A world in isolation, or a world networked?

While waiting in Newark airport for my flight back to Europe, I got into conversation with two academics from Europe (one from Germany, the other from England) who had both attended a conference in New York. It was part of a regular series of conferences in their subject area, and they usually take place in the United States. Until about five years ago roughly a third of those attending would be from outside America.

This year, they told me, the non-US attendance was less than 10 per cent, and they themselves were unlikely to come again. This, they explained, was not because the conference had no value, but because it was becoming unaffordable, because they were under pressure not to increase their carbon footprint, and because informal access to people was now so easy online that a physical presence at a conference was seen by some of those holding travel budgets to be superfluous.

Is this a trend we should want to encourage? Is the era of scholarly networking in each other’s presence now at an end? Does it matter, in the new online world?

For myself, I am an enthusiast for the advantages of the internet, but I shall be very disappointed if the concept of the international academic encounter is now a thing of the past. I think something would be lost.

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5 Comments on “A world in isolation, or a world networked?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    I have generally found conferences, particularly the large congress ones to be a waste of time and money. But then its not never been my money. What the taxpayer gets out of flying me across the Atlantic to deliver a paper to 15 people & getting a couple of banal questions, I don’t know. Oh yeah, I get to see Seattle and a few old friends from when I was a student.
    What has also struck me is how conferences haven’t adapted to the internet. Twenty years, the only way to see a lot of unpublished research on one’s field was to go to a conference.Now its a lot easier – at least in economics where research is widely disseminated in working papers & GoogleScholar means I don’t even have to get off my ass. Actually I think there is a role for person to person contact in academia but it does need to be thought through. While there may be private returns to networking, its less clear to me that the social returns are higher.

  2. I do agree — The megaconference is of really dubious value to both the taxpayer and now also the planet. I think if we saw the aggregate carbon impact of all attendees somehow divided by the actual value of the sparsely populated multiple parallel sessions, we’d probably all feel a bit awkward.

    But is the upsized annual convention the best or only way to achieve scholarly networking in person? Why not use its demise to argue for the benefit of smaller, more precisely targeted, more carbon-sensitive occasions: more seminars, meetings and workshops, at which some virtual and networked participation would also be much simpler to manage?

  3. Vincent Says:

    I there now a bit of the World Cup about all these conferences where if you are not there you are so darn unimportant that you may as well not exist.

  4. Well, I’m sure that we all agree that improved prosperity comes from continuously improving efficiency and that higher education should play its part here (we do all agree on that don’t we? – eerie silence).

    It is amazing that we still go to conferences and listen to papers for 30 minutes, which generally run over and then we have time for 1 question, when we could have read the paper on the Internet anyway. Although the Internet has greatly improved both academic and social interaction there still seems to be some benefit in meeting in the flesh and that’s why I still like to go to an international conference at least once a year. However, as everyone seems to disappear off to their bedrooms to do their email at 9pm we would need to see better interaction during the day: shorter presentations (pecha-kucha preferably), rigorous timekeeping, more times for questions and discussions, more interactive sessions, and longer lunch and coffee breaks.

  5. cormac Says:

    I agree with all of the above, but I must say this year was a surprise. I attended 4 or 5 conferences this semester, mainly because they took place here at Harvard – no travel required.
    In every case, the conference was much more worthwhile than I thought it would be – a real shot in the arm. There’s something about meeting the author of an interesting paper in the flesh, it really makes you think ove he work anew. Alo, the contacts one makes, and the future avenues that open up are really useful…

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