The Con is on. I hope it never stops.
I went to DragonCon in 2018. It was my second year. The gathering happens in Atlanta, and is a celebration of all things nerd-related and geek-proximate. There are immensities of guests, an estimated eighty thousand of them, four days of wildness--some attendees walk forty miles, after all. My first attendance at DragonCon raised up complicated feelings in me. As I looked over a hotel balcony and saw thousands and thousands of people dressed up in costumes, a single thought repeated in my head: "We've won." Nerd culture, geek culture, whatever you call it, had won. DragonCon was founded in 1987. There were forty-three babies in attendance last year. Someone counted. The 2018 take as a whole, if I remember the figures right, was an estimated 4.7 million. But that wasn't even the point, was it?
There are plenty of problems, of course, with anything geek-related. Where do I start with nerd culture? It's overfetishized; its marginalization is mostly imaginary; it privileges white and middle-class taste; it's a bit too close to corporate media satrapies. But in my second year of attendance--and my, what, six-hundredth day thinking about it--I had an insight. Somewhere during the impromptu Parade of Deadpools, I realized, this is the future, isn't it? This is the first draft of The Culture, the post-scarcity sci-fi utopia that Ian Banks wrote about during the seventies through the nineties. Here we are. Let's get to the point, because a writer who goes to DragonCon can spend acres of prose and not deal in tangibles. DragonCon offers us a hint at what an alternatively-organized society might look like. A coherent, self-aware, self-improving, strenuously ethical, society of mutual aid and mutual affection. A world without much in the way of oppression or marginalization, where everyone has a space and prominence (so far as it exists) is mostly ad-hoc and effort-related. A world, in short, where nobody is exploited and nobody need feel alone or outcast. A world where fulfillment and solidarity are the basis of society, not profit.
I can't cover every aspect of this question in one essay, any more than I could sum up the whole of DragonCon in one statement. And perhaps it's better that I do not do that. What I'm talking about is, by necessity, outside of the main body of DragonCon.
Let me add that it's just as important to list what DragonCon is not. As Vanessa Armstrong wrote, Dragon Con is the Anti-San Diego Comic-Con and a Mardi Gras for Nerds ... and it is, definitively, undeniable, non-corporate. Let's drive that point home, and bring Armstrong along:
"Atlanta’s Dragon Con, a five-day event that took place this Labor Day weekend, is the antithesis of San Diego’s Comic-Con (SDCC). Where SDCC is industry-led and full of exclusive events, Dragon Con is fan-led and has at least two or three themed parties a night, which are open to all attendees. Dragon Con is one big party, really. A Mardi Gras for nerds. And despite the lack of industry presence, the con is chock full of special guests and panels that cater to fandoms, from Filk to The X-Files to the Marvel Cinematic Universe."
To hit on the point again--because life is too short to be subtle--DragonCon actively tries to not replicate problems of the outside world. That phrase, "lack of industry presence," is actually a Very Good Thing and Worth Keeping.
The Con isn't utopia. There are haves and have nots. You have to buy a pass to gain entrance; there exists a wide gulf between celebrity attendees and literally everyone else. Oh sure, there are divisions. But it is essentially, at bottom, a democratic experiment. Like the army headed by Xenophon the Athenian in Anabasis, the Con amounts to a marching democracy. Moreover, the eccentricity of attendees, I think, represents a post-scarcity world. College campuses come down for a lot of grief from the censors of our modern age. But college campuses, like DragonCon, have a prophetic edge to them. A society where there is no worrying about hunger or loneliness, where nobody has to attend a job and experimentation is encouraged--is this not the future? Every outlandish human mini-society--every Carnival, every college radio station, every bizarre communal experiment--is, in miniature, a tiny isle of Anarchy, a place where misrule has a flowering. Is this not worth celebrating? Is it not worth speculating about? If so, DragonCon follows these blueprints.
Considering alternative societies is one of mankind's oldest, and most pleasant daydreams. And when we daydream in reality, when we construct models, we do it at places like DragonCon. We craft little greenhouses of fairness; we labor to build the structure of the new inside the body of the old. And every kind of imagined society has its roots in our own world. The gift economy appears in various places; the Internet informational ecosystem has traces of what a world of shared knowledge surplus might look like. But when I think about the world to come, whatever its form, DragonCon has a prominence.
Or, rather, not DragonCon as it is right now, but everything DragonCon represents. A world of post-scarcity, post-nationalism; a world free of boundaries and borders, an ad-hocracy where all are welcome, where freed of neuroses, we are free to become what we want. Part of this has to do with its unique non-corporate structure, and its volunteer nature. It's a fan-run con, which operates according to input from the volunteers. Cohered around similar interests and structures. A small republic crowded into seven buildings, with a large number of attendees staying at those self-same hotels. It's all contained within, like an anarchist starship: what is apparent madness to the casual observer is, in point of fact, deep order.
Some of you may have never attended DragonCon; or perhaps you've attended corporate events and have cynicism over this format, or this culture. Perhaps you're shaking your head now. Ah, well. DragonCon will prove itself to you, if you give it a chance. And even if you dislike, or disagree with DragonCon specifically, something like DragonCon is coming. In the seeds of this time, we see what may grow in the future. And I, for one, am pleased. You may not be interested in DragonCon, but DragonCon is interested in you.
Jason Rhode is a writer from West Texas. He has been published by Paste, McSweeney’s, Salon, and one day he will command all the good lads in Eastcheap. Follow him on Twitter @iamthemaster.
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