Talking Between the Panels: Coffee and Lunch Breaks at 4S/EAAST, Barcelona 2016

by Vidya Subramanian

‘I wonder if you have a minute,’ said one delegate reverentially to another obviously senior delegate, as I walked past them to the table with the chocolate croissants during the afternoon coffee break on Day 1 of the 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona. I was fortunate enough to have been scheduled to present on the morning of the first day, and that gave me the time and space to be pondering about things other than my own presentation for the remaining three-and-a-half days of the conference. For someone who was attending the 4S/EASST meeting for the first time, and to be honest, a little tentative about a presentation in front of a global audience of academics and peers, this was a welcome space to sit down, gather my thoughts and get a perspective on all the happenings around the CCIB – The Barcelona International Convention Centre.

One of the highlights of the conference for me, not counting the big one of my own session presentation, was the breaks between the panels for coffee and lunch. As everyone poured out of their various sessions, engaged in animated debate, it was the perfect opportunity to eavesdrop on several interesting conversations, join into impromptu discussions, and maybe have an academic disagreement or two over several cups of steaming coffee.

The 4S/EASST meeting in Barcelona during the months of August-September 2016 also came hot on the heels of my PhD submission, making it a celebration of sorts. Suffice it to say, I knew this was going to be fun. I had my paper ready, I had prepared my discussion points, and I was hoping to meet people who could give me great leads on postdoctoral positions. I boarded the flight from New Delhi with undiluted enthusiasm, and I am thrilled to say, I was not disappointed.

This was my first time at such a large conference. And it is not often that I get to go to an international STS conference and present to my peers. Since my work is on technology and cricket (a sport played in very few countries), I spend a lot of time in conferences explaining the nuances of cricket and how it connects to the theories of Science, Technology and Society as a case study. It usually takes me a while to explain that my work attempts to explore the influence of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and television on the sport of cricket—specifically the Indian Premier League (IPL), the construction of the spectator, and the transformation of cricket into a platform. I contend that the IPL, in both scale and scope, was primarily developed as India’s first ‘sporting platform’ rather than a cricket tournament. And critical to the assembling of the IPL has been the roles, influences, and potentialities created by a range of ICTs. So, when I do get to go to an STS conference (especially one with an entire track on sports and technology!), I am actually more enthusiastic and elated than I care to admit. Primarily, this gave me a great opportunity to meet other scholars, interact with academics, and to listen and learn about our field of work.

During the conference, there were wonderful, thought-provoking sessions (my own track included); I met senior academics who were extremely helpful, and made new friends who work on similar and totally different fields. However, an important part of the conference I found myself looking forward to on all three days were the breaks; the spread was sumptuous, the conversations were free flowing and the idea bubbles bobbled around with both senior academics and first timers taking part animatedly in the discussion.

As I sat on the floor in the main lobby (because there was no seating arrangement of any kind) trying desperately to connect to the internet and look up a reference I wanted to share; I overheard a group of four doctoral scholars planning to do something innovative and fun in a presentation together for a conference to be held in 2017. As the large file loaded on my slow computer, I realised from my unauthorised eavesdropping that this was the first time all of them had met (they were from three different countries) and had hit it off instantly. I really hope that their collaboration came through and I run into them again…

The breaks were scheduled around the sessions with one big lunch break in the middle. The coffee breaks were half hour sojourns, at strategic times throughout the day, where everyone winded up the discussion that was concluding in their respective sessions. True to the adage that a good conversation can only be fruitful over an excellent beverage, academics mingled around agreeing and disagreeing with each other over the panellists’ views, their own thoughts and the general state of things while wolfing down those delectable chocolate croissants. Those breaks that did not serve coffee came as a surprise and a disappointment every day, even though we knew to expect them. As one professor sarcastically remarked on day 2, were the organisers unsubtly hinting that academics drink too much coffee for their own good?

Even the strict coffee code, where you were warned that wolfing the spread could only start at the allotted time, triggered academic analysis and we wondered if there wasn’t a post-colonial feminist aspect to these strict coffee vending rules. As a group of Indian women scholars from different universities in USA, Europe and India reached for the food tray one morning, and a strict looking server ticked us off roundly, we couldn’t help but wonder how he would have reacted to a different, more senior group doing the exact same thing. This led to a more serious discussion on eurocentricism in digital studies; and how scholarship from the global south fit in within the larger STS scheme of things. But we remained, I am happy to report, undeterred. Keeping one eye on the clock, we continued to mingle from five minutes prior to the magical half hour, cooking up an appetite for enthusiastic discussions.

The lunch break, usually from half past twelve to mid-afternoon, was an opportunity to sit down, take a breath and assimilate the thoughts garnered during the sessions and the plenaries. A time of contemplation, this ninety minute period offered a chance to rest, satisfy hunger pangs, cement paper-writing partnerships, conclude conversations, or even steal a quiet siesta under the shade of the trees dotting the landscaping. Lunch was a picnic affair on the little hillock outside the CCIB halls, empty in the mornings but full of activity during lunchtime with academics sitting on the grass, chilling, mingling, sharing food and gossip, making evening plans and laughing about the many interesting titbits going on around them. The downside to taking a siesta in the sun on the grass was that one missed out on the several extraordinary events scheduled around the lunch break. There was an EASST members meeting, the presentation of the 4th edition of the STS Handbook, an interactive round table on ‘Does STS have Problems?’, book launches, business meetings, and what have you. It was commonly acknowledged that it was impossible to attend all the sessions one wanted to. Expected jokes about Time Turners and science fiction were widely cracked and politely laughed at.

One of the other interesting aspects of the conference was the Mentor-Mentee programme. I had the good fortune of being both a mentor and a mentee and this was a great learning opportunity for me. To meet younger scholars and attempt to help them on their track as a Mentor and taking tips from senior academics as a Mentee was a wonderful experience… I enjoyed meeting both my Mentor and Mentee and I spent most of my lunch hours meeting with one or the other of them. We spoke about everything from the challenge of interdisciplinary research and the problem of academic silos to details of each other’s work and recommending interesting readings to each other.

To me, the heart of any conference is always the informal discussions outside the box of strict conference scheduling. This was usually initiated at 4S as conversations during the breaks and carried on in full flow over the food packets at lunch. It’s always fun to be introduced to someone who would invariably know someone else who was part of a conference that you had also attended, and immediately get clued into the gossip of academia.

The spectacle of a serious discussion complete with animated hand waving and gesturing at disagreements between groups of people were all fun to watch and laugh about. The best part of these is that sometimes they can result in collaborative books, the seeds of which are invariably sown in these animated discussions. It was in one such coffee break that we had a conversation that has now bloomed into an Indo-French partnership on digital studies. I am happy to report that those meetings over coffee resulted in a concept note that we wrote out the very next day, and we hope to have at least two workshops in the coming year to kickstart a collaboration on digital studies from a global south perspective between scholars from India and France.

Friday’s second Keynote Plenary with Isabelle Stengers provided much fodder for discussion on the final day. While one academic appeared to have been blown away by her erudition, another seemed to have found it, to put it mildly, underwhelming. As all three of us met at a coffee vending machine on Saturday, I found myself involved in an animated disagreement between both scholars. While they didn’t let me get a word in edgewise, I couldn’t simply leave either, because both sets of arguments appeared to be addressed towards me. A sticky situation could have emerged, but was remedied by the appearance of a student who wished to consult the more senior academic on the important matter of a recommendation letter. I took the opportunity of the diversion to put an end to the conversation, and slip away to a session on digital subjectivities.

There were lucky breaks too. By the third day, we got wind that we could get free lunches at the venue, even if you had not registered previously. Intelligence from a senior academic revealed that lunch coupons could be procured at the registration desk. Suffice it to say, those of us whose registration waiver did not cover lunch were very happy. The breaks were also a time to call or Skype family and friends at home across continents and time zones or to meet other people and make evening plans. And since, for some inexplicable reason, there was no wifi or any other form of internet access in the presentation rooms, the only way to be connected was to head to the registration area. Much time was spent on the first day in figuring out good hotspot areas to get optimum wireless access, where the conference SSID would maintain a steady signal and the network would be stable enough. The running joke was that if such a spot also had chairs to sit on, we would have found the mythical El Dorado. By the second day, a group of us figured out that the best place for work was in the basement below the registration desks, right outside the restrooms in that area. At least we would be close to the loos, we commiserated with each other. Not quite El Dorado, but it would do.

As I come to the end of my musings about the conference, I find myself smiling at the memory of a friend who tried unsuccessfully for ten minutes to worm into a group having a conversation with Prof. Langdon Winner just to be able to tell a friend back home he had. My last memory of the conference is a group of us laughing at that friend, walking out of CCIB with promises of keeping in touch and extra conference bags. I really enjoyed the conference sessions and the opportunities the conference provided outside the plenary halls. It was a time of great networking, making collaborative friendships and soaking in the atmosphere of an international conference. Indeed, it was a joy to attend and I hope to come back again in the future to renew and relive these wonderful memories of 4S/EASST Barcelona- 2016.