onsdag 4 maj 2016

Fly or die


I went to a workshop last week, "Fly or die?". It also had a subtitle, "The future of the travelling scientist and the exchange of academic knowledge". The workshop is part of a ongoing project, "Traveling without borders", at "KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory" (I honestly didn't know we had one). From the workshop invitation:

KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory welcomes you to an exciting and somewhat different workshop. Together we seek to imagine a future where longdistance travels are scarce and airplane tickets are no longer cheap. How do we exchange ideas and scientific discoveries in that future? What can we do today, on a practical level, to develop and reevaluate the travelling scientist and the exchange of academic knowledge?
Let’s ask ourselves: What is necessary travelling? What is an essential conference? What can be discussed and decided on video chats or voice calls? To explore these questions we will collaborate in group discussions about the practice, rationale and morality of travelling.

The title "Fly or die?" relates to the expression "publish or perish" as well as to "carbon scholarship". Academics (researchers) have large CO2 footprints because we fly all over the place to work in (pan-European) research projects and attend conferences. So how can we decrease flying "without hindering the free exchange of ideas in the future"?

After a short introduction to the project, we were divided into smaller groups and discussed the question "How do we exchange ideas and scientific discoveries in the future?" for about 30 or 40 minutes before we met up again. We were also provided with a few questions to help us on our way:
- How do we travel?
- Where do we meet to work?
- How do we communicate?
- Who are part of academic in 2030-2040?

My group consisted of both people I knew (Elina Ericsson, Vlad Coroama, Jacob von Oelreich) as well as a newcomer (don't remember her name). Since our discussion was pretty much all over the place, I have tried to prune it a little. We basically started with the main question and let it carry us hither and dither.

One person in our group started by stating that "little" or "nothing" will change in the next 15 years. The exchange of ideas and the exchange of goods (through trade) has "always" been with us and "always" will. We academics "need" to travel in order to continue to exchange ideas, and, some of the current work practices would not be possible without air flight and computer-mediated communication. I found this to be limited perspective for two different reasons. The first is that I can imagine not just one but several reasons for why this could change in the next 20 or so years, e.g. peak oil, economic decline, environmental concerns etc. The second reason is that this is an exceedingly boring and unproductive position to take at a workshop where we are encouraged and tasked to think "outside the box".

The most fruitful idea in our conversation then centered around the slow movement and a recently published book (March 2016), "The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy". Here's an early (2013) draft I just found - it's perhaps a conference paper about the concept "the slow professor".

If we can't fly, then we need to rethink the frantic speed with which things happen today and make a virtue out of slowness. So what could "slow academia" imply? What would it look like? What would be the upside compared to the current situation?

We first established that there are some people who for various reasons try to avoid "excessive" (air) travel already today. Perhaps they have young children at home or an ailing parent, a large environmental consciousness, little access to funds for travelling, or, perhaps they suffer from fear of flying (or pretend to be!)? These persons could be seen as the forerunners of norms and habits that will be widespread 20 years from now. We could imagine a diverging academy where some people, or even some universities will continue to fly a lot and hang on to current criteria about what constitutes quality in the academy, while others will go for a totally different model. We speculated about the reappearance of slow travel and the equivalent of young intellectuals' "Grand Tour" which was popular from the mid-17th to the mid-19th century:

"The Grand Tour was the traditional trip of Europe undertaken by mainly upper-class European young men of means, or those of more humble origin who could find a sponsor. ... It served as an educational rite of passage." (Wikipedia)


"Three hundred years ago, wealthy young Englishmen began taking a post-Oxbridge trek through France and Italy in search of art, culture and the roots of Western civilization. With nearly unlimited funds, aristocratic connections and months (or years) to roam, they commissioned paintings, perfected their language skills and mingled with the upper crust of the Continent." (The New York Times, 2008)

Perhaps there could be a special academic position, say "travelling journeyman" (the bringer of knowledge, "pollinating" the universities he passes by on his trip) - the retro-future equivalent of today's post-doctoral researchers? During that special period of your life, you are perhaps not allowed to publish (a taboo?) so as to concentrate on your personal development as an academic and on your important task of transferring knowledge between (relatively) isolated academic communities.

We could still travel to conferences, but not as often and obviously not as fast. We would then travel less frequently but for longer durations. If I go to a far-away conference in, say, the US, my hosts would be expected to help me set up a lecture tour after the conference. Conferences that are currently held every year would shift to every second or even less often. More local (national, regional) conferences would on the other hand thrive, but much of what is implied in "slow academy" would counteract young academics forming families at a young age. Travelling over land or sea to attend distant conferences would be hard on partners and on children. Slow academia would once again force people to make "irreversible" life choice at a youngish age and the academic ladder would once again be more aligned with biological age. It would be hard to start your ph.d. studies at the mature age of 30 or 40 as most people have settled down at that age (partner, children) and might also have certain life expectations that might be at odds with slow academia. The slow academic would tend to postponed children until having been established as a slow professor (e.g. until holding a permanent position).

Up until now, I have written about relatively direct effects, but we also traced out some "second-order effects". If every action has a consequence, then each consequence has another consequence and these are the second-order effects. Some car-related (unintended, unplanned-for) second-order effects are smogurban gridlockdrive-in theatres and changes in dating and courtship culture, drag racingextreme communitysuburbia etc.

We assumed that slow academia will mean also a slower pace of publishing academic paper, but also an increase in the quality of the average paper. Slow academia and and a slower pace of publishing would also tend to make papers longer. Instead of writing a short paper for a conference, we would increasingly write longer journal papers, book chapters, or, full-length books. We agreed that the slow academy would need to find suitable criteria for evaluating research and that these criteria would differ significantly from those used today. The slow academy would also reward teaching (as compared to research) to a much higher extent than today. Teaching is an on-campus place-bound activity that would fit well with the structure that slow academia and the slow university would be tasked with.

The perhaps most intriguing thoughts we came up with had to do with another "unintended" consequence of decreased (air) travels. In a world where travelling is slow and arduous, we would turn to the local and perhaps become more involved in local space-based projects, e.g. collaborating with local groups, attempting to steer och change the city we live in or perhaps becoming active in local or regional politics (or in political issues).

My colleague Ambjörn has commented that he can be in close contact with half a dozen European colleagues (in just as many countries) who work on exactly the same things he does, but, he doesn't have a clue about the research that his next-door neighbour does. His close contacts with researchers elsewhere function much like personal wormholes. In a travel-constrained future, we would however to a larger extent need to find intellectual gratification and our intellectual peers in our close vicinity (the next door over, in a neighbouring research group or at another department at the same university) - rather than through these "wormholes" spanning time and space. That would also mean that the possibility of founding distinct, place-based and place-bound "schools of thought"would increase significantly (e.g. "The Chicago School of architecture" or "The Frankfurt School of social theory"). "Networking" would decrease and the balance between today's ubiquitous "weak ties" and the slower but more durable "strong ties" would shift in favour of the latter.

After having reconvened and discussed our "findings" cursorily, we were given a slightly different task, namely to think about the question "What can be done now?". We discussed that question in the same group (except that Tinni Ernsjöö Rappe replaced Vlad at our table). We again had some supporting questions, namely:
- How can we travel [today]?
- Where can we meet to work [today]?
- How can we communicate [today]?
- How is responsible for these changes?

We started to discuss if we were supposed to be "reasonable" and base our discussion and our proposed measures on what is deemed "possible" right at this moment, or, if we were supped to be visionary and utopian in our thinking. It seemed the workshop leaders did not have any strong opinions (which I thought was slightly strange) so we of course went for the visionary option. 

I suggested that KTH have just decided to become the first air travel-free university by 2030. What would that mean? What policies would be necessary? What would need to happen between now and 2030 in order to accomplish that goal? This became the topic we discussed for the rest of the session.

The question about what it would mean in practice was relatively easy to figure out. From Jan 1, 2030, KTH will not reimburse any costs for air travel. If you want to travel by air, you would have to pay it out of your own pocket (with your own taxed money). You would no longer be at your own liberty to finance air travel by "siphoning off" means from your own research projects. Long before that, KTH would hava instituted a (draconian?) internal tax on CO2/air flight that would subsidise train tickets.

Taking such a decision would mean ultra overdrive super PR for KTH. But could KTH be an air travel-free university and a world-class university and one and the same time? We imagine that such a policy would tend to attract some academics but of course also repel others, and this would happen in short order rather than in the very last years leading up to 2030. Would KTH have problems hiring "top researchers" or would they instead stand in line to work at KTH? Would KTH employees continue to travel by air in their private lives? Yes, we probably would, and that could be ok (or at least "ok") as long as we are appropriately ashamed of our plane trips and as long as we don't post any status updates about trips and exotic locations in our Facebook feed. That is something that irritates me already today and I suspect that that kind of "anti pro-social environmental behaviour" might raise the bar for what what constitutes a successful lifestyle as well as encourage others to mimic or surpass our trips to exotic locations in a futile zero-sum game of vying for social status. 

Since KTH would still want to encourage an academic exchange of ideas, KTH would institute stipends for in- and out-bound slow travel and for extended visits/sabbatical (say, months or upwards to a year). KTH would naturally also have a stock of (on- or near-campus) apartments for temporary guests to make such academic exchange easier. 

A recurring topic in our discussions was alternative to flying. Trains are ok, but, they do take time and they don't have the best facilities for spending that time "productively" (working). So how about planning to go on conference trips together with your favourite colleagues and get work done during the longish trip? Better working facilities (for example group rooms or meeting rooms) should then be offered on trains. Perhaps KTH should have its own branded KTH train wagons that you could request/books for conference trips? Just as was suggested above, we should of course coordinate conference trips with other academic visits and activities. The KTH train wagons could tour through Europe, "packed with professors". We joked that the train would be complemented by the KTH stables for local travelling in style. Not so much of a joke was the suggestions that we should go by boat on those few trips that take us to other continents. And we should naturally use computer-mediated communication instead of travelling whenever possible!

How long time would it take to go someplace by boat? Some Internet "research" gives that it takes a week or so to go from Rotterdam to New York in a modern container ships that travels at speeds in excess of 20 knots (37 km/h = 750 km/day). A trip from China to the US west coast would twice as long.

What would KTH's policy for organising conferences be in a travel-constrained future? By organising a conference, KTH researchers "stay home", but we at the same time encourage others to travel so as to attend our conferences. One innovative suggestion was that conferences should be better coordinated. It's nice to visit Scandinavia in August when it can be unbearably hot in many other parts of the world. It's less nice to visit during the winter. So, the annual Scandinavian academic conference season would be the month of August (this can be compared to "hunting season"). Other parts of the world could "claim" other seasons. It would then be easier to go to two or even three coordinated conferences and to combine trips and travel arrangements with colleagues in other/related areas. I will myself attend two conferences after the summer that (by happenstance) turn out to be very well coordinated. I will first attend the 4th ICT4S conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (August 29 - September 1) and then 8th EESD conference in Bruges, Belgium (September 4-7). They are "only" 200 km apart by the "Noordzee Route" (the North Sea Cycle Route) so it would in fact be kind of viable to travel between them by bike in two days if you are in reasonably good shape!

But perhaps trips and travelling are overrated in the first place (see the reasoning about slow academia above)? Perhaps we can avoid many trips by encouraging and rewarding journal articles rather then conference publications? We also had a heated discussion at our table about whether changed travel habits today was primarily the responsibility of the individual researcher (or the research group), or, if such changes should come "from above" and "afflict" everyone equally (i.e. bottom-up vs top down change). Is it the responsibility of those individuals, research groups or departments that do research on sustainability to lead the way and refrain from air travel already today? Or, do we put our faith in changed travel policies? The Australian researcher Yolande Strengers wrote a great text two years ago, "Fly or die: air travel and the internationalisation of academic careers" which treated the contradictions and paradoxes that she herself struggled with at a personal level:

"My short-term position as a Visiting Researcher from Australia in the DEMAND Centre (UK) is a case in point. In responding to a call for international visitors I found myself on a 25+ hour plane trip from one side of the planet to the other. The intention? To work with DEMAND researchers and contribute to the Centre’s ambition of developing new ways to think about reducing energy demand, including that associated with travel."

An interesting effect of attending this workshop was that one of the participants in our group (Jacob von Oelreich) sent an e-mail to the KTH environmental manager with the header "Tightening of KTH's travel policy and sustainability goals for traveling". This resulted in an invitation to a meeting with her in the beginning of June. He forwarded the invitation me and to Elina se we too are welcome to tag along to that meeting. I will of course also direct him to this blog post! We'll see what comes out of such a meeting - of what is deemed "possible" and "realistic" and what is deemed "utopian" of perhaps "weird" or even "foolish".

One final goofy and distasteful comment went to the heart of the dilemma between on the one hand KTH striving to be a world-leading university and on the other hand decreasing our air travel/CO2 emissions. A "shortcut" to becoming a world-leading university could be to not give a damn about all the doomish climate change "hyperbole", continue to live and travel exactly the way we do today, lean back and then let the competition burn away or sink under the waves. 

The final round-up discussion discussed various loose ends, for example:
- The current pan-European system for booking train trips sucks!
- Should we to a higher extent discuss the reasons for why we travel? If those reasons and incentives change, there would be less need for air travel.
- What would the implications for fund-raising be?
- Should there be more public shaming of (for example) egregious air travellers or examples of double standards or double morals?
- How can we challenge academic myths that you have to travel in order to excel? My personal favourite example is the totally brilliant but elusive Swedish social psychologist Johan Asplund who lives in the countryside and who never attends conferences. He has written 20 books but "It is said that he thinks that the essence of a text gets lost if you translate it, and therefore refuses being published in other languages". His language is im-pecc-a-ble and he guess he has more important things to do than to "waste time" trying to convince others of the brilliance of his writings or to argue with people who have misunderstood his writings).
- Travelling does not equal academic excellence, travelling is academic networking. It's a little like making a career out of writing and sending scholarly letters back and forth in the 16th century - but not yourself doing any of the science you write about. It is also unfair because it increases the risk that it's not the best ideas that spread, but rather those ideas that are proposed and hammered in by those with the most money (to travel and attend conferences). It's a winner-takes-it-all game ("power laws" are at play rather than the normal distribution).
- ...But is there a risk for parochial, national academic communities in a travel-constrained world and how do we avoid that?
- Today you can be well-known or even famous through the Internet (e.g. TED talks), rather than by travelling to conferences and holding keynotes. We need to further develop ideas about how to communicate our ideas in other ways that those based on propelling our physical bodies around the planet!

A final, boring comment was: "if the duration of our trips increase, what do we do with our partners, our pets, our children and our ageing mother?". To that I say "if the planet burns, what do we do with our partners, our pets, our children and our grandchildren?".

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