Practices of Privacy, the Online Experience

The lockdown efforts started exactly when my colleague Natália da Silva Perez and I were organising the final touches of our upcoming symposium, Practices of Privacy: Knowledge in the Making. With participants coming from several different countries, there was no chance for us to host the event as planned, and we were facing three options: 1) cancelling the symposium; 2) postponing it in the hopes things would eventually return to a modicum of normality; 3) transform it into an online event.

We had spoken many times about academic accessibility and digital possibilities, so we decided to face the situation as an opportunity to venture in that direction. On top of that, with the cancellation of events we were going to participate, we had a little bit more time on our hands to dedicate to this online shift.

Our online platform x the discussions of the Royal Society: academic debates in flux

There was a lot to learn in a short amount of time, but besides the technical hurdles, we needed to make sure that our participants were comfortable and ready to join us in this new experience. The format had to be organised as to enable discussions without overwhelming any participant. As such, from the beginning, we decided to make this an asynchronous event. Thanks to the willingness of our delegates to record their presentations, we were able to create a space online where the participants could watch the talks and join the discussions. To give time for these discussions to flourish, we extended the period of the asynchronous event to cover a whole month (from April 24 to May 31, 2020).

The main issue with an asynchronous event was to guarantee engagement. We had our online platform, with the uploaded presentations and designated discussion spaces, but it is very hard for presenters to feel heard in this kind of environment. We decided to assign discussants for each of the presentations. Each week, some participant would write a question or a comment on one of the presentations as a way to get the conversation started.

Technology enabled these conversations, but brought with it its own hurdles! (image by redlemonade.ie)

A preliminary Zoom meeting took place, in which Prof. Mette Birkedal Bruun introduced the Centre for Privacy Studies, and we talked about what would happen in the weeks ahead. All participants could introduce themselves, giving faces to the names their peers would encounter on the online platform. While we could not yet meet in person, our personal spaces at home had to merge through the tiny Zoom window. After so many of these meetings, most of us are all too familiar with this unique feeling of impersonal intimacy.

Cartoon by Shannon Wheeler (cartooncollections.com).

Many academic colleagues share this experience of suddenly having to switch to online formats. A lot has been said about issues of privacy involving this shift. The irony of discussing historical notions of privacy in the process of knowledge-making in the context of the lockdown had not escaped us.

With that, we headed on to engage collectively with practices of privacy through history. Our discussions were centred around eight panels:

  1. Arts, Secrets, Techniques
  2. Scholarly Practices
  3. Confidentiality and Exposure
  4. Geographical Spaces
  5. Architectural Spaces
  6. The legal, the religious, the political
  7. Writing Lives
  8. Becoming Private

You can see the abstracts of these fantastic papers here. The papers spanned from early modern to contemporary issues of privacy within practices of knowledge production. Artisans, artists, authors, housewives, scholars and scientists, many were the historical actors in these processes. We also had the honour to have Prof. Catherine Richardson as our keynote, who provided a brilliant overview of the intersection between knowledge and privacy practices within her project on the cultural lives of the middling sort.

The online discussions were extremely insightful. The fact that people were commenting from home, with time to elaborate and with the chance to consult their sources and bibliography, meant that the comments and answers were detailed, precise, and of high academic level. These discussions worked almost like a process of open peer-review. However, it also made the process more demanding for the participants than the Q&A of a conventional conference.

Another thing that was lacking was the chance for interpersonal exchanges. With the formalities of the online platform, it was complicated to create a connection with the participant as individuals, and not only academics. After the discussions on the online platform were over, we noticed that there were so many threads and connections among the participants that deserved to be explored further. As such, we created separate Zoom meetings for specialised discussions: Women, Privacy, and Knowledge; Spaces of Knowledge, Knowledge of Spaces; Knowledge and Authorities; and Rituals and Religion. These optional discussions, with a smaller amount of participants engaging in real time, were extremely prolific, with incredible exchanges of sources, literature, and historical perspectives. Most importantly, they also gave us a chance to connect more personally with one another.

The Centre for Privacy Studies sends a heartfelt thank you to all participants! What an incredible journey! We are very happy to confirm that the in-person event will take place on March 4-5, 2021 (if the circumstances allow). In the meantime, we will work collectively on the future publication based on the symposium papers. In other wonderful news, Practices of Privacy will have its second edition in March 2022! The call for papers is already opened for the symposium Practices of Privacy: Vestiges of Dialogue. Hope to see you there!