Forget TED Talks; the Boring Conference is the hottest ticket in town
Author Rhodri Marsden Illustration Marc Rosenthal
LONDON – Seven-year-old Alex Penman bounds onto a stage at London’s Conway Hall, grinning as a PowerPoint slide appears on a giant screen behind him. It’s a picture of an elevator. “All lifts are interesting,” he yells, “but some are more interesting than others!”
This may be a risky statement to make at the Boring Conference, an annual event that invites speakers to come and discuss their favorite tedious topics. Penman is the event’s youngest ever speaker (by a significant margin), and his enthusiasm, while not entirely appropriate under the circumstances, is proving contagious—he is, as one attendee puts it, “smashing it out of the park.”
James Ward, the man behind the Boring Conference, allows that the title “pitches audience expectation very low,” but the event’s popularity suggests otherwise. This year’s conference, the fifth, has attracted a sellout crowd of 500. During breaks, attendees speak in reverential tones about past legends like Peter Fletcher, who provided a taxonomy of his sneezes, and George Egg, who revealed how to cook a meal using only items found in hotel rooms.
“These are subjects that might appear trivial on the surface,” says Ward, “but hopefully the conference will reveal why they should be considered more deeply.”
Among the speakers is sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris, who argues that barbaric acts of evil require feats of administrative efficiency. “The problem with the idea of total obliteration of everything and everybody,” he says, “is that’s it’s not hugely practical. Particularly if you’re trying to do it on your own.”
On a lighter note, there’s a talk on the design of the Casio F-91W watch, one about the joys of camping on suburban roundabouts and another (mine) on the barely noticeable effects of British earthquakes. (“One local resident called police to report that his motorbike had toppled over.”)
But it’s Penman who steals the show. “In the Otis 2000,” he says, “the lift doors open on both sides, but”—he pauses for effect—“only on the ground floor!” The crowd erupts, as if Mel Gibson had just delivered his Braveheart speech.
Not all leave impressed, however. “I demand a refund,” one attendee posted on Facebook, on the grounds that she had been “entertained.”