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Worldcon 75 - great challenge, mixed feelings

  • Tech support, how can I you?
    Tech support, how can I you?

While this is a Finnish blog site, I didn't want to start a new blog just for one post, so apologies for seeming out of place.

Finland's first, the hugely successful Worldcon 75 is over. As a part of the tech team and the de facto IT manager (think laptops, printers, networks etc), I'll share some personal comments, which have absolutely nothing to do with any official statements. The subject may suggest that this is a post full of hatred, but no, it's just a personal feeling and I have no interest in blaming anyone, including myself. This is a matter of personal opinion, not about being right or wrong.

The task

As noted, my task was IT. The huge majority of my work was for the six months leading to the event. It took a bit of effort to get some 70 laptops, 20 printers, servers, switches and other equipment free while still having high quality criteria. I think we did a fair job. Everything was set up, preconfigured, tested and in some cases like registration also simulated heavily. We got registration running on site in about 4 hours, and in full almost 20 station size in another two, so the moral of the story is that practice makes perfect. Several days after the con the job still isn't done. I estimate some three more weeks of work remains ahead.

Unfortunately many of the places needing tech were not as beautifully pre-planned as registration was. Compared to Finnish conventions, there was a lot more reactive and a lot less proactive working. I will accept some of this responsibility too, because I assumed stuff I should have rechecked. A lot of plans were changed at the last moment, or built, then took down, then rebuilt, then changed. An example is the access desk which was tech wise rebuilt several times and required notable changes to our network, which ended up being useless as the final result was exactly what was suggested at first. Similar cases elsewhere required too much time which could've been used better. Of course, nobody had done anything like this before around here so I suppose it was somewhat natural. And in any case, I've seen much worse before.

The cultures

I've organized a lot of Finnish conventions, doing various roles, for around 14 or 20 years, depending on what counts as a con. I've found ways that work, and ways that I must adapt to. I like change, seeing new things and new people, and I enjoy being wrong if I learn something new. I've also had international experience but nothing on this scale. The "Worldcon style of doing things" was new to me and I didn't learn enough even during all my time before the event as a deputy department head. It can't be a totally bad way if it's created 75 conventions so far, but it is different. I understood some backgrounds a lot better after talking to people and even better after listening to Sunday's program "Fandom and the Law Around the World". It was mostly about U.S. law but I got a much, much better understanding of the hassles and troubles. I've lived in Massachusetts and I'm close to the U.S. in many other personal ways too, but I had absolutely no idea. We live in different con organizing worlds. We need more than one shared con to understand each other better. We could gain so much from that.

So, much of this is just "we do it different", without right or wrong, but some differences were more than that. I'll just say it: there was a chronic lack of responsibility seen many times. Equipment that was loaned was never returned. Often enough people didn't even remember where it was. "Oh, we gave it to someone who asked" was heard occasionally. There was also a lot of odd attitudes, people leaving to party just like that and assuming everyone else would pick up the work. The key parts of the tech team worked 10-16 hours each day. We didn't catch drinks or meet new friends at bars. I walked an average of 19315 steps a day, almost solely inside Messukeskus and I was not the hardest working one of the team. I've heard some other departments also suffered from this attitude. Many had to fix things which were caused simply due to attitude problems and laziness. Of course this wasn't the majority attitude, but it doesn't take many a fail to cause notable fusterclucks.

I suppose the biggest problem and reason for massive overworking was the differing staff policy which made it very hard to recruit help. Allow me to summarise. 1. In a Finnish con of around this size, a key staff member would get free tickets for himself and perhaps also friends, free warm meals each day, possibly costs of transportation to pre-con workshops and the con, basic accommodation during the con, a t-shirt and a staff only dead dog party with free food and free drinks, alcoholic and non alcoholic (alcohol in limited amounts, of course). 2. At Worldcon, a key staff member had to pay for entry, which even for a first timer was three times a common convention ticket price. There was partial food compensation, no travel costs compensation, no accommodation, a t-shirt and an open for all dead dog party with nothing free, which was full and out of food by the time our department was only halfway done packing.

Many staff members and volunteers in all deparments performed above expectations, working long hours while being very kind and considerate. We're tech guys, we're used to tough questions and we want to help people. There's no problem in giving us challenges and asking us to help. We don't just have to do that, we enjoy doing that. For example, I had a great time working with Design with some of these challenges. It was a lot of work but both parties always knew the other was doing their very best in their own area. I learned new things due to tough questions and having to think and study. I sincerely thank you for these challenges.

The politics

I am personally involved in politics, if ever so slightly and only on the local town level. I consider myself being on the liberal right, so anyone on other parts of the scale can freely dismiss my opinions as idiotic. But seriously: banning a larp with wonderfully good intentions because someone on facebook is an idiot? Reminds me of the old series Married with Children where "some woman from Michigan" didn't like football so they took it off TV. I don't like sports either so guess I should move to Facebook, aka. the Michigan of 2017. This wasn't the whole story either. I make a point to leave all politics at the door when I enter a con. I want to meet all kinds of people, all kinds of views. This is what I love of our Tampere Kuplii comics festival, as you can have conservatives and liberals, right and left, highly differing opinions on the same panel and the end result enriches us all. In Worldcon 75, the mood was very limited. Many programmes were just about pushing a political agenda without any room for alternative views. Everyone had the same views. There was even one (that I know of) extreme pro-violence person invited to some programmes. Ever stranger were some oddly anti-scientific viewpoints - at a science loving convention? And let's not even get into taking sides on the railway strike...

This is the main reason why I have some mixed feelings about Worldcon 75. This is a difference of opinion and I know mine is not right, it's just an opinion. I would have liked more science, tolerance and some inclusiveness. I know full well it's much to ask. Another staff member said at one point something like "no matter what we do, someone will get offended". I know this and I am absolutely certain that the chairs, co-chairs and department heads all vouch for science, inclusiveness and an open mind. We're all human, thus we have our opinions, viewpoints and we're all biased. The end result was wonderful for many others and I respect that. I personally enjoyed a lot of what the con offered, but I did occasionally feel somewhat locked inside an opinion bubble. The thing is, I want to meet and hear people I disagree with, because I already know my own opinion and reasoning. I want to hear others. I want arguments to be won by hard science, not fuzzy feelings or predetermined opinios based on personal opinion. That is how I think we learn best. I'm a cynical sceptic and I approve of that for myself, certainly without pushing it on others.

The end result

I wanted a challenge of a lifetime with Worldcon 75 and I certainly got it with bonuses. I have about 95% of thanks, 5% of uncertainty and 0% hatred. I learned more that week than I do in a normal year. From my colleague Taino I heard that many parties thanked our team for the work. I feel humbled by this and I could never thank my colleagues enough for the cooperation, respect and hard work they did. I was far more involved with the co-chairs than the ever smiling chair Jukka Halme, so I can only speak for my experiences of great support and understanding the co-chairs had for us. I'm not blind to the end result: the con was huge, it was loved, appreciated and made thousands enjoy. What we built together truly endured. I knew Finland has some good con building skills and I believe we put those skills to a wonderful test with beautiful results. The whole team, from all around the world, can be proud and hold on to this feeling of achievement which money just can't buy. Making a con work is among the greatest feelings.

I am tired right now, more than I've ever been post-con. This isn't my first rodeo, not even in this size class, but this is so overwhelming. This is probably due to some physical injuries suffered, causing me to work for weeks in far more pain that I'd prefer. Maybe that's why I'm a big negative here. I could've done better, but I'm ready to admit I did well. There's just an odd itch that I have even as a longtime scifi fan. I felt a bit detached from the mood and I can't put my finger on the exact cause. Maybe it's physical exhaustion. Maybe my world view is different. I'm just saddened that I couldn't get more out of it all.

I would not trade this experience for anything. This was not the worst week of my life, but among the best, partly because it was so challenging. Would I do it again? A sceptic can only say maybe. If I would, I know I'd learn more, open my eyes more and do it even better.

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