Contrary to what one might think, the best thing about conferences is not the exchange of knowledge. The best thing is meeting new people and catching up with old friends.
I once heard say that the whole idea of attending conferences is old-fashioned. Most companies have long ago decided conference calls are much more efficient, cheaper and faster. Since a couple of years, the internet has taken over, Skype is a wonderful thing, TED-talks inspire people all over the world.
So scholars who still travel around the globe to listen to a paper they might just as well read at home, are apparently completely out of date. Although I personally do feel we might want to “update” the whole conference experience a little bit, people who think the concept is obsolete simply do not get it.
Yes, it is much faster to read an article than to plough through session after session, from the early morning until the early evening. I’ve seen people drifting off to sleep more than once. Yet the best research ideas are often born over a cup of coffee next to the book exhibition or over dinner with colleagues.
The whole atmosphere of a (good) conference puts you in a certain frame of mind, it creates a certain vibe. You’re temporarily liberated from dull administrative tasks or tedious housework and your brain can focus entirely on just one thing: creative thinking. And that is incredible.
Personally, a good conference gets me high, a feeling that lingers on for weeks after I’m back. I’m willing to admit that might be just me. But no conference call or Skype talk can replace what happens when a group of likeminded people get the chance to interact. I wonder what would happen if scholars would no longer get the chance to meet colleagues from halfway across the globe. Wouldn’t we live in a much poorer (research) world?