Tom Chi  

Ridiculously Easy

March 19th, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

KC and I attended plenty of panel discussions this past week, with topics ranging from the economic viability of OSS to the evolution of blogging, to emergent democracy based on wifi devices. While many were quite engaging, there were a few that made me want to flip tables out of boredom and frustration.The most common source of trouble were panels where everyone agreed on every point raised. These seemed to drag on endlessly. For each question, the audience would have to sit through the same answer four times before the discussion could take another baby step forward. This deep-seated amicability also kept many discussions from achieving any real depth, since agreeable people rarely go into the reasons why they hold the opinions they do.

Another problem involved completely unstructured discussions. In panels where the floor was opened to questions too early, things tended to drift into randomness rather quickly. While this sometimes lead to interesting points, it more often lead to pointlessness. Too much structure can also kill a discussion, but I think a good balance can be achieved if panelists spend the first 40 minutes of the talk coherently presenting their viewpoints on a variety of controversial topics.

For example, one of the best panels I attended dealt with the future of digital rights and distribution of music. The moderator had prepared a list of great questions covering some of the most complex and pressing topics being faced today. The panelists were from iTunes, RealNetworks, MusicNet, and ShareMedia, and they each represented vastly different approaches regarding how music and distribution should be treated. Especially interesting was Tim Quirk from RealNetworks, who represented his position as an musician as well as the offical “party-line” from Real. His schizophrenic perspective was a good analogy for where the industry is right now.

Another attribute of good panels is that they expose and address some of the deeper philosophical issues behind the work. Some people might disagree, but I don’t really need a conference to introduce me to the basics of CSS (or the basics of anything for that matter). I can buy the book, and it’s ten times cheaper. What I want to hear is the unique perspectives and insights of someone who has worked in a discipline for a while, and a tie-in to the larger significance of the work. It’s very easy to get buried in the details, but doing so at a conference wastes a great opportunity to re-assess and re-align the direction of an entire discipline.

Lastly, there were some panels wherein the panelists wanted to hold more of a group discussion with the audience. Typically these had to do with “speculation on emerging technology X”, where the variety of opinions from the audience would do well to help build a more complete map of the possibilites. This is a valuable discussion to have, but it doesn’t fit well when poured into the structure of a panel. A panel is an oligarchy, and these discussions would maybe run better as open-ended Socratic dialogues. Perhaps the organizers could set up a room for such discussions where the layout creates less division between speaker and audience.

All in all, despite my gripes, the conference was good. I didn’t actually get to flip any tables over, nor did I get to go to the panel that this week’s comic is named after. Perhaps for a future SXSW I will write a little add-in so that people can flip over a little icon of a table in their IM or IRC window when the panel goes awry.

5 Responses to “Ridiculously Easy”
Joe wrote:

I really wanted to go but my supervisors deemed that SXSW is more of a party than a professional conference. Thanks for some real insight into some of the activities.

Tom Chi wrote:

While there were social events connected to SXSW, I was usually too tired to be very socialable by the end of the day. In terms of professional development, check the topics covered, since SXSW varies from year to year. This year had significant coverage on emergent democracy, wifi, blogging, accessibility, digital rights, and gaming.

There may also be value to your organization in the form of recruiting opportunities, though my impression at this conference was that most people were more focused on personal professional networking.

The last thing to consider is that SXSW is not a training conference. You will not come back with a binder full of slides and educational materials. What you will get is a chance to listen and learn from a motley collection of foward-looking individuals in the interactive space.

Liz wrote:

I would like to attend next year. It does seems a bit expensive though. Do they have the same panelists every year? Do they bother to check whether or not a person is capable of public speaking? Everyone does seem to report having a great time.

Airbag wrote:

SXSW 2004. Spot on….

Rosa Maria Barrera wrote:

i dont want it no more!!

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?