ETCon is a conference like no other. This is not because of the quality of the speakers but because of the type of audience it gets and the culture that has self-generated around it. One of the most notable features of the ETCon culture is in the near-permanent and overt use of the laptop during sessions. It is not an exaggeration to say that half the people in the auditoria will have a computer open during a keynote. It’s not an exaggeration to say that a significant proportion of those people will be multi-tasking enormously – finding a massive variety of ways of interacting with each other around the main topic of discussion.
There will be an IRC channel – co-occupied by (1) the kind of attendees who can’t work at home without having fifty windows open on their computer, the TV on with the sound off and loud trance music pounding into their frontal lobes and (2) those poor unfortunate long-distance virtual hecklers who couldn’t get out of work or couldn’t afford to participate in person who spend half their time trying to work out what’s going on and the other half of their time trying to get someone to ask questions on their behalf.
There will be the SubEthaEdit gang (a group I fear I belong to), whose mission will be to attempt to get the clearest transcription of the event in question and who may or may not require the discipline of writing to help them keep everything in their heads. There are a variety of sub-types of SubEthaEditors, including the blind transcribers, the commenters and the newbies. This year I fell into the role of blind transcriber, by dint of being able to type faster than most people. I hoped that other people would amend the notes around the place, and fix any errors I created, but – on the whole – SubEthaEdit this year for me became more of a broadcast experience.
Then there are the people who are surfing the net, or posting direct to their weblogs, or throwing files between each other over iChat or AIM or who are playing with the subject of the talk in question (cf. Ludicorp’s piece on Flickr, are actually trying to finish off their own papers or (as I often think might be the case with Cory Doctorow) paying their bills, organising their next speaking gig and knocking out a draft of their latest novel.
All in all then, the experience of ETCon is of a place in which a hell of a lot of people do a hell of a lot of typing.
At ETCon this year, Cory Doctorow did a piece on e-books that I’ve talked about before. His argument is that e-books can’t compete with paper at what paper does best. The DRM’d versions of novels that only allow you to read in a linear fashion – well these aspire to be ‘proper’ books, but they can’t hope to reach that level because of the absence of viscera. E-books simply aren’t attractive, engaging, smelly, textural or beautiful objects. This kind of e-book may be portable, but you still can’t take it into the bath with you.
But why should e-books be operating only at the level of what paper does best? Why shouldn’t they concentrate more on what they can add to the experience. If you give out a plain text version of your novel, then so much more becomes possible that wasn’t before – grepping / cutting / selective printing / copy & pasting / running simple scripts against / reading in any platform in any place and at any time / distributing and redistributing. If viewed in this perspective, then the gestalt of the paper book and the e-book is enormously potent. And if you take away the e-book, then the paper book might seem – well, broken.
At ETCon, that’s how those of us who are continually backchannelling think the experience of the conference for those without backchannel wifi-enabled social access to the concurrently written-into-existence e-conference must be. Those people who don’t engage in the larger conference are having a truncated experience of the event. It’s as if they’d decided to walk into a paper with a blindfold on.
I say all of this because I’m aware how odd it can sound. Since my return to the UK I’ve been to two events – one was ConCon, and there simply weren’t enough power-points to allow people to be engaged in any signicant degree of back-channelling. But then the papers were summaries, they were truncations, densely-packed contextualisers that served little purpose other than to inspire questions. ConCon was of a scale where the size and social dynamics of the group meant that back-channelling was simply less necessary. And even here typing went on here and there, unremarked upon, normal.
The other event I’ve attended was the AIGA UK event at the Design Council where representatives of the BBC spoke. And there a very different dynamic was in place. I was pretty much the only person in the room with an open laptop – trying to take very sparse and occasional notes (given the paucity of power-supplies) – and it became very clear to me very quickly that in a room of roughly 100/150 people, the muffled noise of my very occasional typing was considered to be rude and intrusive. The assumption was that I was doing stuff that was not related to the event concerned, that I was demonstrably not engaging with what was going on and that the open laptop was a direct affront to the spirit of the event. And in the meantime, I wanted to follow up some of the points online, I wanted to explore the issues more fully, I found myself passing my laptop to a neighbour so that he could see what I was thinking about. Much like a book without an e-book, the event seemed a little broken without a backchannel, without wifi. And I seemed to be the only one who noticed.
A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have been surprised by this attitude, but after two ETCons it seems vaguely archaic – particularly when surrounded by an apparent fraternity of highly web-literate Londoners. But it’s not limited to London – Stewart reports going to Infest in Vancouver and discovering an environment in which large numbers of geeks go to a conference and feel absolutely no need to backchannel, no need to have their laptops open, no need to note-take or collaborate or discuss in parallel.
So I wonder to myself which way are we moving. Are we moving more towards a ubiquitous computing presence where laptop note-taking at events and back-channelling are more common than now, where it breaks out of the individual contexts of ETCon and spreads more widely into other geek conferences, discussion-based events or even into work or conversational meetings. Or is this kind of overt back-channelling going to remain the provenance of a very particular clump of conference cultures – perhaps only percolating elsewhere in a more backgrounded, perpetual but less overtly lean-forward kind of way.
In essence what I’m asking is: What is the future of typing in public?