&yetConf: building beyond category
This past weekend, I was lucky enough to attend and give a talk at &yetConf, and this post is an attempt to sort through some of the feelings around it.
The conference is about “the intersections of technology with humanity, meaning, and ethics.” It’s a lofty goal, putting on an interdisciplinary event about how the technology we work to build every day intersects with such wide-ranging, foundational concepts, how it shapes our present and our future.
Adam Brault said in his opening, “you are now entering into a story.” It was appropriate, because great stories ask us to suspend our connections to our own reality, accept a new world, immerse ourselves in it— good or bad— and learn from it. Stories are sometimes surreal, and the conference often felt that way. It felt like a very vivid dream. Deeply personal and immersive in the way that great stories are, it was the shared space that allowed us to step outside the bounds of reality. It offered a chance to dig deep and question the world we would soon return to.
As part of the event, we visited the Hanford B Reactor. I regretfully admit that I didn’t even know it was there, but the act of going to it was hugely thought-provoking for me. It shows just how awe-inspiring our capabilities are, while simultaneously offering a terrible warning when we get caught up in advancement, and don’t consider the implications of our actions on our fellow human. It’s a marvel of engineering and science— but also a testament to the need for empathy, accountability, and forgiveness.
My talk was on identity and self-exploration, how my generation used its early anonymity to form fuller and richer versions of ourselves, and how the internet helped me figure out who I was. It helped me realize that being strange was okay, that there were other people in the world like me. I spoke about how that technology has changed and how it impacts our relationships with our selves and each other. I spoke about how I miss those “old days,” and how we should work to bring that freedom back.
The problem (for me) was that I didn’t have a technical solution— I didn’t have any kind of solution, just a story and some perhaps-misplaced sentimentality. I didn’t think it was enough, so I was incredibly nervous to give the talk (So nervous that on the second day, I introduced myself to a few people I’d already met before my talk; my sincerest apologies!).
Often, we go to conferences looking for these solutions: how to build a thing in a particular way, how to use a particular framework, how to fail fast and fail instructively. But this event wasn’t about concrete solutions— it didn’t expect individuals to arrive on stage with solutions to the world’s great problems, just a willingness to confront those problems and ask for help from the wonderfully talented, interdisciplinary folks around them. In searching for concrete solutions and information, we sometimes forget that all we have to do is throw down a gauntlet. Someone else will pick it up, and contribute a stone to the path. And then another person will do the same. In the end, we end up with something far greater than the sum of its parts, and we’re one step closer to the thing we’re wishing for.
There’s an inherent problem in nostalgia, I suppose: an assumption that we can’t again have that thing we miss, that it’s gone forever. That same assumption goes for idealism— there’s a connotation there that what we hope for is not possible, and that idealist thoughts are a waste of time. I can’t have the internet of my teenage years, but I don’t want that— I want what it was and more. I want something better. What we entered into, with a good degree of faith and hope, was a platform for those ideas to be cast into the world and woven into a new story. A better one, one in which we take full advantage of our great capabilities, but are careful with them.
Yes, there are many parts of this world that are broken, and no shortage of reminders about how broken they are. Pointing them out is easy. But our nostalgia can inspire us to not just build the thing we remember, but build it better and build it beyond category and without fear, to lay new foundations for new futures and new stories. To suspend our disbelief and set aside, if we can, the constraints of the real world— we shouldn’t need a conference to tell us that. That optimism is refreshing and so necessary, but it’s easy to forget with the passage of time and the daily grind of our day-to-day. This is my reminder. We don’t always need concrete solutions, just a space in which to share that which we hope for, and a faith that those around us can help build it.