as they showed off demos and just thoroughly broke everyone’s brain throughout. To this day I regularly think about the moment where Friedman jumps the gun on their agenda yelling “IT’S QUINE TIME!” Byrd immediately chastise him kid-brother style; “Nooo! We’re gonna do numbers! You’re messing up,” to which Friedman sighs, “Fine fine fine… it’s not quine time.” It eventually did become quine time and he yelled it again, delivering the punch line the room was eagerly waiting for. We a room full of 100+ kids messing with legos…but the bricks were lamba calculus.
Gary Bernhardt’s talk from that year also stays with me to this day. He was flying high off the viral success of his now-iconic “Wat” lightning talk delivered earlier that year, and it felt like he took all of that energy and packed it into a big swing. The presentation has a bit of indirection, so it’s better to experience than to read about. It had me rapt in the balcony of the theater and absolutely primed for the message payload.
What tied all these experiences together was a community of technologists committed to trying out big ideas and interrogating received wisdom while embracing the weird and having fun along the way. It’s such a special combination. There’s nowhere else like it.
The following year, I switched jobs and lost my connection with the crew of coworkers that kept going annually. I eagerly awaited each year’s videos, but life prevented me from returning.
In the intervening decade, the world changed so much, and so did I. I had my techno-optimist heart broken time and again as the superstructures of power wrung the soul out of the internet. It has taken me a long time to find pieces of my previous hopeful worldview that I can start to put back together into a new vision of what tech means to me. In those personal wilderness years, even as I celebrated their release, I couldn’t muster the energy to watch many Strange Loop talk videos.
In the last couple of years, I’ve taken some first steps on a journey of rebuilding my value system in relation to tech. I’m still suspicious of most tech idealism, wary of what capitalism will stifle, but I’m starting to get a feel for the shape of community that I’m seeking and seeing glimmers of it here and there.
In comes the announcement about 2023 being the final Strange Loop ever. Wow, end of an era! A contingent of that first startup’s early-employee diaspora all bought nostalgia-fueled tickets and made our way to St. Louis for one last rodeo.
Going into this last conference in 2023, I was unsure. Would I feel alone as a cynic in a sea of unbridled tech boosters? I’d watched the magic drain out of so many other things I had loved in tech - what would it be like coming back to one of the early fonts of my enthusiasm?
I shouldn’t have worried. I’m relieved and grateful to report that Strange Loop still has the magic! It managed to inspire that same mix of enthusiasm and wonder in me that I remember from a decade ago. The community has evolved with the world, and while the techno-optimistic spirit is still in there, it’s married with a clear-eyed view of the world in all its faults and a drive to change it for the better.
“Playing With Engineering” was a wonderful combination of tech and science and creativity and education to kick off the conference. After, I did a plinko dive through cell tower spoofing, code search, and a software stack that rethinks the fundamental architecture of the web. The conference party at City Museum was a perfect extension of the ethos of the conference—a place all about exploration, play, surprise, and whimsy.
My favorite talk of this year came from Devine Lu Linvega of Hundred Rabbits on the second day. They have a way of combining tech, philosophy, and art that I find intellectually challenging in the absolute best way. I might write more about this talk because I’m still processing it.
The closing three keynotes were sweet, funny, and pitch-perfect to close out the final Strange Loop. I found myself tearing up right along with conference founder Alex Miller in his send off keynote. He built something really special, he recognized it was time to let it go, and we all got to stand in gratitude and say goodbye to the thing together. As the applause filled the beautiful theater we were participants in our very own self reflective loop: in that moment we were Strange Loop saying goodbye to itself. It was one of the most special communal moments I’ve been a part of.
I was surprised that Alex didn’t program that talk last, but having Julia Evans and Randall Munroe headline afterwards was exactly the right move. The playful, joyful, humble energy they both brought was the goodbye that Strange Loop deserved. Their parting messages were respectively “remember to share what you’ve learned” and “remember to be kind as you share.” Coming off a deeply technical body of the conference that at times borders on inscrutable, these were apt reminders to close on.
Forest for the Trees
Alex was clear that there won’t be any direct successors to Strange Loop; “If you are inspired to start something, it should reflect your values, not mine.” He used the metaphor of a tree falling in a forest, which lets light into the canopy and becomes food for new shoots to grow. With the forest analogy resonating, Alex wondered aloud if conferences with as big a carbon footprint as this should continue to exist. That was a tough, brave idea to present in this moment. Maybe this was a bigger, deeper ending. Perhaps it has to be. The idea was almost too heavy for a room full of teary eyes, already mourning.
But Alex had some seeds to share. He sketched out a few ideas for hybrid models where local meetups could meet at medium-scale venues, record their talks, and exchange them digitally across geographies. And he offered his expertise as a resource for anybody who wanted to consult with him as they experimented.
I’m hopeful that Alex is right about the birth of new sprouts, and I’m inspired to try and contribute to their growth. I will be looking for folks in Chicago who might be interested in working together on this (please reach out if this might be you!).
I think invoking the image of an ecological system (which is made up of self-reinforcing loops inside loops inside loops) as well as asking us to consider our own ecological and community impact (nested circles of reciprocity) was the perfect end: one that reckons bravely with the endings while portending future beginnings.
So thank you and farewell, Strange Loop. Function complete. End thread. Yield execution to the surrounding system.