Academic conferencing is one of many activities disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, revealing the fault lines of its pre-COVID-19 structure and organization. As the world recalibrates, there are debates about whether or not to re-normalize in-person conferences or to adopt remote or hybrid formats. We acknowledge that conference formatting may have no clear solution; There are benefits and drawbacks to each format. We would like to address three that have not yet been noted: the limits of infrastructure, the surveillance tactics enabled by online digital technologies and the unseen labor associated with remote conferences.
Media literacy scholar Natasha Casey published a personal piece about the internal conflict she encountered when debating whether or not to attend an in-person conference this summer. Casey rightly noted the continued risk of the COVID-19 pandemic especially, but not exclusively, for the immunocompromised. To contextualize Casey’s analysis, the piece cited an article from the developmental biology journal Development titled “The Future of Conferences,” which argued that post-COVID-19 conferences need to be reimagined with an emphasis on addressing climate change and systemic inequity. The authors discussed the need to experiment with new ideas, including the possibility of holding a conference in person at multiple locations, to reduce travel, while connecting the local hubs remotely to maintain the larger conference community.
Climate justice is an essential part of our field, critical media literacy. Research shows that the emissions from transportation and food waste required for in-person conferences make remote conferences a better option for the environment. The emissions from virtual conferences, which pale in comparison to in-person conferences, can be reduced by having participants turn off their camera and by avoiding using high-definition video when it is on.
The remote conference appears to solve numerous problems, especially those connected with equity and the environment, and as a rebuke (albeit minimal) to the current rate of inflation and continued significant travel struggles. It cannot be denied that remote conferences have made conferences accessible for those who could not traditionally attend an in-person academic conference, including people with caring duties, academic mothers, those without access to funding or those struggling to obtain visas. However, the remote conference structure is not without its problems.
Remote does not automatically mean more accessible for everyone. For example, the 2022 Critical Media Literacy Conference of the Americas (CMLCA) will be hosted at California State University, East Bay, where the majority of students are students of color; the university estimates that about a quarter of its students face food insecurity and 12 percent face housing insecurity. During COVID-19, many of these students, including some graduate student instructors, lacked reliable internet connection for remote participation. The remote option is not more equitable for them. They are not alone; close to a quarter of US households do not have home internet. Critical scholars must consider those who lose access when a conference is remote.
While the digital may be more accessible, it is not entirely easy. Both authors are part of the CMLCA organizing committee, which has determined that due to the digital infrastructure of the physical location, the conference cannot be fully hybrid. The conference organizing committee members are acutely aware of the problems this creates for those who cannot physically travel to the conference site—but they also cannot change the infrastructure of a location that was given in kind, therefore allowing conference participants to attend free of charge. This raises a question: which is more accessible, a digital conference with a registration fee attached or a conference that one can physically attend with no registration fees? Either way, there will be a financial charge in some capacity.
Furthermore, assuming it uses readily and easily available digital technologies, the remote conference also runs the risk of feeding surveillance capitalism. Digital platforms surveil users for the purpose of modifying their behavior through data collection and analysis. Critical scholars have rightly chided these companies for normalizing tracking and unpaid labor as evidenced by the way that users refer to search engines or social media as “free,” when in fact they cost their privacy. It is not a surprise that these tools rest upon such an exploitative model given that the internet, digital tools and features such as GPS, touchscreen and Siri were created to serve the military industrial complex. Critical scholars are well aware that surveillance is a tool of oppression, central to plantation slavery, the Jim Crow South, patriarchy, heteronormativity and the prison industrial complex. However, the threats posed by surveillance seem to be an afterthought when it comes to discourses about remote or hybrid conferences.
When advocating for remote options, critical scholars need to consider fundamental questions: How can we make a safe space within surveillance culture? Can we be authentically critical while fueling corporate power in surveillance capitalism? How can we protect those most vulnerable to surveillance? Should conferences be recording and sharing conference video to make it accessible for nonattendees, or is that fueling the very surveillance capitalism that exploits users and turns every activity into a product? When participants are being surveilled—especially those most vulnerable—are they less likely to speak open and honestly?
In a remote or hybrid conference environment, those working behind the scenes on behalf of the conference are not only surveilled, they also operate the tools of surveillance. Remote and hybrid conferences require additional labor. They necessitate individuals to create and manage a series of meeting rooms, develop a registration system for communicating how and when to participate, and, if necessary, schedule interpreters and ensure the availability of interpretation features. Who performs the labor to organize and manage the remote technologies? Are these volunteers? If not, who is paying them? Where does the money come from? How was that money accrued? Is it the right move for critical scholars to host a conference that depends upon unpaid labor? To keep a conference remote, should organizers accept funds from those who contribute to climate change, such as the fossil fuel industry or the US government?
Finally, critical scholars need to ask a basic but important question: What is the point of the conference? If the answer is to share cutting-edge research, to support cohort and community building, or to foster collaboration among scholars, that can happen in multiple ways outside the formal conference structure. If the answer is because conference attendance is needed for tenure and promotion, or job seeking, then the question of in-person, remote or hybrid is a distraction from the larger, more knotty question of what matters, and why, in the academy. If the answer is that it is a formal gathering of mostly like-minded individuals sharing their work, then maybe the conference is actually about cool places to travel with friends and colleagues (and the browbeating over exclusivity is a smokescreen). Any avid conference goer will admit it is the evening after or the breakfast before the daily conference activity begins that are the most fruitful for networking and learning. Does one need a conference for this? The conference clearly gives as much as it takes away: a vote for in-person means there are new people to meet and old friends with whom to reconnect—while it also means that, because of the exclusionary nature, there are people who will never be met and old friends may fade away. The same can be said for the remote and hybrid structures.
If the argument is that remote fosters greater equity, this needs to be teased out to its unfortunate (and problematic) conclusion: Why not move all learning and forms of community to remote spaces? What is different between conferences and the larger work of education? Why not make education remote? One additional risk of a remote conference—and, by extension, remote education—is that it keeps us isolated from each other. This fact, while keeping our germ transmission lower, also serves neoliberalism. Our isolation—especially that which is done in the name of safety, convenience and/or equity—leaves us without a cohort of community and support. With isolation, neoliberalism reduces scholars to capitalists who create products in the form of conference presentation videos that can be shared on social media for the purpose of branding and marketing themselves for the purpose of career advancement.
With its grounding in social justice work, the future of academic conferences is a topic ripe for critical media literacy scholars, who are primed to lead a robust debate on these questions and issues—and in so doing, can fight back against the isolation, surveillance and inequitable labor practices strengthened by the pandemic.