April 17, 2020

The World Redesigned: Why we will still have gatherings

What will fill this:

Since we’re never going back to the pre-Covid world anytime soon, will we still have large conferences, or even small ones?  Why have conventions in attractive places, meant as much for socializing as exchanging?  Why deliberately bring people together to learn and bond, to show off their public faces, to see who fate might introduce them to? With splashes of alcohol, rich food and entertainment.

Well, actually, those reasons seem pretty persuasive.

Gatherings need to be special, even an extraordinary experience, and they have to be something that can only be experienced through being there, together with others.  That means they must appeal to all five senses: deliberate listening, constant conversation, light gluttony and human contact.  A time for show and tell and feel.

Zoom or Skype don’t do all that, because it’s not what they’re for.  Electronic communication since the telegraph has been about more efficient ways to share information, and now there are skilled generations who don’t need to be physically together just to exchange data or ideas, no matter how complex.  The tools are getting really good.  But they don’t substitute for light romance.

A conference to be special – to justify the expense and risk – also needs a ‘name.’  Someone on the billing.  Whether for a concert  or event, the personality needs to pull in the otherwise risk-adverse with enough celebrity status, polished presentation and performance, and something worth saying, in a setting that can’t be replicated on a screen.  Otherwise, it’s just a Zoom.


Thoughts from Jude Crasta in conversation.


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  1. And then while you’re starting to glance away more and more from the Zoom meeting, Barack Obama logs in and you’re back. My guess is that we’re going to find a different normal where the person who used to be on the stage is now on the screen in your room. You can maybe even talk to them directly, unlike real life where their handlers whisk them away after question period and your arm is still hanging in the air as the door is closing.

    1. Not really, John. As someone who has taught online, I can tell you that even managing an “audience” of a couple dozen is more than one person can handle. A celebrity level speaker might, with handlers who run logistics, interact with a few more people, and beyond that, it’s broadcast, back to the television era, a form of spectatorship. While Gordon suggests that a name or a draw is necessary to pull together a conference (which I agree is sometimes, not universally, true), the value of those events is in person discussion with colleagues and new acquaintances. They are social events, wildly dynamic, impossible to replicate in the same period of time in a digital environment, but roughly analogous to the Internet across, say, many weeks, months, or years.

      Whether we ever get that world back, I don’t know. It’s too soon to tell, and predictions that it will never come back seem as spurious and premature as predictions that we go back to exactly how things were before all of this. I do think that many conferences will simply never return, that people will factor in public health dangers into their travel from now on. Many, though, will resume in some fashion, because they perform functions impossible to replicate at present.

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