Worlds Colliding

Saturday July 18, 2020

Tech conferences exist in a weird space for me — I have lots of mostly-online friends who I only see in person when we happen to be at the same conferences, but conferences are also clearly “professional” events. I vividly recall having an extremely weird RustConf 2019 — a bunch of my online friends were there, and I was trying to catch up with them the one time of the year we see each other, but there were also nearly 50 of my coworkers there. I later talked to one of my coworkers who said that she didn’t really feel like she fit in at RustConf, since everyone had dyed hair and was in a very different culture from her. I’m pretty sure she was looking for the word “queer” to describe the culture, but just didn’t know it. I’d be having a conversation with someone about all the cute trans rustacean polycules at RustConf, and halfway through a coworker would walk up and say hi — unbenounced to the other party in the conversation.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that expectations around “professionalism” cause us to bury parts of ourselves for huge chunks of our lives, and I have mixed feelings about it. If we’re all being coerced to work by the economic system we’re in, I want to make sure that everyone is as comfortable as they can be This isn’t to say that forcing people to hide things about their lives is something that inherently makes everyone comfortable — quite the opposite, most of the things people are forced to hide in the name of “professionalism” disproportionately affect more marginalized people, almost definitionally. But I also think that it’s true that in a world where people are coerced into interacting with all of their coworkers, there are advantages to having touchy subjects be off-limits — I’d honestly rather not know which of my coworkers are bigots, as long as they’re not actively causing problems for anyone.  — but I can’t help but be sad that there are parts of myself that I hide for the sake of “professionalism.”

I feel a similar way about the Recurse Center — it’s a space that clearly feels “professional,” but deeply social at the same time. It feels wrong, on some level, to date someone you meet at RC, because the closest thing that that feels like is dating a coworker. I’m aware that plenty of people don’t think that dating coworkers is weird — if that’s you, alright, but you’d better be thinking pretty carefully about what power dynamics you’re stumbling into… But lots of people do it anyways, because RC is a space that is incredibly conducive to creating close connections.

I think that the core of this dissonance is about people being coerced into the social environments that they’re in. When you’re at work, it’s clear that the fundamental reason that you’re there is to pay rent and put food on the table, which is a sort of coercion, albeit a mundane one. At a conference, though, it’s less clear — are you there as a way to further your career (coercion in the same way that having a career at all is coercion), or as a social space? Or as some combination of both?

This is clearly a very reductionist view — even if we rid ourselves of all coercion, there’s still the incredibly important question of what sorts of social spaces we want to construct, and how we should deal with conflict in voluntary social communities. Despite this, I still think it’s a useful lens to look through — I dream of having much more fluid communities of voluntary association, where one can search for collaborators for work or play as a whole person, unencumbered by coercive power structures.

A world without coercion is an unreachable utopian ideal, but we sure can get a hell of a lot closer to it than we are today.