Once we accept events as media environments, we can consider what kinds of media should define the culture of our meetings.
EVERYTHING IS MEDIA, NOT JUST PRINT, RADIO, TELEVISION AND THE NET. Not just the stuff we watch and listen to. Everything. When my top is buttoned, my arms are folded and my eyes roll, I am using shirt, body and face—all media—to communicate something, intentionally or not.
But it’s more than that. Everything between us—the air, the floor, the wires, the Skype window, the clouds, the sounds, the Wi-Fi, our flesh—is all media through which we attempt to connect, share, influence, gain approval and find meaning. Humans are little consciousnesses floating around in media, trying to find and connect with one another. Even our DNA is just a medium we use in our attempt to record a blueprint of biology and pass it down through time.
I like to stress how live meetings pose opportunities for media-free engagement: no Twitter, no Wi-Fi, no PowerPoint. But even when we let go of many of the technologies we use to communicate, we’re still absolutely and totally immersed in media environments. These media, as philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism goes, really are the message.
Back when McLuhan wrote about media, the word wasn’t generally associated with radio or TV, but with the culture in which bacteria might grow or an artist’s substance of choice: agar (the stuff in petri dishes), clay, the air. By bringing our attention to media, McLuhan tried to help us differentiate between the “subject” and the “ground.” We, in the West especially, are obsessed with the subject, but are also often completely ignorant of the ground. We see a picture of a cow and miss the field.
The ground is just as—or even more—important than the things standing on it. It’s the environment, assumptions and limitations that underlie everything else. Stockbrokers are competitive because they play a zero-sum game with money. People move rhythmically in a dance club because the environment is music. The environment defines the culture in which all “subjects” and “messages” actually emerge.
That’s why the content of an event matters less than the medium. At most of the conferences I attend, I’m not a core member of the community; I’m a guest speaker. That gives me a unique vantage point, and one I suggest people try on more often. Instead of focusing on the conversation, I look at the way people interact. When I take the pulse of an industry—particularly one I’m about to speak to—I consider conversation style, body language, the depth of discussion and people’s willingness to let new participants enter their interactions.
At the height of the dot-com bubble, I got an eerie sense as I walked through a mingling crowd of venture capitalists at a Silicon Valley conference. It was as if I were in a movie: the way their eyes jumped about nervously, the way they brushed sweat off their foreheads, the way they laughed a bit too forcefully. When I started my keynote—which I ended up completely ad-libbing—I opened with the line, “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I can smell your fear.” And I proceeded to use what I had just learned from their interactions to explain why their bubble was doomed to pop. They tried to laugh it off; the bubble popped three months later.
Once we accept events as media environments, we can consider what kinds of media should define the culture of our meetings. Academics are book people. That’s why their conferences generally consist of people standing up at podiums reading papers to interest groups. Their subjects and interests are predetermined. Business people live in a world of forecasts and sales pitches; they’re comfortable using PowerPoint as a medium of expression, and want to reach even more people via Livestream and Twitter. Spiritual people want to reconnect with the earth and subtle energies, so their media style harkens to the story circle. Their subjects are developed in real time, collaboratively.
Digital professionals exist in an environment of transparency and choice; they want to participate actively in the creation of subjects and agendas, through an unconference medium using open-space technology. Delegates create session topics, and then pick a time and place for them to happen.
There are hundreds of cultures, from car mechanics to police officers, for which different media environments create that natural and productive ground McLuhan wrote about. When we remember that every conference is just a medium, we stand a chance of getting the message. One+
One+ June 2012