Interview with Working Group on Greening co-chair Dave Elder-Vass

Shifting an in-person meeting to a virtual format which would run on a remote event production platform?  With our annual meeting only a few months away? It was certainly not on the SASE agenda this past March.

And then the pandemic burst upon us.  Initially we were very nervous about the transition.  Amongst the many questions: How to choose a platform company?   How to schedule sessions when there are presenters from many different time zones around the world to consider? How to replicate spontaneous and live serendipitous social interaction? Say, coffee breaks for example. And, most importantly, would invited speakers, theme track organizers, and presenters want to participate in an online meeting? These were amongst the many questions that needed to be answered before going forward with a virtual event. The first order of business was a survey that was sent to all involved. The response rate was very good and the message clear. After meetings with the SASE officers, staff, Executive Committee, Network Organizers, and Executive Council, it was decided to transition to a virtual event. 

Backtrack a bit.  At the 2019 SASE Annual Meeting in New York, Network Organizer Dave Elder-Vass, professor of sociology at Loughborough University and an expert on the digital economy, issued a passionate plea for the inclusion of a virtual component as part of the 2020 meeting to take place in Amsterdam.  A SASE working group on greening was created with Ginny Doellgast and Dave as co-chairs, and also including Bruce Carruthers and Julimar Da Silva.  Their mission was to present a report at the 2020 Amsterdam Executive Council meeting with recommendations for the 2021 meeting. Little did we know how prescient Dave’s plea would turn out to be.  He has graciously agreed to answer some questions below.

Could you tell us a bit about your background and your current research agenda?

I suppose from a SASE perspective my relevant background starts with my undergraduate degree in economics. I worked as an economist in Botswana for a couple of years after that, but then switched to IT, which I worked in for the next 20 years, mostly in the private sector. For the last 15, though, I’ve been an academic, initially working on the philosophy of critical realism and its relevance for the social sciences. More recently I’ve brought together all those strands to work on the economy from a broadly sociological perspective, starting with work on the gift economy, then connecting that to the digital economy in my 2016 book Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy. Currently I’m more focused on the financial economy, writing a book about value and how it operates in the finance sector. I’m also thinking about profit as a problematic concept that we need to engage with more fully to develop a critical perspective on the contemporary economy.

What do you see are the pros and cons of pivoting to a virtual meeting?

My interest in virtual conferencing really arose from my sense of guilt at flying far too many times a year around many parts of the globe to attend academic conferences, and my growing sense of just how big a problem academic travel has been for the environment. Not only does it contribute directly to global warming, but it also disables us from taking a critical stance towards other people’s excessive travel. We cannot avoid confronting major lifestyle changes if we are going to move to a new normal that preserves a liveable environment for future generations. So the first obvious pro of virtual meetings is that they can radically reduce unnecessary long distance travel. But there’s also a second major advantage. Academic conferences are largely inaccessible to large numbers of scholars who cannot afford them financially, or who cannot travel to them for disability reasons, or who cannot take a substantial amount of time away from their caring responsibilities. Virtual formats have the potential to overcome those barriers, and hence to make SASE’s work available to a much wider range of people. On the other side, I prefer not to see cons but rather issues we need to find solutions for. A crucial issue for SASE and for most other academic societies will be financial: given that annual conferences generate a large proportion of membership registrations and other income, we need to make virtual conferences sufficiently appealing to keep that income stream flowing. For participants, the most obvious issue is the loss of opportunities for face to face networking.

Do you think that real life spontaneous interaction can be replaced in a virtual meeting format? If so, how?

In principle, I believe it can. After all, virtual interaction is real life too, and most of us already use it heavily in other contexts. At the moment, though, we don’t have simple technological solutions that create environments where the kinds of interaction we are accustomed to at conferences can occur easily. We chat to new people and old friends in the coffee room, in the corridors, in the meeting rooms before, after and sometimes even during presentations, we meet at formal receptions and by accident in the street, and we arrange to meet up with people for a drink or dinner in all sorts of groupings, large and small. The simple spatial co-location of the traditional conference provides us with the affordances for all these forms of social interaction and we need to make similar affordances available as naturally in the online environment as they are in offline conferences. There are technological solutions available that will provide some of this, but conference organisers will need to work at producing suitable social environments, when in the past the social environment just happened as an accidental by product of organising a physical meeting. In the short term the online alternatives may not feel as satisfying as what we are used to, but we shouldn’t reject online conferencing because of that: it’s a transitional problem.

But what do you think the future holds for academic meetings?

Variety! With the COVID-19 crisis pushing many academic societies into online conferencing, I think we will overcome many of the technological, organisational and psychological hurdles to making fully online events a common feature of academic communication. But many of us will still want to meet face to face on some occasions and that will still happen too, although we will probably start to think more carefully about when the time and travel is justified – perhaps face to face meetings will be reserved for more local gatherings, for example. The toughest challenge to deliver is the blended model, with both offline and online participation in the same event, but in some ways this is the ideal solution: those people who wish to avoid air travel or have access problems can attend online, while those who feel the need for face to face interaction can come in person. I suspect that is how conferences like SASE’s are likely to be delivered in the next few years, but some academic societies will grasp the nettle and stay fully online, given that this is much easier to deliver (or it will be once we have experience of doing it and a reasonable time to prepare for the next conference!).

And what about online teaching? Has your experience been positive?

My introduction to full-scale online teaching was a bit like SASE’s introduction to full-scale online conferencing. I was due to deliver a course at the ISCTE/IUL in Lisbon in April, and in March it became obvious that the only way to do that would be online from my home in England. We did have one or two teething problems, partly due to unfamiliarity with the technology, but my broadband provider also had a couple of major outages in the middle of one lecture. In the end I was able to carry on delivering my lecture by using my mobile phone’s 4G connection but we could have achieved the same result with much less stress if we’d been prepared for the possibility in advance. Other than that, though, it worked very well. The current generation of online tools can deliver a pretty high-quality teaching experience, including lecturing, showing slides and even video clips, interaction between lecturer and students, and in Zoom’s case there is even a very good breakout rooms facility. Perhaps the most unexpected outcome was that by the end of the week I felt I knew my small group of students and my co-convenor almost as well as if we’d been in the same room.