Theorizing the Web Conference a Great Success by Nathan Jurgenson & PJ Rey

Conference co-chairs Nathan Jurgenson & PJ Rey deliver opening remarks.

Theorizing the web is not a new project, but critical theories of the web and new technologies have been too few and under-represented at academic conferences. So we decided to throw a conference of our own. After we pitched the idea, several fellow students stepped up in a big way to make the event possible. We want to start by expressing our gratitude to all the members of the planning committee: Tyler Crabb, who, as treasurer, did an incredible job wrangling funds from several different sources; Sarah Wanenchak, our secretary and Jill-of-all-trades, who never failed to keep meeting notes interesting by slipping in a few references to the impending zombie apocalypse; Bill Yagatich, who handled our publicity and tirelessly hassled the Diamondback for appropriate coverage that, astonishingly, they never gave; Dave Strohecker, who coordinated the food and the facilities while playing general to our small army of undergraduate volunteers; and Ned Drummond, who donated her professional design skills to satiate the committee’s endless appetite for new flyers, posters, letters, webpages, etc. We also want to thank Rob Wanenchak who took amazing photos of the event.The graduate-student organized Theorizing the Web 2011 conference took place April 9th on the University of Maryland campus. The program consisted of 14 panels, 2 workshops, 2 symposia (one on social media’s role in the Arab revolutions, the other, a conversation with Martin Irvine, director of the Irvine Contemporary Gallery, on social media and street art), 2 plenary talks (by Saskia Sassen and George Ritzer), and a keynote by danah boyd.  Presenters travelled from locations around the world (including Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Europe). The conference pushed the capacity limits of the venue with over 200 people in attendance throughout the day.  Events ran from registration at 8 AM and ended with an after-party that wound down after 11 PM. The program was packed with as many as five concurrent panels.As reviews of the conference emerge, many attendees are discussing the way this conference differed from traditional academic gatherings, which tend to be discipline-specific, promote the presentation of data instead of critical interpretation and debate over what has already been observed, and tend to feature panels that are organized around themes that are too loose to foster more than superficial discussion between panelists. Alternatively, we put this conference together with the idea that theoretical insights, even at their most difficult and complex, can be made publicly accessible and comprehensible. We also integrated art and multimedia; registration was pay-what-you-want; we kicked things off at a gallery and concluded with a band. The event was interdisciplinary, and even nondisciplinary given the presence of non-academic attendees interested in the topic. What all this suggests is asking the question what should public gatherings to exchange ideas look like? Theorizing the Web was our first attempt as graduate students to shape the academic climate we are moving into.

In addition to the organizing of the conference, what emerged was many interesting new theoretical perspectives on new technologies.

Most important was the discussion of the relationship between the physical and the digital. Internet research in the 20th Century was defined by an assumption of digital dualism—that is, the view that the physical and the digital were separate and distinct spheres of life (think The Matrix). The physical was something “real” and the digital was “virtual.” Developments in 21st Century, however, have forced us to reconsider this dualism and, instead, look at how the digital is increasingly embodied, located and thus “real”, and how the physical world offline is increasingly influenced by the digital. The physical and the digital have imploded, atoms and bits have blurred into an augmented reality; what we believe is the new and proper unit of analysis.  This concept of augmented reality and the cyborg subjects that inhabit it became a predominant theme of the conference (though, certainly, there continue be significant semantic debates). A relative consensus emerged that future research ought to be informed by the assumption that the online and offline world are co-implicated in one another.

Indeed, the conference itself became an example of our augmented reality due to the physical and digital layers of discussion during the day. Roughly 2000 tweets using the #ttw2011 hashtag augmented the face-to-face meeting. The digital and physical conversations influenced each other, creating an augmented conference experience for attendees.

In the end, we tried to organize the conference we would want to attend. And all those who gathered that day created an atmosphere of exciting, fun, smart and important theorizing about new social realities. We would like to thank everyone who attended, presented and helped us organize this event (special thanks to our organizing committee, Tyler Crabb, Sarah Wanenchak, William Yagatich, Dave Strohecker, Ned Drummond, and Sean Gray). We look forward to continuing to engage in this on-going task of innovating how critical theories about society can be disseminated publicly.

An archive of the conference can be found at http://www.cyborgology.org/theorizingtheweb/

Last, the conversations about the enmeshment of society and technology that started at the conference continue on the Cyborgology blog: thesocietypages.com/cyborgology.

This post will also appear in the next issue of Footnotes.

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