In the ‘questions and comments’ section of the final plenary at MIT5, David Silver made two comments about how the conference might be improved next time. He presented us with two problems:
1. The incongruity of the conference theme and the conference format. That is, should a conference that was investigating collaborative forms of cultural production and questioning the figures of the cultural ‘expert’ and the author be organised around the traditional ‘sage on the stage’ model of discourse, or should it become more like the thing it studies?
2. Taking advantage of the free wireless, the ‘audience’ was twittering, blogging and surfing too much during sessions and suffering from continuous partial attention, and maybe we needed to learn how to unplug.
Leaving aside the fact that being ‘plugged in’ and in a state of ‘continuous partial attention’ seems an entirely apt description of any good conference I’ve ever been to…
It seemed quite clear to me that the second ‘problem’ is an emergent and entirely rational response to the first one as well as an instantiation of precisely the kinds of ‘media transformation’ we were all busy discussing, describing and questioning. As far as I could see over people’s shoulders, and certainly in my own case, most of the time the twitterers were using their laptops and the internet to annotate, share, get background on, critique, and fact-check the papers they were listening to – and yes, they were also sometimes ‘playing around’ and socialising.
So as far as I’m concerned, on the one hand conferencing twittering, IM-ing, surfing and blogging is a user-led innovation that *amplifies* what is good about an academic conference – massive downloads of information, the collision of perspectives, and the intensive social engagement. On the other, such behaviour represents a material critique of what is not so great – the parallel sessions, the non-interactivity, and the dominance of particular top-down modes of engagement.
Of course, as with any emergent phenomenon, the ethics and most effective applications of these practices are still being worked out, but where they get worked out is in practice.
Why am I blogging this now instead of marching down to the microphone on the day? Well, I was twitching to say all of that at the time, but had an attack of girlish shyness. Which is funny, given that the next comment was from someone (didn’t catch the name) who thought the conference might have been a bit masculinist and that we needed to think about innovative ways of creating access to voice for those who didn’t necessarily have the bravado to engage in antagonistic modes of discourse.
So what I’ve done here is to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by alternative modes of communication to respond without having to stand at the microphone with my heart beating in terror, as she did.