Conference Season

I’ve just been to a conference.  I won’t name it, to protect the innocent, but it felt like returning to a world I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with, but may now be fundamentally changed. 

The culture of lanyards, PowerPoint presentations and networking puts my teeth on edge.  I suppose it’s partly a reminder of school.  I still tend to sit at the back of the room, wanting to be anonymous and a bit aloof, but also hoping I’ll be noticed.  I must have spoken at hundreds over the years, but have never quite got over the dream-like anxiety that I might be talking in a foreign language, with my trousers down.  Occasionally, I enjoy the conference social life, but usually, I feel out of place (particularly now I’m less interested in excessive alcohol and the possibility of sexual flirtation).

Conferences, at least in their usual contemporary form, are supremely artificial experiences, especially when combined with the rarefied environment of a particular kind of venue.  I sometimes like the impersonality of the classic conference hotel, but there’s something about their hierarchical class structure that compounds conference weirdness.  Suddenly, by virtue of wearing a badge with my name on, I become part of Upstairs.  But I’ve also been to lots of conferences with low-income African-Americans who I know enjoy this inversion of the usual socio-spatial order. 

Conferences have become incorporated into the multi-million pound global events industry (the conference I’ve just left was held in a deindustrialised north of England city, a stark reflection of that economic shift).  “Events” embraces sports and entertainment, but the conference sector alone was valued at about $1 trillion in 2020 and is expected to grow, despite – or perhaps fuelled by? – COIVD.  There are millions of conferences held around the world every year, a staggering 1.8 million of them in the US: that’s about 5,000 a day!  But I once learned there’s a Strawberry Yoghurt Producing Federation in the US and if they have an annual conference (and I bet they do), the numbers add up.  The carbon footprint of conferencing must be enormous, although predictably, there’s now a market in sustainable conferences.       

Conferences run the gamut, from Davos to Star Trek and some have been forums for important social developments.  The coming together of people with a common interest is elemental and essential, but also, often ephemeral.  I’m not sure there are any lasting benefits from most of the conferences I’ve attended, so I’m not sure what their real purpose is, beyond the performative and ceremonial. 

COVID could have posed a mortal threat to the conference (apparently, the industry did lose money), until online technology zoomed to the rescue.  Now we have the new phenomenon of the hybrid conference.  The one I’ve just attended (in person) was one such and although it was very well handled, it added a layer of strangeness to the proceedings.  Some of the speakers, like those from Australia, were able to contribute in a way they probably couldn’t have otherwise and this does open the possibility for a broader range of experiences, although I’m not sure this really alters the elitist power-dynamics that determine who is – and is not – elevated to a position of authority at conferences.  But remote participation could intensify one of the most irritating features of conferencing: the semi-detached “key note” speaker who flits into an event to impart guru-like wisdom which, in my experience, is rarely more insightful than that of most conference delegates.  Now, such people can speak at several conferences a day, without needing to leave the home-office of their country cottage.  Although the hybrid format has definite and important advantages for people with disabilities (and for reducing carbon emissions), I wonder if the potential benefits of the collective experience will be further eroded if half the people attending a conference aren’t actually there.   

I have a probably romanticised vision of the conference as a cross between a Soviet, a Native-American powwow and a scene from a Ken Loach film, where everyone gets an opportunity to speak and no-one’s knowledge is held as more important than another’s.  But such large-scale gatherings would be strictly purpose-oriented and occasional, leaving more time and energy for localised, democratic debate, decision-making and action.  But that’s probably not the stuff that lanyards and careers are made of. 

The Conference Room

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