Monday morning I got up early and ran on the treadmill in the South Point Casino’s fitness center, as I had done every day of TAM. I run every single day, without fail, for at least 30 minutes or three miles, and this was Day 513.
I don’t usually run in the mornings. I don’t usually get anything useful done in the mornings, but today I had two flights and a layover ahead of me, and even if all went as planned I’d be landing in Atlanta after 10 p.m., and I knew I’d be exhausted and not want to run. If all didn’t go according to plan, I could be stuck on the tarmac somewhere or even forced to overnight in a strange city where I wouldn’t have easy access to my running shoes and clothes. So it seemed prudent to skip breakfast (many TAMmers were gathering for it) and get my run in instead.
After running and showering I got dressed, finished packing, and checked out of the hotel. After boarding the plane I thought idly about getting in one last “What Happens In Vegastm” indulgence, but all I had on me was a bag of Fritos. It’s just as well. I’m not big on the vices. I haven’t even gambled at any of my TAMs, and this was my fourth.
It was a great experience; my best TAM yet, in fact. I’m reminded of an ongoing debate among space scientists about how we should explore the solar system. On the one side are the roboticists, who point to the great successes of NASA’s rovers and orbiters that have gone to Mars and sent back petabytes of information about the planet. Even with all the ones that have crashed or malfunctioned, their success rate is high and they’ve made great leaps forward in the science. The cost is low, and the risk to human life is zero.
On the other side are the ones who say there’s no substitute for sending humans to do this work. The cost is, no pun intended, astronomical, and there’s risk to health and safety, but these are manageable drawbacks, and a human geologist hiking Mars with a rock hammer in her hand can accomplish more science in a day than the Curiosity rover can in a whole year. A Martian year.
A similar debate could be made about the usefulness of conferences like TAM (or the Secular Student Alliance’s gathering, which was in Ohio this same weekend) in the 21st century, when we have technologies like email, message boards, blogs (represent!), Skype, Google Hangouts, and the like, that allow decentralized virtual “gatherings” and similar ways to share ideas. Why do we still need to get into a room together?
The answer is laughter. I can see someone laughing through their webcam, but I can’t fully know what it’s like to be in the room with that person: to feel their hot exhalations, to hear the snorts resonating through the room, to know if they’re more giggly when they’re also a little tipsy. This, and body language, and spontaneity, and all the other small and large aspects of our personalities that are blunted or lost by computer-mediated communication, can only observed by us when we’re physically in a room with other people. And various little thoughts and opinions that we don’t share over social media because, individually, they’re not worth sharing, we share almost accidentally when we spend a weekend with our friends. And while they’re not worth sharing by themselves, they aggregate into a whole, large, fractally complex impression.
In short, people (like Mars for astronauts, just to keep a tenuous grasp on the metaphor) don’t really, truly, become people until you’re in a room with them, and if someone’s less than a person to you, it’s too easy to write them off as trolls or haters or biased or successful challengers to the Turing Test. And conversely, it’s very difficult to so dismiss a person you’ve shared a beer or a laugh with.
TAM serves many purposes. It educates us about the ugly untruths; the frauds, the scams, and the predators ruining lives for profit. It teaches us how to better interrogate our own assumptions, biases, and faulty memories. It prompts us to hold every phenomenon we encounter to a high standard of evidence. It charges us to go out into the world and fight the evil we’ve just learned more about.
But most of all, TAM (and similar conferences) puts us in rooms together to eat and drink and talk late into the night. These experiences bind and unite us and remind us of our common cause. We’re a tribe, like it or not, and it’s okay to like it: humans are tribal by nature. And our tribe has many enemies that seek its destruction. Our best defense is to link arms, and raise elbows.