Dr Tim Satterthwaite, Lecturer in History of Art and Design, looks back on ‘Future States’, CDH’s pioneering online conference on history of magazines.

Future States: Modernity and National Identity in Popular Magazines, 1890–1945 was an international conference on the history of magazines, hosted by CDH in March-April this year. Unlike so many academic events that unfortunately had to postpone or cancel in 2020, Future States was able to go ahead as planned, due to its unusual format: this was a nearly carbon-neutral conference (NCNC), taking place entirely online. The NCNC model, developed in response to the climate crisis, offered, as it turned out, a resilient format for the conditions of global pandemic.

The NCNC approach, pioneered in 2016 by researchers at UC Santa Barbara, seeks to exploit the potential of the internet as a forum for knowledge exchange and scholarly interaction. Unlike conventional academic conferences, in which speakers present in person, NCNC presentations are recorded in advance, then posted on the conference website; participants and presenters interact, principally, via text-based Q&A forums, which remain ‘live’ over the course of the event. In place of the concentrated spatial and temporal unity of physical conferences, NCNCs are expansive: events run, typically, for two to three weeks, promoting in-depth discussions that build over time – a kind of ‘republic of letters’ for the twenty-first century. Since no-one has to travel to take part, NCNCs offer significant environmental savings – more than 95% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional fly-in conferences – and are inclusive: anyone with an internet connection can take part, from anywhere in the world, and can also access the conference presentations and discussions, via the website, after the live event closes.

Future States, the first NCNC hosted by a UK university, and one of the first in the world in humanities scholarship, launched on 30 March 2020, just as universities across the globe were moving to remote tuition. We were a little apprehensive: would anyone have the time, and intellectual space, to take part? But as the materials were all in place, we decided to push ahead as planned.

It was the right decision. Over the course of the following three weeks, nearly two hundred participants registered, and the Q&A forums filled up with thousands of words: brilliant and incisive questions, comments, new scholarly connections and lines of enquiry. Magazine studies has burgeoned in the digital age, and we had a formidable line-up of international scholars (interested readers can watch all the presentations on the Future States website), so the conference had a broad appeal. But the event’s success was also an emphatic proof of principle of the NCNC model: participants spent, on average, about eight hours at the conference over its three-week run, returning for multiple visits and engaging enthusiastically with the Q&A discussions; over 90 percent of participants, in our conference survey, said they would be very keen to attend future events of this kind.

In the era of climate change and COVID-19, universities are having to reassess their fundamental activities, including the staging of academic events. As the success of Future States demonstrates, the NCNC model offers a practical, low-cost alternative to traditional conferences; the online model also has some clear advantages, particular in areas such as conference archiving. NCNCs are, of course, not as convivial as physical events – we had no late-night gatherings in the bar at Future States, no conference dinner – but maybe this sociability is a luxury we will have to live without, or rediscover at a more local level, in our new post-pandemic, ecological age.