At a Happy-hour “Goodbye” outing last night, many of us at the table (with our basil lemonades in hand) pondered the question what happens now after the International AIDS Conference. What changed and what changes are to come? Are we going back to the humdrum of old? Was the conference a game-changer?
The International AIDS Conference 2012, at a time when we are more optimistic than ever before in regards to biomedical advancements in fighting HIV/AIDS, was a simultaneously invigorating and taxing experience. The spirit of cooperation and enthusiasm was higher than I’ve ever seen it before in this field. That said, the sheer size in terms of physical distance, attendance, and information to assimilate and debate was daunting, an exercise in moderation, drawing boundaries, learning one’s limits, and striking a balance. That is to say, positivity must be balanced against irrational exuberance, networking must be balanced against meaningful connections, and heartfelt opinion must be balanced against fact in rational debate. These are delicate balances, and part of being culturally competent in the non-profit world is developing an understanding of the variety of ideologies, backgrounds, and motivations that drive individuals to commit themselves to the cause of addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Professional culture, in the era of social media and the factory university, has become, as semioticians would say, a spectacle. We long for something new, but a symbol or idea takes hold, is repeated into infinity, so much so that it requires acute mental effort to pierce through the information fog and extract meaning. As literary theorist Roland Barthes observed, “The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition… always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.” The intellectual effort required to derive the significance of the tsunami of repeated information that washes over one in a professional conference can drive anyone to madness. How many meetings can a person attend without the speaker becoming the incomprehensible teacher in Charlie Brown punctuating sentences with recognizable buzzwords. How many information sessions does it take to get to the center of a tootsie roll. And how many forums can one sit through without starting to feel like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey – too many conflicting demands driving one crazy. Eventually you just refuse to open the pod bay doors and start asking questions like “What are you doing, Dave?” The standard networking fare of a professional conference is the meet and greet (officially referred to on expense accounts as “the reception”, and it is an endless merry-go-round of hand shaking, introductions, elevator pitches, and discovering commonalities with people you have nothing in common with. Eventually, they start to blend together, and you enter every room with a sense of déjà vu, and sometimes even forget your own name.
Yet, we did it all! Attended sessions, global village events, booth meet & greets, and networking receptions (which surprisingly some people just went to the conference to attend those) until my feet could not carry me anymore. I felt most engaged in the sessions that entailed thoughtful discussions around how we actually implement these highly touted new biomedical advances. Surprisingly, not many discussed real actionable plans. The sessions were dizzying in that you left them both hopeful at the science and in shock at how little community engagement there has been (but that was a different blog post). I guess it was all a new form of “shock and awe.”
One of my favorite shows is the zombie apocalypse fun-fest called The Walking Dead, but after a week at the International AIDS Conference, I’m not sure whether I would be better cast as a survivor as a zombie. I certainly felt like I was lurching from event to event. I haven’t yet developed a taste for human flesh, so maybe everything will be okay. As we concluded AIDS 2012, we have learned a lot, made numerous connections, made a lot of new friends and reacquainted ourselves with old ones. We may yet survive the zombie conference apocalypse but still the question arises “now what?”
We learned, we met, and we broke bread together but are we truly closer to an end to the epidemic or did we just manage to enhance our outlook contacts list? Let’s defy the naysayers and make real change happen as a result of a conference. See ya at the finish line!