Last week I went to New York for Gel 2008
, a conference about good experience
. They invite people from varied disciplines to talk about their experience with providing experiences. The first day all attendees break into small groups for a direct experience of some kind, and the second day is a traditional conference with a series of presentations.
My activity on the first day was a sound walk in Central Park. Around 12 Gel attendees met near Central Park South where we were promptly blindfolded, asked to hold onto a rope, and led into the park. I managed to snap a quick cell phone picture before we started moving.
At first I was worried about falling on my face, but we moved slowly and the path was flat. Nothing focuses your other senses like moving through space without sight. I heard lots of details in the Central Park soundscape, but it was all overwhelmed by voices. As a group of 12 people walking through the park blindfolded, we were very conspicuous. And we had a running commentary (bordering on heckling) from people as we listened which definitely detracted from the experience. After regrouping, our host Douglas Quin talked with us about sound.
We continued walking in silence through the park (sighted), listening to the way the different park geographies affected sound. We occasionally stopped to discuss our progress, and this was the most instructive part of the day. It didn't hurt that it was a gorgeous, sunny day.
The second day of Gel looked more like a conference. What I like about their approach is that they pull in people from across industries. Clay Shirky (I've seen him speak several times at tech conferences) kicked off the day and was followed by a designer, filmmaker, professor, brewmaster, psychiatrist, and several authors and artists. As much as I think the tech community has some things to teach other industries, Gel reminded me that other businesses have been around for a long, long time and also have many lessons to share. I'm going to make an effort to expand my daily reading list to non-web folks. (Radical, I know.)
The most disturbing talk of the day was by Natasha Schull, an assistant professor in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. She described the way the gambling industry relates to their customers, and it sounded to me like a cautionary tale. Their marketing materials discuss maximizing "time on device" and achieving "player extinction" (a gambler running out of money), which makes them sound inhuman. She suggested optimization
of customer relationships over maximization
Gel was fun and a nice change of pace from tech conferences. It would benefit from a more coherent theme—there was no big picture
at the end for me. But I definitely experienced New York City in a new way thanks to the conference, and living briefly in the city's energy was definitely a good experience.