Last Thursday I flew to San Antonio for a Liberty Fund conference on the relationship between democracy and empire in Thucydides. Thoughts on the substance of the conference can be found here and here. This was the first academic conference to which I brought the iPad, and consequently I was very interested in how the device would work out. It seems to me that the iPad is best understood as part of a family of devices that extends from smart phone to laptop. It is primarily a device for consumption and networking, lacking strong capabilities for composition but filling a space that remedies the deficiencies of both the smart phone and the laptop. This is the operational concept that informed my use of the iPad during the conference.
Broadly speaking, a conference can be broken down into three parts. The first part is travel, both to and from. The second is formalized interaction with other conference participants, most often taking place in actual panel sessions. The third is informal interaction with conference participants outside of panel settings. On this trip, the iPad proved of use in all three settings. On the way to and from San Antonio, I used the iPad in obvious ways, reading books while on the plane and checking e-mail/twitter/RSS while in airports. In the past, I would have used either my iPhone or my laptop in these situations, but the iPad was really an improvement over either. It’s not nearly as awkward as a laptop on a plane, but provides a much better reading experience than the iPhone. In the airport, it obviates the need to bring out the laptop and to waste precious battery life trying to check e-mail. My 3G version also relieves me of the need to try to find free wireless.
In the conference sessions, the iPad proved quite valuable. The conference involved in depth discussion of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and sometimes required reference to outside sources. The iPad was ideal for such purposes, as it did not break up the intimacy of the conversation in the way that a laptop can. A laptop inevitably creates a sense of distance between interlocutors when placed on a table and put to use. The annoying “click-clack” of most keyboards also makes conversation difficult. The iPad suffers from neither of these problems, instead providing a relatively unobtrusive way of recording or accessing information. I used the iPad to look up certain terms on Wikipedia, to find timelines, and most notably to live-tweet the proceedings of the conference. I could also have used it to record the sessions, but this capability was not appropriate to the theme of the conference. Altogether, the iPad proved exceedingly useful as a tool during the formal part of the conference.
It proved somewhat less useful during the informal parts. The iPad is too large to bring to a restaurant, or to access unobtrusively during dinner. It proved of some utility during intersession breaks (looking up Youtube videos and so forth), but would have been out of place at “hospitality sessions” designed to facilitate informal interaction between conference participants. Of course, a laptop would also have been out of place. The informal space at a conference remains, in my view, the domain of the smart phone, which can be carried unobtrusively, and even sometimes accessed without doing violence to the social setting.
All told, the iPad was quite useful in a conference setting. It can’t do everything, but when envisioned as part of a family of devices, it played its role quite strongly.
- Dr. Robert Farley
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