The International AIDS Conference 2012, at a time when we are more optimistic than ever before in regards to biomedical advancements in fighting HIV/AIDS, is a simultaneously invigorating and taxing experience. The spirit of cooperation and enthusiasm is higher than I’ve ever seen it before in this field. That said, the sheer size in terms of physical distance, attendance, and information to assimilate and debate is daunting, an exercise in moderation, drawing boundaries, learning one’s limits, and striking a balance. That is to say, positivity must be balanced against irrational exuberance, networking must be balanced against meaningful connections, and heartfelt opinion must be balanced against fact in rational debate. These are delicate balances, and part of being culturally competent in the non-profit world is developing an understanding of the variety of ideologies, backgrounds, and motivations that drive individuals to commit themselves to the cause of addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Professional culture, in the era of social media and the factory university, has become, as semioticians would say, a spectacle. We long for something new, but a symbol or idea takes hold, is repeated into infinity, so much so that it requires acute mental effort to pierce through the information fog and extract meaning. As literary theorist Roland Barthes observed, “The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition… always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.” The intellectual effort required to derive the significance of the tsunami of repeated information that washes over one in a professional conference can drive anyone to madness. How many meetings can a person attend without the speaker becoming the incomprehensible teacher in Charlie Brown punctuating sentences with recognizable buzzwords. How many information sessions does it take to get to the center of a tootsie roll. And how many forums can one sit through without starting to feel like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey – too many conflicting demands driving one crazy. Eventually you just refuse to open the pod bay doors and start asking questions like “What are you doing, Dave?” The standard networking fare of a professional conference is the meet and greet (officially referred to on expense accounts as “the reception”, and it is an endless merry-go-round of hand shaking, introductions, elevator pitches, and discovering commonalities with people you have nothing in common with. Eventually, they start to blend together, and you enter every room with a sense of déjà vu, and sometimes even forget your own name.

One of my favorite shows is the zombie apocalypse fun-fest called The Walking Dead, but after several days at the International AIDS Conference, I’m not sure whether I would be better cast as a survivor as a zombie. I certainly feel like I’m lurching from event to event. I haven’t yet developed a taste for human flesh, so maybe everything will be okay. As we near the end of AIDS 2012, we have learned a lot, made numerous useful connections, made a lot of new friends and reacquainted ourselves with old ones. We may yet survive the zombie conference apocalypse.

Written by Dr. Miriam Vega


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