Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Who owns a conference?

There is an interesting post on "the backchannel and conference design" by Clay Shirky (on the many2many group weblog). A backchannel at a conference presentation or other talk occurs when people in the audience text-chat via their laptops or PDAs while the presentation is in progress. The good part is that a presentation becomes a lot less of a one-to-many affair; the bad part is that some people experience it as disrespectful of the speaker. Clay's post touches on this (something which has been hotly debated elsewhere) and relates it to the broader issue of how the conventional form of academic conferences may be changing in a hyper-networked world. For example, at the 2004 Planetwork conference the backchannel is being formally co-opted to allow attenders to create the conference schedule (suggesting topics and voting on them).

Clay identifies various types of risk involved in this: people "gaming the system" to push their agenda, group prejudices being amplified so that unusual papers becoming even less likely to be accepted for presentation. But, says Clay, irrespective of whether more democratic ways of running conferences will do more harm than good "it won’t matter, because the real change here is not that technology is allowing new forms of participation, but rather that it is allowing new forms of creation — a conference has heretofore been an artifact, crafted by a small group for a large group, and as usual, the small group has found many ways to justify its existence (and I say this as a veteran of conference planning.)"

There are two interesting international psychology conferences happing in South Africa next year - the Critical Psychology Conference and Theoretical Psychology Conference. Given that the attendees will be a whole lot less tech-savvy than those who go to the sorts of conferences that Clay frequents, I wonder to what extent we will be able to get away from the "crafted by a small group for a large group" syndrome. In my experience critical psychologists, like most left-leaning academics, are good at critical analysis but a lot less good at doing participatory democracy.


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