S07E14 of Connection Problem: Musings on virtual events

Note: This is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter in an attempt to both to make it easier to read this via RSS feed and to have this in my own independent archives. You can subscribe to get it in your inbox here.


I hope this missive finds you well, wherever in the world you are.

As Berlin has just hit a new record of coronavirus infections per day, we’re probably up for a bumpy ride through fall and into winter, but this time round it seems we’re in a much better position to weather the storm: The health care system has been practicing track & trace; keeping schools and daycares open is a political priority this time; and personally we’ve been training for this. We got our daily routines down, from permanent home office to workout regimes to enjoying outdoor socializing no matter the weather: It feels like we got this.

Also, an anti-trigger warning: Beyond this one mention you won’t find any discussion of the ludicrous TV “debate” the other night, and generally no US politics and very little in the way of hot takes in today’s email. Take a breath, it’s all going to be ok.

Enjoy! Yours,
— Peter


You’re receiving this because you signed up for this newsletter on tinyletter.com/pbihr or through my company’s website, thewavingcat.com. The Waving Cat is a boutique research and strategic advisory firm; I also co-founded ThingsCon, a non-profit that explores responsible tech. On Twitter, I’m @peterbihr. If you’d like to work with me or bounce ideas, let’s have a chat.


Brief updates from the engine room


I’ve double the available slots for serendipitous call with me that you can book super easily here – following Matt’s lead, titled Unoffice Hours. This format has proven not just somewhat popular, but also enabled a bunch of super interesting conversations. From scoping out if and how we can work together on projects to career advice to catching up on current interests, they’ve run the full gamut. I love it, so it continues for now.


I’ve had a chance to head out to the mountains for a few days of hiking not once but twice and it was exactly what I needed. It’s also one of the safest things I could currently imagine doing (which seems extra relevant given that I just don’t want to be the vector to infect my family or our kid’s daycare), and one of the most relaxing, if it’s an option where you currently are. I highly recommend it.


It looks like collaborations are happening: Plots are being plotted, plans hatched, seeds planted. I’m very excited about this, but it’s not quite at the sharing point. Consider this a teaser.


Recently on the blog

Different modes of strategy planning


NGI Policy Summit

Earlier this week we got a small ThingsCon group together for the NGI Policy Summit at the kind invitation of Monique van Dusseldorp.

(Side note: Monique is hands-down the best event curator I’ve ever met, period — and I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of great event curators over the years. Nobody puts together line-ups like her. And yes, she’s been transitioning her events to fully remote, too. If you think you have an opportunity to work with her, what are you waiting for? Drop her a line right now!)

But back to the Summit: After some fiddling with the tech of Hopin, the platform de jour, which I hadn’t had any prior experience with, we had a lovely chat about learnings from the last 6 or so years of ThingsCon for policy: What we learned from the practice of critical making, from teaching human or society centric design, from the Trustable Technology mark, from working with policy makers.

Alas there wasn’t enough time to really dig into the Q&A part of the session but it felt worthwhile; if the videos are shared online (which I assume, but don’t know for sure) I’ll share them once I have them.


Musings on virtual events

So, virtual events, eh? Given that in past lives I was heavily involved in a lot of events, I naturally have some opinions. And after re-reading what I wrote below, I feel compelled to add: I have absolutely no intention to dunk on virtual events — I assume we’ll be having them for a long time and so I’m trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. How to get to the best version of remote events.

As a reminder, off the top of my head I was instrumentally involved as co-founder/chair/director/curator or at a similar level in events like ThingsCon, Interaction16, NEXT, Atoms&Bits, Cognitive Cities Conference, UIKonf, Ignite Berlin, TEDxKreuzberg and a few more. So this heavily forms my perception.

And while a kick-ass conference can have a great in-the-room feeling — even during talks, if all the stars align perfectly but really mostly on the hallway track — I think a lot of that can also happen virtually.

But really, during this pandemic with its always-on-Zooms and never-ending Jitsis and occasional Wherebys or Skypes or whathaveyous… I find myself not just a bit fatigued by the whole idea of constant video. It is a bit of an unnatural situation, this constant sitting-in-front-of-a-camera, being watched. You don’t get that in an in-person conference (unless you’re on stage; I’ll get to that in a moment) and you don’t get it on the phone. And like I mentioned in the last issue, audio-only is slated for a big comeback, I’m sure of it.

My main beef, as a participant in remote events, is that they suggest interactivity and engagement, but much like classic (read: front stage) conferences they don’t quite deliver it. To listen to a talk it works. Panels only kinda-sorta work. That at least is true to the format, in-person or virtual. I’m as guilty as anyone of putting panels on stages but usually they’re just not a good idea. They never quite work: They’re neither presentation nor conversation, but tend to bring the worst of both worlds together perfectly: The stiffness of presenting and the unpreparedness of conversation. (Great presenters aren’t stiff of course, and great conversationalists aren’t unprepared. But great doesn’t make for a good base line.)

So. When I watch a virtual event, while sitting in my home office during a global pandemic, I don’t just watch the thing. There’s an immense competition for my attention at any given point.

In concentric circles zooming out from the little video window that I’m nominally focusing on, there are also:

  • About two dozen other tabs, including other video recordings/streams/calls, in the same browser.
  • There is at least one more browser full of things waiting for me to look at.
  • There is email, Slack, and other chats with real time or asynchronous conversations.
  • There is my phone, full of its own plethora of things and conversations silently brooding next to the computer.
  • Then we zoom out from the desk, and are still in my home so there’s all kinds of chores, the old arch-nemesis of home office workers.
  • There is also my partner, in the part of the home she claimed as her home office.
  • There is a door bell that rings disproportionately often as deliveries have taken a sharp upturn during stay-at-home orders, even though those orders have been relaxed where we are.
  • During the fringe times of the day, there might very well also be a small human who’d really like to see his dad play with him rather than stare at a computer for purposes he has no concept of.

And while there are of course distractions at in-person events (at least there’s email and social media, and maybe other people) at least there are some social rules limiting how much I can realistically engage with them. At home, no such rules apply. Most of these things are one click, one gesture, a few steps away.

This competition for attention is brutal; or maybe I should better say, it’s not brutal at all, it’s not even a fight. An email with a somewhat urgent thing comes in, and I smoothly slide on over and likely never think of coming back. That 22nd tab over there with the now-muted live stream? I’d be lucky to remember it existed in the first place.

Now, how about the presenter? Of course on stage, you get to enjoy a fair amount of attention. That’s the brutal power move of the stage setup: Everything in the architecture and setup tries to dominate participants’ attention and to force it onto the main stage. (I understand everyone who says it’s not for them, more non-hierarchical events are more their style. I like both for different purposes and contexts.)

This has positive and negative effects: It makes it infinitely easier to tell a story, or to get a glimpse into an expert’s brain; at the same time, the question who gets to go on that stage is, of course, a short history of power dynamics and discrimination, and also tends to pre-select for certain personality types.

Once you step off that stage, the attention level drop again significantly because that attention is contextual: It’s tied to that stage. Once you step off, it lingers for a little. But with every step away from the stage, it diminishes. Color-coded name tags and the like are shamanistic totems that try to extend that attention a little to the hallway (and make the job of security and catering staff a little easier) but that’s about it.

In virtual settings, this context is shifted in somewhat weird ways. You get less attention than on stage: While you get 100% of the attention directed at that window in that specific tab, but the cake is smaller as the total participants’ attention is spread out over so many more things.

But also, every participant with a camera feed on (remember, for engagement) kinda sorta has the same going on. Both in that setting and the many video calls that person might have to go through before and after that conference session.

Long story short, both video conferences (as in virtual team meetings) and video-based conferences (as in remote events) are mentally exhausting in subtle ways because you are constantly being watched, which is entirely unnatural. A live camera sucks the energy out of the room.

(And by the way: Formats don’t translate 1:1 to virtual either. Talks should probably be shorter and most likely pre-recorded. Marcus John Henry Brown has been exploring this in interesting ways, even though I frankly don’t think I could justify that level of prep time.)

So where does that leave us? We’re considering a virtual event, too, over at ThingsCon. And I have to admit I have complicated feelings as to what shape that should take.

Which is why I’m collecting examples of what people loved in terms of remote/virtual events. If you’ve experienced one first hand that was great, would you let me know?


Small bits & pieces

Grant for the Web announced 2020 Spark Grantees / xkcd on messaging systems is spot on / There’s No Such Thing As a Tech Expert Anymore / What can climate tech do for us?


Currently reading: The Uncertainty Mindset, Vaughn Tan.


What’s next?

Lots of writing. A new collaboration is taking shape quickly. I’ll be presenting at Umeå Design Institute next week. We’re planning lots of ThingsCon goodness.


If you’d like to work with me or have a chat to explore collaborations, let’s chat! 


Who writes here? Peter Bihr explores how emerging technologies can have a positive social impact. At the core of his work is the mission to align emerging technologies and citizen empowerment. To do this, he works at the intersection of technology, governance, policy and social impact — with foundations, public and private sector. He is the founder of The Waving Cat, a boutique research and strategic advisory firm. He co-founded ThingsCon, a non-profit that explores fair, responsible, and human-centric technologies for IoT and beyond. Peter was a Mozilla Fellow (2018-19) and an Edgeryders Fellow (2019). He tweets at @peterbihr and blogs at thewavingcat.com. Interested in working together? Let’s have a chat.

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