I recently attended the 2021 fully remote Open Borders Conference as I had announced when I bought the ticket. Last year I had attended 2020’s fully remote Open Borders Conference as well. In both years, the conference was quite engaging and informative. This post has an in-depth review of the 2021 conference, along with some notes on how it differs from 2020’s. I didn’t attend the in-person conferences of 2018 or 2019, primarily because attending them would have necessitated time and money costs of travel that were difficult for me to shoulder at the time.
This post goes into a lot of detail on several aspects of the conference. Although I don’t have a direct connection with the conference, I have network connections with the conference organizers and some of the participants; the key connections are described here. I’ll let the reader judge how this might color my views.
I cover several topics in this post:
- Relevance and diversity of topics within the range of relevant topics: Both 2020 and 2021 scored reasonably well; 2020 had more content overall, but I skipped some of it that seemed less relevant. 2021 had less overall content but a larger proportion of it seemed relevant.
- Ideological mix of participants and presentation of different ideologies: While the dominant perspective was significantly-left-of-center, there was some balance coming from libertarians as well as more mainstream viewpoints.
- Quality of discussion and debate: I tended to find presenters and panelists who were more ideologically aligned with me to be pretty good. For others, I felt it was a mixed bag. However, one area that I would have liked to see more of was spirited debate on points of difference between participants (I felt that the 2020 Conference had more of this). However, I also see the case for greater harmony and less conflict in order to create a more positive experience.
- Accessibility of the conference: very good for both 2020 and 2021! Forms of accessibility that were helpful to me: remote, held at a convenient time, low cost, videos available after the fact on YouTube (with closed captions). Forms of accessibility that were not helpful to me but might be for other participants: Spanish and American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation.
- Value of attending the conference versus just watching the videos later: I attended the conference mostly because the timing was already convenient for me, and because I thought I might want to ask questions. I ended up not asking questions. Practically speaking, I think you don’t lose a lot by watching later, and if the timing of the conference doesn’t work for you then I suggest watching later.
- General thoughts on the value of the conference and how it “fits in” with the advocacy and debate around open borders: These are more general musings on the conference not directly relevant to the decision of whether to attend or not.
I do not include review of individual videos of the 2020 or 2021 conference here (available in both English and Spanish, and for 2021, with ASL as well). I’m happy to do a post reviewing the individual videos if that turns out to be something people are interested in, but it’ll be a future post if so!
Relevance and diversity of topics within the range of relevant topics
There’s definitely an element of personal judgment here regarding what is and isn’t relevant to the open borders topic. So what I consider less-relevant to open borders, another person may consider more relevant. Therefore I encourage people to form their own judgments by looking at the conference programs (2020, 2021) rather than just relying on my word.
Overall, I felt that the bulk of the conference in both 2020 and 2021 was quite relevant, while still covering a wide range of angles. Rather than just discussing the case for open borders in the abstract, many of the keynotes and panels related it to other contemporary issues such as political and economic crises, climate change, COVID-19, surveillance technology, and violence at the border. I feel that the proportion of relevance was higher in 2021, with the only event that I felt didn’t have enough relevance for me (and that I skipped most of) being Karma Chavez’s keynote speech; the parts that I didn’t skip seemed to talk about the public health response to HIV/AIDS.
Within the broad range of relevant topics, I feel like 2020 did a better job of representing and discussing a more diverse range of geographical contexts of borders; 2021 was more focused on the U.S., which might just be a reflection of the 2021 program being shorter and having less space.
Ideological mix of participants and presentation of different ideologies
Ideologically, the conferences in both years were dominated by a significantly-left-of-center perspective that sees borders as being deeply linked to the twin evils of racism, capitalism, and imperialism. A co-blogger highlighted that this differs from the center-left as seen in mainstream politics in the United States, that sees capitalism as the only broad alternative and argues about the details of government intervention. The aspect of the significantly-left-of-center views I want to highlight is not just that many conference participants held them, but that in many cases they treated these as background facts that didn’t need justifying. This spoke not just to their views but to their assumptions about shared context with the audience.
Key related ideas that betrayed the left-of-center sensibility included “race to the bottom” framings, talk about how capital is mobile and labor isn’t, and a central role to the culpability of countries such as the United States in creating the problems that led to people migrating (on that last point, see this excellent post by my co-blogger John Lee, that I largely endorse, that says that such “reparations”-based arguments shouldn’t be the main driver or justification in arguing for a policy of free movement).
However, there were alternative perspectives presented at the conferences in both years. Notably, in both years, there was one keynote of a decidedly libertarian persuasion (Shikha Dalmia in 2020, Ilya Somin in 2021). Libertarian representation was also found on at least one panel in each year: Alex Nowrasteh in 2020, Jason Brennan and Michelangelo Landgrave in 2021.
While the libertarian keynotes and panelists did not reject the role of racial ideas in closing the borders, they also highlighted that even Canadians — racially and culturally similar to Americans — had to deal with a lot of challenges to immigrate to the United States. This point was raised by Jason Brennan and later brought up again by Michelangelo Landgrave.
It’s probably the case that many of the libertarians on the panel hold fairly radical views even outside the border question (for instance, some may even be anarcho-capitalists). However, I felt that their presentation of ideas in the conference was very much targeted at folks starting from mainstream views, and in most cases the place it took them to was pretty close to the mainstream albeit with freedom of movement.
In addition, there was also some representation from others such as immigration lawyers and policy wonks (probably many of them left-of-center similar to what’s seen in mainstream US politics) who provided a more practical perspective on how things worked.
Quality of discussion and debate
Overall, I felt (for 2021) that the individual keynotes and panelists were strong. The libertarian keynotes (Shikha Dalmia in 2020, Ilya Somin in 2021) seemed particularly good, though for the most part quite familiar to me. I liked several of the panelists.
Some of the non-libertarian keynotes were difficult for me to follow; a few in particular used a lot of academic jargon where (a) I didn’t connect with the jargon either cognitively or emotionally, and (b) I probably didn’t agree with the broader point anyway. I skipped one of the keynotes in 2020 (Harsha Walia — though I did end up watching parts of it on YouTube later) where I suffered from this issue, and skipped a large part of the 2021 keynote by Karma Chavez. For the 2020 keynote by Samah Sisay, while I did face this challenge somewhat, I still found it worthwhile to listen to, probably mainly because it didn’t feel too heavily like academic jargon.
I faced less of this sort of challenge in the panels, even when the panelists had very different views than I did. Part of this could be because of the relatively shorter sizes of each delivery by a panelist, and the more Q&A-centric nature of the panel, which forced the panelists to stay synced up with each other and the audience in terms of the topics of conversation and jargon used.
For the most part, however, I didn’t get a sense that there was as much meaningful interchange of ideas, or any debate or discussion that involved challenging or hashing things out. This was also my general impression for 2020, but overall I did feel that that year had had a bit more spirited debate; for instance the How National Emergencies Shape Immigration Policy debate.
But spirited debate can cut both ways: it can be illuminating for participants and the audience, but it can also be fatiguing. People may want to create a sense of harmony and generate good memories, and so I’m not sure whether to think of the lack of spirited debate as a plus. I did feel that there was some moderate pushback from panelists to implicit assumptions in questions, so it wasn’t complete avoidance of debate.
Accessibility of the conference
I use the term “accessibility” in a broader sense than the narrow technical use of the term that is often focused on populations with disabilities or access issues. Rather, I’m also thinking about making it easier to access for ordinary people.
Several things about the conference stood out as improving accessibility in ways that helped me:
- Fully remote: Despite being interested in the material, I had not attended the 2018 and 2019 conference, partly because they were held far from where I lived, and the time and money cost of travel and possibly overnight remote stay did not seem worthwhile to me. The fully remote nature of the 2020 and 2021 conference made them economical for me to attend: there was no financial or time overhead of travel, so the only time cost was the time cost of actually attending the conference events. Moreover, as an attendee who did not have any presenting duties, I was able to multiplex the majority of this “attending” time with personal chores including eating and doing weekend cooking. The marginal time cost was therefore very little (probably less to actually attend the conference than to write this post!).
- Convenient timing: The 2021 conference was on Saturday, November 6, 2021, with hours were from 10 AM to 6 PM Eastern Time, which translated to 7 AM to 3 PM Pacific Time (my timezone). A Saturday date was convenient for me because I’m off from work and don’t have any specific time commitments; the hours too were reasonable (7 AM would be a bit early if I were presenting, but as somebody just tuning in it’s not a problem). The conference was on a Saturday (November 21) last year as well, but the time range last year was longer: 8:45 AM to 8:30 PM Eastern Time, translating to 5:45 AM to 5:30 PM Pacific Time, which made it a bit more challenging to attend in full but I could still attend a large portion of it. Thanks to the generally convenient date and timing, I was able to multiplex large parts of attending the conference with food preparation and eating, helping to reduce the additional time spent on the conference. NOTE: The selection of timing works well not just for my time zone, but for a wide range of time zones in Europe and the Americas; however, it doesn’t work great for people in Asia. Still, at least it’s outside the work week for pretty much all locales. Last year’s conference was in that sense a little better for people in Asia (and also in Europe) as the early events were convenient for Europe and somewhat accessible time-wise for Asia.
- Low cost: I paid the $15 standard registration cost, that seems reasonable for this conference (particularly since there is no additional cost overhead of travel, eating out, etc. that would be incurred even for an in-person conference in my geographical area). More low-cost options were also available (though I didn’t need them) and the videos are also made available on YouTube later — further reducing financial barriers.
- Videos available after the fact on YouTube: The fact that the videos would be made available later on YouTube made me feel less stressed about catching the entirety of the conference in real time — I knew I could catch up later on any part that I had missed. The YouTube versions of many of the videos have closed captions available, which further improves their utility. However, the quality of closed captions can be quite variable, and for many videos closed captions aren’t even available in the language the video is in.
I want to highlight one other way that the conference promoted accessibility, that was not personally important to me but I think could be valuable to other attendees:
- Live interpretation available in Spanish and in American Sign Language (ASL): The live interpretation could help people who wanted to follow live but were more comfortable in Spanish, or had hearing disabilities. Looking at the early chats, at least a few users did want the ASL interpretation — so it is meeting a real human need. I can’t directly speak to the quality of the Spanish and ASL interpretation, but surface indications suggest that they were fairly good. It would have also been good to have live closed-captioning (this could have played a similar role as ASL interpretation but would also have been useful to me as a backup method of understanding what was being said, since I don’t know ASL). But it looks like Zoom doesn’t offer live closed-captioning out of the box (Google Meet, a Zoom competitor does, but the automated closed captioning isn’t great).
Value of attending the conference versus just watching the videos later
Unlike in-person conferences, the remote conference structure offers attendees very little by way of benefits in terms of casual interaction. Presumably this is something that could be addressed or fixed if a lot of attendees are keen on online socialization opportunity, but at least this incarnation of the conference didn’t have much of that.
For instance, the Zoom link for the conference was turned off outside of the official conference events (so the Zoom link didn’t work during the 15-minute breaks and the lunch break). So conference attendees couldn’t hang out and bump into each other the way they might during a real — or a different sort of virtual — conference.
The main benefit of attending live, other than more immediate access to the material, was the ability to ask questions in the Q&A and have some sort of chance that, if moderators picked the question, then one could hear the opinion of the speaker or panelists on the issue. I thought I might make use of this benefit, but ended up not doing so.
The remaining benefits are more soft and intangible, so I’ll list them out:
- It’s a kinda-sorta immersive experience: There’s a sense of excitement and connection at attending the event in real time, despite the limited participation and interaction opportunities. It may also be easier for people to muster up the energy to attend the event in real time rather than add it to a backlog of videos to watch. The extent to which this matters would vary from person to person (compared to others, I tend to value this sort of thing less, so considering that it was a salient consideration for me suggests it probably would be for others too).
- There’s some benefit to showing solidarity by purchasing a ticket: The marginal cost of an additional attendee is close to zero for the organizers, so getting the revenue from the extra ticket helps defray the conference costs. It also sends a stronger signal to the conference organizers that people are interested.
General thoughts on the value of the conference and how it “fits in” with the advocacy and debate around open borders
For the first few years after Open Borders: The Case (the site you’re reading right now) was started in 2012 (see our site story), it was one of the central places for online discussion around open borders. It was also the place where a lot of the people met who would later play a role in the Open Borders Conference.
The initial website/blog nature of the discussion, as well as the interests and leanings of the founding team, led to specific focus areas and communication styles, that appealed to some sorts of people.
Over time, the initial bloggers at Open Borders: The Case (including me) reduced our posting frequency, until the blog was getting just a few posts a year, and the site as a whole fell into a maintenance mode. It was no longer an active discussion hub.
As this was happening, one of the places that took over the role of a discussion hub to keep the open borders conversation moving forward was the Open Borders Conference. The shape and structure of the conference was different from that of a blog. Events all happen on one particular day of the year. Rather than a gentle stream of year-round activity, it’s a sharp burst of activity. The kinds of topics discussed are also different (for instance, much more left-wing!) and so is the format. As a result it’s able to reach out to and engage people in different ways.
I don’t think the conference and the website/blog are perfect substitutes, but I’m happy that as the website/blog suffered from a decline in discussion, the conference was able to keep a wide-ranging discussion going. It would be great to have a world where we have both, but I’m happy for what the conference has been able to accomplish.
All in all, I appreciate the efforts by the conference organizers, keynotes, and panelists, and hope that the Open Borders Conference can continue for more years to come!