Northern Voice 2010 — Location, mysteries, and making visible

…and 48 hours later, Northern Voice for 2010 is a wrap. Thanks to the hard work of all the organizers, who pulled off an incredible conference once again. This was my first year as a non-Moosecamp speaker. It was also the it was held not during reading week (owing to the Vancouver Olympics) and in the Life Sciences Centre — in most ways a worthy successor to the comforting expanses of the Forest Sciences Centre, the venue for previous iterations of Northern Voice.

There’s a lot to unpack, but I’m going to try and keep it brief for once.

  • Bryan Alexander’s keynote looked at fear and reactionary hysteria in interpreting encounters and developments of the Internet and the importance of mystery in storytelling. I think there’s never been a time for keeping your Erving Goffman at the front of one’s mind: social media is another stage to present off of. What is broadcasted is at least as often as not, a purposefully composed front. There’s a danger that we might stop nurturing the self that lies beyond the glimpses one sees on social media, letting the image masquerade as all. We are not our output; that makes us worthy of the real life meetings that social media ideally facilitate. I enjoyed the range of ominous voices and tones Bryan employed to get his point across in mockery and heightening drama.
  • David Ng‘s session called “Good Science: It Takes a Village” was great. He tells the story of capturing that feeling of learning cool scientific facts and trying to approximate it and expose children to it in a way that makes them as familiar with the real world as the branded creations the corporations have poured so much money into addicting our youngest on. That’s the impetus behind Phylogame, a crowd-sourced trading card game with facts about real animals, with complex game-play rules and featuring art, all made lovingly over the Internet. One thing I keep close at hand: science isn’t necessarily free of agendas, but there is a systematic process and attempt at reasoned dialogue around it; but perhaps the particularities of those conversations, happening through letters or published articles or at professional conferences, don’t explain very well how it goes from scientific consensus to policy recommendation, and it can get as scrappy/dirty as any other attempt for power.
  • Chris Messina‘s keynote on the open web weaved his personal stories of high school web development with warnings about the risks of a closed and unadvocated Internet, with the mechanics of our personal lives left at the happenstantial whim of default Facebook privacy settings. He spoke of the risks of limiting the generativity of the web, which has given us wonderful, unexpected and envelope pushing things, and the risk we run of having the Internet turned into a passive appliance, WebTV style. I’m a much bigger fan of Chris’ tone in his keynote than others who have tried to make the point, which I find too dismissive of the real hurdles faced by people who want to get things done but no longer have vast swaths of time to while away on gaining confidence in noodling with technology. Chris had it dialed back slightly, but still pointy and poignant. My idea coming out of this? Instead of getting the devs at Facebook to drive our single-login dreams, let’s get the fine developers of Dreamwidth to think about it — with a predominantly female developer base, I think there’s huge potential for leadership in that crowd for technology that’s both respectful of social boundaries yet useful in promoting management and control befitting how we all want our lives to mesh with tech.
  • I admit to a bit of poor form during the location-aware services session — I spent it getting caught up in my own questions about its relationship to urbanism. The presenters did seem interested in when I asked them about it afterwards, but was a little too frazzled by the rest of the conference to make that interaction meaningful. Nobody’s fault, I just have niche interests.
  • Weighing in at greater length on NV10 Babygeddon — as I tweeted, I personally find the inclusion of children at Northern Voice utterly refreshing, and I think a lot of that has to do with what members of the Northern Voice community think and want the Northern Voice conference to be. I  find that as a personal blogging conference, it’s not like most others, which present a more corporate, business-focused front. If Northern Voice is about communities and the rich lives of the individuals helping to build those communities — and I’m judging the sessions on writing voices and sex lives to be a nod in that direction — I think being inclusive is equally as important as giving people’s money’s worth, even with the occasional cooing during a keynote. I don’t think many are arguing against this, but more about where to draw the line when other attendees find it disruptive. On the flipside, there are some sessions, like Nancy White‘s, where I think the presence of children entirely enhances it (in meaningful ways that dogs might not). I think I’m mostly just amazed at how strongly worded people’s statements on this topic are and how clearly those comments are not the highest expression of their humanity — no doubt aided by Twitter’s favoring of jumping to conclusions, quick wit and catty wordplay.

Reflections on my own panel to come. Congrats again to the volunteer organizers for pulling off another enjoyable and gorgeous conference! Great food, excellent setting.


  1. Thanks for including my tweet, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a link to the follow-up tweet that “i was making a point that this is dumb. someone gave constructive feedback about the baby being disruptive, and everyone’s offended”

    I would never subject my dog to being trucked around a conference all day.

    Posted May 11, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  2. Thanks, Karen, for a most thoughtful summary. I would like to republish your comment in your last paragraph:

    I think I’m mostly just amazed at how strongly worded people’s statements on this topic are and how clearly they not the highest expression of their humanity — no doubt aided by Twitter’s favoring of jumping to conclusions, quick wit and catty wordplay.

    The number of incredibly mean, thoroughly distasteful things that some of the people whom I consider my friends said to each other during the online Twitter BabyGeddon (I can’t believe they call it that way) was to me what has been causing me to reconsider being on Twitter altogether.

    Posted May 12, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  3. Raul,

    Interesting that that incident has prompted you to consider withdrawing from Twitter. It reminds me some of what Bryan Alexander brought up in his keynote. Do we abolish telephones because it presents opportunities for acting brashly in chemically-induced fits of poor judgment (more popularly known as drunk dialling)?

    What I’m getting at is that all the great and awesome uses of Twitter or any tool will always be accompanied by expressions of the worst of human nature. I think where Twitter is different is that it enables connection based on the slimmest of margins of conversational content. So as individuals we flesh out the picture with shorthand and assumptions as a result. Much of that abbreviated context is developed from our in-person interactions. I think the NV conversation is meaningful for the people who did interact with Ianiv, Arieanna and Aidan, and interpreted that experience positively, butting heads with those who held on to that feeling of being annoyed or frustrated when they were inconvenienced, and, in my view, allowed their allegiance to that state of annoyance (or overdefensiveness in perceiving personal attacks, from the parent’s side) to take precedent over a genuine conversation conducted in good faith and in a spirit of understanding. With 140 character, who’s got room for nuance?

    I think therein lies the utility and value of any tool, event, etc., online or not. Is Twitter enabling/supporting genuine conversations that are meaningful, interesting or valuable for you, even if they are occasionally difficult? I find myself more and more begging out of conversations on Twitter because I know 140 characters just can’t do it, and I think it does an injustice to the topic to even try. Perhaps disillusionment from Twitter leads to resurgence in blogging…which comes with room to be understood.

    Posted May 12, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

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