I arrived with great expectations. This is a unconference or, as they say, the wiki of all conferences. Free thinking, free association, chatting and discussing about anything, sodas and food anytime you wish, great facilities at Google place. The program takes shape by having invitees volunteering to chair or organise sessions on the spot, or giving presentations on anything they would like to talk and get a discussion about. It sounded too good to miss it. I accepted and took the flight from
Getting here is not easy, the nearest truly international airport being LA, but, with some effort, I found the hotel. Nice place.
On Friday (yesterday) I had the disconcerting experience of realising I did not know anyone, if not by name, fame, or wiki profile. Good, I thought, time to broaden up your intellectual horizon and scientific views. Out of the ivory tower lazy chap, get some fresh air! I soon understood that there were some amazing people/brains around. Impressive. Humbling. Displacing.
After having largely failed to get in touch with anyone (Britishness and misanthropy not helping), Friday afternoon was spent registering (an incredibly fast process, if you skipped the request to recommend 5 people for the next SciFoo), collecting presents and nice gadgets, and having dinner. The food was fine, though there were maybe a hundred or so turkeys' legs that left me wonder about where the rest of the bodies went; will biotechnology one day give us meat without anything else to waste? (Is is already here? There are no other parts of the bio-engineered turkey-legs?).
After dinner, a quick introduction that was a rather amazing process: each of us was asked to describe her/himself using three words. Some people did not understand the meaning of "three" and tried to give long profiles, soon to be put in place by Tim O'Reilly banging on a pan (literally, with a big spoon). Some participants thought it was the right time to show some guts and came up with slogans. I spent five words: "Philosophy of Information, Information Ethics". Name, Surname, Affiliation, One line of description of your interests. It all triggered a silly chain of memories, a teenager in the barracks, shouting my name, being told, or rather shouted at, "I can't hear you", shouting again, on top of my voice, so loudly that even the bloody idiot of the lieutenant thought the joke was going too far, then seeing people failing to shout loudly enough in their turn, breaking down, crying ... my very first day in the army.
Back to reality and out of reverie, the whole introductory process took a very short time (or was I just day-nightmaring about my year as a soldier?). I got the impression that there is a large presence of people working in a variety of branches of computer science, physics and biology. Social sciences are certainly under-represented. Humanities almost absent, your correspondent being a small exception. When asked, the whole group indicated that very few people had attended the previous meeting last year. A sing of quick turn-over, of flow of constantly renewed blood or lack of interest (one is enough)? I will try to understand it.
After the 3-words socialising, we were treated to four talks, a surpise (recall: there is no program) which I enjoyed. They were well prepared, beautifully delivered, and well documented: on bioengineering, visualization in science (Felice Frankel), energy resources (mis)management, and space tourism (Charles Simonyi). I'm used to keynote speeches in philosophy having a thesis to defend, so this is all new. I also wonder whether I was the only one to perceive some irony in the combination of a talk which basically warned us that we are going to run out of energy in a few decades and another which fascinated us with a 25milion dollars ticket for two weeks in the outer-space. The philosopher cannot but notice there must be better ways of using our money. The perennial boy wish he could afford the ride.
The talks contained many controversial points, but that is the essence of talks that say something. The unconference now started to look much more like a standard conference, with invited speakers and a normal audience. There was no time for questions, let alone answers , but they did not seem to have been planned (here they speak of "Q&A time", my first exposure to the acronym; but I also acro-sinned, since people often asked what I meant by ICT). The impression of the outsider was that there is definitely an inner circle (naturally) and a hierarchy (naturally too; if you know a bit about wikis, you would expect this as well). We started planning some sessions, being told that some slots were pre-booked. More inner circle and hierarchy, but that’s fine.
Saturday morning, back for breakfast and more interactions with more interesting people. There are seven parallel sessions running during the day (long pause for lunch and more individual talking, networking, food still ok), so you better be lucky to get the good talks. Titles are not always very indicative of what you might get, to say the least. Formats vary, from full presentations to just "let's talk about x". Some people find it confusing, some others liberating. Most seem to enjoy it. I'm still trying to make sense of the whole experience.
9.30 interesting session on "Citizen Science - Where Next?", organised by John Durant. Topic: basically how scientists and the educated public may interact successfully, to make the former more available and the latter even more educated. During the discussion, I was puzzled by what I perceived to be a common assumption (I tried to understand whether it was only my impression), summarizable by Aristotle's first sentence in the Metaphysics: "All men by nature desire to know". I could not be more skeptical.
I tried to make the point that this is simply not true, but rather philosophical intellectualism of the worst kind (listen who is preaching), which does not help the cause, for you end up asking the wrong questions (of the following sort: why all these science-oriented citizens are not getting what they wish and deserve? And what can we do to redress the situation?). My impression is that a more realistic picture indicates that mass media mirror society and satisfy a demand for rubbish, more than leading our culture and hence being responsible for the lack of interest in intellectual, cultural and scientific investigations. It's probably a mixture of the two. But I fear I failed to make any progress on this side. I also pointed out the need for more literacy and maths. On this, I perceived some mild interest. Large part of the conversation was dedicated to motivating scientists and educating children.
10.30 informative talk on ''Clinical Problems in Neuroscience'' by Vaughn Bell and on ''Towards Practical Cognitive Augmentation'' by Ed Boyden. Asked a few questions, got some good answers.
11.30 I planned a session on computer ethics. We ended up discussing in a small group two sort of issues: whether ethics ever made any difference (a naive question which got us sidetracked) and privacy (on which I actually learnt quite a bit from the participants). My dismay is that virtually all subjects at this meeting have gigantic moral implications, but the latter seem to be left to some sort of perfunctory appendix. I'm afraid I did not succeed in making them as pressing as they are. We are going to go ahead, what with building new physical environments, digital tools, bio-technologies, nano-artefacts, virtual realities, web solutions, database management and so forth, and we shall then try to undo the wrongs. It seems that humanity, even at its best, is too excited about stepping forward to think carefully and critically about where and in which direction the step is taking it. This is worrying. But then, philosophers then to consider the dark side of things. One good point: one may enjoy the pleasure of a I-told-you-so. Worst scenario: things are getting truly out of hand and rooms for mistakes is shrinking. Will we recover from some massive ecological disaster, for example?
When I was in
Interestingly, I finally met a few techno-determinists, people who really and honestly think that technology advances and progresses of its own accord and you cannot do anything about it. Until today, I had always believed these were fictional characters you presented to first-year undergraduates to make them exercise their analytical skills.
2.00 a very good, invited panel on ''Universe or Multiverse?'' with Martin Rees, Frank Wiligat, Lee Smolin. I learn a lot, and was very impressed by Rees' capacity to explain extremely difficult topics with great elegance and simplicity. A lesson for anyone who ever gives a public talk, if possible. I wish I could be that clear myself.
3.00 a potentially interesting session on ''Science & Fundamentalism'' (Durant again), which unfortunately got hijacked by the creationist debate and US problems. No mentioning of, for example, animal rights fundamentalists, but lots of interventions on religion (largely Christianity, though not only, and US-related churches) and science. I'm afraid I could have learnt more. Some participants seemed to have no doubts that science and religion are simply and clearly incompatible. End of any discussion. And most participants seemed to take for granted that science is an obvious example of non-dogmatic and open-minded approach to life. History being easily forgotten, apparently. So much for agnosticism and knowing what evidence one has and what one lacks. Sextus Empiricus would not have been pleased.
5.00 very interesting and instructive session on ''Buildings energy use and behavior change - can the built environment be an interface?'' by Duncan Wilson. Again, I learnt a lot.
6.00 dinner. I must be one of the few ultra-nerds who is actually typing in the whole tent. The noise of voices is almost deafening, forcing people to raise their voices even further to talk to their neighbours, in an escalating vocal effort. Some excitement in the air. I still feel like a very odd ball in the wrong game. But I'm enjoying the learning experience.
Labels: scifoo 2007