Coronavirus Is Teaching Me What I Can’t Do Online

Bloomberg Opinion , September 24, 2020

If you remember life before the internet, you don’t take its riches for granted.

During the two and a half years I spent researching a forthcoming book, I frequently marveled at the cornucopia of materials available online. I could have written my book, "The Fabric of Civilization," without those resources, but it would have taken longer and certain factual questions would have gone unanswered. Nowadays, you can check the exact wording of the 1678 London statute regulating the cloth trade without leaving your house.

But the coronavirus pandemic provides a sharp reminder of just how limited those internet riches are.

Faced with the threat of a deadly virus, we’re lucky to have substitutes for in-person interactions. But in today’s world of virtual everything, too much knowledge is locked down in shuttered libraries and socially distanced minds. I couldn’t have written my book at all under current circumstances. The information needed is simply inaccessible — something that those calling for virtual conferences and online higher education to become the post-pandemic norm fail to appreciate.

Consider higher education. Even ignoring the learning that takes place in hands-on studios and labs, late-night bull sessions and mealtime conversations, virtual education has a serious problem. Much of the world’s knowledge is contained in copyrighted works that aren’t available electronically and can be hard to obtain even with an unlimited budget for purchases. The problem is especially acute for scholarly books, which tend to go out of print quickly and often don’t come in electronic versions. Contrary to what many of today’s students assume, not every important source of information is online. One reason you can’t easily start a research university, even with plenty of money, is that you can’t duplicate libraries that took decades, even centuries, to build.

For researchers like me, the locked library is a problem. For most people, it’s an analogy. They don’t need to check out books. They need to interact with other people.

An industry trade show or scholarly conference is like a rich research library with open stacks. To get the most out of it, you make specific plans — demos you want to see, talks you want to hear, contacts you want to make — but you also stay alert for surprises and unexpected connections. A chance encounter or casual conversation may be the spark of a new idea. Along with the formal program, you take home the latest buzz. You discover opportunities in areas you didn’t foresee when you made your plans.

While researching my book, I went to plenty of conferences. They’re a good way to get to the cutting-edge of academic research, and even far-flung events can cut down on travel. A conference called “World of Looms,” held at the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, taught me not only about Chinese draw looms but also about the technologies behind Ghanaian kente cloth and Lao brocade, both of which wound up in the book.

One of that gathering’s most important contributions wasn’t on the program. It happened over lunch with a woman from the British Museum. “So what do you study?” I asked, in the academic version of small talk. Seemingly afraid of boring me, she confessed that her work has nothing to do with looms. She’s the curator of East Asian money, drawn to the conference by her interest in the use of cloth as currency on the Silk Road. Cloth as currency! I couldn’t have been more intrigued. Economic institutions are among the “social technologies” that get a chapter in my book, and Helen Wang’s work plays an important role in that discussion. You can watch videos of the conference presentations on YouTube, but you won’t learn anything about textiles as money. If I’d attended the conference via Zoom, I’d never have had that conversation.

Nor was it the only such example. At a gathering in Peru, I met a New York textile artist whose work is inspired by circuit boards and the woven core memory systems used in early computers. I extended a stay at the Centre for Textile Research in Copenhagen to catch an experimental archaeology workshop and wound up learning about the 4,000-year-old cuneiform records of long-distance trade.

One of the talks that led me to explore textile history in the first place was a presentation highlighting the enormous quantities of brazil wood, a red dyestuff, exported from Spanish colonies in the Americas. I stumbled upon it because I’d showed up at UCLA to hear the completely unrelated talk that followed. I wouldn’t have been around for an online version.

To advance, knowledge must be shared and recombined. One idea must spark others. That can happen in a Zoom presentation, but it’s more likely to occur during a wide-ranging conversation over a meal or in a setting that encourages chance encounters with people, products or ideas. For all their value, our virtual connections too often demand that we know in advance what we want to find out. They demand planning and articulation. And innovation needs serendipity.