I’m winding my way home from this year’s Theorizing The Web (TtW), and thinking back over the last few days.

A conference program from Theorizing the Web, which is covered in flowers. Next to the program are four pins: one with the conference logo; another with the orange hockey mascot Gritty; another with a flower illustration; and one with a picture of a moth

Here’s a brief description of the event, pulled from Theorizing the Web’s about page:

Theorizing the Web is an inter- and non-disciplinary annual conference that brings together scholars, journalists, artists, activists, and technology practitioners to think conceptually and critically about the interrelationships between the Web and society. We deeply value public engagement, and consider insights from academics, non-academics, and non-“tech theorists” alike to be equally valuable.

A few friends had recommended the conference to me, given some of the things I’ve been writing about lately. They did mention that it might be “a bit more academic” than events I’d attended in the past. And on the face of it, they were right: the event’s lineup was filled with researchers, graduate students, and doctoral candidates, many of whom read edited versions of published papers, or spoke about broadly about interesting research being done in their respective fields.

But “academic” doesn’t mean inaccessible or abstract — and it’s my fault for thinking otherwise, even for a moment. I can safely say Theorizing the Web was one of the most thought-provoking conferences I’ve ever attended. After two whole days of brilliant panels and hallway discussions, my notebook’s full of things I’d learned, my brain’s ablaze with interesting ideas I’m still thinking about. Every panel and keynote was livestreamed, so I’d recommend watching the videos if you’re able. But here are a few moments I’m still thinking about:

  • In “Good Hustle” — a session title quickly disavowed by its panelists — the talks focused on new workplace technologies that attempt to track and quantify its workers, thereby undercutting their bargaining power. A highlight for me here was Sarah Adamstalk on the ethics of artificial intelligence, and the invisible labor that fuels our industry.
  • In a panel titled “Remote Access,” two researchers talked about Cuba’s “slow internet” — including “El Paquete Semanal”, the underground network of hand-delivered hard drives filled with downloaded media — in a broader context of the country’s history of socialized technologies.
  • On day two, the “Off Screen” session discussed the impact of digital platforms on architecture, and vice versa. I especially enjoyed Yunyi Li’s look at the politics behind the design of coworking spaces, and Nina Medvedeva’s look at Airbnb-superfueled gentrification.
  • The final keynote was an excellent discussion of the politics and economics of the video game industry — from the unfair conditions imposed on its workers, to the recent emergence of grassroots unionization movements.

As you might have guessed, this wasn’t exactly an apolitical conference. But as others have said better than I ever could, that’s always been a dodge. After all, our industry has engaged in countless moral and ethical lapses in the pursuit of scale. If we’re ever going to find our way through this mess, we’ll need more critical conversations like the ones I found at Theorizing the Web.