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