[iDC] The Social Machine of Events

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Wed Feb 1 16:04:17 EST 2006

Event organizing. Over the past year many experiments with conferencing
formats took place. They were aimed at escaping the same old
predicaments. People are fed up with the orthodoxy of traditional,
hierarchical proceedings of keynote speakers, panels, and unconcentrated
topical orientation! There is the soporific style of delivering a
30-page paper to an audience that could have read this text online
beforehand. Paperism! There is the work-shy re-inscription of yet the
same players of the virtual intelligentsia over and over again! Peeps
and masters! Why look at proposals of the ³young nothings² if we can
have trophy names to pull people into the touristy event spectacle? The
big names are all that matters, never mind if it is just another check
off on someone¹s resume.

Who cares if they have nothing to say. And let¹s just safely assume that
people in the audience (stashed away in the deep dark of the auditorium)
cannot possibly be experts at what the well-lid pundits on stage talk
about. Who cares if that speaker is a good speaker as long as she comes
from a long-established group of colleges? All that matters is splashy,
energetic performativity of ideas. "Performances are judged in terms of
their "felicity," that is, rather in terms of rules and styles than of
meanings." (Ludwig Pfeiffer) Who cares about meaning? 

Curators visualize their networks. Events become similar to an edited
book or a mailing list. They are the spatialization of a social network.
That is why it is important to have a small group of curators being in
charge of an event rather than a single individual. After the event
participants will mostly write glaring summaries not to mess up the
chance of getting invited again. But to what extent does that help in
the evolution of new media discourse and the development of event-based
practice? Let¹s stop the sing-along choir! Have a walk on the dark side.
(Who are the Darth Vaders of new media?) Let¹s call presentations
spineless, lazy, and substandard if they were! 

What we want is the right, fast-talking *style.* Just throw in the right
new media speak du jour and you will be OK! We want to be wowed by
charismatic, odd figures. ³Wow! Did you see that! That presenter amazed
me. I could not tell you what she said but she was a-m-a-z-i-n-g.² It¹s
the domination of affect over content! "Communication is envisaged less
as an exchange of meanings, of ideas about..., and more as performance
propelled into movement by variously materialized signifiers"

Peeps and masters. The renowned masters never have to worry again. They
can say whatever they want and the event flock will bow. Who cares if
they feel too snazzy to actually stay after their presentation and pay
attention to their fellow presenters?  And, no sweat: Just a few
PowerPoint slides will do. (Yes, the lecturer apologized for not using
the politically correct open source program that is not stable enough to
hold two hundred images). Or, maybe just pull up a website quickly- that
will do! We don¹t need event divas!! We lack contributors who can
improvise and are sensitive to the needs of an event...
Diversity. Who gets invited? The male whiteness that the Guerilla Girls
railed against in the art world of the 80s is boldly represented at
today¹s new media events. Ok, it¹s tough. We don¹t care about skin color
or gender-- all we care about is expertise. I heard those argument
endless times. Well, that¹s just flat out ignorant! Expertise takes all
kind of forms. But also don¹t fall into the trap of tokenism. 
If you put your ear to the ground of new media events (and like John, I
have been at very many) you hear the same problems over and over again. 
Organizers try to squeeze in as many insightful presenters as they can
get. Attendees become deeply frustrated by such over-programming and
surely miss something they came to see. This phenomenon can be called
*audience tournament.* Even perceptive and sharp-witted presentations
get few, if any ³patrons² because the event planners did not accentuate
that ³slot.² You see a few people far away with their faces lid by the
screens of their laptop spread all over the huge auditorium.

And in the end the logic of funding demands that the event was a
stunning and total success! No experiments please! Failure (even
partial) is not an option! It does not really matter if the participants
walked away energized. How would they recognize each other anyway at the
event? How would you know that the person next to you just drops a tea
bag into a double espresso next to you to overcome her jet lag. You
would not know it is her! Forget about nametags. They usually disappear
under coats or hang down on bags. As Marc affirmed, the best thing about
conferences, or so we are told, are the coffee breaks. Because what most
people actually try to get out of these occasions, cut out of their
daily routine, is inspiration, continuing education and perhaps
exchange, and dialogue. There is not much room for that if lecturers go
on for 50 minutes.

Crediting economies! Just like in the film industry the production of a
project is enormously work intensive and always collaborative. Free
Cooperation was a 24/7 nine-month job. And of course, nobody can pull
that of alone (or in that case: 2 people can¹t pull that off on their
own). Events are always group efforts. But all too often the invisible
labor is just an addendum in the event notes. a comment at the last day
of the conference. How do you differentiate contributions? Hollywood
rattles down unending credits at the end of each film. They specify
exactly what each person did. But the role models of the director and
producer are not established yet in event organizing. A problematic
example of that sort was the Utopia Station at the Venice Biennial. The
names of the curators appeared in the height of a house while the artist
names (printed on 8x11 handouts) disappeared in some corner. 
 Events can be precious moments of collectivity! There we are- forty or
so of us, all in one location at a time. What a potential! This latent
opportunity gets lost at most discursive events. That, of course, only
matters if something is at stake! Otherwise, we should just go home!
Getting together means that we can highlight a topic that is overlooked
or ignored or silenced! We can mobilize discourse outside of corporate
structures. You can absolutely organize discourse without company or
university funding. There are plenty of examples in which consequential
debates took place in backrooms of apartments or community centers.
Resource scarcity is met with self-organized cultural activities. At
such events there is an enormous chance to get something rolling! We can
put a topic on the map! We can put our intellect, experience and
feelings together! In the worst-case scenario, a given symposium was
just initiated to add a line to the organizers and participants¹
curriculum vitae. It was instigated to artificially make them appear at
the center of a debate. But a gathering of people can introduce a
tremendous degree of expertise in a fairly focused debate, coming from
different disciplines. There is an awe-inspiring potential that is
hardly ever fully tapped into. How can events really become boiling pots
of ideas that steam over with discourse and results in follow-up
initiatives? Sure. Locking up two people in a barn can create a
productive situation.  Conferencing formats matter! Surprising models
for discussion can be invigorating. Food helps to get tongues untied.
Parties are great. In his book "Discourse Networks" the German media
theorist Friedrich Kittler looks at the influence of the materiality of
the machines of communication (typewriter etc) on the formation of
discourses. Equally, event formats: the *social machine* of an event
shapes the way we talk. Event formats sculpt their content.
The link to actual organizations dealing with a topic at hand is also
useful. Example:

Right2Fight focused on police violence. Human rights organizations came
to the Sarah Lawrence campus as much as parents whose children were shut
by the NYPD. Students who were moved by the topics, the net art, the
poetry, the Afro-Beat band Antiballas were able to make contact with
organizations like the October 27 coalition right there. And they did.
And money was generated for these organizations!
 How could the knowledge that scholars, activists, engineers, and
technologists bring to an event actually be brought out? How could it be
mapped effectively? Online knowledge repositories (like wikis or blogs)
are one response. Audio blogs and video blogs are another. For ³Share,
Share Widely² (a conference on new media education,
http://newmediaeducation.org) I used the latter participatory design
formats to bring in presentations from people who were relevant to the
topic but geographically too far away to fly them in on the available
shoe string budget. That worked very well! The site is a useful resource
now. Results of events matter a great deal. TATE Modern fully
understands that. Their online resources are exceptional

Likewise, pre-event discussion is critical! While the complete
virtualization of conferences (term by Andreas Broeckman) seems to
rarely work-- the link-up of virtual and embodied components works very
well. What is the point of sitting behind a table with a few people whom
you barely know talking about a topic that has little or nothing to do
with your research? Such get-together is merely a going through
preconceived academic motions. If you are a good listener you perhaps
pick up on what the speaker before you talked about. But you may also
think already about what you will contribute. So, there will be little
or no connection.  If you are lucky you remember the names of the

For such discussions *mailing lists* still seem best suited. I say this
with full awareness of the wide variety of social software out there.
Mailing lists push messages onto the screens of your daily life. In the
face of massive information overload such self-assertion is necessary.
Short biographical introductions, followed by brief, provocative
comments seem to stir up participation on lists. But over the many
months prior to events these lists can also serve to inform participants
about research interests. And indeed: Spare us from reciting your
lengthy paper at our event! Post it to the list! We will read on the
plane! We promise.  

My experience with instant messaging is strange. You may have three or
four windows open at once. All kinds of different discussion strings
co-exist. That at least is what I notice about the way this
communication format is utilized. I recently contributed to such forum
as part of the Istanbul (Web) Biennial (Steve, maybe you can comment as
well). There were five or six of us. The tone of incoming super-short
messages set a rhythm for the fast paced conversation. There surely was
no time to think. It was a very spontaneous, gut-level response. I
decided to speak to one engaging point that was brought up. But the
stream of messages mercilessly continued. Once I was done typing two
sentences that made some sense to me, the question to which I responded
was old news. I was at least ten messages behind. I can see that such
uninvolved rapid response systems can be good for organizational
exchanges or life sharing. I have my doubts about their effectiveness
for thoughtful debate. 

An event is an event is an event. Each one is different. This is not a
call for a new orthodoxy. There are no foolproof recipes for success!
But we should demand thoughtful, concentrated, dialogical, and
well-organized events that have urgency!

Trebor Scholz

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