There’s a word in Swedish that means ‘collective embarrassment.’ You know what I’m talking about: your parents crash your slumber party in the 8th grade with a new board game; your buddy overshares around the BBQ and everyone looks away. If it’s cringe-worthy, chances are it’s pinsamt.
SXSW Edu might seem like an unlikely venue for pinsamt situations, but this morning’s session “Pandora’s Headset – the Ethics of VR in Education” delivered a whopper. Let me set the stage for you…
The presenter, Matt Sparks, declares that his session will unfold as a Socratic dialogue-cum-parliamentary debate, with participants responding to questions and making snap decisions, without the moving around to different sides of the room common in debates.
“Let’s talk about ground rules,” he begins, and goes on to outline five requirements for today’s discussion: be concise, one point only per speaking moment, no jargon, make a choice…to be honest, I’ve already forgotten them, they were so routine.
Then he does something kind of different: he asks us to consent to them. And like a cooperative group of well-meaning people, we agree. Then he asks us to agree to be corrected if we fail to abide by the ground rules. Again, the crowd nods and murmurs agreement.
“Are there any questions?” he continues. A hand shoots up from the back row. A woman steps forward to grab the mike from him.
“Are you filming this session in 360?” she asks. A sibilant intake of air fills the room. Heads looks up from phones and laptops.
Sparks nods and says yes. For the first time I notice a small, cylindrical device in the center of the room, festooned with blue diodes.
“Why are you offering a session about the ethics of VR and you haven’t even told us that you’re filming this session?” There is an audible intake of breath as people around the room turn toward the woman with the microphone and the presenter.
Sparks is lucky his blush response is non-existent. “You’re right, I appreciate the point you’re making.”
“What are you planning to do with this footage?”
Post it on our blog, Sparks replies.
“Are you going to ask for our consent for that?”
Sparks takes the mike and asks the group, “Is there any objection to us filming and using this footage on our company blog?”
The woman standing in front of him shoots her hand up high, and with the other reaches out for the mike. “Yes, I do object.”
“Ok, thank you, we will shut down the camera.” Sparks directs his assistant to shut the machine down.
At that point I started breathing again. In my experience, it’s so rare to see conflict in a situation like this, and even rarer for the ironic failure of an enterprise to reveal themselves so transparently. If we ever needed an object lesson in the importance of consent, here it was. The prominence of ‘Data Privacy and Consent’ on the opening slide was not lost on anyone.
Perhaps a more skillful presenter would have taken that moment to go off-script and double-down on the teachable moment we just experienced. Maybe as adults we didn’t need that addressed. In any event, Sparks plowed forward with his presentation.
And he lost the audience. People stood up and left singly, in groups – within ten minutes, I’d wager twenty-five percent of the room had walked out, and some in fairly large groups. By the end, three-quarters of the room had bolted for the door.
Another Swedish word for you: Uff. I’ll let you translate that one yourself.