The Conference I Want To Attend

from the make-me-uncomfortable dept

Over the past year or so I’ve attended a number of the popular geek/techie conferences, and every time I seem to walk away thinking it just wasn’t worth going to. I’d had a few discussions with people about why I didn’t like these conferences, and have read a few others opinions on the topic. After a discussions here at Techdirt about problems with technology conferences I finally decided to sit down and figure out what exactly would be included in the conference I wanted to attend. I’ve written up the following article to toss out some of these thoughts. It’s still something of a work in progress, so any comments are (of course) welcome. Just click on the “read more” or “comments” link below to read the full piece.

The Conference I Want To Attend
by Mike Masnick

In the past couple of weeks there has been plenty of talk about "big idea" conferences like Supernova, O'Reilly's various conferences, and the new Always-On conference. I've gone to similar conferences in the past, but I've found, lately, that I have very little incentive to attend. Each time, before I go, I look down the speaker list, and say to myself "I know what all these people are going to say." If I confront conference organizers about this (and I sometimes do), I'm told that this time will be different.

Each time, however, I find that I'm right - and I don't feel that I come away from these conferences having learned anything useful.

It's gotten to the point where I'm only attending conferences where I'm also speaking - and I do my best (though, I don't always succeed) to make sure what I'm talking about isn't what people already know I'm going to say.

Over the past year, I've had a few discussions with others about this very topic, as well as read others' opinions on the subject, and have no come up with a more detailed description of the conference that I would like to attend.

First, there needs to be some different speakers. Run down the list of A-List bloggers and look at all the conferences they've spoken at. Then look at the topics they've spoken about, and see how much you actually learned. It might be interesting, but it's the same thing they always talk about, and it's almost instantly forgettable once the presentation/panel discussion is over. There are a few (but just a few) exceptions.

Second, I want to see speakers in an uncomfortable position. This isn't just my sadistic side, but since it's usually easy to predict what someone is going to say, we might as well force them to say something different. I want to see people put into different roles to force them to really think through their positions. I want to see someone from the RIAA asked to role play the head of a file-sharing system alongside a "super node" file sharer role playing as a music exec or a musician. I want to see a spammer role playing as a sys admin of a major ISP.

Next, the discussions need to be more interactive. Almost invariably at these conferences, no one remembers what anyone on stage says. If the internet is supposed to be about many-to-many media and the ability for everything to be interactive, why are our conferences still focused on the "broadcast" model of a speaker onstage and audience paying attention? Conferences need to have more breakouts and roundtable discussions. Recent conferences have tried to do this by having group blogs/wikis/chat rooms, but all of these simply take away from what's going on on-stage. It makes the conference into a multi-ring circus, where no one is paying full attention to anything.

This leads into the next issue. The only real value I've found myself gaining from any conference was not at the conference itself, but at lunch. Lunch is when people actually get to meet and talk to each other. While there are other "networking sessions", these tend to let the usual cliques all meet up and pat each other on the back, or repeat arguments they've had going on for the past ten years.

An ideal conference, then, would be more like a day full of these lunches - that forced people to think in different ways. Thus, I'd love to see a conference where people are either randomly (or carefully planned by the organizers) split into small groups, and given a task or a challenge. Let them do some scenario planning that forces them to think creatively. Get people thinking, get them involved with the ideas, get them interacting with others and force them to think outside of their own viewpoint. Maybe challenge them. Have different groups "competing" in some way to get people to really pay attention, and really try to get their minds around very difficult issues.

Put me in a small room with Jeff Bezos from Amazon, Hilary Rosen from the RIAA, Linus Torvalds, and Michael Powell from the FCC, and tell us that we've just invented TiVo, and the broadcast industry is trying to shut us down, and ask us to create a strategic plan for what to do. In another room, I want a similar group of folks (possibly someone from TiVo/Replay or some other such company, an advertising executive, and others) and tell them that they're a broadcaster trying to deal with this new technology, and ask them to come up with a scenario. Give us an hour or two, and then have the groups come together and present their findings. Then, let the rest of the attendees vote on who has the best solution.

I want to go to such a conference, and come out at the end of the day having met 20 to 30 new people, who I have a newfound respect (or distaste) for, while having generated new ideas in my head, and reshaped old, stale beliefs and ideas.

That's a conference I would attend. It would take a lot more effort to organize, but the end result would be a lot more valuable to all participants, if the goal is really to generate and discuss new ideas. It wouldn't be about patting each other on the back or rehashing old arguments. It would be about changing your perspective, making you uncomfortable, getting you involved, and making sure you came out of your shell a little bit.

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Comments on “The Conference I Want To Attend”

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Bob Bechtel says:

An exemplar of your ideal

Long ago, I had the privilege of attending a “workshop” on an emerging technology. There were about 50 or so attendees, and two primary goals: (1) to write a book about the technology so as to get the information out; and (2) to try out a bunch of implementations to get a better empirical sense of what the issues were. To support (2), several of the participants were system implementors, and there was a small team (3 people?) who had spent time in advance preparing a realistic sample problem for all of the implementations to tackle. For goal (1), all attendees spent the first day hashing out a table of contents, then the non-implementors were divided into chapter teams led by a chapter editor. At the end, there was a session where the implementors reported on what they had done — the book took somewhat longer, but was in the publisher’s hands within six months or so. The workshop was a week long.
Now, there are some ways that this doesn’t address your desired goals – the group was much smaller than a typical “conference” (though how likely is it that you’ll be able to get quality interaction with more than about 50 people in a conference setting?), it was not commercially oriented (mostly academics, with the bills picked up by a Government funding agency with interest in the technology), and there was some long-term commitment required to get the book that resulted out into the world (though with the ‘net things should be a lot easier).
Don’t know that this would be an issue, but the workshop was clearly focused on communicating with a larger community, not just enlightening the participants (though it was clearly a benefit to have attended). To overstate the case, the sponsorship and funding of most technology conferences now seem to me to be driven by value to attendees with little or no thought to value to the community (except indirectly, e.g., through participant blogs).

LittleW0lf says:

More hacker cons...

No, not like DEFCON, but your little town hacker cons, where the best experience isn’t seeing how much concrete you can dump into a toilet. I’ve given a number of talks, from DEFCON down, and I think the local hacker cons are my ideal con, because instead of marketing, fearmongering, etc., you get actual information exchange and networking.

I am tired of RSA because of its constant barriage of marketing crap and their unwritten requirement that speakers have at least a CEO, CFO, or CTO after their name, which of course means that nothing meaningful will ever be discussed.

Toorcon in San Diego is my ideal con, like DEFCON before it went commercial, because the attendance is by those who actually want to learn and discuss problems, both legal and technical, which face the computer industry as a whole and security specifically. Where 10-year-olds and 40-year-olds can come together and discuss things with respect and admiration for one another. Where hacker groupies don’t normally hang out, and where law enforcement still tries to keep a low profile.

dbran says:

conference I'd like to attend

I think you are missing the bigger issue here. I have had similar experience with conferences. I think the reason is that it is rare to have a speaker that is actually working at anything other than speaking. That is why there is no usefull information. I want to listen to the poor developer that just emerged from the trenches of some dificult project. These conferences are rapidly degenerating into the “come learn how to get rich” speaking engagements where somebody tells you how to make a million in real estate. (Of course I always ask why are they speaking and not out making millions in real estate). The difficulty is the person that really could impart some usefull information probably doesn’t have time to “go on tour”

LittleW0lf says:

Re: conference I'd like to attend

The difficulty is the person that really could impart some usefull information probably doesn’t have time to “go on tour”

I don’t believe that…not for a second. That is not the way it used to be, and I doubt that is true. A good con happens once a year. A lot of good research can happen in time period between those cons. Sure, those who make their money on speaking probably don’t have much to speak about, but for those like myself, who give presentations at cons based on research, we give presentations at maybe one or two cons a year, and then go back to our research.

The problem boils down to the fact that the conferences have gone from being a meeting of the minds to a money maker. Real cons barely make even, but they aren’t in the business of running a con. Those are the cons I like attending, because they make sure that those speaking actually have something good to speak about. I’ve heard some really good talks at these cons, and there is a lot more speaker to audience communication than the normal speaker-drone conferences.

The thing I cannot understand is RSA or some of the other companies who put on Cons who make a “Conferencing Contractor” responsible for choosing the speakers and putting on the con. These conference contractors know nothing about the topics of the talks, and cannot reliably choose one talk over another based on technical merit.

So what happens is basically what RSA has turned into, a week of mindless marketing demonstrations on products or solutions that don’t work, geared for management in organizations who don’t have any understanding of how the products are supposed to work, which eventually means your boss, with no idea how things work, ends up going to a con, listening to speakers who have no clue as to what they are talking about, giving marketing advice to your boss about why OS/2 is the best operating system your company can buy, or why Microsoft IIS is really a good solution for those who are interested in security since the hackers think it is too easy to hack and move on to more secure targets.

And I am not saying this because RSA has denied my talks three years in a row (believe me, I could care less. I thought my talk on hacking printers would be a very good talk for their “Hackers and Threats” topic, but apparently they prefer a CTO giving fluff pieces about Visual IDS systems instead,) but I can show you e-mails from RSA’s “conference coordinators” telling me that the reason they were denying my talk was because my talk was “too technical in nature,” and because I had not included enough references to “assure that I was an expert in the area of printer hacking.” Funny, most of the folks at DEFCON I talked to about my printer talk said it wasn’t technical enough. Yet every year RSA seems less of a meeting of the minds and more of a weekly marketing presentation.

Any con run like a business is not worth attending.

Phil Wolff (user link) says:

Re: Re: Sounds like WEF Davos. and other rambling...

Never been to Davos, but have followed the notes of people who attended. Seems to meet many of these needs, especially the social/professional networking.
I attended a Senior Associates Gathering of the Foresight Institute a few years’ ago. The stated goal for the 350 of us in attendance: work in parallel (small teams) to update some of the analysis in Engines of Creation (one of the first books to describe molecular manufacturing a.k.a. nanotechnology). We did it over 2.5 days. Breakout sessions, some scenario general sessions, more breakouts, reports from the breakouts to the general body, some detailed design sessions, etc. We were working as teams to create new work product. It helped that we all shared a common interest: a desire to promote save nanotechnology.
I also run into the need for really diverse viewpoints. Never run a tech conference without a social scientist, an artist, a poet, a politician, and a philosopher. Humanities folks (not to mention the physical sciences) are doing amazing things and it can shake your understanding of what is going on.
Take a look at for some science/arts interface.
Sometimes, conferences are really “Oh my lord I need to come up to speed on this topic in a week and I can’t find it as a book on tape so I’m off for two days.” Other times, it is “Maui looks good this time of year.” More often, I’m looking for people to tell real stories about real problems in ways that are both accessible and disturbing; that’s why I went to PlaNetwork. I’m also looking to meet absolutely brilliant people, because I am smarter in their company; was like that. There are times when the river is broad and you’ve just been following one stream of the subject; Digital ID world sort of rounds out both the subjects and the players in the space.
Mike, wherever, whenever, if you throw a party like that, I’ll come and tell me friends.

keith ray (user link) says:

interactive conference

There is a conference that emphasizes interaction to point of completing excluding PowerPoint-lecturing. It’s called AYE – Amplifying Your Effectiveness.
The main page is and the wiki front page is accessible from there — the wiki is to help the attendees get to know each other before the conference, as well as to shape what the conference is going to be about.
I’ve been to two AYEs and the experience was worth the money.

Andy Hooper says:

How about this for a mechanism

What you have described sounds very much like a Syntegration. This is an approach to running group meetings based on cybernetic / complexity theory which was invented by Stafford Beer.
There is a company that licenses the approach. It involves managing tension and freedom amongst the participants, encouraging ’emergent’ ideas whilst allowing unpopular ones to fade in a structured manner.
Disclaimer: I have no link with the company but I did study with Stafford Beer.
Here’s the original book

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