Professor, Designer, Husband, Father, Gamer, Bagpiper

In response to the article I posted this morning "Reflecting on Some of My Carbon Emissions Numbers", a friend asked

... if you just figured out #flyless is the answer, people might like knowing why you still feel the need to travel, professionally. Maybe obvious...

The short answer is, I don't.

In that article, I pointed out I'm flying to Berlin in a week; that's for the Mozilla company-wide All Hands meeting (not an academic conference), a meeting I already committed to, and can't realistically cancel. If I could go back in time, I would probably have tried harder to convince my manager that I don't need to be there.

As it is, we are actively discussing within our group how we can use online technologies (like the social VR system our group developed, and that I used for the online part of the ACM UIST conference and will be using for the upcoming online part of the IEEE VR conference I'm co-chairing in March).

The longer answer is more complicated.

I don't expect to give up flying entirely, both for personal travel and for work travel. But I hope I will reduce it dramatically. On the corporate side of my life, some trips really aren't optional; very few for me, but I do understand that for many people, they don't have the choice to reduce work travel. I know people who advocate trains over flying, but for many that's simply not feasible: few people have luxury of adding one to four days onto each side of a business trip (yes, a friend pointed to a four day train ride as a viable alternative to flying across the country).  I certainly can't manage that between work and family commitments, although I admit it sounds like it could be a lovely experience (on the right train!)

On the academic side of my life, I'm lucky: pretty much all of my work travel is optional. Oh, I'm sure many academics will protest that this isn't true, but it is. We have developed a culture in CS that revolves around conferences, and boy do we love going to them. But that needs to change. Aside from the opportunity to visit new places, there is nothing about the "work" part of a conference we can't replicate online. Some parts might not be as good, but others would be better.

It needs to change not just for climate reasons (although that is more than enough reason), but also for equity and inclusivity reasons.  Right now, academic conferences are the place "where you get noticed, where you make connections, and where the senior folks meet and mentor the up-and-coming folks."  But who goes to conferences?  Academics at top-tier universities (because they have the time and resources to make these trips, and have the university culture that allows them to miss teaching and other responsibilities), and researchers at corporate labs. Who doesn't? Researchers at less prestigious places, for sure. But also people in poorer countries or countries where they can't get permission to travel. And people with disabilities. And those with family responsibilities that make travel difficult.  Looked at from the outside, that sure sounds like a system designed to keep power and influence in the hands of a small, in-crowd of prestigious places.

Having done a few remote experiences over the past year, I will admit that there is something quite nice about shifting my work day to remotely attending an event across the world, but being able to have dinner with my family, take my kids to school and sleep in my own bed. Not to mention avoiding the exhaustion and physical wear-and-tear of days of travel.  Getting up at 2 or 3am, or staying up till then, to spend a "day of work" on some other time zone, is not so bad, and much easier to recover from.  (And yes, I've hung out with colleagues in VR after the meeting, with a beer – from my fridge – chatting about new ideas and life and so on, just as we would have in the evenings at a conference).

I'm sure reading this will cause some of my colleagues to ruffle with indignation. They will protest that our work is important, and advancing science justifies that cost. Which is nonsense.

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