Packing light for the conference: losing the laptop

I normally pack a laptop for conference-going, but for this year’s Congress I’m planning to take the tablet. This plan has required some thought and strategy. It will also require packing some peripherals, but I still expect  my luggage to incur a significant net weight loss. Here’s a “Before & After” pic of conference tech luggage: what I used to lug at left, what I plan to at right.

Yes, my other laptop is in fact a Stanton.

The portability and versatility of the tablet (yes, that one, but I don’t need to do the fruitfully named firm’s own advertising for it) mean that it can take on the following functions and make the following gear replacements:

  • travel reading – tablet replaces print book with digital library
  • movie viewing – tablet provides more personalized in-flight entertainment than what the back of the seat in front of you is pushing (just hope the passenger next to you doesn’t mind the occasional eyeful of that ultraviolent horror film you’re enjoying);
  • music playback – tablet replaces Walkman mp3 player
  • communication device (not as just-in-time as a phone, but people seem to check their e-mail and Twitter pretty fast these days)
  • notepad – tablet replaces paper notepad
  • presentation station – the main reason for you used to lug the laptop
  • camera and camcorder – tablet replaces both (granted, the pics aren’t as high-quality)
  • turntables and tunes (hey, you’d be surprised how dance-friendly some learned associations are) – tablet replaces two turntables and a milk crate of vinyl records

On that account, the tablet totally makes me feel like I’m living in the future. And its tolerable substitutability for (if not exact interchangeability with) all the other gear listed above stands to cut a lot of luggage weight. Okay, that last item on the list isn’t exactly standard conference luggage – it’s not like I pack DJ gear for every research travel trip. I have done so on occasion, though.

Some peripherals are constant: headphones and the power cord. Other items I have normally packed for conferences, and don’t plan to drop, include:

  • a thumb drive with critical document backups (yes, I know about Dropbox – but I still believe in offline storage);
  • audio cord: an 1/8″ jack-to-male-RCA cord connected to a female-RCA-to-1/8″ adapter – this way your device can patch to either a headphone jack or an RCA jack;
  • a paper notepad (it’s for good reason this ancient tech remains robust – for one thing, no batteries required)

There are three things I’ll be packing that are new, and two are specific to the tablet. One is non-negotiable: the adapter cable for VGA projectors. The second is not strictly necessary, but a great convenience: a bluetooth keyboard. (If I get some downtime for catching up on work, having an actual keyboard, not a touchpad, will seriously boost productivity.) The third is a new addition I’ve been meaning to add for a while – it has nothing to do with laptop versus tablet functions, and everything to do instead with the weirdly visual-centric culture of research in general: a portable loudspeaker. My conference talks tend to be heavy on audio samples, but often I show up at go-time to find the room not equipped for sound…leaving me to play painstakingly optimized sound from invariably shitty laptop speakers at a volume they’re not designed to support. Not this time: if the PA system is AWOL, my Plan B is a wireless boom box. (I wasn’t expecting to buy this brand, but the sound is unexpectedly full and rich, and the price is right for a Plan B purchase.)

The institutional inattention to sound in presentations extends to the tablet’s own presentation app. I spent the better part of Saturday evening trying to figure out how to get Keynote to embed and play back audio samples. I did finally get it to work, thanks to Post #5 in this forum. (The irony is that this solution requires the use of an additional audio-visual app, and the ironic bonus is that this specific solution also adds a modest visual interest to the presentation.)

Otherwise I don’t think much need be said about the constellation of apps both generalist and specialized that make the tablet such a digital Swiss Army Knife. I will be following up this discussion of the plan with posts from the field to report back on how it plays out in practice. In the meantime, of course, all the planning and strategy around minimizing the luggage and tech requirements for conference-going broach a couple of bigger questions.

First, the tech for which the tablet can substitute is not, itself, really all that old at all. There’s an important question here about not just the pace of technological change but its calculated disposability – its planned obsolescence.

Second, there’s the big question about the conference itself as a face-to-face event: how long before that technology is rendered obsolete by the ascendance of webinars and other virtual events? It’s hard to argue with how their carbon footprints compare (although let’s not fool ourselves that computing is anything close to carbon neutral).

Lastly, I shouldn’t forget about all the other obligatory gear I have to pack for a successful conference trip. Conveniently, there’s an easy-to-remember list:

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