Remote Access

February 13, 2012 — Leave a comment

I had a good discussion/argument with a colleague last week who thinks we should be trying to make remote attendance at conferences a reality. Unless we’re talking about the Texai Remote Virtual Presence, shown above in the Big Bang Theory, I disagree.

Astronomers probably rank highly in their use of carbon, as they fly around the world to conferences and sometimes to telescopes. It’s not unique to astronomy, but it’s fair to say we probably have a large carbon footprint as a community. Attending conferences remotely would be one way to reduce this problem. Whilst I agree that this is a solution, I actually think what you need is to just go to fewer conferences. I can sum up my argument with the idea that if you can successfully attend a conference by just watching streamed videos online then the conference wasn’t worth going to anyway. You may as well have made everyone record their talks and post them on YouTube. So do that instead.

Conferences are not just about listening to tens of short talks on everyone’s research. That is an important part of the conference, but the key thing is that those people are physically there in the same place and you can talk to them and meet them. We all work as part of a vast, spread-out community and conferences provide perhaps the only way to meet people in the flesh.

Most of my tweets and emails are to people far-removed from me on the globe. Perhaps it is an irony that in our online, social-media world we need more than ever to bring people together in real life.

Video streaming on the web is still pretty crappy or very expensive. In both cases it is bandwidth-consuming. At .Astronomy we have previously used UStream to pipe a poor-quality, live feed of the conference to the web. We get between 2 and 200 people watching that stream and in some cases many hundreds watch the videos afterwards. I’m sure it was fun to join in from afar but we got little back by doing this. 99% of the feedback would be about how the image or sound wasn’t good enough or that the network had died. These are all side effects of using UStream and not a dedicated, more costly video-streaming service. Live streaming takes the focus of organisers away from attendees – who gave up time and money to be there – and forces them to worry about the people who aren’t even in the room. 

Anyone who has watched many TED talks knows how great watching talks online can be. They also know that it didn’t matter if it was live. They didn’t remotely attend TED, they just consumed media created at the event. How would true remote attendance be better? It certainly wouldn’t be better quality.

To remotely attend a conference means you have to miss a large part of it. This is really the point. You can watch the talks, but you can’t get the coffee. You are tied to the conference timetable (and timezone) but can’t have the impromptu meeting with anyone outside the session. If those things don’t matter to you, then you didn’t need to go anyway and pre-recorded talks will be just fine.

We need more events where people are encouraged to work together on problems, or to embark on something new. I love the Unconference format we’ve used at .Astronomy for the past couple of events. Freeform discussion, organised on-the-fly and only guided by the conference organisers. These sessions are always buzzing and rarely does any one person speak for longer than 15 minutes at a time. You cannot do this remotely, it requires a personal presence and social interaction. 

I’d like to see us collectively move on from the idea remote ‘attendance’ and begin to favour the moodel of more online talks and better but fewer conferences all together. I hate boring conferences but love the idea of video talks on demand. I can’t be alone in this, surely its a win-win? Persistent, online recordings of talks should be beneficial for all parties, so long as they can be paid for. Boring, tired conferences are no good for anybody… except the one person who can afford a Texai Remote Virtual Presence of course. Then it’s telepresence all the way down.

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