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I recently suggested that conference organisers should stop using so-called “international experts” (defined as anyone who arrives on a business class flight with a PowerPoint presentation and is incapable of locating their hotel unaided) as the pull to get bums on seats locally.
Soon after that, an important-sounding gathering in California wanted me to speak, and was up for the creative use of new technology. The chair sent me a detailed brief, and I prepared my presentation, along with notes, several weeks in advance (this in itself was progress—I usually do it on the plane).
We planned a dress rehearsal, at which I was to sit in my study at home (it being late at night) and the chair and technicians were to gather in the lecture theatre where my talk was scheduled. All this was technically unnecessary since everyone knows it's possible to get a phone connection from London to California. But it highlighted another problem: if the speaker has not been physically transported to the conference, she might forget the occasion altogether. Instead of the anticipated “First slide please . . . ,” the audience got my teenagers shouting, “Muuuuum, some American dude for you . . .” and then (rather sheepishly), “We think she's probably at the gym . . . ”
I programmed the definitive event into every timepiece I possessed, and I barricaded myself in behind a wall of “do not disturb” signs. The connection worked. I gave my talk with dual projection—one showing my slides and the other a picture of me standing at a lecturn in a flash suit. Apart from the fact that the line was silent when I was speaking (I had to resist the temptation to ask “Are you guys still there?”), it was no different from lecturing to a darkened hall under strong stage lights.
While I was taking questions, a friend who happened to be in the audience sent me an email from his Blackberry saying, “You're coming through loud and clear.” I wanted to email back and say, “Has anyone guessed that I'm in my pyjamas?”
There's a research study to be done here, for which the null hypothesis is that it is necessary for academics to congregate face to face in a tropical venue in order to exchange meaningful ideas. Does anyone feel like being randomised?