When Chopra finally appeared, he began with a note about the glitch. “We are going to meditate for healing and transformation in the midst of this global pandemic,” he said, appearing to glow from the back lighting. “We were hoping for a million people and indeed I think we had them, but as luck would have it, the Vimeo site crashed.”

Implicit in the term “virtual conference” is a poetic dissonance. The word “virtual,” from the Latin virtualis, connotes something that can only approximate the essence of the real thing. It’s close—almost but not quite. Organizational behavior expert Gianpiero Petriglieri observed that this lacuna—the yawning gulf between interacting as two-dimensional projections vs. meeting someone face-to-face—can result in fatigue. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not,” he explained to the BBC.

Levy, the behavioral scientist, has moved his regular dinner parties online since the mandatory lockdown, but believes nothing will replace actual physical contact with another human being. “I think this gets us a bit closer, but it won’t stop us from yearning. As a species, we’re incredibly lucky to have technologies like this so we can connect to some degree.”

Environmentalists are cheering the renewed interest in virtual conferencing. Reducing the aviation industry’s considerable environmental footprint is reason enough to rethink the necessity of having in-person gatherings at all. But experts warn that it’s not such a simple equation. Video streaming is among the most polluting activities on the internet. As more activities shift online during the pandemic, energy consumption from internet activity is rising. Scientists are currently calculating whether the increased data center traffic is uless damaging to the environment than traditional forms of travel.

Ultimately, the thrilling experimentation in the realm of virtual conferences is good news for the vast majority of workers who feel oppressed by dutiful office powwows and fruitless brainstorms. Conference organizers are taking notes for a future when gathering returns.

For the first time in a while, we’re reconsidering the essence of how, when, and why we gather. This serious investment in the art and science of virtual conferences promises to improve all meetings in general—and that’s something worth logging-on for.

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