Listening Means Changing Your Mind

The last two and a half years have been the most inclusive in tech conference history. Thanks (or “thanks”) to COVID-19, thousands of people were finally able to take part on an equal footing despite visa restrictions, not being able to afford to travel to an affluent country, needing to stay at home to look after loved ones, accessibility challenges, and a host of other barriers that had prevented them from doing so before. Yes, the experience wasn’t as rewarding for people who had historically been able to hop on a plane in order to take part in social events and hallway conversations, but that’s kind of the point: as a friend of mine once said, if two weeks on crutches with a broken ankle doesn’t teach you a little compassion, nothing will.

I’ve therefore been watching with dismay as conferences go back to supporting only on-site/in-person attendance. More than that: I’m angry that people who pay lip service to inclusivity are throwing away the (admittedly uneven) progress we’ve made during COVID-19 toward making it possible for everyone to take part in tech events because they miss playing boardgames with their friends. I decided in the spring that I would no longer attend events that didn’t support remote participation, then decided over the summer that maybe we could actually do something about this. If enough people were to make the same pledge, publicly, maybe that would shame conference organizers into doing the right thing.

So I sent the email below out to two dozen people in early September, and that’s when things got interesting:

I hope you don’t mind mail out of the blue, but we’d like to put some pressure on conference organizers to get them to offer remote participation even after COVID-19 ends in order to make their conferences accessible and inclusive. To do this, we’re organizing an online petition; we are still trying to decide what platform to use, but if you can spare a few minutes, we’d be very grateful if you could give us feedback on the wording below. We are planning to translate it into several other languages before we launch, and want to make sure it’s asking for the right things before we do so.

Thanks very much - I hope you and yours are safe and well.

  • Greg Wilson

We, the undersigned, believe that communities are only truly inclusive if everyone is able to participate. Now that video conferencing is widely available, we believe that no one should be shut out or left behind because they cannot afford to travel, are unable to obtain a visa, have health concerns, or need to look after family members. Accordingly, we pledge that we will not take part in any conference that does not provide an option for remote attendance unless required to do so as a condition of employment.

About a third of the people I emailed came back with, “Looks good!” Another third came back with detailed comments about the wording of the pledge, and the other third responded by saying, “This is a bad idea.” A handful felt that this pledge would put people in a no-win situation: for example, it’s basically career suicide for junior academics to not go to networking events (which is all conferences really are), so this pledge would force them to choose between solidarity with their friends and getting ahead with their own lives. It’s easy to say that if you’re not willing to make sacrifices for your ideals then they don’t really have any, but it’s also unfair.

Other people felt that focusing on one aspect of inclusivity—remote participation via video conferencing—was yet another example of someone treating a social problem as a technical one. What about other (more important) forms of inclusion? If people are going to pledge to do something, shouldn’t we encourage them to focus on the most important things?

My first reaction to these responses was to defend my idea: this is topical, let’s win one fight at time, etc. And if just one person had pushed back I might have done that, but a third? If you never change your mind based on feedback then you’re either much, much smarter than the people you’re listening to or you’re not actually listening, and I know I’m not the former.

All of which leaves me feeling a little deflated. I think collective action over remote inclusion could improve a lot of people’s lives in a small but significant way, but I have to accept that this pledge may not be the right way to do it. If you know a better one, please get in touch.