A Virtual Conference for a Volatile World

By Cathy Davidson

April 22, 2010

This week HASTAC (an acronym for Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory or “haystack”), a network of networks now 4,500 strong, put on Virtual HASTAC, one of the first international all-virtual conferences to use just about all of the virtual technologies available to us in 2010. Given that a volcano in Iceland has now caused the greatest air traffic stoppage since 9/11 and that many predicted the H1N1 flu this past winter would do the same, HASTAC 2010: Grand Challenges and Global Opportunities could not have been more timely. If this cloud of volcanic ash does not go away soon, more and more conferences, business meetings, and other events will need to be scheduled virtually. HASTAC 2010 offers us an excellent preview of how it can happen.

First, it took planning. Our HASTAC team at the University of Illinois organized it all, in an exciting collaboration among many units including the Institute for Computing in the Humanities and Social Sciences (iCHASS) and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). That sounds like a lot of acronyms but what it adds up to is collaboration across all of the imaginable areas of an enormous university. Led by HASTAC Steering Committee member and one of our founders Kevin Franklin, the team in Illinois next sent out a call for papers and selected a full three-day conference roster of over fifty presentations, some of them prepared in advance and some of them performed “live” online. Needless to say, if we had had 150 or so presenters flying in from all over the world, plus the 400 conference registrants, a volcano in Iceland would have shut down the conference. I imagine a lot of well-made plans were scuttled this weekend for this very reason.

The one that HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg and I gave, “The Future of Thinking,” started off the round of presentations. Here’s how we made it happen. David and I had an hour-long bicoastal conversation orchestrated while he sat against a backdrop of books in Irvine, CA, and I did the same at Duke University, and, using iCHAT, Sheryl Grant, of the University of North Carolina, interviewed us on topic of our book, The Future of Thinking (MIT Press, 2010). It turned into a surprisingly lively and live-feeling video conversation. Although none of us was in the same room when we taped it, it plays with the interactive quality of a face-to-face event — but at a fraction of the cost. The technology itself cost less than a hundred dollars. Since we wanted it to look professional, the expert videographers in each place and the excellent editors at the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke took additional care with the final product. They added logos and credits, adjusted the sound, and in other ways made it professional. If you add in all of the total labor costs, the video would still be less than $300.

If David, Sheryl, and I had met in the same place, stayed a day for the filming, and so forth, the technology costs would be the same, plus we would have lost three days in bicoastal travel, and we would have paid airfares, hotel costs, meals, and all the rest. The cost for just this one-hour presentation could well have come to over $2000. Magnify that by fifty presentations, some with as many as four or five presenters, coming from eight countries and the travel and housing costs of the whole conference, live, would have been upwards of $50,000, without a single speaker receiving an honorarium or the other costs of actual rooms, banquets, hospitality, and the rest. To add to the virtual bottom line, once the technology was put into place to host all of the videos made by the various participants, it is there, archived, and can be viewed by anyone, subsequently, who registers to the site. So far, 400 people have done so. That also means anyone can go back and watch again.

Topics at Virtual HASTAC represented our network’s interdisciplinary expansiveness. This is not a land of academic turf wars and dancing on the head of a minute disciplinary pin. At HASTAC, we eschew the petty academic infighting and we all contribute, voluntarily, to what we believe is the foundational message of the humanities: what it means to be human in the twenty-first century — including all the history that entails! HASTAC charges no dues and you can become a member simply by registering on the www.hastac.org Web site and you can begin blogging, suggesting ideas, and contributing today. HASTAC Central, located at Duke University, is a communications hub. You can announce your event on our calendar or tell us your news. HASTAC Scholars, 130 graduate and undergraduate students all over North America and beyond, are the “eyes and ears” of HASTAC reporting on events in their area. And the area is broadly and loosely defined.

At Virtual HASTAC, papers included technology ones that explained how specific technologies from tele-immersive environments to cloud computing function and what they can accomplish for you, in your intellectual life, in your community. Others talked about pedagogy and how it makes no sense to have a lot of toys and then teach in the same old way. Another was about restoring the world’s oldest copy of Homer’s great epic, The Iliad, that, for the last hundred years, has been disintegrating in an archive in Venice. Now it is not only being digitized but new visualization technologies help us see what is on the page but faded to the naked eye while “crowdsourcing” allows us to have many eyes look and interpret together. Another was about recreating digitally the archive of Soweto, 1976, a powerful historical moment lost in the tumult of political revolution.

There were art presentations, experimental films, and a concert. Mobile Voices, a project based in L.A., showed how it was using technology for literacy and social activism that extended from college students to Chicano/a day laborers. The Berkman Institute at Harvard organized a four-country panel (US, UK, Netherlands, Bulgaria) on matters of urgency, from the way data from the internet explodes traditional social sciences methodologies to an urgent protest against a UK bill that seriously limits internet and WiFi access.

Because it was virtual, the conference could be as expansive as HASTAC itself. Anyone could choose what to participate in, and what to ignore. And “participation” isn’t just watching. Alongside the videos, the developers of the still-beta technology Google Wave hosted an impressive, continuous three-day long Wave where anyone could engage in real-time chat, several different participants at a time, including from any where in the world. At the session David and I did on the “Future of Thinking,” I spent an hour online responding to in-depth responses to our prerecorded conversation, with follow-up questions, suggestions, and further thoughts offered by fifteen or twenty people who typed not only to me but to one another. This conversation was also archived so anyone can go back later and look at that too. There were some glitches from an overloaded system but it was still lively, engaged, and interactive. But the biggest impediment wasn’t from any beta technology. David himself, at the time, wasn’t able to be on line. Why? He was in an airport in Amsterdam, and, like the rest of the world, anxiously waiting out a catastrophic volcano.

There were also presentations in the 3D virtual environment Second Life. One panel, led by HASTAC Scholar Ana Boa-Ventura, was on dance and performance and participants were welcomed into Second Life. If you wanted, you could pick up a free t-shirt for your avatar, created by HASTAC member Liz Dorland. Those experienced in SL helped the Newbies, both in the virtual world and using Google Wave. My favorite moment was when Fiona Barnett, Director of the HASTAC Scholars, typed to Jen Guiliano (the amazing graduate student responsible for organizing so much of the conference): “Sorry, Jen, I think I just stepped on you!”

That made for a lot of laughter but also was a stellar moment for reminding us that we were all part of a very interesting experiment. Since HASTAC had taken on the responsibility for communicating to a larger world, we were using Twitter, Facebook, as well as the HASTAC blogs with RSS feeds to get out the word. We were IM’ing and of course we were using YouTube. That is a host of technologies and, at one point, I found myself watching the conference sessions on my desktop, contributing to a Google Wave conversation on my laptop, and tweeting to our followers using my iTouch. When the telephone rang, I was paralyzed for a moment!

We were as exhausted at the end of Virtual HASTAC as conference organizers ever are. We had a hilarious post-conference sigh of relief at the end when I, Jen, Fiona, and Pam Fox (one of the developers of Google Wave, and based in Australia) were joking about sharing a HASTAC cocktail we would call The Wave and Fiona posted our favorite current music video, the amazing “Tightrope” by Janelle Monae, and we all were dancing in our actual spaces, on two continents and four cities, and laughing about it, together, on line using Google Wave.

That may not be a “real” conference, but it beats waiting out the volcano at your local airport. We happen to think it’s the conference of the future.

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