Do disruptive events such as pandemics and natural disasters have the capacity to make us re-think our understanding of social orders? To ‘think with’ hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, or pandemics means to use these disruptive events as ‘windows’ into a number of taken-for-granted codes and cultures guiding our everyday life practices. In this post, the line is drawn back to the Icelandic volcanic eruption in 2010 and then forward to the current Covid-19 crisis.
As a sociologist occupied with the mobility of people, vehicles, information, and goods, COVID-19 is an inescapable ‘matter of fact’ that calls for a magnitude of ‘matter of concerns’, to paraphrase Latour. At the moment of writing, I dare to say that no one on the planet is ignorant of the COVID-19 virus and the ripple effects cascading into global society as a result of this disruptive event. Disruptive events may prompt a re-thinking of the taken for granted (see my article on this). This I learned when the air-traffic corridor between North America and Europe was blocked by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 while I was at the American Association of Geographers conference (AAG). Here and now, 10 years later, and motivated by a virus and not volcanos, the final comments from my prior analysis of that experience still seem to carry some relevance:
Systems breakdowns and vulnerabilities is one aspect. Another is the way global power-geometries reflect inequalities and unevenness in capacities to deal with mobility breakdowns and alternatives (from regions and nations to companies and individuals). The event also uncovered ways we engage with thinking about ‘the world’ as one place, with profound repercussions to the notion of global consciousness (or at least global awareness). And, as already mentioned, the event sparked ways of engaging with emotion and affect.(Jensen 2011:73)
When we experience these huge events with far-reaching consequences, speculations about the future may indeed emerge. Despite, or perhaps because of, the sophisticated infrastructures and global interaction patterns, humans do not control the globe. In the age of the ‘Anthropocene’, humanity is leaving lasting imprints on the globe, yet it does not hold it in its powers to control these imprints (see Latour 2018). In the light of COVID-19 and global disruption we furthermore see very divergent imaginaries and reactions, from cosmopolitan community creation and visions of ‘new beginnings’ to destructive theories of conspiracy and nationalist protectionism.
Even though the virus, scientifically speaking, is ‘the same’, the ways in which it affects social groups, regions, and societies differs immensely. The societal, technological, economic, and cultural capacity to deal with disasters and disruptive events are variable to context – and one of the reasons why social scientists like myself are occupied with them. Remember Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans in 2005? The effects of the hurricane surely went beyond physical water flows and spilled deep into government structures and bureaucratic cultures – as well as into racialized structures (see Petterson et al. 2006). The ways in which COVID-19 affects societies today are equally unequal. ‘First world’ capacities clash with ‘developing country’ disasters. Also internally within societies, cultures of epidemic reactions seem to differ (as when certain groups in Brazil or the US for example simply deny the existence of the virus).
Surely, this will also affect the ways in which academic communities meet, exchange, and deliberate – in short, there is bound to be a profound ‘before and after’ when it comes to COVID-19 and conferences.
As the title of this piece states, this is a ‘going back to’, so please allow me for a short moment to re-visit the paper I wrote on the above-mentioned volcanic eruption in 2010. I was attending the annual conference of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) in Washington DC. I was in a generic conference hotel when the news broke of what was termed an ‘ash could’ sealing off airspace between Europe and North America. Actually, the first accounts were not media accounts but personal communication. I received a text message from my wife, breaking the very first news of the ash cloud. My immediate response was to text back asking her to bring the kids inside! Little did I know that we were talking of an invisible (to the human eye) layer of minute air-borne particles that were no threat to humans on the ground, but which had the capacity to grind aircrafts’ motors to an immediate halt with the consequence of aircrafts dropping out of the sky.
There are several interesting things about the media treatment of the event. For one thing, American media was very slow to report on this, and the many first reports were more about the weird and un-pronounceable name of the volcano (true, it can be a challenge to say Eyjafjallajökull!). Then came the first stories on CNN about African agricultural workers being laid off because goods could not be shipped into Europe. Later came the many different stories about business people being unable to meet, tourists unable to travel, and people prevented from traveling back to funerals and weddings. The ripple effects of the volcano, however, also became a window into the interdependencies and vulnerabilities of the global air-system (this is the stuff that we Mobilities researchers find interesting).
Since this is a blog post related to conferences I do, however, also want to pick up on a few other reflections I made sitting in the lobby of the generic conference hotel in DC. Here let me throw in a few quotes:
Sitting in the lobby of a four star hotel amongst other stranded academics it struck me that this was not exactly the Titanic. In particular the relative severity of the event was made clear from initial reports of the global economic impacts of the eruption. On day three, or thereabouts, I followed a CNN feature on the first layoffs in the African agriculture sector. The closing of the international airspace made the transport of cheap agricultural goods from Africa to Europe impossible. The frustration and desperation in the faces of these unemployed farm workers stood in contrast to my personal ‘troubles’ in finding another hotel if the event turned out to be ongoing. The volcanic eruption thus also exposed to me the power-geometries of global connectivity that have at their base uneven regional levels of development. During the days the event unfolded the hotel lobby became a central point of reference. People met here, talked, accessed wireless and exchanged the latest news. It struck me how information collected from sources like national television, CNN and global media, personal cell phone communications, and e-mails were pooled into more or less reliable statements on the state of affairs. The hotel lobby and the communicative practices developing around this important node became a window into how the collective agenda morphed and shifted, at times very much resembling a ‘rollercoaster’ of emotions. At other times there were rational exchanges of knowledge, ideas and tips for re-routing; alternative trajectories and transportation modes; and simply other things to do whilst stuck in the US. The hotel lobby became the public sphere for exchanging and developing different interpretations of how to make sense of this giant phenomenon, the magnitude of which only slowly dawned upon us. Most were prepared only for a week of academic isolation otherwise occupied by theories, papers, endless presentations, talks and key-note speeches; not the painful reality of mobility impairment, loss of control, and vulnerability(Jensen 2011:69)
The conference lobby musings point to a reflection about being humble and able to understand the unevenness of the distribution of effects from ‘natural’ events. I also learned a bit about my Eurocentric perspective since I was sternly convinced that this closing of the ‘main road’ between Europe and the US not only was devastating to economics, but also unique. The latter point was quickly dismissed by a colleague and co-conference participant from South America, who told me that they often experienced the sealing off of airspace as an effect of volcanic activity – and she left me standing in the conference room feeling somewhat spoiled and self-concerned.
The volcano furthermore exposed the unevenness within academia. As societies have different capacities and resources for countering disruptive events, so do individuals. Being at a conference during the volcano disruption threw light on the academic hierarchy and stratification:
The breaking down of the global flight system not only exposed system vulnerability but also social interaction and collective dynamics. Thus, I recall the comforting words from a number of colleagues to a young PhD student crying with despair on the prospects of having to stay in the US with no money for accommodation. That emotional responses were being exposed became apparent upon seeing some people breaking down and others acting in somewhat estranged ways(Jensen 2011:72)
Coming back to 2020, I have personally already experienced that two of the conferences I am attending in this autumn have been ‘shifted’ onto online platforms. One is a philosophy of technology conference in Holland, and another is on Atmospheres in the US. Both were meant to be physical, face-to-face forums of the classic sort. I was also meant to attend the American Association of Geographers (yes, the AAG again) annual conference in Denver in April 2020. This obviously fell apart, and the conference organizers desperately tried to keep the thing together. They made a heroic effort to organize some tracks online, and they offered the participants a voucher for next year’s event in case we could not travel. Being the cautious type and not really sure how academic traveling will look like in 2021, I played it safe and had my refund.
Academic conferences are not my scholarly topic but, for what it is worth, I personally think that we will see a sort of hybridization between the physical co-presence model and the online version. As the business and government sectors seem to have realized during COVID-19, there are rationalization options and economic advantages to harvest from utilizing the newly re-discovered online landscapes of Zoom, Teams, and Skype etc. However, the lack of face-to-face dialogue and the informal network building that is a hallmark of conferences will be missing. So, if I am to look into the crystal ball I see a future of hybridized online and co-presence academic conferences. I have heard the argument being made, that online participation is a great opportunity for saving costs and of course cutting back on the environmental effects of international conference travel.
What I hope this will not lead to is a physical and co-present ‘A team’ pitched against an online ‘B team’. Imagining this to be yet another mechanism of unevenness is unfortunately not too difficult.
However, this has a lot to do with the preconditions of one’s forecasting. Here, I was assuming that there would be an opportunity to ‘go back’ as it were to some level of ‘before’ in terms of actually being able to travel to international conferences. Another scenario is possible, and that is the one of more fully-fledged breakdown and collapse. In this more dystopic vision, travelling for conferences will become a thing of the past, judged to be either too costly or downright immoral (a position already taken by critics of international conference activity).
Thinking about futures, I personally lean on the advice from the late John Urry (What is the Future, 2016). Hence, there are three kinds of futures: the probable, the possible, and the preferable futures. Not rarely do we see a conflation of the preferable and the probable. So personally, I hold it to be probable, that we will see this hybridization of the online and the co-present (unless the world as we now see it collapses and falls into chaos … not an impossible scenario though).
So, what can we learn from these disruptive events? I will try (admittedly oversimplified) to bullet-point my way into answering this question well knowing that not all of this is about conferences (but all of these points will affect future conferences, I am sure):
- Humans are not in control (as if they ever were)
- Humans are ‘nature’ and not separate from it
- Scales of geography and territory are blurring and hybridizing into a global space of events that knows no boundaries
- Information (and misinformation) travels further and farther
- Global interdependencies and system fragilities tie remote areas closer with activities in one place affecting the other, and vice versa
- New forms of physical and co-present scenes for interaction will merge with digital and online platforms in hybrids settings (of relevance for much more than conferences)
I shall leave you with this. What are huge elements of irritation, total disruption, or even downright catastrophe for some, are (also) ‘windows’ into the inner workings of the peculiar world we have built for academics like me. Allow me to end with the words from the most well-written and interesting piece of ‘Corona literature’ I have come across in my research. The Italian physicist Paolo Giordano who in his bestselling book ‘How Contagion Works’ vividly commented and reflected upon COVID-19:
The personal and the global is intertwined in ways that are so mysterious, that we become exhausted even before we as much as try to think it through … Contagion is an encouragement to think. The time of the quarantine is the opportunity to do so. Think about what? That we are not just part of the human community. We are the most intrusive species in a fragile and unique ecosystem(Giordano 2020:64-65, own translation)
About Ole B. Jensen
Ole B. Jensen is Professor of Urban Theory at the Department of Architecture, Design and Media Technology, Aalborg University (Denmark). He is deputy director and co-founder of the Centre for Mobilities and Urban Studies (C-MUS). He is the author of Staging Mobilities, Routledge, 2013, and Designing Mobilities, 2014, Aalborg University Press, the Editor of the four-volume collection Mobilities, Routledge, 2015, and author (with Ditte Bendix Lanng) of Mobilities Design. Urban Designs for Mobile Situations, 2017, Routledge, co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of Urban Mobilities, 2020 (with Claus Lassen, Ida S.G. Larsen, Malene Freudendal-Pedersen and Vincent Kaufman).
Blog entries by Ole Jensen related to Corona/COVID-19 (from the blog Critical Automobility Studies):