This morning I had cause to run up the aisles of the big lecture hall where I was teaching (admittedly to a smallish crowd of bleary-eyed souls who had braved the -22C temperatures and the first day of daylight savings to listen to me). It's something I don't do enough. In part I say that because it always makes me think of Phil Donahue, which itself brings back fond memories of high school days spent playing hookie, lying on the couch, watching the tube. But a bigger reason is because, following the lead of a great tip given to me by my dean, I like to watch the reactions of students sitting behind laptops. When it comes to minimizing windows, they have pretty wicked trigger fingers, sleep deprived or not. It's something that professors have had to learn to live with (except for one lecturer of legend who climbs on a chair to unplug the wifi portal in his classroom before the beginning of each class). I don't think it bothers us all that much.
This context made reading some of the accounts of the shenanigans at the SXSW conference all the more interesting for me tonight. Mark Zuckerberg, wunderkind CEO of Facebook was scheduled to deliver a keynote, but the uber-technophile audience staged a kind of e-revolt, beginning with a mad bout of Twittering but then ending up the old-fashioned way with hoots and shouts. They weren't happy with the questions that were being asked, and eventually took control of proceedings. It seems clear that what in a conventional format might have amounted to nothing more than a dull murmur of discontent and perhaps a bit of an exodus to the coffee urn in the lobby was turned into something much more positive and productive by the priming presence of an extra layer or five of electronic communication in the room.
In another event, Meebo users expressed their boredom forcefully, electronically, and with all the maturity and wit of a gang of high school students. The back channel chatter becomes the event, with multiple threads connecting the content of the presentation to the moods, expressions, and goofiness of the conference goers until the whole shebang becomes something like an act of swarm behaviour. Not that this is a bad thing. Swarm intelligence can generate some great stuff. Look at termite mounds. Look at great migrating flocks of Canada geese.
The potential for turning public speaking events like conference presentations, keynotes, and even humble little university lectures into something entirely different is something that interests me a lot. It's as if we turn a physical location into the convergence zone of some kind of dynamic collaborative adventure. I'm not even sure I understand the role of the speaker in such a setting. The audience is the facilitator. The "speaker" is just a kind of catalyst in an enzymatic reaction brought about by the occasion -- a space, a time, and a context mocked up by whomever happens to be in the audience and what they're thinking about on that particular day.
It would be really interesting to see more of this kind of interchange in a classroom setting. At present, we can use things called "clickers" which can allow us to elicit simple push-button responses from an audience. Imagine if they could give us much more than yes's and no's, abc's and 123's. At times, the whole thing would dissolve into chaos. But sometimes I bet things entirely new and unexpected could emerge.
One of the most interesting parts of all of this for me is that in a way it seems as though a new kind of cognition, a kind of freely floating unfocused attention would be needed to follow and understand proceedings like these. I wonder if we have it in us.