Thursday, October 29, 2009

Conventions, cliquishness, barcamps

I haven't blogged for a while (have been writing mostly fiction lately), and it's been even longer since I've actually posted anything controversial. So maybe I should put aside my impartial observer blogger-voice, and indulge in some personal opinion.

I liked this review of Atheist Alliance International (AAI) convention by Santi Tafarella. It's snarky, but it has a truthful ring. Even though I haven't been to an AAI convention, this review mirrors what happens in so many science fiction cons. The cliquishness, hierarchical structure, the constant "schmoozing up" to the pro writers, editors and agents. I especially liked this quote:

By the average age, affluence, ethnic, and gender makeup of the conference (more men than women), you might well have imagined that you had stumbled upon a conference of Republican activists. I thought it was ironic that the nearly all white and affluent crowd mouthing off about the evils of religion were being catered to all weekend by a coterie of working class Hispanics who, on Sunday, would no doubt be at Catholic Mass or in attendance at one of the local Protestant megachurches.


And as you approached the screen, it was like entering the theater of Dionysus, with all the chief priests of atheism gathered at the front and center tables closest to the stage, and sitting together in a clubby way. The best tables were reserved for VIPs. Some people had VIP on their name cards. Perhaps they made big contributions to the event. The rest of us were losers. We were not very important people. This two-tier system was at work throughout the day (or you might think of it as a three tier system if you count the virtually all Hispanic conference staff). Whatever else atheism is, it's not a critique of hierarchy. Hierarchical religion may be bad, but hierarchical irreligion is, well, natural. Every train needs a caboose.


Atheism is great! Just like high school. At supper time, when all the nonwhite hotel workers were moving around vigorously, I noticed that Michael Shermer and PZ Myers were sitting together also, chuckling it up. Seeing all this front and center social bonding, I couldn't help but think of George Orwell's Animal Farm. (Oh, so this is what the victorious revolution will look like!)

It always made me wonder: we, atheists and/or science fiction writers, are presumably working towards a better world, or at least would like to think that we are -- so is *this* what our better world would look like? Indistinguishable from the old world?

By now I guess you'd be asking the obvious -- so why do I go to conventions at all? Well, as a writer, I need to know what speculative fiction readers think of the genre, so I go where the readers congregate. Lately, though, I have been inspired by the concept of BarCamp. A BarCamp is an "unconference" where everybody is, or can be, a presenter. People give 15-30 minute presentations on any subject they like (that's relevant to the conference topic), and they break out into discussion sessions as they see fit. I've written about Barcamps I attended in these blog posts.

BarCamps have been gaining popularity in the tech world, which I think speaks volumes for the credibility of this format. After all, technical world is highly meritocratic; they have little patience for people who talk the talk and can't walk the walk. If technical professionals think hierarchy-free structure is a good enough way to organize presentations, in the sense that people who don't have much to say will weed themselves out, then it may also be good format for a SF convention. Or maybe I'm naive, because the liberal arts mafia that runs conventions will reject meritocracy. :-) Still I've been thinking of organizing science fiction BarCamp. I casually mentioned this to one guy who used to organize science fiction and Linux conventions, and he thought it was a good idea. I probably won't get around to it in the next few years, as I don't want to distract myself from other pursuits, for which I already don't have enough time. Besides, I would probably get stuck in the analysis-paralysis stage.

I don't even know whether I would want to do it in the middle of a science fiction convention, or as a separate event altogether. It's quite likely that the organizers of a SF convention would not let me attach a BarCamp to it anyway. Why do I think they wouldn't let me? Because in the past I had submitted programming ideas to a convention program chair, and those ideas differed in style and formatting from the usual SF convention panel items. I got no response except some form of "your suggestions were noted". It is clear that at most conventions the programming committee wants to keep giving the attendees the same old with slight variations (e.g., one year there's a panel on vampires, next year it's on werevolves. Oh well, maybe that's not a good example: vampires have been de rigueur at any genre convention, any recent year. :-)) So I haven't felt much encouraged. In any case I won't try to do this any time soon. But if someone else wanted to run with my idea, I'd come to their camp.