in Blogging, Conferences

Offline at the Idea Conference

I just returned from this year’s Idea Conference in NYC. Yes, I know, I live in NYC and the conference was in NYC, so I can’t really say I ‘returned’ from the conference, but in many ways I can. Why? Because in the actual conference venue, I had no way of getting online, no way of blogging the event, keeping my inbox from overflowing, etc. etc. In fact, I tried checking email from my phone, but I couldn’t even do that. So, one might ask, was this a bad thing? And, of course, the answer is a definite maybe.

Why it was a good thing that we had virtually zero connectivity at the Conference

If there would’ve been wifi, if I’d be able to blog the even as it was happening, if I’d been able to stay on top of email, to check all the websites that presenters mentioned, then of course, I would probably have missed half the conference. I would have missed Michael Wesch‘s mesmerizing, sometimes heart-wrenching keynote, describing students in modern classrooms to be like prisoner’s in Plato’s Cave, questioning whether or not students are being prepared for the world they are growing up in by today’s schools (as in the students who spend far far more time using Facebook and MySpace than doing their coursework.) I would have missed Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg fantastic one-year-later presentation of their brilliant Many Eyes information visualization site. My favorite, which was both funny and scary, is the visualization showing which words were most commonly used in Alberto Gonzalez’s Senate hearings.

Words used by Gonzales during senate hearings

In fact, I would have missed so much of one of the best conferences I’ve attended in some time. Part of what made the Idea Conference such a success for me was the amazing diversity and consistent high caliber of the presenters. A lot of credit for this goes to Peter Merholz, who was the program chair and who very undemocratically hand-picked each of the speakers. Comparing the quality of these speakers to that of, for example, some of the IA Summits, well, there is simply no comparison. But let’s be clear, while this approach certainly has it’s place, a more democratic by-committee model such as that employed by the organizers of the IA Summit also certainly has its place. Otherwise, you’d basically have the same small group of A-listers doing the conference circuit, making it very hard for lesser known people to get a chance to present their ideas. Anyway, I digress. All in all, looking back I’m sort of glad there was no wi-fi (this was not by choice by the way, the organizers very much wanted to be able to do it, but apparently the people at Parsons/New School, where the event was held shut it down), and yet, and yet…

Why it was a bad thing that we had virtually zero connectivity at the Conference

There is simply something very ironic in having an event by and for people who live and breath connectivity, the web, the information ether, to have an event in the heart of Manhattan (granted, NYC is in fact a bit backwards when it comes to connectivity – e.g. you still can’t get reception in the subways, but that’s another matter) and not being able to get online. Oh, actually we were able to get online, but to do that you had to leave the conference and walk around on the street in search of a public hotspot – which you really didn’t want to since you didn’t want to miss the fantastic presentations. And speaking of missing the presentations, even though I said earlier that being able to blog about the presentation during the presentation might have meant missing half of it, well, I think that might only be half true. After all, why do we write things down? Why do students take notes in a class? To record, to remember, to process, and re-process the information through the multiple senses of seeing and hearing and writing it down and thinking about what you’ve written and reading it later. And when you’re doing that while also online, there is that whole added dimension being able to interlink your thoughts with what the presenters are discussing, that sense of immediacy, of getting your ideas and reactions out while they are fresh. Now, writing about the conference in retrospect, well, it just has a completely different feel. Weirdly, it’s bit like dreaming – you better write your dreams down as soon as you wake up, or they are sure to fade away…