The move online of most scientific meetings in the wake of the pandemic has thown into sharp relief the taken-for-granted centrality of conferences within scientific cultures, including our field.
As we know, the breakdown of well-established paradigms, in this case the well-oiled practice of conferencing, make explicit practices and conceptions that otherwise remain under the threshold of consciousness.
What, then, are conferences about? what are they for? why do we need them?
One aspect that has become especially evident is that they are about presence. And in fact,
the etymologies of the words “conference” and “congress” (and their foreign language equivalents) almost always involve human bodies gathering in one place, and people talking.
Online meetings, then, are, at least in part about recreating presence at a distance. And this, we’ve now learned in part through their frequent breakdowns, requires important and reliable infrastructures of telecommunication, such as transatlantic and optical cables, satellites, data centres, and software.
But actual presence at conferences also relies crucially on global technological networks: conferences are as much a product of the “industrialization of science” (as the massive and continuous growth of the scientific community has been described) as of the industrialization of the world, to which of course conference often contributed: just think of the scientists who met in congresses to standardize meridians or electrical standards.
For early advocates of the conference, railways and steamships were an essential condition for the mutual understanding of peoples. Simeon E. Baldwin, an US-American progressive governor, and a campaigner for the solidarity of the world, wrote in 1907 that “Nations have been brought together by material forces, starting into action greater immaterial forces. Electricity is finishing what steam began. Men come together to breathe a common intellectual atmosphere”. Internationalism and solidarity, in other words, could come out of industrialization, rather than nationalism and war.
Conference-goers have since enthusiastically embraced modern technologies of communication and travel. This was noted mockingly by David Lodge in his novel Small world in which professor Morris Zapp claimed that “There are three things which have revolutionized academic life in the last twenty years: jet travel, direct-dialling telephones and the Xerox machine.” With Zoom, we are now in a further, if not final stage of what Zapp hailed as “the global campus”. Without railroads and steamships, airport hubs, telegraph and postal services, now the internet, international science cannot exist. And now these very infrastructures are contributing to the dematerialization of scientific intercourse, or rather its re-mediation. In thinking collectively about the future of the conference, in times when we cannot meet physically, if we want to consider its environmental impact or how to make it more inclusive, we should be aware of conferencing’s technological substrata and how these have and will continue to shape our practices and imaginaries of scientific togetherness.