UnConference or MutateConference?

This morning I was drawn to a post by Mitch Joel claiming that the “unconference movement” is dead.

I hadn’t encountered Joel’s blog before, so I hope I’m not reading this piece out of the context of his usual commentary. In any event, my response isn’t entirely about this one entry. I’ve only been to two events that were trying to be “unconferences” in some sense, and I’ve never been involved in trying to facilitate one, so there’s nothing about his critique that strikes too close to home, no wound it inflicts on me.

But there is something in the response that frustrates me, and it’s not just about unconferencing. There’s a pattern here that extends across a much vaster terrain. As I said in my Twitter feed, “Do as thou wilt” and “Ur doing it wrong” don’t add up. Joel is hardly the first person to try and say both of them at once.

Let’s take unconferencing. The idea here, as I see it, is to not just systematically question everything that doesn’t work about an existing model of conferencing, collaboration, and meetings but to invent new forms and practices that act on that critique. That alone makes the movement or whatever you want to call it a great thing: there’s nothing worse than endlessly circling around an awareness of how broken or stale existing practices are while feeling condemned to repeat them indefinitely. The one time I sat on a major professional association’s program committee a decade ago, I suggested that it would be a great idea if we just dropped virtually all of the standard paper-presentation sessions in favor of roundtables, workshops and spontaneous discussions, a sort of proto-unconferencing move. But there wasn’t any space in business-as-usual to entertain that idea. It was clear that if I were serious about it, I’d have to make it a crusade. My colleagues weren’t against a change exactly, but they felt there were reasons why we had a lot of small, boring sessions attended by six or seven people who passively listened to papers being read to them and changing that would cause serious problems for many members. Crusading on this subject struck me as a bit lower on my priority list than getting an unnecessary root canal. Smarter by far to just do an end run and invent new practices under new banners, as unconferencers have.

It’s the new practices part that seems to me to be the point: that unconferencing opens up what had been a closed, ritualistic and expensive domain that put very high transaction costs on collaboration, discovery and conversation between people with shared interests and projects.

It sticks in my craw when a move to openness becomes an occasion for a new closure. Which is how I read Joel’s complaint: that the unconference should have a purity test, its own Dogme 95 policed by dour adherents, that it has to be the dialectical opposite of the conference in every respect. In that case, you do not mean UN, you mean ANTI. Which will require the perpetual zombie reification of an ancien regime mode of conferencing as well. Every anti- needs its pro-, every post- needs its unhyphenated Other. To “un” something seems to me not to commit to a perfect opposite but to seek a massive radial evolution of new forms, to open a space, to emancipate.

What I hear in Joel I hear a bit of when #Occupy meetings insist dogmatically on human mics, circles and so on. Or the way that I can remember student activist meetings I participated in the 1980s mandatorily concluding with a sort of offbrand pseudo-Maoist self-crit session. Moves intended to criticize the rigidity and hierarchy of some other form of group or collaboration sometimes harden quickly into their own form of exclusionary orthodoxy, their own fetishized manners. To me a perfect unconference or rally or online collaboration or what have you would be a jam session, a moveable feast. Improvisation has signal, it has pattern, it has structure, it has plans, but it also has the freedom to say or play what it seems right to say or play at that moment. Whatever works is what I want to be free to do, what the work of the “un” ought to accomplish, to make working an always-provisional, always-scrutinized, always-open value. Let a thousand models bloom, and then cross-pollinate.

This isn’t just about one mode or tradition of collaborative practice. Ultimately this distinction, this different sense of what it means to “UN-” something, strikes right to the heart of the most extravagant and exciting promises that congregants gathered in the house of Shirky try to uphold. I really believe you cannot set yourself against attempts to protect worn-out traditions through enclosure and monopoly with your own enclosures, your own moves to exclusive ownership. Otherwise it just comes off like an attempt to evict the old sheep farmers so that you can breed goats on the same fenced-in pastures, a casting of one brand name against another, a strategy of transfer-seeking.

Openness is a sensibility long before it is found expressed in anything more concrete, and it requires a delight in the mutations and adaptations that follow from an intervention into a closed space. It rests on a gentleness of regard towards the practical and imaginary moves made by others, an encouragement of remixing and reinvention.

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5 Responses to UnConference or MutateConference?

  1. Carl says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Just to throw another oar in the water, we’ve been talking about Deacon’s Incomplete Nature over at my place; one of the central ideas is constraint as non-humean causation, and the way systems self-generate out of the dynamics of becoming this by avoiding or not becoming that. One take-away being that evolutionary systems (like minds and conferences) are always cludgy assemblages of accumulated thises and not-thats, for better or worse.

    The Enlightenment dream is that we could engineer optimized systems from scratch, and I’ve never entirely given up on that despite the poor record of previous attempts. But in the meantime I find it most expedient and least insanifying to do as you did with your program committee, that is, exploit the inevitable interstices of cludgy systems to supplement or subvert them in ways that please me.

  2. Laura says:

    In my field–k-12 ed–unconferencing is far from dead. One unconference here in philly spawned dozens more across the country. They allow for actual conversation and debate. People do actually confront each other on the merits of there ideas and nit in that I want to show how smart I am way. People try to accomplish things in these sessions. It’s pretty amazing! Giving talks at these is fun but challenging. You’re not prepared. You just slap some talking points or questions together and go. I highly recommend attending one. Better yet, organize one.

  3. Laura says:

    Btw, didn’t read the post until after my comment. Funny that we ended on the same nite. I think there are all different kinds of unconferences. To set a definition goes against the movement.

  4. Great article, I find it most expedient and least insanifying to do as you did with your program committee, that is, exploit the inevitable interstices of cludgy systems to supplement or subvert them in ways that please me.

  5. In the provinces says:

    Sorry to be so cynical, but my experiences with this sort of “unconferencing,” is that it leads either to people rambling on for 15-20 long, painful minutes without saying anything. Or it becomes a format for a self-styled big name to turn a session into endless stroking of his (or, less often, her) ego.

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