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Posted by on Jul 22, 2013 in Conferences, Secularism | 9 comments

Thoughts on the #FtBCon

It’s no secret that I love conferences about skepticism, freethought and humanism. There is something uniquely wonderful about a roomful of people coming together to learn new things and have their assumptions and usual modes of thought challenged, especially when this is done not out of a sense of academic or professional duty, but rather for the love of knowledge and progress. To roughly paraphrase my friend Clayton, summertime is the season of conferences. In relatively rapid succession, I’ve attended the third annual FreeOK, the eleventh TAM, and the first ever FtBCon. Probably the only other person who hit all three of these events was my brother-in-law, Chas. Here we are together with our badges for the conference this past weekend:

We made it to the virtual conference!

Two of the three AOK livebloggers from last weekend

I know, it looks like we’re just holding up our phones. Consider that a metaphor about the problems of virtuality, or something.

Unsolicited Advice
The major problem of having a virtual conference, of course, is the vague feeling of isolation that usually comes with sitting alone at a computer screen. The difference between sitting in a room with hundreds of fellow freethinkers and sitting at a computer watching YouTube is a fairly noticeable one. (It’s even more noticeable if you are listening on headphones while vacuuming the house, but that’s more of a personal problem with my own lived experience.) So you need some way to bring people together in real life to hang out and talk about what they are seeing. My advice is to reach out to a couple dozen of the largest local atheist and humanist meetup groups and ask if they would be interested in hosting watch parties so as to generate more of a collegial feeling and get new people interested. I tested out the tech in my home over the weekend and found that I have no problem streaming live to any of the televisions in the house.

A couple other bits of unsolicited advice on point. Consider having keynote addresses which stand out as such by having your most proven speakers prerecorded in front of a live audience, and give the virtual audience a chance to ask questions of them live for the last 15-20 minutes or so. One of the joys of conferences is getting to interact with the people you admire most, and so it makes sense to build in more time for that when it comes to the keynote speakers.

Consider also scheduling in short breaks for the obsessive completists who want to watch everything live but also find themselves in possession of an alimentary canal and urinary tract. May have given away too much about myself there, psychologically and physiologically speaking. I also noticed that it could be somewhat difficult to switch between sessions when using only a mobile device, so a little extra time would be helpful on that count as well.

All of these suggestions are intended to help make a virtual conference feel as much like the real thing as possible. I’d like to see a proliferation of events like this, and hopefully an increase in the ideological diversity thereof (I spotted only one conservative on any of the panels). Which brings me to my final point. Many of my friends online thought that I was being masochistic or perhaps even suicidal to have spent so much time imbibing from an event run by that particular blog network. I get where they are coming from, I’ve had fairly unpleasant experiences over there on occasion. That said, one cannot be both skeptic and make heavy use the cognitive shortcut of group identity to prejudge the content of a piece of writing or a talk. I’ve heard it said often enough on both sides, “I don’t read or listen to _________ because of events X,Y,Z.” I get that you may well have negative emotional associations with _________ but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still have really interesting or insightful things to say. I’ve been there, I know whereof I speak.

With that last little bit of generalized subtweet-style meta-grousing out of the way, here are my top recommendations for those who skipped the event last weekend:

Friday  Critical Thinking Panel

Ed Brayton pulled in three of my favorite philosophically-inclined thinkers in the American freethought movement. Beahan, in case you haven’t heard of him, is one of the best atheist debaters around today, in my not remotely humble opinion. Galef is her usual brilliant self. Fincke, well, I’m fairly confident that you’ve probably already heard of him.

Saturday Reproductive Rights Panel

Excellent straight talk on what it takes to defend women’s right to bodily autonomy on the ground, in the trenches, as well as some well-informed discussion about the ideological arguments surrounding abortion and the policy struggles in the halls of power. Knowing that Greg Laden did volunteer clinic escort work before FACE forced me to revise my views on him sharply upward, which as a skeptic I am happy to do.

Sunday  Asian Faces of Freethought

Excellent well-balanced collection of panelists, well moderated by Lilandra. It gets off to a slow start, but after about half an hour they start getting into some meaty issues concerning how East Asian and South Asian culture differ from each other and how they both differ from Anglo-American culture. Awhile back, Justin Vacula asked Dan Fincke, “What about the Asians?” respecting their underrepresentation in American freethought. In this panel, we discover why they might not be particularly motivated to join a movement that concerns itself largely with debunking Western theology and disempowering Western-style theocracy. We also discover that Razib Khan is a self-confessed dilletante and that my friend Cindy Cooper (from Camp Quest Oklahoma) has a baby who is loud enough to trigger the microphone to switch to her chat screen even from the next room. Hi Cindy!

Final Thoughts
Free online conferences are a fantastic idea, I hope to see a proliferation of them in the near term. With any luck, we can tweak the concept a bit to make it somewhat more like the real thing, especially the part where people hang out in real life, discuss what they just saw and how it applies to their own unique situation.

 

 

 

 

  • Eshto

    “I get that you may well have negative emotional associations with _________ but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still have really interesting or insightful things to say.”

    That’s the real shame though, and has been for quite a while. We already agree on most things. Many of the issues the “atheism plus” crowd cares about are indeed important and interesting. But they aren’t doing themselves any favors by being rude and divisive. It’s crappy activism to burn bridges and alienate allies. I find myself sometimes having to do damage control because someone has encountered, for example, LGBT issues, for the first time and their experience was getting lectured and insulted. The onus shouldn’t be all on other people to wade through their incivility to get to the information.

    • ool0n

      Tone trolling has to my knowledge not been refuted as an argument against your stance here? A diversity of approaches to a goal is surely a good thing? Asserting yours is “right” because its “not rude” or the others are “too rude” doesn’t seem that sceptical to me. The number of people who decided to be bigots because of a bit of rudeness on the internet when they would otherwise have been LGBT allies? Can’t see it myself… Burden of proof is still with the tone trollers imo.

      “The onus shouldn’t be all on other people to wade through their incivility to get to the information.”

      –> The other side of that is that the onus should not be on LBGT people to do others homework for them. There is plenty of info out there, that they fail to do their own work and expect someone to spoon feed it to them… Well tough luck. Unless they are lucky enough to meet you or someone in a good mood and willing to explain cis/trans etc etc to someone for the 1000th time.

    • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

      People really do care about tone (one way or the other) and dehumanizing the people on one side of that argument by calling them “trolls” is a form of bigotry, not an argument against a stance. There are plenty of places on the internet where you get to call your opponents nasty names, but this is not one of them.

    • ool0n

      Don’t be daft, for a start I didn’t call him “a troll”, I said what he is doing is described as “tone trolling”. Doesn’t seem that accurate a name to me as the definition of a troll is someone saying or doing something with the knowledge it will get a rise out of them. I suppose you could tone troll to troll someone but on the whole it doesn’t fit that description as there is usually no prior knowledge. More of a logical fallacy as tone is irrelevant to the truth of the message…. Maybe next time I call out tu quoque that will be “bigotry” as well :D

      Calling someone a troll is in no way bigotry and it diminishes real bigotry, bit like saying applying the misogyny or racism labels are bigotry. These are not inherent characteristics so applying them is not inherently demeaning as a person can change a behaviour they chose at that particular time. Its also a matter of opinion as one persons “troll” or misogynist is anothers great thinker. Not usually a matter of opinion on if you have an inherent characteristic.

    • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

      Hopefully, we can at least agree that giving people subhuman nicknames like “troll” or “CHUD” is in fact dehumanizing, and as such it is not remotely in accord with humanist ethics.

      The argument from “tone trolling” is essentially that tone should not matter to anyone because it does not matter to you. I suppose that is just fine for how you manage the comments on your own blog. Here, on my blog, tone does matter. I’ve made that clear time and again.

  • ool0n

    Seems your AC helps with thinky, good suggestions there hope you fed them back in the surveymonkey response?

    Maybe you should suggest some conservatism in atheism panels or libertarianism in atheism panels next time. Or did you suggest it to FTBCon and it got rejected? Given all the panels were suggested by FTB bloggers/readers I reckon the lack of political diversity is due to the majority of the readership there.

  • Pingback: The Asian Panel at FTBCon has spawned a group for Secular Asian Americans » Ace of Clades()

  • Chas Stewart

    That critical thinking panel was particularly unexpected and wonderful.

  • ool0n

    BTW you noticed PZ has announced the next one? You should suggest your idea of a panel to a receptive blogger, probably not PZ ;-)

    • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

      You have my permission to pass on good ideas. No need for attribution. :p