New formats for conferences
Wednesday, July 18, 2007 by Dave Winer.
I don't go to many conferences these days, certainly not as many as I used to. Sitting in a dark hall, checking email, blogging, etc -- why go somewhere else to do what I do at home? The hallway conversations are good up to a point, but then I wonder why I can't read about the products people are pitching on their websites, where I can also try them out.
So we experiment with new formats, to try to give us what we want. Which of course raises the question -- what do we want? At breakfast a few weeks ago here in Berkeley, with a group of friends, I posited an opinion -- what we want when we meet with other people is to explain who we are, and explore our issues, and learn who other people are, and what their issues are. We put all kinds of symbols in the way of the pure experience, but at the core that's what's actually going on.
One of my table-mates, a psychiatrist, agreed and added an eye-opening idea. She said that medicine and technology have one thing in common, most of the people you meet never grew up. She explained that in medicine they didn't have to, because everyone looks up to them as having godlike insight into the meaning of existence, and the people in the profession tend to believe the hype. Having been in tech for many years, and having been treated by many doctors in recent years, I saw the pattern too.
Why grow up when the world confirms what we all tend to believe anyway, that we have special insight into meaning. This certainly is an idea that is reinforced in the tech business. And it's why our conferences have become so boring -- because despite all the odds against it, we actually are growing up. There is a difference between tech and medicine. We have bubbles and they burst, and when that happens, we're left to figure out what went wrong. It's these crises that force us to confront the reality that there are other people here, that it's not all about us. And that of course is on the path to becoming an adult. There's more to this, of course, but this is a blog post, not a book.
So, if we're ready for more, if we've grown beyond just wanting to put the big kids on a soapbox and admire them, what's next? I may have stumbled across an idea a few weeks ago when I invited some experts in mobile technology to my house for dinner, and asked them questions to bring me up to speed on some of the issues. It turned into a conversation, with six very alive, very informed people that lasted three hours or so. We didn't record it. No one took notes. We agreed not to blog the details. It was a memorable evening, something I will repeat, and others can do it too. And it's something that may make sense at an industry conference.
Imagine an evening event where, at random, groups of six were put together in a room with food and drink, perhaps an inspiring view, and a topic to discuss. As with our evening confab, it would be off the record, just a discussion that might or might not lead somewhere. You have to get beyond the usual surface-level stuff because you have three hours to fill. Who knows what might happen?