Tag Archives: virPrague

Reflections on the Prague Conference: Much more than a successful coronavirus rescue operation

Introduction

Organizing a large international conference is a truly daunting task, so there is no other way to begin this commentary than by showering praise on the courageous team of organizers behind the Prague2020 conference. From my perspective as a remote participant located in Denmark, every aspect of the online conference appeared to function very smoothly. I can only begin to imagine the amount of invisible work carried out behind the scenes that enabled this mega-event to get off the ground.  

 

A social experiment in remote participation

I happen to know that a great number of other people also enjoyed the conference. Not only did I participate in sessions with lively debates, I also experienced the luxury of hanging out with a group of other Danish STS scholars during the conference. This social interaction was the outcome of an initiative by the Danish Association for Science and Technology Studies (of which I am a board member). A few months prior to the conference, we decided to encourage Danish remote participants to book a room in a particular hotel north of Copenhagen during the conference. Our hope was to create some sort of conference vibe and hold ad hoc meetings and joint activities alongside the conference. We had no idea how many people would buy into this idea, but as it happened more than 20 people booked a room and signed up to a shared Teams page, allowing us to do a bit of ad hoc coordination. We ended up having a very nice “conference dinner” together on the second night of the conference and a fair share of other mingling and serendipitous meetings. We enjoyed a particularly proud moment together when the Danish TANTlab received one of the EASST awards. 

 

Figure 1: A group of conference participants gathering outside the hotel to watch the award ceremony.

 

Normal conferencing?

When thinking about my own experience of the virPrague conference in a Danish hotel, I try to remind myself that there is actually no such thing as a normal conference or a normal way to meet. This point became very clear to me when I recently read the Dutch historian Wilbert Van Vree’s marvelous account of how meeting rules and behavior have developed since medieval times (Van Vree, 1999). With Van Vree’s book in mind, I can begin to imagine what might happen if people from other centuries could time-travel to our last so-called normal 4S/EASST conference, the one in Barcelona 2016. They would surely be puzzled. Medieval warrior groups would be proud to see that the conference organizers continued a procedure they invented – a security guard posted at the entrance made sure that swords, battleaxes, and other weapons were not brought inside. But the same warriors would be absolutely shocked to see that the guards allowed women to enter. People from the medieval church councils would recognize the seating arrangement, with some presumably higher-ranking people sitting in front, lower-ranking people in the audience, and inferior others standing by the walls. But they would ask themselves why the inferior meeting participants by the walls only had to stand for 20 minutes, rather than for hour after hour. People from the debating societies of the late 19th century would applaud the authority of the chairpersons who self-confidently allocated speaking time and occasionally cut people off. But they would also wonder why the people in Barcelona completely overlooked the importance of calling a vote.

 

Some personal experiences

So how did I experience the virPrague conference – being of course not entirely able to shake off my preconceptions of what a normal conference should be like. During other conferences, I have found myself moving from an early phase of wild interest in too many different things to a final stage of severe conference fatigue. The experience of virPrague was similar, but not exactly the same. Before and during the Prague conference, I used the feature on the homepage that allowed me to add items to my personal calendar. This of course made it painfully clear that I wanted to see too much, but the pleasant surprise was that it also allowed me to quickly navigate between sessions in a way that was much easier than trying to move my physical body out of one room and into another without disturbing two presenters and their audiences. For better and for worse, the materialities of the meeting did force me to stick with presentations that I did not find immediately interesting. 

I also found the physical strain of listening for many hours easier to bear. The online format made it possible to move my body to more comfortable positions with my microphone muted and my camera shut off. This meant, of course, that the speaker’s sense of whether their talk had captured the audience and demanded their attention was diminished. I also experienced this with my own presentation. My sense of the audience consisted entirely of the people who responded directly. Luckily, there were a good number of active participants in the session and a good fit between the presentations. But I heard from others, who were unfortunate to be in a thematically scattered session, that it was quite an eerie experience to present to a passive audience. 

The experience of conference fatigue phase caught up with me a little later than I had expected, most likely because the physical and emotional labor was less demanding than that of sitting in a conference hall. When the fatigue hit me, I resorted to some of the old strategies: micro-tourism (in this case going for walk), coffee sessions with other participants, and catching up on other work. I regret that I did not use this phase of the conference to contact people whom I had briefly interacted with during the sessions. This is something I will have to do better in future. 

 

Thinking about the future

I have heard people say that they hope we will never have a strictly online conference again. I too hope that the coronavirus goes away, but I am not so sure about the conference format. Has the climate emergency, as well as the ever-growing size of our STS conferences, made the time ripe for a radical change? I realize that not everything is ideal with an online conference, but neither is the climatic situation in which we have put ourselves. Should we really, mindlessly, continue an academic ritual that causes ever more people to fly to international conferences? I think not. In fact, I will encourage the leadership of 4S and EASST to impose a 10-year ban on STS conferences that require air travel!

How would that work? The quick answer is that no-one knows. But the better answer is that once the decision is made, we will have forced ourselves to ramp up our sociological imagination. What kinds of “normal, inevitable, and necessary” meeting practices need to be challenged? What kinds of new socio-technical meeting formats might stimulate and sustain our STS community? Would it be possible to designate a number of regional locations accessible by train, where remote participants could create new types of conference experiences? What else might we do to engage all generations of STS researchers in different parts of the world? How can we stimulate a broad-ranging experimentation and reflection on new types of meetings? What might we collectively learn from being an STS community and doing STS under these new conditions? All of these questions and many more would immediately be raised by a ban on grand physically co-located STS conferences. The questions would be troubling and demanding, but I believe they would also spark an extremely interesting discussion and collective experimentation within our community for the next decade.

The environmental benefits are clear – far less CO2 would be emitted. But there are also other immediate benefits. For one, just think of the message a 10-year ban would send to other disciplines. The STS community would demonstrate that we are not afraid to throw ourselves into a radical collective experiment, and we could proudly say that we are not just talking the talk about responsibility. In this way, a self-imposed ban would be a great way to renew our claim to be a bold, avant-garde discipline.

With this comforting thought, I shall end this personal reflection on the virPrague conference. I warmly thank the organizers not only for creating a superb rescue plan in the era of the coronavirus pandemic, but also for setting us on a path that might lead to the more sustainable organization of STS in the future. 

 

 

Reference

Van Vree, W (1999) Meetings, manners, and civilization: the development of modern meeting behaviour. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Navigating 4S/EASST 2020 “virPrague” Conference

This year’s joint 4S/EASST conference entitled “Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds” would be meaty material for a conference ethnographer. I had the honour of being co-chair (with my esteemed senior colleague Tereza Stöckelová) of the programme committee of the 4S/EASST 2020 joint conference that was meant to take place in Prague from 18-21 August 2020. However, as we know all too, this year’s conference did not take place in Prague in a strictly physical sense due to the accelerating onset of COVID-19. 

 

Picture taken by me. This is Alan Irwin during the actual online conference. Apologies for dirty screen – I had no time to clean the blood, sweat and tears from that landed there during preparation period – especially in the final countdown days before the conference commenced.

 

Let me present a time-line first: the premises, number of rooms, extra-conference conviviality and the like were well under preparations by January. Ulrike Felt and Joan Fujimura (the presidents of EASST and 4S respectively), folks from both councils, the local organizing committee (Tereza Stöceklová, Marcela Linková, Luděk Brož, Anna Durnová, Jakub Grygar, David Zavoral and myself), EASST and 4S councils were extremely happy with how things were panning out. With the onset of COVID-19, the Czech Republic opted for an almost complete lockdown very promptly and received praises from the world over as the disease was partially mitigated after several months due to strict restrictions such as legally-mandated wearing of masks everywhere (indoors, outdoors), closed businesses, factories, pubs and restaurants, but also schools and governmental offices. (The government and we – i.e. the large majority of Czechs – thought that we had won the battle against COVID-19, which was, as we see now in the fall, a fatal mistake.) In the midst of the Czech lockdown both 4S and EASST councils, the programme committee and local organizers had to make a decision whether the entire conference would move on-line — whether we would “go virtual”. If I remember well, we barely discussed cancellation, but treated the new normal as an opportunity, an opportunity for a big experiment. 

 

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of the Human Head, 1953. Taken from Fiacci L (2017) Bacon. Cologne: Taschen, p. 72. Words mine. When we learned that Zoom went down in many places around the globe on 25 August we interpreted it in two ways: gosh, had it happened a week before, our Baconian techno-worries would be met; or, had the conference’s smooth running and the participants’ enthusiasm overheated Zoom?

 

What was remarkable nevertheless was the immediately rejuvenated commitment and enthusiasm of all organizational players to do everything we could to make the conference happen. In a sense, the preparation started again and indeed some of us, myself for one, regretted that our colleagues from abroad wouldn’t come to Prague (to try the categorically best and famously cheap Czech beer or to discuss how frequent international flights to conferences cripple the climate). When the decision was taken, many of the organizational ordering had to be quickly re-ordered. Session organizers, session chairs and presenters had to be informed. We had to give some hard thought as to how to “translate” what many of us already knew well – i.e. a “normal” physical conference – into an online, virtual meeting of hundreds and hundreds of people. There were precedents we could follow such as the AAG conference. But did we want to just “copy and paste” what others did? Nope, we were more ambitious: let’s do it our own way. This of course meant that there were as many known unknowns (would people even register after months of teaching via online apps? Weren’t they suffering from “Zoom fatigue”?) as unknown unknowns1. (Retrospectively it turns out it was a tremendous work to synchronize papers into sensible time-zones so that people did not have to present at 3AM.) And so I daresay everyone who took a major part in the organization (especially Steve Coffee, Ulrike, Joan, Wes Shrum, Tereza, David, Luděk, myself) rewired their minds and practices of communication as we held online meetings – in different compositions  – at least once a week. We immediately began negotiations with Czech/US online conference vendor SlidesLive and the preparatory works – as those of you who took part might well recall – took a rather new twist. New systems, new directions, new translations, new thinking. It was tremendously encouraging how many senior colleagues who had the chance to organize either 4S, EASST or joint meetings supported us during the preparation period. Seasoned STS scholar Alan Irwin, on picture above, was one of our great supporters.

 

Mikuláš Medek, A Portrayal of M.d.: An Attempt, 1968 (source: www.dorotheum.cz)

 

Being in the position I was in has been a unique experience. I was for a short while in the “innards” of global STS, its current debates, streams, innovative directions, new interminglings with other corners of the social sciences and many more. I guess all organizers or co-organizers of big conference such as ours who have the privilege to see, co-evaluate and order what is going to be talked about have the privilege of being temporary “epistemic gatekeepers”. All this is not something that unusual – one sees who submits what, assign reviewers; one also sees the ideas and proposals that did not go through. It is indeed a substantive part of the job and a tremendous responsibility weighing on your neck, like big anaconda that often woke me during the night by whispering “Have you forgotten to respond to this or that email? Is it all gonna work? Will people be even interested?” One day in April the anaconda sloughed its skin and turned into a cyborg, a mini-monster that was silent for a while only to remind me that I should forget about a standard conference and re-order myself. Sometimes I went to bed with a Baconian face as a completely new set of questions – often of a technical nature – were softly hissed into my ears from the “phygital” (Zil Vostalová’s concept) anaconda.

 

And finally myself, around 8.30PM on Friday, 21 August. No comments needed…look at wrinkle above my left eye and just look closely at how I breathe. There are number of messages in the eyes too, I would say. Have not done proper self-psycho-assessment yet though.

 

Unintentionally, the shift to “virPrague” – “vir” standing for virus and virtual (credit to Tereza!), interestingly resonated with the “Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds.” Even if Tereza and I were based in Prague, other organizers were in different locations. Prague also served as the main “time-hub” – i.e. the main time-zone that we used, either in scheduling the programme or weekly (in August, daily) meetings, was Central European Summer Time, e.g. Prague time. Some more or less fixed location and strict temporal rules and timing was in play nevertheless – it was Prague. Prague was, if you wish, a “spatio-temporal fix”, a concept used very differently by Noel Castree, David Harvey and Bob Jessop 2004 in their analyses of capitalism was Prague. VirPrague’s spatio-temporal fix, to the surprise of many, worked extremely well – and Prague was in a sense a hub for the conference. In a way then, the conference did and did not take place in Prague at the same time. Hmm, a bit surreal, ain’t it? Is Schrodinger’s cat dead or not? Such surrealism, and surreal humour, has always been part of Prague’s cultural and artistic history.  So all in all, see you in Prague!

 

 

1 To use slightly inflationary Rumsfeld-Žižek conceptual vocabulary.