07 October 2009

Singularity Summit Postscript: The New Atlantis

Ari N. Schulman liveblogged last weekend's Singularity Summit in NYC for The New Atlantis. His point of view has often been a useful counterpoint to the "gee whiz futurism" that often permeates subcultures such as the singularity movement. Here is his upbeat summing up of the conference:
...for a movement that aspires to such revolutionary things, the summit was in fact rather conventional: dry talks, PowerPoint slides, and lectures in rapid succession. (I should note that the organizers kept the whole thing impeccably on schedule, except for allowing Kurzweil to go well over his time at the end of the first day.) It seemed that many of the attendees were most excited during the breaks between presentations. They huddled around the superstar presenters. I heard more than a few conferencegoers ask each other, "Have you seen Ray? Where is he? I want to talk to him." Many were excited just to be in the presence of fellow-travelers (since, as some of them told me, many of the attendees only knew of the Singularitarian movement through the Internet).

And this was where the organizers oddly seemed both to understand why people were really there and to fail to structure the event to reflect that. The proceedings rang of celebrity worship. The M.C. revved up the excitement before the big-name speakers. The final panel discussion was, unfortunately, about nothing substantive, just a sort of "behind the scenes with the boys of the Singularity," an interview focusing on personalities instead of ideas. And Kurzweil didn't deign to give a coherent presentation. For the first day, he literally came up on stage with a pad of paper and offered his ad hoc thoughts and pronouncements on the previous speakers. On the second day, he gave what one Twitterer described as his "stump speech" — a laundry list of responses to critics, mostly taken verbatim from his book on the Singularity. His talks just seemed to serve the purpose of assuring the crowd that the coach was still in control of the game and there was no need to worry (as another blogger has suggested).

But my impression was that there wasn't nearly enough discussion and interaction to really suit most conferencegoers (myself included). And I heard attendees again and again expressing their wish to interact more with the presenters, and many expressing frustration at not having been able to ask questions.

I don't really fault the organizers for this. Putting together a large conference is a demanding task, and this one was impressively smooth in its operation. Perhaps on some level it made sense to stick to the tried-and-true format of a professional, academic, or scientific conference. But that's the problem: this is not a business, it is not an academic discipline, and it is not a science. It is a movement, one with goals it seeks to accomplish. I have the sense that the attendees were interested less in simply hearing facts — many of which are better conveyed in print and online anyway — than in discussing what it is they are all engaged in. Perhaps in the future, these conferences might be run more like seminars instead of lectures, or might find other ways of incorporating give-and-take conversations. _Futurisms
Singularitarians go to conferences to be inspired. Organisers might learn something from political rallies and revival meetings. The Obama campaign rallies were an example of the merging of the two events -- rally and revival. Perhaps the Summit organisers might have planned one final event along those lines, as an acknowledgment of the emotional needs of attendees?


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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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