It is almost as if we are robots sitting all day at our screens and now it’s almost as if the wires are all being fried i.e., brain, neck, lower back, eyes, posture, elbows. Previously, even though we were robots of sorts, we would still have human interaction, walk to work, get on a bus or uber, speak to the person who sold sandwiches at our offices, get to know each other over lunch or coffee, chit chat as we pass each other in the corridors. In my case, it was keeping a bag ready, buying a new selfie-stick each time I flew and the constant on-the-go adrenaline rush which would set in (I do feel guilty about the carbon emissions, although admittedly, nothing in life compares to learning, living and working e.g. conducting research in another setting).
I do not know about you but there is no such thing as time to attend a conference anymore. Previously, we would have time off work to do so, or people would understand that we are away, such days are long gone. Real networking has fallen by the wayside. There are some attempts at networking, for example, via breakout rooms but it does not compare to the human touch, the time for stories, getting to know each other, smiles, real conversation, hanging out. The virtual space is also about hundred times more exhausting, perhaps it may be more bearable and fun if we could all use the trending lawyer’s cat filter.
The biggest regret I have this past year is paying quite a sum for a virtual conference. At one point, I felt, I had to get my money’s worth and I tried to listen to the 90 minute session recordings, I listened for about 20 minutes, until all project demands kept flowing in. It is tough to quantify and maybe it’s all the added household chores (literally braising onions, boiling pasta, cooking biryaani or hanging laundry in my breaks) or the constant expectation to meet online, free time to sit down and enjoy a conference is even harder to pin down these days.
Let me not be the eternal pessimist, there were formal and informal spaces which have made me “feel alive” again. Informally, I set up a call and never bothered to ask Marion Osieyo about the project opportunity she had sent me, instead we just spent an hour on zoom catching up. The informal discussion with PhD student Campion Zharima who just wanted some advice or having a creative brainstorming session with Prof. Renier Coetzee or Nicole Hoffman on how we could embark on a massive fundraising drive for Operation Smile South Africa got the energy levels up.
In formal spaces, Hague Talks and Emerging Voices got it right with really cool music inserts (although, I would never dance online it’s recorded). A recent Champion South Africa meeting bringing together the ‘who’s-who’, the heart and soul of the country (South Africa). I thought to myself, come hell or high water, when Ashraf Garda sent through an invitation, I booked out a solid three hours to revel in wisdom and inspiration. Each presenter at the Champion SA meeting had only five minutes to get their message across and trust me they did. I was completely hooked (for the first time during this pandemic) as I listened to concepts around vision and purpose (Pepe Marais), self-governance (Themba Baloyi), mischief (Dr Pali Lehohla), setting up innovation platforms (Tasneem Mohamed), our growing digital shadows (Stafford Massie), learning how to breath (Rehana Mosajee), and consequential conversations (Nozipho Tshabalala).
In sum, informal catch-ups/ hanging out, music, and presentation time kept to roughly five-minutes (not 90 minutes) are showing the way in keeping our attention and making these times bearable. We still have a long way to go before we can binge-watch zoom sessions or virtual conferences like we do Netflix. My only recommendation or rather desperate plea to organisers, can we try our best to make it as fun, real, interactive and as colourful as possible, otherwise I fear for the survival of us social beings!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr Shakira Choonara is an award-winning independent public health practitioner, and pens #ThoughtSpace with a touch of inspiration, critical thinking, and creativity