I have been to a few conferences that worked based on precirculated papers. That is, everyone submits their papers in advance and the assumption is that conference goers who come to a given talk have read the paper in advance. In principle this seems ideal, we can use that face-to-face time to discuss work instead of just listening to people read their papers (this people reading their paper at a conference thing happens all the time in the humanities). In what circumstances should conferences precirculate papers? Is it something that is best for small conferences, or are there good examples of large conferences that work this way too?
I can't see this happening in any sort of large-scale conference. This would involve too much work and logistical planning on the part of everyone involved to be successful. It's hard enough to get abstracts for many conferences—let alone finished papers far enough in advance that people have time to read them!
In addition, this last point is another major obstacle: people don't have a lot of time to read all the papers that we're supposed to, let alone a bunch for a particular conference. The main reason why I would undertake that much work was if it were for a relatively specialized workshop in my personal field of endeavor.