11th ARC International Roundtable: Report
The 11th ARC International Roundtable, which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the founding of ARC, an important milestone, took place as scheduled on 9-12 March 2020 at St. Louis College, Bangkok, Thailand amidst growing anxieties related to the Covid-19 pandemic spreading around the world. ARC leaders in consultation with the administrators of St. Louis College decided not to postpone the event because at that time, the Covid-19 situation in Thailand was still mild. In the days leading up to the Roundtable, Thailand only saw several dozen infections and one death. Moreover, all of the invited international participants were coming from, at that time, low risk countries, and many invited presenting as well as non-presenting participants were already in Thailand.
Near the date of the event, however, a number of participants expressed their regrets for not being able to attend due to the uncertainty of the situation in their own countries. Some participants were forbidden to travel overseas by their institutions while others faced mandatory quarantine by their home country upon return if they were to come. Because of the sudden changes in travel plans, the Roundtable organizers decided to offer the opportunity for participants to present online either by live streaming or by a pre-recorded video. In this respect, 9 international participants accepted the offer and gave their talks online. This marked the first time in ARC International Roundtable history that there was online participation.
The quick adaptations made to the program were most appropriate in light of the theme of this year’s International Roundtable being “Religion and Social Communication Research in Asia: Basic and Practical Considerations in a Digital World.” The reality of the Covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on essentially every aspect of society from politics, to economics to religion, and forced the organizing committee to incorporate online participation into the program made the considerations being raised in the research presented timely and pertinent. The very logistics involved in implementing the program itself reflects the role and ramifications of digital technology to religion and social communication in the modern age.
Participants in this year’s Roundtable came from India, Myanmar, Taiwan, Japan, Philippines, the United States, Bangladesh, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. The research presented covered a range of topics related to Internet culture and religiosity, intercultural and environmental communication, film and aesthetics, online religious media, and models of religious and pastoral responses in the digital age. Consistent with outlook of the program, some papers were more theoretical in nature, while others addressed particular cultural and geographical contexts within the theme. The wide range of topics demonstrates that digital information and communication technology (ICT) affects a vast spectrum of human life and society, and religion is undoubtedly affected and even transformed by technological progress in very profound ways. Some of the salient points that were raised in the conference include:
- The democratizing of information production and access forces traditional seats of power in society and in religious institutions to exhibit more transparency in the way they operate in order to minimize scandals and lack of public trust.
- ICT must be utilized in matters that affect the human future, for example environmental communication, intercultural communication, and interreligious dialogue.
- As ICT development further advances, especially with the increasing prevalence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in human society, religion must contribute to the directions of this development not only because religion can offer a different perspective from the technocratic mindset and Big Data fundamentalism but because religious theologies and practices could be dramatically altered due to technological developments.
- Religious media must take cues and lessons from secular media practitioners in order to gain viewership and influence; however, religious media must resist tendencies of sensationalism and clickbait methods in order to maintain the integrity and seriousness of religious content.
- At the same time that religious institutions are experiencing disruptions brought about by communication technologies, for example, the decrease in people entering the monkhood and church attendance, ICT must be incorporated into the mission and vision of religious institutions if they want to overcome these disruptions.
- Religious practices are increasingly being transformed as a result of communication technology as the divine is accessed not only by going to temple or other sacred sites, but accessed by scanning QR codes and logging into Internet accounts.
In evaluating the outcome of this year’s Roundtable through examining the results of the evaluation instrument given to all participants both physically present and online as well as from the perspective of organizational logistics, a number of conclusions can be made:
- In the present milieu, physical distance does not have to be an impediment to participating in a program where there is available digital communication technology to facilitate such participation.
- Event organizers that intend to resort to digital communication technology should be prepared and well equipped so as to prevent disruptions to the flow of the event due to technological errors and failures. The ARC Roundtable faced a number of technological issues, although minor, that affected the quality of the online presentations.
- As online participation in meetings, conferences and symposiums are increasingly becoming the norm in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic, scholars in every field should acquaint themselves with digital communication technology and have the necessary instruments in order to better participate and engage with the other participants in the event.
- Organizations with limited budget can resort to partial online participation as a way to reduce costs of travel, board and lodging in the case that these expenses are subsidized by the organizing entity.
- Individuals who need to attend international conferences as part of their academic and professional requirement but cannot afford to do so due to high costs of participating in such an event can request online participation if such an option is available.
- Online participation is a good way of bypassing difficulties related to visa application for people from certain countries.
- Although online participation is a real and valuable option in the modern age, and in some ways is necessary in certain situation, the value of physical presence and direct engagement in discussions cannot be underestimated, especially in the Roundtable format.
The research presented in the conference indicates that all the religious traditions, Buddhism, Christianity, Jainism, Hinduism, etc. must deal with the challenges presented by the digital milieu as well as take advantage of its benefits. Even though there has been a lot of research related to this theme and there have been many conferences organized, it seems that the topics for investigation remain unexhausted. Because information and communication technology is changing so fast, religions are barely keeping up with reflections on ICT’s implications for religion and for interreligious relation. In this regard, themes related to ICT and religion and social communication will continue to occupy the mind of religion scholars far into the future.