A Framework for Thinking About Unconferences

In “Religion for Atheists” by Alain de Botton, religion provides frameworks for people to live together (in harmony) and helps us deal with the vicissitudes of life. The first is instantly recognizable in the celebrations that we have on a large scale (including the current atrocities inflicted upon us in the name of Ganapati) as well as the smaller scale, with weekly aartis. The critical insight here is that it brings people together, but these are still people in the same group – very few Hindus will visit a dargah, and very few Muslims a church. The nature of these interactions has changed with time and as society evolves.

This got me thinking about modern-day mechanisms for bringing people together. Aren’t academic conferences and tradeshows doing something similar? They provide a platform for people to come together, share their views and (potentially) challenge those of others. Unfortunately, these are very insular: I used to attend conferences on VLSI Design Automation and High-Performance Computing, and we’d very rarely interact with people from other fields. The themes of these conferences have changed significantly over the last couple of decades, so there is a long-term drift based on what is considered ‘important’.

This brings me to an ‘aha’ moment: the recent EV India unconference. The only trend that I found was that the participants tended to be (very) young, old dodgers like me were pretty rare. The breadth of people and the projects that they were working on was mind-boggling, from academic superstars to college dropouts to college non-attendees (these guys didn’t even bother getting in!), from people developing solutions for clean toilets to recycling carbon to designing unique drones to bike-share businesses to grocery store accounting solutions to ….

And the best part was that while we got to know each other and each other’s work during the gaps between the sessions, the actual unconference discussions were an open, contested exchange of views about anything and everything. 

The post-religious function of getting people together has been taken over by the conferences we attend, though these are based on common interests. An Unconference is an evolutionary step in a completely orthogonal direction and brings together people whose paths would otherwise not have crossed. This can lead to a cross-pollination of ideas and views and perspectives and (in my case) inspiration that in turn, I hope, leads to humanity making progress faster than it would have.