Thanks to the panelists Julian, Marta, and Richard, to Iris and Alex for making this initiative happen, and to those who have given responses already here in this forum! There are so many directions I could go in, in responding - for the sake of time and focus, I think I will try to stay mostly around the distributed conference idea, for which this panel represents a productive experiment and consciousness-raising exercise.
@Simon_Rae points above to the, perhaps “surprising”, lack of off-the-shelf systems for distributing conferences. I think this observation is connected also with Julian’s detailed list of alternative platform choices necessary for the safety of Extinction Rebellion and its members - the “obvious” platforms are just not that oriented to uses beyond media consumption and routine administrative functions (paying bills, taxes, letting big brother know what we are up to, etc). For activism, the “security” issues of the platforms are perhaps the primary concern, while for the academic and/or artistic conference, the nature of the “intimacies” offered by the platform is more likely to be the stumbling block. Although at some level intimacy and security are not distinct issues - “who gets to be where and how in relation to where others are?”.
Why are our (mainstream) platforms so good for watching things and checking in with the state? Perhaps because there is so much embodied labour in them, not only in the code that makes the platforms run on the servers, but also in the “code” that makes the platforms run on the users (ie. the users’ expectations and behaviours when faced with the platform). Going off the beaten track here means having to reinvent a lot of things, including bodily practices, expectations of behaviour, expectations about how things get inscribed and given cultural value, etc. Because having to reinvent so much all at once is potentially an unbearable cost, organizers end up making all kinds of compromises, repurposing platforms, practices, and then kind of “incrementally” moving towards new forms of dialogue.
The “traditional” conference serves lots of different functions and involves (at different moments) distinct intimacies (listening together to a speaker or musician in the unified acoustics of an “auditorium” - chatting with people in crowded rooms over coffee - seeing who people are and what they are like in person, etc etc etc). Some of these are at best awkward and at worst just plain meaningless in the online space, and this makes me think about the possibilities of thinking of online distributed conferences not as a chance to replace the functionality of the “traditional” conference but rather as an opportunity to conduct “medium-scale” experiments in proposing new forms of online intimacy and exchange. (“Medium-scale” here means not needing to be generalizable over populations, but big enough that people participating don’t really enjoy relationships with each other outside of the framework of the experiment.)
Going back to Julian’s comment/slide “When openness is enforced, it excludes” and redirecting it towards the distributed artistic/academic conference - lots of academic conferences are actively negotiating tensions around this these days. On the one hand, there is a tendency to valorize livestreaming, complete archiving, etc as measures that give more access to what happens at the conference. On the other hand there are serious concerns about types of conversations, including but not limited to more politically sensitive conversations, that might be shut down if “everything” has to be assumed to occur on a global stage. For this reason also, I think it is useful to approach the distribution of conferences not as an exercise in the revolutionary replacement of one model (the non-distributed one) with a new one (the distributed one) but rather as a proliferation of new forms of encounter, some of which might be labelled “conferences” while others maybe need new labels.
Anyway, there are some quick thoughts. Looking forward to following the rest of the conversation,
PS - I think massively multi-player online games are interesting counter-examples to my excessively dour view of what people do with the Internet, above.
PPS - my repeated use of the word “intimacies” above is inflected by my recent reading of Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s book Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media, which we have been reading cover to cover as part of the software studies reading group here at McMaster. Definitely recommend this book to others thinking about the structuring of online life!