The weirdness bar was set pretty high at last week’s Emerging Technology Conference (ETech) in San Diego. Even so, a lot of the techie presenters cleared it with room to spare.

These certainly included the University of California, San Diego, professor who spoke of unleashing “feral robotic dogs” on contaminated landfill sites. Ditto for the giggling British tinkerer who set up a complex system of wires, sensors and potentiometers in order to tell time by measuring the deterioration of a prawn-and-mayonnaise sandwich.

All of this delighted the audience of 750, heavily tilted toward geekitude. But the point of the conference was not to single out strangeness, but argue that such acts were only extreme examples of an increasingly commonplace process: people using cheap and accessible digital tools to “remix” the world around them. Just as music producers sometimes go back to the original components of a tune—boosting some instruments, sweetening the tone and maybe adding a voiceover—consumers can view the formerly one-size-fits-all aspects of their environment as a jumping-off point for hands-on customization.

“It used to be that when you wanted something, you went and made it. Then we turned into a bunch of consumers,” says Joshua Schachter, whose Web site,, allows people to remix their browser bookmarks with those of other visitors to the site. As conference chair Rael Dornfest put it, we’re remixing our music consumption by buying songs online one at a time instead of in CD collections. We’re remixing our TV behavior as TiVo-style video recorders let us “make every night Thursday night.” We’re remixing our media by grabbing online articles from dozens of different sources—and then broadcasting our own opinions with blogs. When you get down to it, the remixing metaphor applies to almost any area you can think of. Some of the sessions at ETech bannered the remixing of radio, DNA, politics and culture.

More here.