In writing about the Harvard Speedbump conference, I noted that its organizers declared it to be off the record, so that statements made or positions expressed at the conference would not be attributed publicly to any particular person or organization. JD Lasica asks, quite reasonably, why this was done: “Can someone explain to me why a conference needs to be ‘off the record’ in order for people to exchange ideas freely? What kind of society are we living in?”
This is the second off-the-record conference I have been to in my twenty years as a researcher. The first was a long-ago conference on parallel computing. Why that one was off the record was a mystery to me then, and it still is now. Nobody there had anything controversial to say, and no participant was important enough that anyone outside a small research community would even care what was said.
As to the recent Speedbump conference, I can at least understand the motivation for putting it off the record. Some of the participants, like Cary Sherman from RIAA and Fritz Attaway from MPAA, would be understood as speaking for their organizations; and the hope was that such people might depart from their talking points and speak more freely if they knew their statements wouldn’t leave that room.
Overall, there was less posturing at this meeting than one usually sees at similar meetings. My guess is that this wasn’t because of the off-the-record rule, but just because some time has passed in the copyright wars and cooler heads are starting to prevail. Nobody at the meeting took a position that really surprised me.
As far as I could tell, there were only two or three brief exchanges that would not have happened in an on-the-record meeting. These were discussions of various deals that either might be made between different entities, or that one entity had quietly offered to another in the past. For me, these discussions were less interesting than the rest of the meeting: clearly no deal could be made in a room with thirty bystanders, and the deals that were discussed were of the sort that savvy observers of the situation might have predicted anyway.
In retrospect, it looks to me like the conference needn’t have been off the record. We could just as easily have followed the rule used in at least one other meeting I have attended, with everything on the record by default, but speakers allowed to place specific statements off the record.
To some extent, the off-the-record rule at the conference was a consequence of blogging. In pre-blog days, this issue could have been handled by not inviting any reporters to the meeting. Nowadays, at any decent-sized meeting, odds are good that several of the participants have blogs; and odds are also good that somebody will blog the meeting in real time. On the whole this is a wonderful thing; nobody has the time or money to go to every interesting conference.
I have learned a lot from bloggers’ conference reports. It would be a shame to lose them because people are afraid of being quoted.
[My plan still calls for one more post on the substance of the conference, as promised yessterday.]