Discover more from Tender Buttons by Rebecca Mqamelo
Conferencing and the commons
Scattered thoughts on Kenya, commoning, and designing better conference experiences
I spent the last two weeks in Kenya shuttling between Kilifi, Mombasa and Nairobi. From sitting in on village workshops aimed at deploying community vouchers on the Celo blockchain, to attending a bizarre cocktail hosted by the British High Commission “in celebration of the King’s Birthday”, to finding myself at a panel discussion hosted by Kenya’s Young Communist League, life has again taken on that familiar form of worlds within worlds within worlds, and I am grateful to be learning from all teachers.
Last week in Nairobi I attended IASC 2023, an international conference on the study of the commons. The experience was in sharp contrast to the various crypto conferences I’ve attended over the past few years (and am now increasingly skeptical of). For one thing, the crowd was a lot more diverse in age, gender, and nationality. It was also a lot more academic, with a smattering of eclectic in-betweeners like artists, media theorists and filmmakers.
Conferences can (and should) be seen as microcosms of the systems and ideas they’re trying to promote. So, for example, it’s glaringly ironic to attend “ReFi” crypto conferences where half the participants take 2 flights to get there and no one acknowledges the weirdness of this and/or tries to account for it in creative ways (e.g. offsets built into conference fees).
In this vein, I collected these observations and ideas during the past week:
Observation #1: The disproportionate number of times female presenters will start with an apology (for not speaking “good” English/being sick/having tech issues/being nervous) is remarkable!
Observation #2: For a conference full of intelligent empathetic people doing great work at the margins, I found myself bothered by the quality of several conversations – distracted, anxious, transactional. Interactions sometimes felt like pitches, people talked about themselves way too much, and generally it felt hard to come by slow speaking, good eye contact, patience, and a grounded sense of presence.
Observation #3: There was hardly any art, games, interactive learning or young children! We need to do away with industrial-era, top-down modes of learning. For example, during my undergrad at Minerva, which prioritizes peer to peer learning, lecturers were not allowed to speak for more than 5 minutes at a time. Tied in with the previous point, it’s worth critically examining how the spaces we inhabit – in this case, various lecture rooms at the University of Nairobi – inform how we learn. It felt all too serious and, given the existential nature of most work that concerns the commons, contributed to an emotional residue of anxiety and heaviness.
Observation #4: What is this nonsense of people who don’t speak well thinking they can wing it without visual aids? You have to have a visual aid. You just have to. Unless you’re a brilliant public speaker (which most people are not), you need something to anchor people’s attention, and this is even more true for speakers who present to a live room via Zoom.
Idea #1: During registration, gather data on where everyone has traveled from and how. Using a basic algorithm that scrapes flight emissions data, determine the conference’s environmental impact based on travel alone. Put this somewhere highly visible, alongside other relevant information such as the demographics of speakers and attendees (which most conferences already collect).
Idea #2: Using basic AI recording tools, count the ratio of presenters who start or end their talk with an apology by demographic – again, make this visible to attendees.
World’s we inhabit, identities we accept
Something that struck me throughout the IASC conference was the danger of savior complexes, and the dynamics of environments that foster them directly or indirectly. The trouble is, for people doing any kind of work centered on viable alternatives – be they economic, political or cultural – it’s just so hard to not fall into the mental trap of genuinely believing you have the answers. I think I held this for a long time working in crypto and then leading a team designing local currencies in Oakland.
Being around this energy in various forms over the last two weeks has prompted me to think about ways to mitigate this. For example, I think that working in public (and sharing thoughts as loosely as I am here) is a useful sanity check. It is also very powerful to be the “other” in a new space. It’s why I really don’t think conferences like the one I just attended should ever be held in the “global North”. It’s just too easy for us to play into subconscious identities and narratives shaped by the history of those places. (I heard a rumor that the next IASC biennale might take place in the US. If you’re an organizer and reading this please seriously consider this point of view).
That’s it for now. I would like to save deeper thoughts on “the commons” and the economic work I’m contributing to for a later post. For now, I am grateful to be back home and look forward to spending the next few months between New York and Washington, DC!
Thank you for spending time with my thoughts! I write very infrequently – but you’re welcome to get notified when I do:
Jackson Rising Redux: Lessons on Building the Future in the Present, edited by Kali Akuno (Cooperation Jackson) and Matt Meyer.
I would like to propose that Africa “leapfrog” harsh LED lights.