November 6, 2007

Cons, or Why We Are Unhappy At Conferences

We fly across continents to vast technical conferences. We meet in glittering ballrooms, filled with our colleagues. We are, it seems, miserably unhappy.

Peter Merholz is president of Adaptive Path. He does User Experience. He went to DUX last week. It's a user experience conference. He should be happy as a clam. Instead, he's twittering in the middle of the second session:

The moment an academic takes the stage, the conference screeches to a halt.

Dave Winer has written a lot about the failures of conferences over the years. He just wrote about why most conferences suck. Winer thinks it's because "we don't have enough to do." He once thought the answer was the audience-centered unconference, but is no longer so confident:

At first the joy of finding out that everyone has something to say is overwhelming, that was the first two BloggerCons for me. But after that, it wasn't that big a thrill, then it mattered more what they had to say.

What's the problem here? Part of it is inexperience; academics, especially, aren't trained in presenting. And where a corporate researcher might be on stage once or twice a year, academics meet an audience every day; it's nothing special, and the goal isn't to take risks and change minds. The goal is to get through the class.

Part of it is timid programming of safe, easy topics. At OOPSLA, when John McCarthy stopped to talk about the afternoon he wrote cons, nobody was reading their email.

There were a thousand elite software people in the room, and they all knew that McCarthy was talking about an afternoon in which he happened to invent garbage collection, dynamic languages, and pretty much all of modern programming. It was just an afternoon with nothing better to do.

But this only works because McCarthy (and OOPSLA) trusts us to know what cons is and why it matters so much. That trust is in short supply.

Cons, or Why We Are Unhappy At Conferences

Still more fundamentally, the mass of guilt that weighs upon the field deadens our conferences. That guilt arises from the divergence of what we like from what we think we should like. We enjoy exciting new systems that do what nothing else could do; we think we should like systematic demonstrations that this widget lets students do a task 5% faster than that one. We enjoy daring prototypes and agile development; we think we should be planning our work and proving correctness. We enjoy astonishing code; we think we should write code so clear that our most mediocre students (and the management team) will grasp it without effort.

Guilt inhibits our joy in doing our work, and because we can't admit to that joy — we cannot be seen to exult in enjoying what we know to be wrong — we find our speakers addressing us in slow, measured tones about slow, measured studies.