Saturday was the day of Interesting 08, the second unconference organised by Russell Davies (no T on this boy) at Conway Hall in London. Thirty speakers gave talks on subjects close to their hearts, the only common linking theme that the topics wereâ€”and the speakers should beâ€”interesting. Possibly it was the best not-a-conference conference Iâ€™ve ever been to.
I presented a very cut-down version of my current paper (a geophysical survey of the World of Warcraft, which will be appearing here in the near future) and was gratified to get laughs in places I wasnâ€™t expecting laughs. I was kind of surprised that, at a conference that was inherently playful, I was the only person talking explicitly about games. The closest were Roo Reynolds who spoke about Lego, and Collyn Ahart Chipperfield who talked about spaces for the fantastic.
What do I mean when I say the conference was â€œplayfulâ€? Several things.
It wasnâ€™t serious. â€˜Seriousâ€™ is not the opposite of â€˜playfulâ€™, as anyone whoâ€™s ever played Diplomacy will tell you, but an absence of seriousness can certainly help create a playful atmosphere. The hall was decorated with bunting, the catering was biscuits, cupcakes and apples, and the event kicked off with a singalong version of â€˜The Final Countdownâ€™. From the get-go you knew this was going to be infotainment in its purest form.
Almost all the talks were short. I asked for ten minutes and got five. The weakest presentations were (with one exception) the ones that noticeably overran their slots. It encourages focus and attention to core points.
It was a lucky dip. When a speaker stepped on stage, you had no idea what they were going to talk about. Topics included what spooks horses, toilets, the history of vacuum cleaners, zoetrope animation without the slits, the role of booze in the development of society, guerilla geography, favourite words, beating insomnia with bad audiobooks, odd communities on Flickr, and much more. The guy who designed the ineffably cool new UK coinage spoke; so did the guy who did the remix of Radiohead’s ‘Nude’ using obsolete computer hardware.
Nobody was trying to impress you or sell you anything. It was about the joy of enthusiasm and communicating that joy.
And perhaps most importantly, even though almost all the speakers used PowerPoint or similar, everyone presented their material differently. Roo, who kicked off, showed 30 slides in three minutesâ€”you can see it here but heâ€™s cheated slightly by re-synching the sound with the slides. On the day the slides appeared automatically and he had to speed up or slow down what he was saying to match each image on screen. (He alludes to this at one point on the soundtrack.) It didnâ€™t make his presentation more smooth but it made it more exciting, more of a competition, Roo against machine.
All the PowerPoint presentations were in a style that, if brought to a regular meeting or conference, youâ€™d be asked to leave. Lots of full-screen pictures with no captions. Cartoons. Elegant graphs, often with slightly irreverent captions. A good number of images from classic SF movies. Nothing that was there just for teh funneh, but plenty that was meant to amuse as well as inform.
For the audience, barring the ‘Final Countdown’ singalong and one item that called for volunteers, it was also entirely passive. You listened or you didnâ€™t listen, you enjoyed or you didnâ€™t enjoy. You were not called to interact, but you felt involved. Playful, yes, but elements of direct or indirect play would almost certainly have spoiled the experience.
How does that work, then?
Thereâ€™s a theory that says visualising walking, step by step, burns almost as many calories as actually walking. I canâ€™t find any links to it and have no idea if itâ€™s true, so take it for now as a metaphor. Everybody at Interesting 08 was thinking of what they could talk about at Interesting 09. It was the number one topic of overheard conversations. Even though non-speakers couldnâ€™t play this time, their head full of thoughts about being up on the stage made the experience of watching others speak vicarious.
Secondly, because the talks were short and had to pack a lot into their time, they tended to be strong on wide-ranging high-points. Finding links between the different talks became a game, whether conscious or unconscious, and as the day went on the links coalesced into a web that felt like a tent covering all of us, the same way that a really good multi-stranded novel pulls all its threads and characters together. No coincidence that the bunting criss-crossing the hall looked like a net. It was an enormously unifying and satisfying feeling: not playful in a conventional sense, but playing with ideas is still play, and Interesting 08 was packed with ideas.
Links to the Interesting talks will be up on the Guardian website soon. Meanwhile, kudos to the organisers, congratulations to the speakers, and thanks to everyone who laughed at my jokes.