[iDC] Whither the conference?

nick knouf nknouf at MIT.EDU
Wed Oct 25 15:20:05 EDT 2006

I wanted to follow-up on the recent posts commenting on the  
Architecture and Situated Technologies symposium last week.  First,  
thanks to Omar, Trebor, and Mark for their organization of the event,  
and to the participants for sharing their work while at the same  
time, at least for me, pulling from a number of inspiring references  
that I'll be able to use in my own work.

The comments by Orkan, Charlie, and Jessica cover most of the topics  
that I was thinking about writing about in this post, and I share  
their praise and their concerns.  Yet there is one aspect of the  
conference that I want to interrogate, that is in no way limited to  
this particular instantiation of that thing we call a "symposium",  
but has been present in every event like this that I have so-far  
attended.  That thing is "functionality".  What is the purpose of our  
gathering in these spaces, for these times, to hear people speak for  
a limited time about their work?  The mechanisms of information  
gathering allow us to receive the _mechanics_ of people's work at our  
leisure from our computer screens.  Prior to the now-instant  
distribution of the work of a knowledge community, conferences (and  
journals) were the primary means of dissemination of this information  
to one's colleagues.  Yet given that much of this information is now  
available in just-in-time fashion on the Web, whither the conference?

A small set of reasons why we still attend conferences:

*  Anthologization.  While it might be possible to find out about the  
entirety of, for example, Usman's work by reading the materials on  
his website, a conference presentation allows us to receive the  
highlights of a large body of work, with at the same time enough  
detail to let us decide for ourselves whether or not we want to  
investigate further.
*  Extra-presentation events.  Often the most talked about when  
discussing conferences (and research life in general), the non- 
structured time enables people who do not interact regularly to talk,  
probe, throw out bizarre ideas, etc.  These times and spaces have the  
potential to lead to new directions personally (through the  
interaction with non-insulated ideas), or to kernels of future  
collaborations or post-conference discussions.
*  Serendipitous connections.  The concentration of talks, while  
often tiring, can also enable us to spin threads in our own heads  
that would not otherwise occur if we were not faced with the prospect  
of making sense of so many disparate strands of thought.  I have  
numerous places in my notes where I made connections between what one  
person had spoke about a few hours ago, or with work of my own.   
Where else do we have the chance to spend so many hours in rapt  
attention to the same topic?

I think we would all agree that those reasons, and those that I  
probably missed, on their own make conferences worth attending.   
Orkan mentioned desire in his post, and I want to bring that up as  
well, for though I find those reasons enough for my continued  
attendance, I desire something more from a conference.  What I desire  
is action, _on the scale of the conference_.  We spend time talking,  
but is there a way to act upon that of which we speak?  Is there a  
way, through perhaps a focused selection of topic, to bring people  
together and to actually make a proposal, an object, a thing that  
develops in some way the ideas that we all bring to the event?

Perhaps the workshop that was organized for the participants was  
designed to do exactly that.  I don't know.  And I fear "design by  
committee", which is what I propose has the dangerous potential of  
devolving into.  And not that we want to turn this event into a  
series of ineffectual "breakout" sessions so loved by the world of  

Yet the topics we discussed have a certain sense of urgency; not on  
the level of a humanitarian intervention, of course, but they reflect  
processes in motion that we have a chance to influence if we desire.   
The special situation of a conference seems like as best a place as  
any to focus our disparate abilities and experience on a problem of  
interest.  What I desire in a conference is the personal knowledge  
that at the end, the attendees at the conference had made a  
meaningful contribution to the analysis of a problem, or to the  
development of an object that addressed a matter of concern.

I recognize the time pressures involved, and perhaps the conference  
format as it exists today does not lend itself to this sort of  
desire.  Yet I still wonder if there is an alternative way to situate  
this gathering of people that focuses less on sharing of experiences  
and more on explicit engagement of the topics through action.  I  
wonder what the form of such a gathering would be: a choice of one  
_specific_ topic that gets discussed in detail on the list prior to  
the event?  Even as I write that I realize that the conference  
organizes _did just that_, which I commend them for, for it did help  
to focus the panel discussions.  But I wonder what type of event we  
would see if we developed that idea further.  Is there a way, in all  
of our multi-disciplinary desires, to decide, as a group of different  
individuals, to focus on one topic for discussion, and use our time  
in the same physical location to hack out the details of one or many  
approaches to that topic?  Not to jump on the open-source bandwagon,  
but perhaps the models of "hackfests" could help us to envision what  
such an event would be like.  [1]

I don't want the conference organizers or participants to take this  
post as a knock against their hard work at instantiating the  
conference and presenting their experiences.  And perhaps this desire  
reflects my own psychological concerns about relevance, addressing  
matters effectually, etc.  Yet the desire _was_ on my mind during the  
recent symposium, and I wanted to bring it to the list to get  
people's thoughts and concerns.



[1]  For example, GNOME Live!  (http://live.gnome.org/Boston2006).   
Also, BarCamp (http://barcamp.org/).

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