MCFly editor Marc Hudson goes to a left-wing thinktank’s ‘different’ conference and comes away ready to sign up… to the Tories.
This Very Long and Cathartic Blogpost is going to be a chronological account of the whole appalling day which was salvaged by meeting some brilliant attendees – in spite of, not because of the organisers. The tl:dr? This was about as “un” an “un-conference” as you can understand. Uninspiring, unnecessary and in fact unhelpful in the extreme. If you want the short version, you could watch the footage I clipped together and did a commentary over. No, really. (#getalife)
Quick and painless. And I think, pointless. See “We need a badger cul…. ture” rant later on.
The “read the papers” bit.
Well, they began as they meant to continue. That is;
a) twenty minutes late without any stated reason
b) achingly and unashamedly “top-down”
In effect; “We on the stage are the ones you have come to hear. We don’t much care whether you meet anyone else, have ideas of your own.” [For the benefit of any libel lawyers who may have wandered in, I am not claiming any of the speakers thought this, let alone said it.]
As if we don’t have enough of this every day of the week on the radio and television. Why do this format unless you’re going to tweak it, eh? Papers that don’t normally get a look in, for example. No-one mentioned anything from, say, the Morning Star. Or any of the regional papers. #londoncentric much? Or popular blogs. Or, or…
And oh the irony, none of panellists picked up on the rather good article about new left-wing groups and politics published in … the Financial Times‘ Life and Arts section, by John McDermott. That would actually have been helpful, y’see.
The opening section
So, we all trooped off into the main hall. We sat there in a room set up around the eye of Sauron. At no point was there an announcement or explanation or apology as to why we were half an hour late starting. If it were a privatised train company acting like that, we’d all be scandalised.
If we can’t start our own meetings on time, why do we expect people to think we are credible agents of the transformation of Rapacious Global Capitalism, eh?
Can’t remember a word. Why was this needed? (See foot of this post for an alternative…)
Keynote “provocations” were by John Harris, Zoe Williams and Ewa Jasiewicz literally standing on pedestals having a conversation over our heads. Don’t believe me? Here.
And their “provocations” were not provoking. At least not in the sense intended. They were mostly recycled banalities, unchallenges self-descriptions and strawman binaries (“join the party or sit around the campfire”) . Nowt on the tension between movement-building and mobilising, nowt on where innovation comes from.
And why is there never an irony policeman when you need one? One of the speakers, standing on a pedestal, proclaimed “We’re talking about a culture of organisation that prioritises participation.” Here.
That is, you’re happy to try to monkey-wrench capitalism, but are either blind to the obvious irony of standing on a platform with a microphone telling people that the culture you come from is participatory, or else – worse – you are happy to be complicit in a dreadful format, in exchange for a platform for your “message.”
But how much more powerful it would have been to show rather than tell your message, to have said “actually, nobody today has so far been actively encouraged to talk with a stranger, a stranger who may in a week or a month be a staunch comrade. So I want to use some of the time the organisers have allotted to me to encourage that instead. What you hear from each other is at least as important as anything I have to say… Go to it, please!”
John Harris identified as a real problem – the inability of non-hierarchical groups to have an institutional memory and to sustain their resistance over the long haul. The response to this was some generalities about a “culture of resistance” as some panacea for that real problem. Really? After the dismal fizzle of Climate Camp and Occupy? Really? Smugosphere, much?
The keynot speech
Richard Wilson on “the anti-hero” project. Hmmm, I’d love to tell you what I thought about this but
a) our lives are short and
Suffice to say, he succeeded- he is not my hero.
No no no. Let me say that again. No no no. The whole thing was already massively behind schedule, but rather than respond to that inconvenient reality, they just ploughed on with a needlessly long-winded introductory spiel, at least 50% too long, too long-winded. If instead the guy had said “right, because we are behind, I am asking you just to trust me. I will ask you to do each step, without explaining why. Trust me – this works, all will become clear. Now, if you want to run a workshop, stand up and come up here. You are going to write a “how” question on two sheets of paper. You’ll say your name, then read it out and pin it up on those pegs over there.” then lost momentum might have been regained.
Instead, despite being so far behind, we got a LOT more than that. Which added to people’s confusion rather than reduced it.
This was just clearly going to fail from the start. Why not use the other room too? And the stage. And the stalls room. Anything to relieve the crush in that main room. Just Bizarre.
By doing the “Open Space” this way, the organisers got the worst of both worlds – people couldn’t make an informed choice about what they wanted to go to because the room was so crowded, similar workshop suggestions didn’t get combined systematically, appropriate-sized spaces for people’s choices didn’t get allotted. (Isn’t it best practice to have time proposals and people indicating what they want to go to and the actual allocation of spaces by the event organisers?!)
Doing it “spontaneously” meant those wanting to hold sessions, for the most part, hadn’t prepared things (e.g. handouts, specific exercises etc) So, you ended up with just people sat in circles, straining to hear each other over background noise. And given the hare-brained thought that you could have 40 workshops in one space, the high level of background noise discriminated against the hard of hearing (and the favourite hair colour of the audience was grey).
Look, spontaneity on this scale requires planning. Why not organise it as follows -
When people sign up to the day, include a paragraph that says “We have time in the schedule for workshops. If you want to run one, you need to give us your name, the title of the workshop and ONE paragraph about it. We reserve the right to a) refuse without explanation (we won’t do that – it would be rude!) and b) to ask you to combine with a different workshop.” Then, three days before the event, put it all up on the web.
On the day, as people register, have a big wall with all the workshops up. Give people coloured stickers and ask them to indicate which one they want to go to. Then you get a sense of which spaces are going to be needed for which.
On the whole of the Open Space element I can only say – “What a way to discredit a potentially liberatory and revolutionary tool.” Just made me so angry.
At this point I phoned the wife, who gave me great advice (along the lines of “get the hell out. Right. Now.”). I was taking that advice – honest – but a veggie breakfast got in the way. Dramatically unsatisfied by the overpriced bowl of soup at the official vendors for the event, I went to a (non)greasy spoon near the venue. And met a wonderful fellow attendee. Great brekkie, great conversation with her. And I decided to stay on through the afternoon, because in the final session there was someone Interesting.
Back at the event then, and had a great chat with a fellow banality refugee. Can’t tell you about Joss Garman being interviewed Natalie Bennett. Can’t tell you about Mike Rustin being interviewed by Jon Cruddas, though someone I know who has good judgement said it was good.
I’m STILL holding out for a hero.
Another dismal session. Why do we need to have 4 people, three at least of whom have absolutely no problem getting a platform for their views, telling us who their heroes are?!
Oh, and Zoe Williams – if you want to chair, chair. If you don’t, don’t. Simples, eh? Whatever you do though, don’t sit there like a chocolate teapot. If you say “five minutes each”, then Stick. To. It. In a rational world we would have all laughed out loud when you said apologetically at the beginning of the Q and A “we’re up against the clock.” We’d have been ten minutes less against the clock if you had done what you said you would and kept the last two speakers to 5 minutes apiece, instead of allowing them either-side-of-ten. And yes, perhaps both of them, adults, could reflect on why they felt incapable of keeping to five minutes. #ffs.
Their heroes – Arnie Graf, Jo Richardson, Mike Cooley, Thomas Spence.
All great, I am sure. Perhaps a tad- anglocentric, this list, though? Mine, FWIW? Fred Hampton, Judi Bari, Ella Baker, Bob Moses, Chico Mendes.
And on heroes? What Chomsky says!!
World Cafe? The clue is in the name. Cafes have tables and chairs.
This session was about “failure.” Oh the irony. It was a massive failure, and, as with the “open space”, an abuse of a potentially useful technique.
This was NOT world cafe. World Cafe is relaxed, with people having a chance to listen to each other, interact and consider, before moving to another table and repeating the process.
What the organisers did was cram far too many people into too small a space, and basically run one-to-many “workshops”/mini speeches, with people forced to crane their necks and cup their ears to … listen to one person talking.
It would help if the person “running” the cafe had an even cursory understanding of what World Cafe means. Just sayin’.
There are far more interesting ways to learn from failure. Trust me, I’ve done a very large amount of failing. (Less learning, t’is true.)
Those “in conversations with” sessions.
Clive Stafford Smith is awesome, a hero of mine. But why not have him speak for 10 minutes on successes, failures and challenges ahead, and then get everyone into small groups of 2-4 people to brainstorm ideas about how the Reprieve campaign can resonate, ramify etc. In fact, why not structure each of the “conversations” around that?
The highlight of the day (and it would have still been the highlight of a much better day as well) was Margaret Aspinall of the Hillsborough Family Support Group. Just awesome. Just brilliant. I really wish I had seen more of her rather than the dreadful session I actually went to. She would have been an EXCELLENT keynote speaker, if you decided for whatever crazed reason that the day actually needed to have one.
When I asked her about what advice she would give herself if she could go back to a week or month after the Hillsborough disaster, she gave an answer full of empathy, wisdom, insight.
See it here.
Final session, was, without irony, called “OK, Here’s the Plan” where a bunch of “21st century visionaries” [I am not making this up] held yet another conversation literally if not metaphorically over the heads of those people remaining in the hall. It was an embarrassment, but utterly in keeping with the general competence of the day.
At least one of the Great Minds clearly either hadn’t been briefed about what they were being asked to do, or had forgotten. It didn’t inspire confidence. Or inspire inspiration. Or anything other than the desire to run screaming from the place.
In any case, plans – unless they are the Manchester Climate Change Action Plan- have some goals, some “next actions”, some reporting metrics. This was just more motherhood and apple-pie, a bland shopping list of aspirations etc. In the last moments it was thrown it open to the floor for ideas. And got the standard mix of obvious and thoughtful suggestions. No indication if any of these were captured and will be enacted. Regardless – too little, too late, too tokenistic. Cringe-worthy.
Nope. And it is totally pointless to send it out later. The response rate will be lousy, people will only tell you nice things, and the finer detail will have been lost.
Would it have killed you, really, to print up some A4 pages that said “best thing about today” “worst thing(s) about today” “what we should do differently next time?”
Would it have killed you to give everyone badges? One for their name, one for where they were from (Manchester, Hampstead, Bristol, whatever), one for a passionate concern from a list of say 15 topics (climate, labour party, international solidarity, education, civic engagement, aviation, poverty, financial reform) and a blank badge for people to write what the hell they wanted. This would have made it easy to see who had overlapping interests to you and was ‘worth’ talking to. A bit of a Tinder but with your clothes on, eh?
No, it wouldn’t have killed you, but you didn’t think of it, because your interest seems not to be in fostering new links between those who attended, but rather in turning them into ego-fodder for your guest speakers. #ffs.
Sitting in Judgement
How do you judge people? On the basis of what they say about themselves, or on what you see them do? Most people would say the latter.
Compass claims it wants to behave differently. Whether they want to believe it of themselves or not, their conference would lead a Martian anthropologist to conclude that their model of social change is to get some of the Great and the Good up on a stage and have rows of people sit at their feet and listen. Again and again and again. Then do some hand-wringing about low levels of participation from Other Groups. Then everyone pat themselves on the back and piss off to the pub.
And they wonder why nobody bothers, nobody votes. Unconference? Un-believable.
Or, more charitably, Compass want to do differently but don’t know how. Well, heck, maybe they’ll get some ideas from this blog post. I am part of the 99% … certain that I won’t be risking a day of my life next year to find out.
The Venue Was Wrong
No space to hang out and chill without being, um, chilled. You could not lounge about in the lounge.
It might have gritty cred, but not as Friendly as a Friends Meeting House
Food expensive and unimpressive.
Where was the bloody creche, eh?
Why so angry? Why write this?
So, am I just having fun at some no-longer-probable-allies’ expense? Doing what I so often do, with my clear need for regular conflict?
I don’t think so (but of course, most of us are strangers to our actual motivations most of the time). I am not that angry for my “wasted time” – I managed to carve out some usefulness, and met a couple of astoundingly awesome people. It is of course “the principle of the thing” (refugee of ranters everywhere). Someone has to say “you really shouldn’t use those labels without following through, eh?”
I believe – self-servingly- that I am trying to defend some important words. Throwing around terms like un-conference and “open space” and then perpetrating what Compass did seriously devalues the currency of innovation. If people who attended think “that’s what World Cafe is” or “that’s what open space is like” then they become cynical and dismissive about them. But these tools are are not – in the right hands – marketing ploys. This event was Bill Gates’ idea of Web 2.0. This was Encarta when it could have been – and promoted itself as – Wikipedia.
Reception and consequences
First and foremost, few people will read this blog post. #nottheendoftheworld
Then, in no particular order
a) This post will be dismissed as the sour grapeshot ravings of a man whose essay didn’t get linked to and whose proposed Open Space slot got no attendees whatsoever. (Though one person came and found me afterwards to say she would have come but I’d already nixxed it.)
b) I will get tone-policed “Why are you so angry? It gets in the way of your message.” My response: “You applaud passion when it is thousands of miles away, in the mouths of Third Worlders attacking Rapacious Global Capitalism. You denigrate it when it is – in every sense – closer to home.”
c) I will get target-policed “Why are you attacking your friends and allies? The Real Enemy is Rapacious Global Capitalism/the Conservatives/Nick Clegg” My response: “When it is raining, you need a decent umbrella, not an analysis of the rain. Haters gonna hate, Tories gonna be Tories. Evil Capitalist Blofields gonna be ECBs. Denouncing them is likely to get me published in Socialist Wanker or Red Papper, but so fricking what? It’s just more noise. This was an event about learning from failure, doing things differently. Suck it up.”
d) I will be accused of being a hypocrite because I have not always walked my talk. Yep, guilty as charged. Getting better (I think), but that’s irrelevant – just because I am a hypocrite doesn’t mean my analysis is wrong. Play the ball, not the man, yes?
e) I will be dismissed as a Green Party member. Clearly I am. How else could I have written such an up-beat hagiographic piece as this about Natalie Bennett.
f) This will be met with “why don’t you do it better then?” Fair enough. See hypocrite argument above.
g) This will be accused of mansplaining. Cos I am a man, natch.
h) I will get scolded for washing dirty linen in public.
i) I will get accused of a lack of compassion – the event was organised on a shoe-string, and one of the two organisers was indeed unavailable because of jury service. But that doesn’t hide the fact that nobody seems to have walked this event through from the eyes of a “newbie”, or thought seriously about the constraints of the venue. Or about whether using the term “un-conference” was fair and proper.
a) I will be removed from some Christmas card lists.
b) My ideas will be ignored, (but they would have been anyway, so what is lost other than my time and possibly the willingness of the neutral by-standers to engage with those ideas at some hypothetical future point in time. Meh.)
c) I won’t get invited to be a guest presenter/speaker/blah-de-blah at future events (#cryingeyesout)
d) A couple of projects that I am working on with a dear friend, around how activist cultures can be improved, will probably not get the access to mainstream ‘progressive’ media outlets that they otherwise would have. That’s a pity, what’s the alternative – qui tacet consentit and all that.
In the long run, concepts like un-conference, open space and World Cafe will continue to be whittled down and debased by cool-hunting organisations, just like “sustainability” “participatory” “resilience” were before them.
Cynicism will increase. And despair, and hopelessness. And the people who claim to be anti-atomisation will continue to organise events that do nothing to “de-atomise” people, to help them build skills, knowledge, contacts, morale.
Alternative titles for this event
“Come be ego-fodder”
Rally the Troops
Come meet cool people – in spite of, not because of, the organisers.