GELFAND’S WORLD--Over the course of the pandemic, we have dealt with the New Rules by huddling indoors and avoiding public contact (except for when we didn't).
The difference has been most dramatic in terms of all those formal public gatherings where hundreds or even thousands of people got together. The change was not only expressed but forcefully symbolized a year ago when the NBA abruptly called off its season. There were all sorts of other events ranging from baseball games to county fairs that felt the sting. But there was one sort of event that could and did try to hold on by converting to an online form.
For the most part, these were organizations and events in which information was exchanged. I'm thinking of science and hobbyist get-togethers, although you might be thinking of political gatherings.
It's therefore a little ironic that right now, in what seem to be the waning days of the pandemic (at least in this country) we are seeing how fragile the online system can be.
I will offer disclosure that I am personally involved in at least two of these sorts of events, one being a high school science fair. Last year, we made the decision to cancel the 2020 science fair when the virus invaded California. How could we ask several hundred students and their parents to congregate in one place if there was going to be an expanding viral epidemic?
It turned out that we made the right decision because the epidemic was in fact expanding when the fair would have taken place. There would have been no way that any sane organization would have allowed the fair to take place.
It's a new year, and were it an ordinary time we would be busily preparing for the gathering of 1400 or so people -- 300 judges and 1100 students -- to connect working scientists with America's next generation of scientists and engineers.
Obviously we cannot do that. So instead, we are attempting to put together a "virtual" i.e.: online version of the fair. During one of our (online) preparation meetings, we were considering the sorts of things that could go wrong. This being a group which includes real engineers and at least one scientist associated with NASA, they think of Everything. (No wonder our Mars landers have been so remarkable.) We are trying to consider every sort of vulnerability, right up to rolling blackouts affecting some far-off county where some of our contestants will be trying to connect up.
It's obviously not a simple matter.
Why bother to bring this up for you to read at this time? Aren't we on our way back to normality, maybe even by the Fourth of July?
There is an answer. We think that there is something to be learned from all of this. The widespread use of Zoom meetings and their many competitors have led to several realizations: We can attend meetings without having to drive halfway across town on the 110, or to pay for parking, or to drive back. At the neighborhood council level, we have been able to hold meetings without finding a room. My neighborhood council used to pay $50 each time we used a room at one of our local nonprofits. Perhaps more importantly, it has become possible to attend a convention that would otherwise have involved traveling to Dayton, Ohio or to New Hampshire.
In non-pandemic years, there are important scientific lectures at UCLA and USC and Caltech. Wouldn't it be useful to be able to attend these talks by computer instead of driving for 2 hours and paying UCLA parking rates? The same argument holds for lots of other things -- trade fairs and conventions and old fashioned chats -- which leads to this caveat:
After nearly a year of development for the online meeting systems, we are still seeing glitches. Not just glitches, but complete crashes. The 3rd annual westside safety and preparedness fair was supposed to occur on March 7 of last week. It didn't happen, although a lot of people tried (and failed) to connect.
And over the weekend, a national Ham Radio fair called QSO Today also failed to work. I was one of those who had signed up, and it was only Monday that I got apologetic emails explaining the failure.
One useful point arises from all of this. Even after an embarrassing failure, the ham radio fair is able to offer us the original content, albeit at a later time. It seems that the organizers had their speakers record their presentations in advance, and they will be available on demand over the next several weeks.
In short, YouTube technology and culture has taken over the world. It is possible to upload material to some far-off server and it is possible for somebody equally far away to download it and watch it at any time of the day or night. This technology is available to emergency preparedness events, stamp clubs, and even scientific societies.
There is some loss in all of this. I can remember meeting and talking to Robert A Heinlein at a long-ago meeting, and being at a wine and cheese party with one of the discoverers of the DNA double helix. But these opportunities are few and far between, and the possibilities of the new technology are broad. Still, the chance for individual conversations with colleagues and friends is of importance, and the new technology has not as yet replaced the handshake, the cocktail, and extended conversation.
For those of us who labor in the trenches of local politics or the science fair, the technology is something we purchase or borrow from a vendor such as Zoom or zFairs. When it works it allows us to congregate -- if not in person, at least in some fashion -- and that's what we have left to us during the pandemic.
We are left to wonder whether there will be some point, perhaps a couple of years down the road, when we can put viral disease aside and go back to normal life, even including foreign travel. This is not something that is assured, since there can and will be other viruses and there may be more deadly variants of the Covid-19.
But out of this the world will have changed, and we will have become accustomed to online group meetings, just as the younger folks use cell phone video to talk to each other.
There is one other issue that the Los Angeles neighborhood council system is trying to deal with. There is an annual get-together called the neighborhood council congress. It too had to cancel its in-person meeting last year, but it has already attempted one (admittedly limited) online meeting. It too has tried to do its organizing using online Zoom meetings.
One thing we have learned is that it is a lot easier for the person controlling the Zoom to get away with improper conduct. In one recent meeting, I made three attempts to speak regarding the conduct of the meeting, and each time I was immediately muted by the person in control.
So we have taken another word into our vocabulary -- Mute.
When it is simply a matter of courtesy by those in attendance it is fine. But when used as a means of control, it is not. Parliamentary procedure has safeguards and balances built into it, but when a new technology makes it impossible to make use of those safeguards, we begin to have a problem.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])