Internet as Playground & Factory

Feel bad I haven’t had time to do a decompress on the Internet as Playground & Factory conference recently put on at the New School. I didn’t feel much up for live blogging, for some reason, or even Tweeting, despite enticements to do so.

As a theme, it was intriguing. I was a bit concerned in the discussion that preceded the conference that there would be a particular focus on fairly abstract critical theory. Over the years, my enjoyment of super-abstract cultural theory has given way to tolerance. Too often, I worry that the language has obscured the precision of the ideas. Luckily, the pendulum has swung back from the extreme end of this, where verbal gymnastics was valued more than real ideas, and theorist rock stars attracted audiences not because of what they had to say but how they had to say it.

As I look back on the conference I am definitely glad I got the chance to go. I think that there were times when the very long sessions made me feel like I needed to escape, and there seemed to be too many collisions of speakers that I did want to see. Some of the folks I really wanted to see were actually speaking during my own panel.

(As a quick bit of navel-gazing, I think our session was one of the most interesting, precisely because we explicitly made it a discussion. We decided ahead of time to limit the presenters to a few minutes of introductory remarks and then bounce back and forth with the audience. Yuri did a very nice job of keeping things as on track as at all possible, but folks were not shy at all, and it was an interesting and wide-ranging discussion.)

Was also happy to get a chance to chat with some of my biggest inspirations lately. Howard Rheingold and @academicdave, as well as touch base with a bunch of folks I haven’t seen in a while. And that was great, though I wish I’d felt like there was more time to relax with them. Long sessions + shortish breaks made things feel rushed. This perhaps even more so because our pre-lunch session went long.

I don’t actually like people, though, so I often rate conferences by how good they are at making me think and get excited about ideas. This one did this well. I was particularly taken by a few of the presentations. I was very taken by Sean Cubitt’s presentation, perhaps particularly because I came in not expecting much “there there,” and was very pleasantly surprised, to find quite a bit of substance (along with the style). Still not my ball of wax, but a good presentation, and prod toward ideas.

I had expected to enjoy Fred Turner’s presentation, and was not disappointed. Not to say I agreed with it (a paean to bureaucracy seems to treat it as a real thing and not a model–a lens for interpreting social organization), but that is part of what makes for an intriguing and interesting argument. He came dangerously close to my back shelf project of resurrecting the cyberneticists for a conversation on the network society, but that’s OK–someone needs to do it.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the breadth and discussion around Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The Turk came up as an interesting synecdoche for many of the themes of the conference. The question of whether Turkers were an exploited underclass or were just engaging in an odd sort of repetitive play–or, most intriguingly, both–kept coming up in different contexts.

As I said, even though I was there, I felt like I missed as much as I saw. Perhaps it was just me, but there seemed to be a definite in-group out-group thing going on. Maybe that’s true everywhere, though. For me, the outgroup–the periphery–was particularly interesting. All in all, a thought-provoking topic, and a great group to address it. As much as I’m turned off by conferences lately, it was certainly worthwhile.

Will be interested to see where things go from here.

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