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Listen and learn: Welcome to the rebirth of salon culture

These people are here to listen to this man talk. Just ... talk.
These people are here to listen to this man talk. Just ... talk.
Nerd Nite Denver

If there's one thing geeks like, it's learning. And if there's a second thing they like almost as much, it's sharing their knowledge (aka teaching). Take those two things together, and it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the past few years have seen the rebirth of salon culture -- events where people get together and just ... talk.

See also: How to make a geek: Nurture nerdiness

Defined as a gathering for education and amusement via conversation, the traditional salon has a long and varied history that, if Wikipedia can be believed, lasted from the 1600s up until the 1940s. And now, after a seventyish-year absence, it's back! Here in Denver, there are multiple events that fall under this loose umbrella. Ignite, Nerd Nite and the Narrators, just to name a few, are all different takes on the same basic aesthetic: get a bunch of people together to talk about ideas, share anecdotes, educate and amuse. The format and style and topics of discussion are different, but it's all about the talk.

I've attended a number of these events over the past few years and enjoyed them all thoroughly. Without exception, they've been sold-out, standing-room-only type events, filling their usually smallish venues with ease. (Ignite Boulder sells out the Boulder Theater and Chautauqua, through, and those aren't small venues by any stretch.) And yet, to describe them to the uninitiated is to invite blank stares and genuine confusion as to the appeal.

"Well, a bunch of people get on stage and talk about something they know a lot about, like how Harry Potter changed their life or why supercomputers aren't going to save humanity."

"And they're just ... people? Not like comedians or celebrities or something?"

"Well, some of them are comedians of whatever, but yeah, mostly just people, talking about stuff they know a lot about."

"And this is fun?"

Yeah. It sure is.

It's also pretty educational and can inspire you to do things you've never done. My wife and I made the switch to cast-iron cookware after an Ignite Boulder presentation a few years back, and that's something I don't know we'd ever have done if we hadn't seen it. There's something about being introduced to a topic by a knowledgeable, passionate and articulate guide that blows away reading an article on the Internet, no matter how well written. I've also picked up everything from beautiful, life-affirming personal anecdotes to a brief history of midwifery in Colorado through these events, and none of that is the kind of thing you're likely to find online, even at Salon.com.

People on the Internet love to complain about how technology is destroying human connections and the desire to talk to people, but it looks to me as if it's doing the opposite. All of these events are organized and advertised via the Internet, and I suspect it's no coincidence that the seventyish-year gap between the fall of the salon and its new rise coincides with the rise of radio, television and film as one-way mass communication media, ending right about the time that everyone got online. It's also no coincidence that the vast majority of these events are organized by tech-savvy intellectuals -- geeks and nerds, in other words -- who know a lot of crazy shit and are just itching to share it. And it's not just about sitting down and listening to the "experts" talk -- I've met fascinating people before and after each one of these events I've attended, sparking up conversations about what we've just heard, following up with the presenters on their topic or just making small talk with other people who obviously have a similar passion for knowledge and good conversation.

The next time you're inclined to complain on Facebook about how technology is making everyone antisocial, consider putting down the keyboard, getting out of the house and joining the conversation. You'll probably enjoy it, you'll almost certainly learn something -- and you might even be inspired to get up and share some of your own geeky knowledge with the rest of the world.

Keep reading for a few of my favorite local salon-style events.

Ignite

Ignite tasks presenters with dropping knowledge in a rapid-fire, five-minute presentation, helped along by slides that auto-rotate every fifteen seconds. At that rate, you never have time to get bored, no matter what the topic, and even if you do it's on to the next by the time you're back from the bathroom or bar. Check out Ignite Boulder and Ignite Denver for more information.

Nerd Nite

A newcomer to the Denver scene, Nerd Nite is a longer-form lecture series, featuring twenty minutes or so per speaker, with two to three speakers per event. Topics are generally nerdy (it's in the name, after all) and can range from real science to the ethics of killing zombies, all in the same night. Check out the Denver Nerd Nite page for more info, or hit the next event on Tuesday, June 24 at the Oriental.

The Narrators

The Narrators is a slightly different style event, featuring true-life anecdotes centered on a particular topic. Less educational, as a general rule, but always entertaining and a fascinating glimpse into the personal lives and life experiences of strangers. Check out the Narrators website for more info.

Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.