Publishing conferences are deadly serious
Publishing conferences are ritual performances. They are to the varied segments of publishing what morality plays are to the various forms of Christianity. They are narratives that are organised to demonstrate, emphasise, and reinforce the orthodoxy.
When heterodox speakers—like myself—are invited, we are there to perform a liturgical role. By providing a clear demonstration of threatening ideas from the outside, we end up giving the orthodoxy’s ideological centre a clearer delineation—reinforcing it. We are Vice, Folly, Death, Prodigality, and Temptation in the morality tale. We have to sound plausible, reasonable, and enticing for the drama to work, but are then parodied and mocked by the context. We exist solely to create an uncertainty that can be assuaged by the characters Mercy, Justice, Temperance, Truth, Virtue, and Tenacity, who bring the viewer back into the fold with convictions even stronger than before. Everybody who sets foot on the stage is a stock character serving a stock role that, one way or another, reinforces what the audience considers normal.
‘Digital’ publishing conferences are deadly serious
Alternative conferences, those that cater to the publishing heterodox ‘digital’, work in exactly the same way, often using exactly the same speakers, except the roles are reversed.
In traditional publishing conferences the temptation is the seducing allure of the new and exciting (i.e. unproven and risky) that pulls the audience away from their faithful field (traditional publishing). In a digital conference the temptation is the pull of the familiar, where instead of continuing the exploration of the unknown—which is where future inevitably lies—the true believer abandons the righteous path and goes down the known route that leads to stagnation and decline. Both groups are exposed to the same facts and the same reality, but end up seeing it in two completely different ways.
In both contexts the play is the same. The performers alternate between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, always making sure that the orthodoxy of that specific community controls the context and wins out both in numbers and presentation. The more hyperbolic the heterodoxy sounds, the better because the orthodoxy has to sound reasonable. The simpler the heterodoxy sounds, the better because the orthodoxy has to claim ownership of nuance and real-world complexity. Even when the heterodoxy does sound reasonable and nuanced, the orthodoxy has the high ground of owning the surrounding message and so can recast whatever the heterodoxy said in a grimmer light.
A conference isn’t for learning
The experience is a religious catharsis, purging doubt, and reinforcing faith. By joining in the communion of verbal diarrhoea spewed by consultants and overpaid executives, the faithful build a bond that becomes invaluable for networking in the conference’s corridors and coffee breaks. Trying to change anybody’s mind is the worst thing you can do in a conference: it’d be like lecturing people on atheism as they gather outside church after a Sunday mass.
My advice on how to properly attend a conference:
Ignore the talks. At best they serve as a conversation starter. For that, only one of you needs to have listened to them. At worst they fill your head with out of date nonsense designed to sell you on somebody’s services. If the talk is any good, everybody will be talking about it during the breaks and online and you can catch it when the video or the slides are posted.
Find your crowd. If you’re in digital production, a conversation with a print-oriented executive with thirty years of experience in avoiding change is going to be torturous. It’d be about as much fun as waiting in the queue for the toilet after having drunk five pints at the pub while listening to ‘Splish Splash’ on a constant loop. The point of conferences is to find and connect with like-minded people you aren’t likely to find elsewhere.
Don’t try to change anybody’s mind. It’s like trying to teach a cat to type out Ulysses. It won’t work and they won’t appreciate it.
Every conference has a reality distortion field caused by the faith-affirming ritual nature of the beast. Maintain your skepticism and assume that all of the speakers are bullshit artists, even the ones you agree with.
Above all, try not to think about how much money the entire brouhaha costs.