#emfcamp – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I have just got back from a very cool weekend in Herefordshire, at #emfcamp. For posterity, here are a few thoughts:

The Good

For those unfamiliar, Electromagnetic Field Camp is basically Glasto for nerds. Like-minded people hang out in tents and caravans for a long weekend in a field. There are stages where scheduled talks take place, workshops, and a whole bunch of other ad-hoc activities going on. Also, like Glasto, tickets sell out insanely quickly. However one sure-fire way to be able to attend is to have a talk accepted to the line-up. Speakers are then entitled to purchase tickets, which is how Terry and I ended up going along.

Terry delivered a version of his “The (Connected) House of Horrors” talk. A packed tent listened to him wax lyrical on the security perils of all things IoT. Obviously I’m biased, but I do love listening to him give presentations like this. Funny, irreverent, and thought provoking, I think he really encapsulates the vibe (no pun intended) that EMF strives to achieve.

But enough fan-girling my spouse. There were loads of brilliant talks. Particular favourites of mine included how the internet has changed emergency responses, the potential safety concerns with AI, robot care into older age, and how to avoid and address burnout.

In addition to the pre-scheduled main talks, there were three sessions of ‘lightening talks’. These are much shorter (5-10 minute) slots to allow a wider selection of attendees to go and present on something that interests them, although you still had to submit a pitch in advance. So I screwed my courage to the sticking place, and asked for a 5 minute slot to talk about OpenBenches.org. I was nervously excited when I was accepted, and put together a slide deck and some notes to share this passion project with whoever showed up. Unsurprisingly, the space wasn’t exactly packed at 10.00 on a Sunday morning, but I spoke to a good couple of dozen people about why we had started this and how to get involved. As a sidebar, doing lightening talks is a great way to build up confidence and experience with public speaking.

Last but not least, I also got to hang out with some of the greatest minds working in technology, security, government, engineering and design. I am privileged and humbled to call these people friends, and I always come back from these kind of events feeling a shade more optimistic about the future.

The Bad

As part of the Opening Ceremony, one of the organisers talked about some of the serious logistical challenges they faced this year, with suppliers letting them down at the last minute and so on. So I really don’t want to be overly critical about what was ultimately a very enjoyable weekend. However, as was discussed at one particular presentation, it’s important to learn how to talk openly and constructively about failure.

As we heard repeatedly throughout the weekend, the event is non-profit and run by volunteers. This is laudable, and it was clear that there is a huge amount of goodwill and enthusiasm within the tech community to make a contribution. But, as is so often the case with volunteering, this can quickly descend into chaos if it’s not carefully managed. Volunteering works best when there is someone taking an administrative lead, who knows about the available resources, and can deploy them quickly and efficiently. My own experience of doing a three-hour catering shift involved a handful of professional staff who were too busy and frazzled to give proper instructions. There is a time and a place for a relaxed, devolved structure where people are encouraged to use their initiative, find something to do, and figure out a way to do it. That time and place is not in a kitchen where food needs to be prepared for hundreds of people, ideally in an environment which minimises the risk of mass food-poisoning. Volunteers who are not being properly managed will do things like putting fresh cut potatoes into a huge cooking pot because it seems like a suitable container. They don’t realise that pot is about to be used in 20 minutes time, because no-one told them. (Not me, this was before my shift). So most of my time was taken up solving a problem that would not have arisen if the volunteers had received proper task instruction and parameters. Funnily enough, this is actually a pretty good analogy for some of the AI dangers discussed at one of the talks.

Another similarly frustrating experience involved the programme of workshops which ran throughout the weekend. In advance of our arrival, the team released a schedule which allowed attendees to favourite events and then to download an iCal so you could easily keep track of what you wanted to do. Very nifty! But this didn’t translate to registering for any workshops, which often had a cap on numbers. Some workshop leaders tried to plough on with numbers far exceeding what they were set up to accommodate, and others simply turned people away. Neither solution leads to a satisfactory experience for the attendees.

The Ugly

If you are reading this, there’s a good chance you saw one of either my or Terry’s social media posts about our rented campervan.

We didn’t own a tent, and neither of us really had the inclination to figure out how to put one up. Since we would need to hire a car to get to the event anyway (our electric car wouldn’t quite stretch to the 150 mile round trip) we figured the simplest option was to hire a campervan. From the website it was clear their vans were, shall we say, exuberantly decorated. Unfortunately, when Terry went to pick it up on the Thursday, there was only one vehicle left to fulfil our order. Which is how we came to be parked in the middle of a field in Ledbury, in a van with the words “ANYTHING IS A DILDO IF YOU’RE BRAVE ENOUGH” scrawled across the back.

Here’s the thing: EMF is a family event. So there were a lot of kids running around. I was terrified that an indignant parent would make a formal complaint and we’d be thrown out for violating the Code of Conduct. We kept an anxious eye on the Twitter feed to see if anyone was making snarky comments about how inappropriate this was.

One of the things I noticed at EMF was that there were a lot of people presenting as gender-fluid and non-binary. The aforementioned Code of Conduct made it clear that bigotry in any form would not be tolerated. I wouldn’t want to speak for them but my impression was that the LGBT+ community there were treated with respect. I hope that was the case. I have always championed the idea that diversity and inclusivity makes for a stronger, richer community. I take seriously the need to avoid thoughtless stereotyping, micro-aggressions and ‘humour’ at the expense of any particular characteristic. I thought about the cases of blokes in the STEM sector wearing inappropriate t-shirts in a professional context, and the message that might send to women wanting to progress in the industry. And here we were in a van which was at best a bit tasteless, and at worst could be perceived as making light of sexual assault.

As it was, lots of people found it really funny, and we saw lots of attendees taking photos. By the time Terry gave his talk on the Sunday afternoon, it had become a bit of running joke. He even added in a line that his presentation contained references to teledildonics (real word); “Tele, for the Greek word for distance, and Dildonics for the word for unfortunate van decor” which got a proper laugh.

But I have no idea if anyone was genuinely offended, or if it was triggering for anyone, or if it made anyone feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or unwelcome. I specifically have no idea what happened with the parents of the small child who happened to walk past and asked “Mummy, what’s a dildo?”

In our case we felt we didn’t have much of a choice. We could have refused to accept the van, which would have left us without transportation or somewhere to sleep. If someone had raised a serious concern I suppose we could have camped out in the car park away from the main site. We were certainly prepared to explain the situation if anyone challenged us, and we did end up making quite a lot of pre-emptive apologies. In the end, it seems like it didn’t cause too much of a problem, but it was an uncomfortable experience.

So, to summarise my main lessons from this weekend:
* The jury is still out as to whether robots are going to bring about the end of the world.
* If you have something you want to share, put yourself up for a short talk at a conference or meetup to get feedback on your project and build confidence speaking about it.
* Good organisation is invaluable to making the most of the resources available, particularly in the context of volunteering.
* Try to be aware of the messages you send with clothing, behaviour, or decorative vehicles. You might think it’s hilarious and anyone who complains is a buttoned-up kill-joy. Someone with a different set of privileges and experiences to you might feel threatened, belittled, or excluded.

Many thanks to the whole EMF crew for a great weekend!

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