You'll find Yoda at the back of every IT conference
The piss always taking is he. Bastard the.
Something for the Weekend, Sir? On stage, the presenter barely pauses for breath as he shares his extraordinary knowledge with rapid-fire delivery. His audience is captivated, amazed, enthralled.
Digital design students all, they are learning from a master of online retail what life is like at the cutting edge of user interaction, giving them a hint of the hi-tech world that lies ahead of them after graduation. This guy knows his stuff, all right.
Suddenly, a shout tears across the hall.
The magic of the moment is lost, the presenter stops speaking and there is embarrassed silence. I’m sitting among the audience and I look around to see which damn fool rudely yelled this sarcastic interjection. I helped organise this mini-conference and was on stage myself earlier in the day, so the last thing we need is some smart-arse heckler. Where is that bloody idiot?
For some reason, everyone is staring at me. Realisation dawns. Oh shit.
Nervously getting to my feet, I apologise for my inadvertent interjection but, rising to the challenge, invite the speaker to clarify why exactly his web-shop software costs £60,000. Didn’t that seem like a lot of money for what amounts to a few lines of HTML and a couple of server-side scripts? I can pick up shareware that does the same thing for $15. Does anybody want the URL?
That’ll wake them up, I tell myself. My rally call will be taken up across the land and we shall put up with overpriced online retail solutions – as a blue-faced Mel Gibson would say – “noo moo-wer”. Join me, brothers and sisters, they’ll never take our freeeeeedoooom!
I look around the room at my revolutionary cohorts. They are seething with hostility – at me. Who is this ignorant tit, they ask themselves. Sixty grand is a bargain, their eyes tell me. Sit down, titto, and let the used-car salesman on stage spew bullshit at us some more because we want to be robbed blind.
Thankfully, this exchange took place some 15 years ago, so no one will remember who was speaking or what his overpriced product was called. Not long afterwards, the the dot-com bubble burst spectacularly. Yet I can assure you the speaker became a multimillionaire, while each member of his audience that day is now probably a little poorer than they might otherwise have been. You can’t say I didn’t try.
I was reminded of the incident this week only after noticing how many newspapers obediently churned the PR puff story about last Monday being the 20th anniversary of the first online purchase. In case you missed this rewriting of history, the transaction was said to involve a copy of Sting’s 1993 album Ten Summoner’s Tales, which, if you think about it, was prescient for the development of internet culture, given that the album's title contains either a punctuation error or questionable grammar. Chaucer would have loved Twitter.
My story illustrates another point. As well as being unable to distinguish between singular and plural possessives, the IT industry also tends to engender the kind of people who shout out from crowds and throw figurative bottles from the back. In the old days when computer magazines ran big exhibitions with parallel seminar programmes, I would sometimes be hired to present software masterclasses, and there would always be some fucking Yoda with tourettes on the back row, repeatedly calling out from the safety of his fake-velvet upholstered conference chair.
If I so much as paused to inhale, he’d use the opportunity to pose irrelevant questions, raise concerns about mouse ergonomics or commence an interminable monologue about OS/2. If I paused to think about an answer to a question from the audience, he’d answer it for me and proceed to engage the questioner in loud conversation. If I suffered the slightest memory lapse during the presentation, he’d shout out the keyboard shortcut.
Then there was that occasion when, presenting at 9am, a couple of hours after going to bed following a thirsty awards evening, I suffered a memory blank-out and momentarily forgot what I was saying. I stared into the audience and realised that I had also forgotten where I was or how I had got there. The audience stared back. Impasse.
Yoda, naturally, remained silent. The piss just taking was he. Bastard the.
Despite the decline of such public events, I am pleased to report that the IT heckler is alive and well – in all of us. I particularly enjoyed one outburst at a briefing a few months ago at which a clearly infuriated member of the highly professional and tie-wearing audience interrupted the speaker’s stream of futurist nonsense with a beautifully timed and fabulously inflected “Boll-OCKS!”
It wasn’t me. No, really, it wasn’t.
Just this week, I witnessed a remarkable display of what is best described as remote-control heckling during a meeting room presentation at a client’s office. The poor sod at the front had been asked to establish consensus on user privileges for a development project and had prepared the necessary data on a spreadsheet to be displayed on a big TV. For no apparent reason other than to be difficult, his colleagues in the meeting room kept asking for the spreadsheet to be scrolled up and down or manipulated in various ways.
As the mood in the room grew more frustrated, a better analogy came to mind: backseat driving. One member of the audience accused the presenter of getting lost. Another offered to take over the presentation. I swear that yet another asked him to “slow down a bit”. All that was missing was for someone to suggest that we wind down the window and ask a passer-by for directions.
Gradually, the lairy audience warmed up to the theme and began shouting random instructions.
“Up a bit, no down, down again, and another one… and another. Now go across, not that far. Down, down… no! Up! Up! Pull up! You’re coming in too low! Oh, the humanity!”
It was like the cast of Airplane had wandered into the studio for The Golden Shot, and as the meeting broke into laughter, Bernie the Bolt at the front flashed an expression that hinted he was in the mood to impale more than a few apples.
With this comes the realisation that IT people are like couch-potato sports fans: no matter what the pros are doing, they are absolutely convinced that they could do it better and aren’t shy in letting everyone else know. The thing is, we bleedin’ Yodas talk the talk but, given the opportunity, we’d fumble the stumble. Sports fans? Nah, my little ball of hairy Jedi snot – we’re hooligans.
Or as Sting would say, hooligan’s. ®
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. These days, he makes a conscious effort to be silent and gracious at conferences and press briefings. After all, it's easy to be polite and accepting. By contrast, challenging spin and blah requires effort, not least practising how to inflect “Boll-OCKS” in front of a mirror for hours the night before. Ah damn… it’s a fair cop.