Toward the future of the conference – knowledge networking by the sea. #NNN13

English: "I hear those voices that will n...

“I hear those voices that will not be drowned” Stainless steel sculpture to celebrate Benjamin Britten by Maggi Hambling. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the themes of my professional life has been conferences. Organizing, hosting, moderating, attending, and even speaking. As an undergraduate at Cambridge I once penned a guide on how to run them. Last spring I wrote a piece about a series of 9 I had attended within a period of 3 months – each with a separate focus ( Moderated one (exhausting; 3 days of it), keynoted several (much more fun), and in a couple of cases simply attended as a guest of the organizer. What interested me, aside from some comparisons of what people do when they conference in C21, was the fact that to my knowledge I am the sole human being who attended more than one of them. One could argue that my interests are pathologically wide-ranging, or (as I did in my little essay) that knowledge ain’t what it was, disciplines are so 20th century, and that the future lies in a fresh architecture of people, expertise, networks, and whatever it is that shall become of the “conference.” One interesting follow up was a discussion last fall with a friend in Paris (inevitably over wine in a sidewalk café) that culminated in her suggestion that I focus my efforts on aiding the 21st century in the reconstruction of the conference idea. To be candid, I would junk three quarters of them and start asking irritating questions about what the rest are really for. The teleology of conferences. Now, that would need another conference.

So imagine my delight when Julia Hobsbawm encouraged me to join in Names Not Numbers, her celebrated gathering of the smart and the networked which, by all reports, was as unconferency as one can get while still having a program and panels and chairs. Rather less than 200 individuals, nearly all UK-based (though with a smattering of London Americans, a fascinating hybrid), foregathered in Aldeburgh – the erstwhile Port Meirion having been abandoned for another coast with a little more accessibility. We were invited to assemble in London much too early on a Sunday morning, board state-of-the-art char-a-bancs, and in my case be reminded of Scout camp – though, perish the thought, on that early Sunday morning circa 1964 we headed off in the open back of a removal van. Simpler days.

The point of the title is to underline the centrality of individuality in an age when mass communications has been subsumed by the digital revolution – and individuality, privacy, authentic connectedness, are all under threat.

What the NNN team understand well is that every human gathering must be understood as a whole. Social events and opportunities for casual conversation are as significant as bread-and-butter content presentations. To the extent that they form a seamless dress, a knowledge exercise is engaged of an altogether more sophisticated – and human – quality than the standard conference panel sandwich. There are various necessary conditions to achieving, as it were, a personal/informational critical mass, one of which is corralling everyone at the beginning and hanging onto them until the end. A subset is to persuade, bribe, or simply geographically incommode the most luminous presenters into hanging around with the great unwashed instead of just appearing in performance and then scurrying back to their dens. In the United States this is one major benefit to hosting such events in Aspen, which is so difficult to get into and out of that, having made the effort, even Great Ones tend to stay around for a day or two. Which worked pretty well, judging by the well-known names of some of the bods who bumped around on my bus back to London.

Some personal high-points, to make readers jealous: Maggi Hambling talking about all manner of things including her Scallop (the astonishing Benjamin Britten memorial, which I had never before seen in the sun); Simon Schama previewing his 5-part series on the Jews in the World (you have to see him up close and personal to get the full effect); film-maker Molly Dineen showing out-takes from her famous portrait of Tony Blair (he actually interviews her); and – to me the jewel in the crown – a panel on brain science that squeezed playwright Lucy Prebble between two of our top neuroscientists, and let David Aaronovitch of The Times loose in the interviewer’s chair.

A healthy dose of intentional community in which there was not so far as I could tell one dull person, and in which there were many who sparkled. And the sparkling continues through that magical connector of humans that we call social media.

Individuality in a Mass Age: A Private Ideas Festival

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