Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Conferences as boundary practices

As my thesis progresses, so too unfold my explicit concerns with the ethics and politics of emerging technologies. To me, this is crucial to sociality - or what it means to be social - and one of the reasons I find many discussions around "social software" to have little to do with sociability.

How often do we ask if people even want particular technologies? Or if certain technologies should be developed at all? Where do we get together to talk about who gets to make these decisions in the first place? When do we suggest that it might be good to slow down a bit and find out who benefits from our innovations and who does not? Or why they might be advantageous in some contexts and not others? How do we ensure that everyone's experiences and voices are heard - and valued?

When Bill Joy suggests that technological progress might not be all good - and that scientists should have to follow a code of ethics - he becomes Killjoy, the Luddite. Now, I don't entirely agree with his position but it also seems we are not very forgiving of critical perspectives on scientific and technological innovation. Clearly, we are too often skipping the middle ground between unbridled technological development and fear of technological change - and I think we need to spend some quality time in that space sorting things out.

And just as important is ensuring equal access to these spaces.

In a couple of weeks, some very bright and dedicated people will be converging at the O'Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference - and even more very bright and dedicated people will not be able to afford to attend. Boo hoo, say some. Well, yes and no. Sure, I wish I had the money to go - these are just some of the presentations I would like to see - but it is not irrelevant that conferences like this are more exclusive than inclusive. How can we expect discussions of technological divides, when the barrier to entering the conference itself is so high?

Even excellent blog coverage doesn't give absent voices a presence at the conference - where alliances will be forged and decisions will be made.

It makes me think about how academics have long been derided for ivory tower elitism - yet despite certain barriers to participation (like specialised language) many academic conferences and lectures are free to attend and open to the public. Technology conferences, by-and-large, not only have similar cultural barriers but also significant economic barriers to participation.

And this has ethical and political - social and cultural - implications. Even when technology conferences have panels specifically dedicated to grassroots innovation and the wireless commons - again with very bright and dedicated panelists - I can't help but wonder how many non-profits or other grassroots organisations can actually afford the registration fees, not to mention the travel and accomodation costs? With these sort of access issues, are we only paying lip-service to the people these technologies are supposed to be helping? Who, exactly, benefits from these conferences?

I don't have all the answers. Hell, I only have a few of the questions. But I do believe these are important matters.

What do you think?


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