Big academic conferences have a strange energy — which is to say, they have an energy that is palpable and powerful but exceeds my ability to understand or, more importantly, locate myself within it. It is, in part, a concentration of brain power, the collected expertise of a scholarly discipline (in this case, cinema and media studies) brought together for five days and four nights in a Boston hotel. I experience this first aspect as a kind of floating cerebral x-ray of whatever room I’m in, the heads around me overlaid with imagined networks of knowledge like 3D pop-up maps of signal strength in competing cell-phone ads.
But there is another, related dimension, and that is the sheer social density of such gatherings. The skills we develop as students and scholars are honed for the most part in isolation: regardless of the population of the campuses where we work, the bulk of our scholarly labor transpires in the relative silence of the office, the quiet arena of the desktop, the soft skritch of pencil against paper or gentle clicking of computer keyboards still a million times louder than the galaxies of thought whirling through our minds. (Libraries are a good metaphors for what I’m talking about here: quiet spaces jammed with unvocalized cacophanies of text, physical volumes side by side but never communicating with each other save for their entangled intimacies of footnotes and citations.)
Bring us all together for a conference and instantly the silence of our long internal apprenticeships, our walkabouts of research, converts to a thousand overlapping conversations, like a thunderstorm pouring from supersaturated clouds. We’re hungry for company, most of us, and the sudden toggle from solitary to social can be daunting.
When we arrived, the hotel’s computers were down, and the lobby was jammed with people waiting to check in, dragging their suitcases like travelers waiting to board an airplane. A set of clocks over the reception desk read out times from across the world — San Francisco, London, Tokyo — in cruel chronological contrast to the state of stasis that gripped us. Amid the digital work stoppage, I met a colleague’s ten-year-old son, who proudly showed me a bow and arrow he had fashioned from a twig and a taut willow branch found outside in the city’s public gardens. Plucking the bowstring like a musical instrument, he modestly estimated the range of his makeshift weapon (“about six feet”), but all I could do was marvel at his ingenuity in putting wood to work while electronic technologies ground to a halt, stranding all of us brainy adults in long and weary lines. Maybe the whole conference would run better if we swapped our iPads and phones and laptops for more primitive but reliable hand-fashioned instruments; but then, just as our scholarship can’t proceed in a social vacuum, maybe we need the network.