December 09, 2008

The Snide Lashings of Aesthetic Deconstruction

The Mass Pike on-ramp sign up ahead hung like a demented beacon over St. James Avenue, and I shivered nervously while making my way to the Westin Copley among the huddled commuting pedestrians of Boston. The sign's huge blue-and-red, Interstate-90 designation of "West: New York" seemed to taunt me as a blunt reminder of how far East I'd dragged myself, all for the self-satisfied sake of those twin demons known as Art and Commerce. By the time I staggered into the Westin for Day Two of the Nerd Convention, breakfast was being served, and the assembled attendees were getting themselves psyched up for a full day of marketing strategies and programming solutions. I quickly caffeinated myself to catch up with the frantic semi-professional discussions already taking place in the foyer, but soon settled into my chair in the main hall. It didn't take long, however, for the collective momentum to shudder and stop.

It was the day's first speaker who began that screeching halt; a nervous Russian elf-man rambling about data clouds tried valiantly to earn his keep, but his heavily-accented English was soon surreptitiously heckled by two socially leprous geeks to my left. Their insidiously snide vibe slowly permeated the entire audience—so much so that when the poor speaker finished up with a Q&A segment, only one half-hearted conventioneer was able to throw him a token softball. He quietly slunk offstage, bequeathing it to the second speaker, a professionally enthusiastic programmer named Joe who spoke about operating system compatibility at approximately eight thousand words per second. Everyone was instantly jolted back into consciousness, and order would have been restored were it not for one straggler: Me.

It happened like this: Joe the programmer had been cheerily speeding through his presentation when, abruptly, his empathy switch flipped on and he asked if anyone had questions. "I don't want to confuse you guys, okay?" he said, "so if anyone has a better way to describe the awesome advantages of cross-platform compatibility, please, let's hear it!"

I raised my hand. "Um, how about 'give me convenience or give me death?'" A few people around me chuckled politely, including a girl who I recognized from the night before as the giggly one from North Carolina. "Yes! That's perfect!" said the programmer, raising his fist in exultant agreement. "Give this man a prize. I know who I want to have drinks with later!"

North Carolina Girl looked impressed, and another guy to her left reached out to shake my hand. 'Ho ho,' I thought to myself, while basking in the glow of professional goodwill. 'Who rolls with the big boys now?' Unfortunately, my self-gratifying reverie blocked out the rest of the compatibility presentation, so I missed the programmer when he ended his gig and bounded out of the room for his next workshop.

Which was fine, because the third speaker was well into his own presentation when I came back to myself. This new guy, Lance, was a marketing guru, and held us rapt with attention via a zen-like charm and a somewhat covert appeal to all our nascent, smug inner-designer selves. His "ROI & Best Practices" forum wasn't much different from what I saw back in March 2007 (when I'd previously caught this convention in San Francisco), a how-to for shopping carts, e-mail forms, and general site appearance—so I wasn't missing much by taking time to re-introduce myself to Handshake Man (Rich, who worked for a local biotech firm) and NC Girl (Laura, who came from a marketing agency).

The session ended and we went to lunch in a room next door, piling our plates high like freshman in a dorm cafeteria. "I think I took too much," fretted Laura as we sat down. "I couldn't drag anyone out to the city for dinner last night, and had to order a pizza and eat it all by myself." I smirked knowingly, having done exactly the same thing the night before. "That won't happen tonight, though," she continued. "I want to go find some real food! I've never been to Boston before. Who's with me? Let's all get dinner later!" I looked at Rich for help. "Well, you're a local. Where should we go for...for some good Italian, say?"

"Probably the North End," he replied. The rest of our lunch hour was spent decrying the bizarre irregularity of Boston's street layout, its illogical naming conventions (i.e. the North End was still south of much of the city), and other idiotic yokel griping, which Rich endured stoically—a credit to his city and state. We did find time to drop in on a "lunchtime session" web design seminar, presented by a guy whose business card read "Senior Evangelist" (which obviously outed him as another Corporate Sponsor), but I don't remember anything about that one at all.

Anyway, Rich and Laura were getting comfortable for the next regular session, but I had to get my shit together for another go-round with Joe the Programmer. They looked puzzled, but when I explained that I was overdue for some XML refreshers, they merely grimaced in sympathetic amusement. "Bummer for you, sucker," they both laughed. "Guess we'll see you in a few hours, then."

"You'll thank me one day, goddamnit," I said, shaking my fist at them. "I'll not soon forget this cruel display of your faithlessness." The XML session itself was just as gloriously interesting as I'd feared, and despite Joe's trademark manic enthusiasm, I was barely able to hang onto his ankles in desperate comprehension. By the end, though, I felt less stupid than I had at the end of the same session the year before. "Hey thanks, Joe," I said. "I really appreciate you taking the time to wait for those of us too incompetent to keep up. I might forgive you if you buy me those drinks you mentioned."

"What drinks?" He looked puzzled, but I shook my head and waved him off as I turned to go. "Never mind," I grumbled, retreating to a third room to endure a second go-round with Accessibility Requirements, presented by the same woman from the W3C who'd shamed us all so effectively yesterday. She once again listed a myriad of ADA-compliance standards, begged us to "please, please, pleeeease follow these," but for some reason people weren't as receptive as before, and several walked out or began to whisper amongst themselves. It was a disgusting, callous display, and I left to find my new friends to gripe all about it.

I never got the chance, though—the next session sucked up all our remaining energy, and left Laura a trembling mess of anxiety. The premise was "Deconstruction" of a cross-section of submitted attendee websites, but it ended up a weird hybrid of snide comic roasting and brutal American Idol insider-snobbery. I'd had an inkling this might happen, back in October when registering for the conference, and wisely ignored the invitation to include my company's website among the pool of choices. Poor Laura wasn't so lucky, though—her rising vibes of silent fear were all too contagious, and when we asked her what was up, she almost went to pieces right then and there.

"They're going to pick my company's site, I just know it," she squeaked. "I have this weird sense of intuition, and it's never wrong." We tried our best to distract her, but even my ultimate fail-safe method of freehand-map doodling couldn't help the poor woman when, just as she feared, her agency's home page came up as the final contestant in this vicious game. "Oh God!" she whispered, "there it is! I'm doomed!"

The panel—comprised of several lecturers from the convention—was not kind. Indeed, while we'd been attempting to staunch the flow of Laura's worry, the whole session had passed in a frenzy of snickering at the various design and programming faux-pas that infested the submitted websites. The witty, agreeable presenters who'd only hours ago regaled us with their combined brilliance had suddenly turned on us, their benefactors, with a smug vengeance that only creative professionals could muster. Laura's company site was eviscerated, just as the others had been, and Rich and I watched helplessly as she collapsed before us in a frenzy of shame.

"This is terrible!" she moaned. "I'll never be able to show my face in Raleigh again! Everyone will know I'm a failure!"

"Don't be silly," I said. "Did you design that site yourself?"

"Um...um, no."

"Well, there you go, then."

"Exactly," said Rich. "None of this is your fault. It's not like they mentioned your name or anything, either. You're home-free."

She sniffed softly and nodded, but wasn't fully consoled. "I still need to get out of here. I've had enough of these jerky bastards for a lifetime, and there's still one more day of this stuff. I need a drink, damnit!"

"Forget about all that," said Rich, a consoling hand in the air. "Come on, I'll take you both out on the town. We'll go see the bar that they based Cheers on—it's right down the street."

"Not me," I replied. "You both go have a ball. I've only signed up for the two-day convention, and I've got a plane to catch tomorrow—something I can't do hungover. I have to go home and pack."

"Suit yourself," they said, smiling as they walked out of my life to join a gaggle of other young, beautiful, and talented people—all ready to paint the town with their own vibrant red plasma.

I shrugged, accepting my fate, and went to the coat-rack to dig out my heavy-weather gear for the rainy trek back to the hotel. It had been a momentous gathering—I knew that much—but I worried that I'd have to gin up some serious fiction to pad my Professional Report that The Company demanded. It would be a dirty job, for sure, but a dirty job for another day, and nothing that a judicious helping of Room Service wouldn't cure.

Next: Pondering Potentially Damaging Trade-Offs

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