This ‘Un-Conference’ In Brooklyn Is Trying to Change How We Talk About Digital Media

April 29, 2015 | Prachi Gupta

If you’re interested in gaming, art and coding but find most tech conferences to be too expensive, intimidating or unwelcoming, then FACETS might be the enrichment opportunity you’ve been waiting for. The idea for the FACETS, an “un-conference” in Brooklyn that will feature artists like Ramsey Nasser and Addie Wagenknecht, prioritizes women, people of color, and focuses on intersectionality — that is, the experiences that people of marginalized backgrounds have in common. There will be no so-called “booth babes,” talks won’t require advanced technical knowledge (just an interest), and they are free to attend. Attendees will learn about creating hacker spaces, see a demo on machine learning, and explore art and activism from the perspective of people who you might not see at a more traditional tech conference.

The panels are designed to bring together creative people who may work in different mediums, but consider similar problems. This is not as easy to find as one might assume — a comparable gathering, for example, is gamer conference IndieCade, which also has diversity built-in to its ethos. “IndieCade, when they have large scale panels, center around game designers and game critics,” says Caroline Sinders, co-creator of FACETS and interaction designer at IBM Watson. But if Sinders were organizing an event at IndieCade, she’d want to hear that gaming conversation to include “a film director or a creative director of a large interactive web site.”

Take a look at FACET’s Self Portraiture in Technology panel, for example, which features a photographer who maintains a public diary on Instagram (Michael George), an interactive artist and coder who crowdsources answers and actions for her art (Lauren McCarthy), and a video game designer and critic who has made video games about her life (Soha Kareem). “They would never have run into each other or started convos with each other in any possible venue, except for FACETs,” says Sinders.

Why does this matter? “Interdisciplinary conversations are important, because we shouldn’t create silos,” she says, giving the example of online harassment. “A lot of the harassment that happened in Gamer Gate was similar to the harassment that happened to black feminists a few years ago. What happens when we separate these groups is that we don’t have these conversations,” she says. In other words, problems that exist in one community are likely to exist in another, and if we’re not talking to each other, we’re not addressing issues as fast as we could.

The event, sponsored by NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering’s IDM program, was borne out of frustrations shared by Sinders and co-creators Phoenix Perry, Jane Friedhoff and Mohini Dutta on a Facebook comment thread last fall; they felt that several things are missed when tech spaces are dominated by mostly white men. The lack of diversity in the tech industry is a well-documented problem, one that industry leaders are starting to prioritize. But the current solutions aren’t up to par, Sinders says, observing that many conferences attempt to deal with the issue by “putting one person of color or one woman on a panel” to fill a quota. And many spaces that are more engaging, like Eyeo in Minneapolis, can be quite costly (festival passes cost $649).

FACETS is the sort of event that Sinders always longed to attend, but couldn’t seem to find. One third of the more than 40 speakers are people of color and two-thirds are women, yet Sinders is not completely satisfied with those numbers. “It was a pretty great first run, but it still feels pretty racially non-diverse,” she admits. Still, that number is far better than the diversity at top tech companies, thanks to a proactive effort. “If you’re always pulling from your social group, it is hard to find new people,” she concedes — but that’s not an excuse for leaving people out. “Just take a little longer and ask other people [for recommendations].” Sinders also found panelists on Twitter and via other talks she listed to. Focusing on diversity may even lead you to something new: After Sinders heard Christian Howard talk about designing a game from the perspective of a slave trying to escape, for example, she created the Education and Technology panel and asked him to participate.

Ultimately, FACETS emphasizes diversity, and diversity lends itself to good design. “I really believe, as UX designer, that we should design for everyone,” Sinders says. “When you have diversity, you can design for a more diverse range of problems because you have people who deal with them on a day-to-day level.”

FACETS will be hosted at NYU MAGNET in Brooklyn between May 1 and May 3. For a schedule of events, click here. Admission is free, but registration is encouraged.

(Image: Infosthetics)