This short article has been prompted by your editorial in CONRUNNER 11 on techies. I would like to make some comments on it and, as both a conrunner and a techie I have a fair appreciation of both sides of the question, I think.
First of all, you mentioned the techie who turned off the microphones on a panel at Contrivance. If it had happened as you described then it would have been inexcusable, but after making enquiries I have determined that it was actually the person in charge of the Green Room at the time who was the culprit.
Having said that, I had several panels (I was running the sound and lighting in the Lido for a considerable amount of the time) ask me to remind them when they got close to their time limit. Items over-running or the desire to continue a discussion is a frequent problem at cons, but I feel that this should be addressed via programming or general ops rather than tech ops. I have long felt that a planned continuation in a smaller room for those who wish to continue a discussion is desirable where facilities permit. The poor techie can end up as pig-in-the-middle on occasion between two rival factions each demanding the use of the facilities and the services of the techies, I know - I've had it happen to me.
The question of the necessity for complicated technical equipment is difficult. Yes, you can run a small con with little or no kit, but as the size of a con increases the need for technical support grows. Most hotel PA systems are fairly primitive and inadequate for panels etc. and as soon as you hire in equipment that will do the job it requires a certain amount of expertise to operate because of the increased level of complexity. Yes, as you point out, many people can operate a variety of pieces of equipment but there are many more who cannot: some due to lack of experience, some through lack of interest, some through total lack of technical ability. I can run a sound desk that would give most inexperienced people a panic attack, but my ability to draw is at about primary school level. There's no dishonour in my inability to draw, nor in another person's inability to comprehend technical equipment, but pretending that everybody could operate technical kit is just plain silly. Even if somebody CAN operate technical equipment it doesn't necessarily follow that they are good at it. Again from personal experience, I had one panel where the chief protagonist alternated between clutching the microphone in his hands and mumbling at it (which sends the frequency response of the mike to hell and beyond) and leaning back in his chair and talking at the ceiling. To achieve good sound reproduction such that he was intelligible to the audience I had not only to control the volume but also the frequency response of the system (which involves not 1 but 3 knobs), plus the volume control for the other 3 panelists. I can do that, so can many techies, but many other people could not, mainly through lack of experience.
Another example. I came on duty one morning to find the person about to give a talk panicking because the video projector wasn't working. When I investigated it wasn't plugged in. You might laugh but it happens surprisingly often. Many people are only too happy to leave the technical things to the techies so that they can get on with what they are good at and enjoy doing.
Cons have to decide too what sort of show they wish to put on. Con attendees have, over the last few years. become accustomed to a fairly professional level of film projection and other technical happenings. Yes you could run a costume competition without complicated lighting or make do with a hotel PA system, but do you really want to do that? These are decisions that a con has to make in the planning stages. Hiring in equipment is expensive so you then do not want to have people fumbling around not knowing what they are doing with it.
Another thing, yes, many people can operate a variety of equipment, but the techie comes into his/her own when things go wrong. The lighting system for the costume competition at Contrivance was jury-rigged by the tech crew as the hire company had neglected to supply the appropriate cabling. Specialist knowledge and experience enabled the techies safely to solve the problem.
Point taken that the techies are there to serve the con, but we are also volunteers who put in a considerable amount of time and effort. We enjoy doing our jobs and we enjoy doing them well. I take pride in doing a good reel change or getting good sound for a panel. Yes, we ARE professional in our approach; please don't use it as an insult. There are parallels here with the accusations of "professionalism" and "yuppie fandom" levelled at some conrunners with the implied criticisms involved. What is wrong with doing a job well? If you're going to show films at a con you might as well make a good job of it. There's no merit in a slapdash attitude. It is also interesting to note that the people who make the most noise about "professional" attitudes are usually the first to shout when things go wrong.
Yes. the tech crew tends to be exclusive but it is only one of a number of cliques within fandom. The fanzine fans effectively have their own con-within-a-con, as do the costume fans, the Literary fans etc. Personally I haven't entered a fan-room since, as a neo, I investigated a fan room only to be greeted not by an explanation of what a fan room was or what they were doing, but by suspicion and rudeness. Perhaps I was unfortunate in the group I encountered but the impression of fannish fans as a group of stuck-up, unfriendly, discourteous, pseudo-intellectuals has coloured my opinions of fannish fans ever since. I do therefore appreciate your concern over the rise in profile of the techies over the last 3 or 4 years and I sincerely hope we don't exclude people who are interested. Personally, I am delighted if somebody comes and asks to see how to operate a sound desk - but not in the middle of a tricky session! Most of the tech crew will cheerfully accept an "apprentice" - that's how I got in in the first place (and I'm quite certain I was a total nuisance to all concerned in the process. Thanks, chaps!).
Finally, it has just occurred to me that whilst the tech crew is there to serve the con, the con is also there to serve the tech crew as much as it serves the other special interest groups. We get as much fun out of being techies and having the opportunity to play with all sorts of interesting kit as e.g. costume fans get out of their particular Interest.
Each group both contributes and receives from the con and it is one of the things I like best about fandom: that there is room for ALL of us.