Most people equate downloadable audio files and portable MP3 players with music. Unfortunately, this entirely misses what I consider to be a much more socially and politically powerful phenomenon, the recording and podcasting of conference sessions and conference calls. If you haven't discovered sites like ITConversations.com yet, then it is time you do.
While it has been both convenient and fun for me to have my music in MP3 format and to listen to it with my portable MP3 player, the effect that this has had on my quality-of-life pales in comparison to the impact that listening to ITConversations has had.
ITConversations is a podcasting-enabled website featuring an extensive collection of recorded sessions from conferences, recordings of conference calls between experts on specific topics (e.g. The Gilmore Gang) and a selection of talk-radio shows that are being made available for download on the net.
First, it is important to distinguish between the impact that results from the nature of the distribution system versus the impact that results from the nature of the content. In addition providing 'traditional' means of distributing audio content via the net (e.g. downloading or streaming audio files by clicking links on web pages), ITConversations uses a relatively new technique commonly referred to as "podcasting". This technique allows users to automate the identification and downloading of new audio content available for download on the net, and facilitates the tranferral of this content to portable MP3 players (By the way, I much prefer thinking of it as "Personal Option Digital" broadcasting than as broadcasting to Apple's iPods... but that's another story). Moreover, podcasting will enable people to contruct their own "virtual" radio stations comprised of the all the shows, or segments of shows, that are of interest to them.
However, as much as I could go on and on about the potential that this new disctribution mechanism has to exert positive pressure on an entertainment industry that is stiffeling independent innovation and production, this is not the subject of this post. What I want to draw attention to here, is the significance of providing people with highly subject-specific audio content and the means to create and distribute it.
I love attending conferences. For those of us, with a passion for learning, getting to hear the latest-and-greatest from the world's leading experts on topics that are of interest to me, is a delightful pleasure. Unfortunately, I rarely have the opportunity to attend these. Not only is it extremely difficult to free myself up for the multiple-days that conferences often take, they tend to take place in cities or countries that I cannot afford to travel to. Even if the show was in Montreal (where I live) there's no guarantee that I'll be available at the right time or that I'd be able to afford the registration fee. ITconversations allows me to virtually attend a whole series of conferences, many of which I didn't even know existed, when and were I want.
Here are a couple points that I think are important to note:
It is easier to record a conversation than it is to record a song: Not only are recordings of conversations less sensitive to variations in quality (sample and bit rates, etc), they don't require instruments, amplifyers, mixing epuipment or, even, skilled musicians. In fact, it is a simple matter to use handheld devices such as MP3 players and cell phones to produce recordings of sufficient quality for voice.
Music is more interchangeable than conversations are: If I miss a show by some band in Timbuktu, I can probably find a band in Montreal with a similar style or, at least, find recordings of that band or a similar one. While such compromises may not be satisfactory for the most demanding of music fans, I think that most people will not feel overly dissappointed. If I miss a panel disscussion on a specific topic involving experts from all over the world, I will be hard pressed to find a suitable replacement.
Of course, there are drawback to attending a conference virtally rather than physically; you can't "smooze" with the other conference participants, you can't ask questions, you don't always get to view the visual presentations that accompany the talk, etc. But, these are insignificant issues compared to not having a chance to take part at all.
Ever since I've been surfing audio content on the net, I have enjoyed listening to recorded conference sesssions. Moreover, having helped various NGOs organise public events I am well aware of the multiple factors that limit attendance at these events; weather (try getting people to show up for an event when it is -25c outsite), cost, distance, other simultaneous events, etc.. I have always been keenly aware of the potential that the internet had to dramatically increase the number of people exposed to these events, and even for local people. In fact, I have thought for a long time now about recording presentations/conversations and making them available on-line. Unfortunately, I never got around to it. This is starting to change.
ITConversations.com is the best ressource I know of for high quality conference sessions relating to technology and its impacts on society. If these are subject that interest you, I highly recommend that you check it out. If you are more interested in other topics and you know of interesting events and/or people who are also interested, then do us all a favor and start recording them.