‘Future States’ online

24th March 2020

John Wyver writes: next Monday sees the start of an intriguing and, especially given the state of the world right now, a potentially significant academic initiative. Over the past fortnight every scholar worldwide has received e-mails cancelling every conference that they had been expecting to attend across the next six months or so. Except, that is, for the ‘Future States’ conference, starting 30 March and dedicated to exploring ‘Modernity and national identity in popular magazines, 1890-1945’. ‘Future States’, organised by Centre for Design History, University of Brighton, was conceived to take place entirely online, using the nearly-carbon neutral conference (NCNC) model. And that’s what the organisers are going ahead with. The topic is relatively niche (aren’t all conferences?), but if it takes your fancy, registration is free and you can sign up here.

I’m very interested in the histories that ‘Future States’ is focussed on, as is evidenced by an article and two related short films that I co-authored with L.ynda Nead and which were published by British Art Studies just before the present crisis. ‘Bert Hardy: exercises with photography and film’ considers, as the abstract states, ‘the aesthetic and historical qualities of Bert Hardy’s wartime and post-war photography for Picture Post.’ We look rigorously at two stories built around Hardy’s photojournalism: ‘Fire-fighters’ published at the height of the London blitz in early 1941 and ‘Life in the Elephant’, which appeared in the popular illustrated weekly in 1949 during the period of post-war austerity. (Now that I have a little more time on my hands, and a renewed commitment to the blog, I’ll return both to the article and to the excellent British Art Studies in future posts.)

As its website outlines, ‘Future States’ ranges far more widely, both temporally and spatially, than our article and films:

In the early decades of the twentieth century, ideals of technological modernity and American consumerism had a normative influence on cultures across the globe: magazines in Europe, the US, Latin America, and Asia, inflected a shared internationalism and technological optimism. But there were equally powerful countervailing influences, of patriotic or insurgent nationalism, and of traditionalism, that promoted values of cultural differentiation. Future States explores these dialectical constructions of ideal modernity in the magazines of different countries, exploring how national cultures drew on – or resisted – currents in international modernism, and also informed and constituted this global culture.

The full programme for the conference is now online, as are abstracts for each of the panel presentations. Supporting materials have been posted, as have pointers to additional resources, both here and in lists of related books and articles (the latter including the abstract and a link to our Bert Hardy article). The keynotes and presentations will be available as pre-recorded videos for a specific period of time, and associated with them are frameworks for discussion and limited forms of virtual socialising.

Quoting the website once more,

The event brings together a worldwide community of scholars, including presenters from 15 countries; but we are gathering here, online, rather than in a physical venue at the university, achieving a reduction of more than 95% in GHG emissions, compared to conventional fly-in conferences… there are no air flights, train journeys, hotel bookings, or conference packs.

I am genuinely fascinated to see what works for the participants – and what areas there might be for improvement. I’ll be tweeting about all this @Illuminations throughout the conference, and I’ll also be posting some perhaps slightly more considered reflections here.

A nearly carbon-neutral conference

The NCNC model has been developed at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the faculty of its Environmental Humanities Initiative led by Professor Ken Hiltner. They have generously shared their thinking and a detailed blueprint for how to go about organising a NCN conference, and this is a richly interesting document. Also online are archived websites for a number of NCN conferences: ‘Climate change: views from the humanities’ in May 2016, ‘The world in 2050: creating/imagining just climate futures’ in October and November of the same year, and the June 2018 ‘A clockwork green: ecomedia in the Anthropocene’. There is a wonderful selection of reading and viewing to be roamed through at these sites.

Perhaps the rationale for the model is obvious, but this is how those who developed it spell it out in relation to the University of California Santa Barbara:

Roughly one third of UCSB’s carbon footprint comes from faculty and staff flying to conferences, talks, and meetings. All this air travel annually releases over 55,000,000 pounds of CO2 or equivalent gasses directly into the upper atmosphere, where they contribute most to climate change. Putting 55 million pounds of CO2 into human terms, this is equal to the total annual carbon footprint of a city of 27,500 people in the Philippines…

Although GHG emissions obviously vary across individuals and institutions, this is a major issue for academia. Put bluntly, air travel is, environmentally, academia’s biggest dirty little secret…

What’s worse, the traditional conference has more than just environmental shortcomings. The cost of airfare from anywhere in the developing world to anywhere in North America or Europe is often greater than the per capita annual income in these countries. Consequently, scholars from most of the world’s countries, and nearly the entire Global South, have long been quietly, summarily excluded from international conferences. Even in wealthy countries like the U.S., conference participation is, owing to vagaries in funding, a privilege unequally shared.

Some further useful background to what feels like an ever more urgent nexus of issues can be found in the recently published open-access paper ‘Online conferences: some history, methods, and benefits’*** by the philosopher Nick Byrd, a fellow and Ph.D. candidate at Florida State University. Focussing on the Minds Online conferences in 2015, 2016 and 2017, Byrd lays out the structure and operation of these events and then analyses detailed quantitative data to come to some conclusions about their advantages over conventional conferences. Slightly oddly, perhaps, environmental issues, although acknowledged, are not front and centre of his consideration:

The evidence suggests that the online conference model can help scholars better understand their profession, share the workload of conference organizing, increase representation for underrepresented groups, increase accessibility to attendees, decrease monetary costs for everyone involved, sustain conference activity during states of emergency, and reduce their carbon footprint. 

Byrd recognises that the traditional conference model has certain benefits, which he characterises as professional serendipity and social efficiency, that the online conference model cannot (yet) offer. As he notes,

Socializing via written word, video, and other online mediums is
significantly more effortful and time-consuming than face-to-face conversation. Further, the probability of confusion, misunderstanding, and offense might be higher in online conversation where many social cues are easily lost.

Maybe video-conferencing, about which – and indeed at which – every academic I know has become singularly more expert in the past few days, is one answer to this challenge. For the present, I’m very engaged to see between now and Easter how well ‘Future States’ may, in addition to its substantive presentations, suggest ways in which the multitude of informal interactions at a conventional conference can be approximated online. Watch this space.

*** The paper is a a pre-print version of a chapter from the anthology Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene forthcoming in 2020 with Open Book Publishers.

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