Computer Conferencing as a Means of
Enhancing Communication at a Large Conference / Festival
a feasibility study
- / -
Published in Transnational Associations 29, 1977, 6, pp.
260-283 [PDF version]
A: Participant's perspective
B: Organizer's perspective
C: Computer-specialist's perspective
The purpose of this document is to outline some practical options for
computer-conferencing techniques to facilitate a variety of interactions
participants at a large conference/festival/exhibition. The document has been
prepared in response to the encouragement of the organizer of the Festival of
Mind and Body, held for the first time in May 1977 in London, with an
of 67.000. The 1978 Festival will be
held at the National Hall, Olympia, London
from 30th April through 7th May. It
is hoped to use some of the techniques.
It cannot be stressed too strongly that the advocates of this approach
it to be a "reakthrough in interpersonal
communication of as much significance
as was the telephone. Many new forms
of interaction become possible,
particularly that of making contact (possibly anonymously) with people whose
name one does not know but who have similar interests and projects. This type
of communication environment can support a whole new style of people-
organization (1). However, there is
a real difficulty in explaining the
nature of this breakthrough into an "altered state of communication" (2):
"Most of our intuitions about face-to-face interaction simply do not
apply to this new and unusual form of communication. In computer conferencing,
time and distance are dissolved. . .Each person's "memory of what
has been said is accurate and complete. And everyone may speak at once
or listen at leisure. With such features, it isnot surprising that computer
conferencing might actually establish an altered state of communication in
which the realities of face-to-face communication are distorted and entirely
new patterns of interaction emerge.
This document will not give detailed background information on computer conferencing,
since an explanatory survey convering a variety of viewpoints has been produced
as a special issue of Transnational Associations (October 1977), which
should therefore be considered as Appendix 2.
As opposed to the mam use for which computer conferencing is advocated, namely
linking people who are geographically dispersed, this document focuses on
its use for linking people attendinginq a large conference or festival.This
does not exclude the possibility of linking in people at more distant locations.
It is vital to understand that a conference/festival is not dependent
use of this technique, if employed, but that it is a catalyst and support for
new kinds of interaction. Participants
can choose to use it or ignore it as
they see fit.
Experience with conferences of more than about 40 participants indicates
despite physical proximity people frequently do not "make contact"
they may have common concerns, Interests, etc. (3)
It is not uncommon for
people to recognize their mutual interest at some closing
event or even months or years after the occasion at which they were both
Since a principal objective is to use the concentration of human resources for
participants to further their shared concerns, missed contacts are a sign of sub-optimum
A conference/festival which only encourages participants to maintain a role
of "consumers" of exhibits, lectures, and displays does not make
use of the "critical mass" of people present. Many participants
would be pleased to benefit from the stimulating influence of the occasion
to make other things happen, to explore shared interests with others who may
be present, and to bring new projects into being. This introduces a special
dimension of spontaneity and creativity which no other occasion can adequately
provide. Although not essential, computer-conferencing techniques can do much
to make this "multiplicative interaction" take wing and to nurture
its development. It can certainly take a lot of the burden off the organizer.
It is also true that the more active or eminent participants tend to suffer
from "contact overload" because of the time which each face-to-face
contact demands on such occasions. Such key people therefore normally have
to "manoeuver" to reduce the risk of new over-demanding contacts
thus reducing their value to the occasion and cutting themselves off from
some new contact which they would find valuable. Computer-conferencing provides
a means of "filtering" contacts without "loss-of-face"
to either party. It helps to improve each persons use of his own time
The opportunity for anyone to send messages to anyone means that question/
discussion periods at the end of lectures do not have to bear such a communication
load and are not terminated at some arbitrary moment by time constraints.
Those most involved can continue to interact via a computer conference.
Participants can continue to ask questions of the speaker via computer without
competing for question time at the end of the lecture. (Similarly participants
can leave messages for exhibitors to send them documentation if a stand is
busy.) Such opportunities illustrate the significance of this new communication
support as a new level of subtle organizational support for people interaction.
Its full significance remains to be understood.
An ideal checklist of communication requirements during a conference has
been developed (see Appendix 1). But this goes beyond some of the current
possibilities. It is useful to note briefly the following realistic goals
which a conference/festival should attempt to achieve:
Each participant should leave with the belief that he or she has been
provided with an environment which made possible the optimum number of useful
contacts under the circumstances (including unexpected, serendipitous contacts)
and that the limit to further contacts and sharing did not he with communication
obstacles in the conference/ festival process but with his or her ability
or desire to handle more links.
Each participant and group representative should leave with the belief
that the communication process has facilitated (rather than hindered) the
emergence of whatever new joint activities/projects were possible, between
whatever possible coalitions of people and groups, with whatever degrees
of coordination were possible.
Each participant and group representative should leave with the belief
that through their interaction during the conference/ festival they have
satisfactorily enrichened the communication data base which facilitated
their interaction and which can be appropriately used without loss of momentum
to develop follow- up contacts (mailings, publications, etc.) prior to the
next occasion. (In effect the communication environment is made up of
an evolving network, a new kind of decentralized organization with many
focal points. Each succeeding conference/festival merely reinforces and
re-energizes the whole process.)
The following description has been divided into several parts:
A: Participant's perspective
B: Organizer's perspective
C: Computer-specialist's perspective.
Clearly unless the first constitutes a credible and desirable environment,
the second and the third are irrelevant. However, providing a description
from the participant's perspective necessarily precludes a logical step-by-step
explanation. Some points are therefore repeated or could be much more
succinctly expressed from the second or third perspective.
A: Participant's Perspective
1. Entry: Participants would purchase tickets in the normal
manner (possibly in advance to reduce queuing), since this process should
not be disrupted.
2. Communication environment: Various means would be used to
make participants aware that they are entering a "communication environment"
(Such means could include preliminary write-ups, hand-outs to those queuing,
leaflets in preliminary mailings, etc.). Participants should be made aware
that they can choose to increase or decrease their involvement in the communication
process. Clearly the minimum level of communication isto simply purchase
a ticket, examine the exhibits, then leave. Greater involvement is achieved
by talking to exhibitors or trying out some of the exhibits, where appropriate.
These are the conventional options on such occasions.
3. What's on: Should a participant desire to become slightly
more involved in the communication environment, he may simply want to identify
what spontaneous get-togethers are emerging as a result of the interaction
between those more deeply involved. (Some of these get-togethers may be
face-to-face meetings or lectures in rooms selected up to the last moment
according to indicated attendance; others may be group discussions with
stored messages via computer, particularly where face-to-face meetings are
unnecessary or impossible because of the tight or incompatible schedules of
those interested or the limited availability of appropriate rooms; the latter
may lead to the former, and the former may be continued by the latter).
To obtain this information, the participant would go to one of several information
desks around the festival area. There he could be supplied, possibly for a
minimum fee (e.g. 5p), with a copy of the latest activity report relating
to the general area of his interest. (Such reports could be generated every
hour or so, edited with computer assistance, and then duplicated.) If he
wanted more detailed or up-to-the-minute information, this could be obtained
from the computer terminal at the information desk with the assistance of
those stationed there (again, possibly for a minimum fee, say 10p). With this
information the participant can then choose whether to attend any of the "open"
events or involve himself further in order to participate In some of the special
4. Sending messages: The participant may wish to limit
his further involvement to sending a message to one or more identified participants,
you left your coat in my car; I will be at Stand 42 from 10.30 til 10.45.
I liked your lecture; do you know of J.R. Websters book on the topic.
Title Tomorrow and Again.
I liked the questions you asked at Smith's talk. If you are free
I will be at meeting point 15 at 2.30.
Make sure you speak to Ken Jones on Stand 29.
Such messages do not require that the participant identify himself. To send
them, the participant can go to any information desk and either dictate them
to the assistant there or fill out a message form (rather as when sending
a telegram). The participant would normally be charged some suitable fee
for each message.
5. Receiving messages: In order for the participant to be more
involved he needs to be able to receive messages. Such messages will be
stored by the computer until he deletes then. But for the computer to store
them it needs an "address" or identifier for him. The simplest
address is the participant's name. This may be used for sending "general
messages" when it isnot known whether someone is more specifically identified.
(It is not very satisfactory because John R. Smith may list himself as J.
Smith, of which there could be several. And people sending messages to
J.R. Smith would miss him. However, the organizers may arrange for someone
to link such partial identifiers to precise identifiers where the messaged
participant is in fact more involved.)
6. Acquiring a conference/festival identify: The next level
of involvement is that at which the participant effectively fills out a "communication
form" if he so desires. The form could also be sent out (and
returned) in advance by mail or beincluded in the periodical ("New Life
Magazine"). It could be handed to people whilst queuing and would be
available at information desks. Or the contents could be dictated at an
information desk. The main purpose of the form is to allocate a unique identifier
to the participant (this could be the entrance ticket number, an alphabetic
code, or some other number).
The participant can fill out as much or as little of the form as corresponds
to his intentions and interests. The contents can be revised whenever
necessary during the conference/festival. Such a form might include items
such as - unique identifier (possibly prestamped on the form)
pseudonym (if the participant does not wish his real name to appear in
the participant directory and wishes to exchange messages anonymously or
with known contacts)
name/address (these may be omitted entirely, only supplied in order to
receive mailings, or also supplied for listing m the participant directory)
topics of interest (topics m a standard checklist could be selected;
non-standard or new topics could also be listed by the participant)
Other details could be included concerning: what he wants to contribute
to or get out of a sharing process on a particular topic; the maximum size
of group in which he is prepared to participate; preference for lecture,
discussion, action, etc. Again a fee could be charged to cover the cost
of inserting this information into the computer.
7. Exchanging messages: Once the participant is identified
in the communica- tion environment, his name or pseudonym is listed in a conference/festival
directory which is maintained on computer. (It may be "consulted"
via any terminal or information desk, parts of it may be listed on request
and for a fee for participants interested m a particular topic, but it is
unlikely that the whole directory will be listed out and distributed.)
The participant will now start to receive messages of various kinds.
They will be stored in the computer either for visual inspection at any terminal
or else he may request that they be listed out on paper every hour for collection
at a "pigeon-hole". The nature of the messages will be determined
by the information and "filters" supplied in the "communication
form". Messages may include any of the following:
invitations automatically addressed to anyone interested in a standard
topic (or combination of topics)
o reminders to visit certain Stands
o reminders to attend certain lectures, etc. at the festival or in
o reminders to purchase certain products or services (e.g. health
foods, books, biofeedback, etc.)
o calls to subscribe to a declaration on some current issue
o calls for collaborators on a joint project
invitations specifically addressed to the participant in the light
of something he is known to have said or done at the festival/ conference
o suggestions that he meet up with a group of people for an informal
o suggestion that he speak to a group on a topic (possibly of his
choice), either during the conference/festival or at some later date
o suggestion that he participate in one or more computer mini- conferences
a variety of messages from people who want to make contact with him, give
him information, or pass on messages from friends (e.g. "Don't forget
that Jane wants us to meet at 5.00 pm to go with the others to Bill's. Don't
forget the leaflets. Anne".) The possibility of exchanging such apparently
trivial messages increases the fluidity of any occasion as much as the telephone
increased the fluidity of normal social life in comparison with the messenger
era of the past.
He may also send questions to other identified participants to which they
can respond if they so choose. Some of these exchanges between two or
more people via computer may be continued sporadically throughout the duration
of the conference, particularly if the people concerned have commitments which
prevent them from getting together in one place.
8. Joining a computer-conference The next possible level
of involvement for a participant is to link together with up to 50 or more
people in a "computer mini-conference" on a special topic on which
they all have an active interest. Some computer mini-conferences may be
deliberately prepared by the organizers prior to the occasion in collaboration
with interested individuals or groups. Others emerge in the light of the
festival process, possibly stimulated by a particular lecture or other event,
or possibly as a result of the networking activities of one individual or
group. A participant can collaborate in as many of the computer mini-conferences
as interest him - and in each he will be linking with a different network
of people. From the participants point of view one of these mini-conferences
operates in the following way
he registers himself by a message to the focal person for the mini- conference
who incorporates his name in the list of members of that conference.
the new participant may now obtain any of the following (either directly
on a terminal or listed onto paper)
o list of other participants and their interests
o the current "agenda" of that mini-conference
o the text of statements made by one or more participants on any
agenda item as a participant he may now
o send private messages to any of the other participants
in relation to any agenda item
o make general statements on any agenda item for examination by all
o propose new agenda items (e.g. projects, discussion points, etc.)
one of the conference participants may take on the role of "editor"
in order to
o select and structure the stored statements into a draft "report"
or bulletin", if such is required
o amend a draft report in the light of comments from the other
participants, then list it for duplication and circulation.
as a participant he may express a "feeling/vote" on any stored statement
to help the group move toward some degree of consensus.
as a participant he could use a private "work space" to draft out
a major statement, sharing it with selected other participants of that mini-conference,
before releasing for general consideration.
Clearly a particular mini-conference may range from a casual interchange
(without any effort to reach conclusions or produce a collective statement)
or else it may be a very intensive interchange using all the facilities available.
It is up to the participant to choose his preferred mode in each case.
If he is simultaneously a member of other computer mini-conferences, he may
(within a space of minutes, or at his convenience) bring up to date his contributions
to each of them.
9, Conference/festival networking: The last possible
level of involvement for a participant is as an activator or network broker.
Such key individuals may choose to make it their function to scan the conference/festival
directory (possibly in the light of messages exchanged with other key people)
in order to propose to specific people that they meet together or that they
link together in a computer mini-conference on topics they apparently have
They may also chide some of their participant-friends for inappropriately
defining themselves on the communication form, and thus disguising their full
importance to the occasion and to others present.
Others may selectively survey participants to determine what mental models
they are using which may influence the kinds of topics (and people) they believe
to be mutually relevant. Such models can be distributed, to participants
or displayed on wall charts on a special Stand (4). This kind of activity
helps people to see "where they are at" in relation to other participants.
10. Involving other towns and countries: Not everyone
can be physically present at a conference/festival some or all of the time
whether because of the cost of travel, or because of other commitments, or
because they are only interested in a special aspect of it which does not
justify their presence. On the other hand some may not wish to be physically
present for personality, prestige or political reasons and would prefer to
participate under a pseudonym from a distance. Such individuals and groups
can however participate more or less directly by the following methods:
by telephoning a conference/festival message desk (a) to see whether
there are any computer-stored messages for them, and (b) to dictate messages
to be stored for other participants (possibly as members of mini-conferences)
by a computer terminal linked by telephone line to the network of terminals
at the conference/festival (e.g. a terminal already installed for other
purposes at a university or some other institution)
by telephoning to a message desk at the location of the nearest terminal
(a) to see whether there are any computer-stored messages for them, and
(b) to dictate messages to be stored for other participants.
It would appear that there are many unexplored possibilities for using "intermediate"
techniques (including hand distributed message lists, telephoning messages
to free terminal locations and using the telex network) to link people and
groups at distant locations into the conference/ festival network.
11. Computer games, art and distractions Aside from facilitating
the sharing process between participants, at the conference/festival or elsewhere,
the availability of computer terminals permits other (alternative) uses,
either by particular exhibitors demonstrating on special stands or by participants
Possibilities of interest to participants include:
various computer-based games (e.g. ecological games, decision games,
educational games, etc.), computer simulations, etc. (5)
computer games for children who rapidly develop familiarity with terminals
and the whole environment which they render possible.
computer art (e.g. poetry, images, cartoons, etc.) (6)
In each case participants can become actively and creatively involved in
the use of these devices - whether for serious purposes or simply because
they provide an amusing form of distraction.
In those cases where more than one terminal is used, there is no reason why
some of the terminals should not be in other towns or countries. So, for
example, a (ecology) game might involve participants at several US universities
(e.g. the World Game group devised by R. Buckminster - Fuller).
12. Other possibilities: The exciting thing about this new
technique is that its special significance lies not in what the organizers
expect participants to use it for, but rather in the other possible uses which
will emerge as participants recognize its possibilities for helping them to
do what they want to do better. And it is the young people who open up these
possibilities most quickly.
B: Organizer's perspective
1. General organization: The presence of computer terminals
and the use of computer conferencing techniques need not affect the
general organization of a conference/festival. Such facilities are present
to assist participants if they so wish, their presence does not make the communication
dependent upon them. They may however assist the organizer.
2. Number of terminals: The number of terminals which can
usefully be installed needs to be explored in the light of the costs. Basically
it is better to have more terminals rather than less. For, as with the telephone,
the whole communication process is disrupted if participants have to wait
an inordinate length of time before being able to check for any messages received
and to send messages of any kind. It would be counter-productive if only
one terminal could be installed, for example, since its status asa "demonstration
technique" would only impress the "hardware nuts", alienate
the "people people, whilst contributing nothing to the communication
process. A crowd of people around one terminal can represent a communication
failure rather than a success. The availability of an unoccupied terminal
is in fact an encouragement to a participant to explore the opportunities
of this new medium.
Preliminary contacts indicate that 16 terminals is already a respectable
number at one location for a specialized conference. Given that some (say
5) would have to be allocated to information desks, some to "networking
stands" (say 3), some for games and art (say 2), some for the organizer
(say 2), this does not leave many available for casual use at a large conference/festival.
It would seem that in a large conference/festival of 2,000-5,000 persons
physically present, a minimum of 32 terminals would be necessary on site to
enable the computer conferencing process to take wing success- fully. At
any lower number, some useful computer-based interaction could be facilitated
and supported, but always with the danger of making it a gimmick rather than
a genuine adjunct to the communication process.
3. Obtaining terminals: Since there are few precedents for
the use of this technique at large conference/festivals, especially outside
North America, there may well be difficulty at present in obtaining many terminals
for a one week period - although this should not be the case in the near future.
Some of the standard ways around this are:
contact the major hardware manufacturers to see whether they have spare
equipment and are interested in the occasion as a promotional exercise.
contact the companies leasing computer hardware
Alternatively, or in combination with the above:
contact the "computer underground" of people in the computer
world who locate and use computer "free-time" for fun and are
happy to share their enthusiasm on an appropriate occasion.
contact large universities which have networks of terminals (and may
well be using the conferencing process with students)
The problem is to blend together the various opportunities which these different
kinds of contacts can offer in the light of their respective costs. It
may, for example, be possible to get enough terminals at an acceptable (subsidized)
rental cost, by working with three different contacts.
The technology is developing very rapidly and, with the introduction of mini-
and micro-processors, an interesting form of computer conferencing is possible
with a set of "multi mini-processors" involving up to 16 terminals.
One approach might therefore be to use two independent sets with whatever
constraints that implied.
4. Obtaining computer time: Obtaining appropriate terminals
is directly linked to the question of obtaining computer time. Whilst it
may seem highly desirable to be able to link the terminals to a computer (possibly
belonging to the conference centre) of which one has sole use, this is only
practicable at this time at a major university - and the degree of dependence
on one computer may be undesirable.
Basically the same contacts noted above should be consulted with regard to
obtaining computer time. In addition, however, computer time may be obtainable
from sympathetic institutions:
as well as from commercial time sharing services (which may be prepared to
subsidize the exercise for promotional reasons).
A special difficulty is that, for the computer-conferencing process to be
completely successful, access to the mam computer is required through (and
ideally before and after) the hours at which the conference/ festival is open.
Compromises are always possible, but this is an important constraint.
It should not be forgotten that it may even be easier to support the whole
conference process from a major computer on another continent. In fact
it may be easier to subsidize such an innovation in Europe by doing much of
the computer processing at an appropriate institution in North America - where
such innovations are more acceptable and where there might be interest in
"tracking" the conferencing process for research purposes. Under
such circumstances, an important cost would then be the data link between
continents for which there are special rates (7), although various "piggy-back"
options may be available through sympathetic institutions.
5. Computer failure and delays: Despite enthusiasm for
the computer- conferencing process, it should not be forgotten that computer
systems fail. Under some circumstances back up systems are always available,
but in other cases everything is frozen. Failures of this kind can constitute
a most unpleasant experience for all concerned. For this reason it is important
not to make a "big prestige thing" out of the presence of computer
terminal facilities. They should be treated in a low-key manner,
whether or not all goes well. Promotional splurges should be made after
they have been successfully used and not in anticipation thereof - or else
the dramatic intercontinental opening link may be a complete flop.
Less serious, but nevertheless disruptive of the communication process, is
the tendency for the central computer to be overloaded at certain peak periods.
This leads to delays at each terminal before a message is accepted and before
the terminal responds. The likely extent of such delays should be determined
when negotiating for computer time.
6. Distribution and status of terminals: Mention has
been made earlier of reserving some terminals for special use. Aside from
terminals reserved for the organizers and those using them for special purposes
(demonstration games, art, etc), a decision must be made about how to facilitate
participant access to them.
Clearly it is important to have enough terminals at enough information/
message desks to avoid crowding, queuing, etc. This use of terminals is
eitherverbally via the assistant at the desk
or in writing on a message form handed in (like a telegram)
A distinction may usefully be made between this kind of general use and assistance
and a form of more specialized ("personalized") use and assistance.
A second category of terminals could be scattered around the conference/festival
area to which participants could go to engage in "assisted computer-conferencing".
At such points they would find someone who would send or retrieve any messages
for them for whichever conferences they were currently active participants.
As the participant acquired familiarity with the procedure he could perform
the operations himself (with occasional questions to the assistant). Finally,
he could switch whenever he felt confident to a third category of terminals
which could be located in groups of 3 to 5 (say) with only one assistant per
group. Note that the computer conferencing systems are designed to help
and prompt the participant whenever he is in doubt so assistants are only
really necessary to overcome the initial (but very important) psychological
7. Distributing messages on paper ("hard copy")
In conventional computer conferencing, effort is usually made to avoid listing
out messages on paper. In many cases the messages are flashed onto a screen
for visual inspection and can always be retrieved from computer memory.
However it is not practical to encourage this message browsing process when
there is a constrant on terminal availability - and when, in contrast to conventional
computer conferencing, each participant does not have his own terminal.
In a particular case, if he needs browsing time, an economic alternative
is for the participant simply to indicate at the terminal which messages he
wants to examine in detail. He then requests via the terminal (or via an
information/message desk) that they be listed or a special (high-speed line)
printer of which one or more could be installed at the conference/ festival.
The collection of messages listed onto paper for each participant can easily
be separated, folded and pigeon-holed by participant number until he comes
by to pick it up from a special message distribution desk. Note that this
is an option available in conventional computer conferencing systems but is
less favored, because the terminal is usually a considerable distance from
the (high-speed) printer - which is not the case in a conference/festival.
(There could even be several such message distribution desks at different
locations, each with its own printer, and the participant could specify to
which he wished his message sent at any one time).
8. Charging and subsidizing costs
(a) Equipment and general costs and subsidies: As discussed
above, it may well be possible to obtain considerable assistance from different
kinds of contact. In addition to those mentioned, there is always the possibility
of getting foundation support to reduce the effective costs. It is however
usually difficult to obtain general support of this kind and it may be easier
to obtain support for specific kinds of communication as discussed below.
(b) Charging and subsidizing participants for enhanced communication
One advantage of computer-assisted communication is that by its very nature
the computer is capable of providing a precise count of all the elements which
make up the cost of linking two or more identified people.
In conventional computer conferencing each person Is usually given a budget
(if the particular mini-conference Is subsidized) via the organizer of that
mini-conference. Or else each participant pays in advance for a fixed amount
of computer use. In both cases the computer then deducts from the person's
account every time he makes use of the facility. Charges are automatically
made, for example, for
time at the switched-on terminal
number of characters of message sent, stored, and received
number of lines printed onto paper
The participant can then recover unused funds, if appropriate.
At a conference/festival there are a number of possible approaches to covering
the costs of computer use. A combination may be offered so that the participant
can choose between them according to his needs.
Those below are listed in approximate order of the sums involved
(i) Cash payment for minor services When a participant only
wants to make casual use of the communication enhancement, cash payments may
be made to the person at the information/message desk:
(ii) Establishment of a participant account When the participant
plans to make more frequent use of the facilities offered, and especially
when he plans to use a terminal himself or participate in a mini-conference,
then it is better to open an account. This may be done preferably with
a fixed pre-payment but possibly by invoicing the person after the conference/festival.
A normal procedure when opening an account is to link it to the participant's
identify number (described earlier). In addition, however, it is usual for
the participant to specify a password for himself which the computer will
recognize via a terminal so that only he can use that account.
A similar procedure is adopted by anyone using a terminal,including an
organizer, to ensure appropriate accounting.
- to whom he gives a message to be sent
- from whom he receives information obtained from a terminal by an
- from whom he receives messages on paper (via the high-speed printer)
(iii) Terminal rental Some exhibitors
or groups of participants may wish to rent one or more terminals for their
solo use for a period of an hour, a day, or for the whole conference/festival.
A special charge would have to be made for such exclusive equipment
use, but it does not affect the need to charge for actual use of computing
time as described above.
(iv) Subsidized usage Some organizations or individuals may wish
to encourage the communication enhancement by partial or complete subsidy.
This might be negotiated in advance of the conference/ festival or because
of a chance proposal made in response to circumstances during the event.
Subsidies might be made for
any computer use, in order to reduce the effective unit rates of computer
use to any participants.
computer use by specific individuals or groups this would normally
be achieved by opening an account for those concerned with whatever funds
were available (or paying the amount into an already opened account).
This procedure might be adopted by the organizer or other groups to encourage
computer use by key individuals because of the kind of communications
they will initiate.
computer use by any individuals concerned with a specific topic
or groups of topics. This procedure might be adopted by groups
or exhibitors to further communication around the main topics of interest
to them. (This option may be more difficult to incorporate into available
software, unless it is treated as a subsidized mini-conference).
computer use by any individual communicating with a specific group.
This procedure might be adopted by groups or exhibitors wishing to
encourage participant interaction with them. It is similar to the "reverse
charge" telephone call. For example, an exhibitor might in this
way encourage participants to give their name/address and specific questions
which could be answered via computer or by mail at a later date. (This
option may be more dificult to incorporate into available software, unless
it is defined as a mini-conference in which communication is only possible
with its sponsor).
if the number if messages each participant receives in such an environment
becomes excessive, it is possible to envisage that a participant's account
would be credited if he agreed to receive a certain message. This would
be one way for a participant to filter commercial publicity releases to
his own benefit. (This option may be more difficult to incorporate
into available software.)
9. Event organization: An advantage from the organizer's
point of view is that this approach enhances the self-organizing capacity
of the conference/festival. It facilitates the emergence of any participant
initiative and it facilitates the process whereby participants group together
for same spontaneous activities (discussion, lecture, display, etc.) in preference
to others felt to be less valuable. The organizer can use the facility
to blend spontaneously emergent activity with pre-planned activities.
Eventually, such facilities should make it possible for organizers to be
able to re-schedule during the course of the conference/festival on the basis
of information received at that time:
the allocation of pre-planned sessions to particular rooms, according
to the number of persons who indicate they will attend. (This might include
the cancellation of some sessions to give place to others.)
the allocation of rooms to sessions proposed at the last minute on the
basis of interests that have emerged during the course of a particular session.
the allocation of audio-visual equipment and simultaneous interpretation
facilities to meeting rooms according to revised requirements.
Attention will at some stage have to be given to the need for organizers
to be able to exert the optimum degree of control over the flow of communications
in order to maximize inter participant contact and formulation of new activity
without completely disrupting the conference or exceeding the possibilities
of the available facilities.
For example, the balance of communication patterns may have to be shifted
- an essentially hierarchical mode
- a small group session mode
- an amorphous meeting mode
in order to achieve the advantages of the network mode wherever possible.
Clearly whenever the conference/festival is moving towards sterility, increased
participant inter-action should be facilitated, but whenever this increases
beyond the ability of the occasion to contain it, then the hierarchical mode
should be used to a greater extent.
The advantage is that the organizers can invoice participants according to
their precise use of the conference dynamic facilities (e.g. on a cost per
communication or per contact basis), and can identify which forms of such
communications should be subsidized to facilitate certain types of communication
essential to the healthy dynamics of the conference (e.g. on a low or zero
cost per communication basis).
Clearly organizers are faced with the problem
of handling flexible evolving conference/festival programs rat her than the
traditional pie-determined conference festival program. This can be perceived as an exciting challenge.
10. Maintaining contact with participants: A great advantage
is that the
organizer (like any other participant) is always able to maintain contact
with specific participants or groups of participants identified only by a
common interest. Participants, if they involve themselves at all, identify
themselves in the conference/festival directory maintained on computer.
Whether or not such a directory is actually printed (in whole or in part,
during or after the event, and with or without topic indexes), the information
on computer constitutes a very valuable mailing list. It may be used as
such by the organizer (in preparation for the next such event) and selectively
by exhibitors or other groups (e.g. publishers. etc.)
11. Possible abuses: It should not be forgotten that
any new development runs the risk of abuse, some of it quite imaginatively
destructive. Aside from casual abuse, there is a special kind of computer
genius that can by-pass protective devices on computer systems, usually in
order to dram other peoples funds into his own account. More serious is
the possibility of someone wishing simply to be destructive by destroying
information stored in the computer or making the system unusable in some
unforeseen way - if only by blocking the telephone lines.
12. Concluding overview: There is no doubt that the use of such
communication enhancement facilities offers the possibility of a really new
and exciting kind of event. When the special characteristics of such an
environment become better known, it is liley that participants will be prepared
to pay the cost penalty to benefit from what it makes possible in terms of
furthering and developing their interests.
One of the pioneers in this area sees it as follows. As a participant using
a terminal one in effect has an:
"electronic vehicle with which one could drive around with extraordinary
freedom through the information domain. Imagine driving a car through a
landscape which, instead of buildings, roads, and trees, had groves of facts,
structures of deas, and so on. relevent to your professional interests?
But this information landscape is a remarkably organized one; not only can
you drive around a grove of certain arranged facts, and look at it from many
aspects, you have the capability of totally reorganizing that grove almost
instantaneously. You could put a road right through the center of it, under
it, or over it, giving you, say, a bird's eye view of how its components
might be arranged for your greater usefulness and ease of comprehension.
This vehicle gives you a flexible method for separating, as it were, the wood
from the trees."
Although this is not quite possible, much is already practical and available.
C: Computer specialist's perspective
As noted in the introduction, an explanatory survey of computer conferencing
has been given in a document to be considered as Appendix 2.
Clearly there can be no question of designing a completely new set of computer
conferencing software in preparation for one meeting. Experience might however
suggest a combination of features which could be incorporated into software
designed for a series of meetings or as a facility offered by a conference/festival
centre or professional conference organizers.
It should not be forgotten that computer conferencing software is currently
designed primarily to service geographically dispersed terminals. The possibility
of having most of the terminals around a large conference/ festival site has
not been considered of special interest or significance. The difference from
a software point of view seems to be slight except in that in conventional
use the terminal users tend to adapt to the system (are in effect "programmed
by it") over a period of hours. In a conference/ festival environment
it is not practical for a participant to be required to spend hours in a familiarization
process. Therefore, either a simplified sub-set of options must be offered,
or participants must interact via an assistant at each terminal - which isnot
a bad idea when many participants are unfamiliar with typewriter keyboards
anyway, or consider typing to be undignified.
Other important questions would seem to be
exactly how many identities and accounts are permitted in existing software
and what are the constraints on increasing that number. Even in a large
conference/festival, however, only a relatively small percentage of those
participating would be interested in entering the system and many would
only do so for simple messaging purposes.
what would be the estimated memory requirements per "conference"
and per "messager"
can some technique be used to conserve memory by deleting selected old
messages systematically unless their retention is specifically requested.
Available conferencing software mentioned in Appendix 2 includes
Party Line U.S. Office of Emergency Preparedness, Washington D.C.
Emisari National Technical Information Service, Department of
Commerce, Springfield, VA (a more sophisticated version of Party line)
Discuss University of Illinois, Urbana (linked to the Plato CAI system)
Forum Institute for the Future, Menlo Park, CA
Planet Intermedia Corporation, 130 Sherman Avenue, PaloAlto, CA 94306
(simpler version of Forum available on the Tymshare network)
- Oracle School of Education, Northwestern University (linked
to aCAI system)
Mailbox Scientific Time Sharing Corp., Bethesda, Maryland.
Confer Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan
EIES Computerized Conferencing and Communication Center, New Jersey,
Institute of Technology, 323 High Street, Newark, NJ 07102
A comprehensive survey of such software has been recently made ( ). Of
these, it would appear that Party line, Discuss, forum, Oracle and Mailbox
could perhaps be excluded from further consideration.
Further investigation is required to determine the availability and suitability
of the others, the adaptations which would be required to available hardware,
and the rental or purchase costs involved, if relevant.
At the present time it would appear that only Confer has been used to facilitate
communication at a large meeting, although Planet has been used for a number
of smaller conferences, including some based in Europe.
Although not a computer conferencing package in the above sense, mention
should also be made of a Community Information System package developed partly
in support of an Oregon Ideas Fair and Workshop (May 1977) for the Oregon
Museum of Science and Industry (4015 S W Canyon Road, Portland, Oregan 97221).
This is described in the Appendix 2.
It remains to be seen how those responsible for the available computer conferencing
software react to the use of the technique as a low-key enhancement of communication
in a large conference/festival. If the response is positive and suitable
equipment and computer time can be located, there is no reason that this should
not be a feature of the May 1978 Festival of Mind and Body in London - possibly
linked with terminals at other locations in the UK or elsewhere.
It is however of the utmost importance that any such use of computer terminals
should be made as a casual adjunct to the existing communication process and
the organizers should not get carried away with enthusiasm to the point that
the equipment and its fanatics detract from the communication process which
should be enhanced. The acceptability of such an innovation may depend a
great deal on "superficial", "packaging" and "psychological"
factors such as the setting given to the terminals and the message handling
desks, the "style" of the assistants, and the presentation of any
descriptive material and Identity cards. These may either be encouraging
or discouraging. If the latter, then no matter how sophisticated the facility,
it will not be given a chance to demonstrate its potential and the whole environment
will be perceived as mere "gadgetry".
Despite such risks, computer conferencing represents one of the few (if not
the only) available methods whereby a large group of people can consciously
meld together into an organic self-organizing whole in which each individual
and group perspective is distinctively expressed and blended wall others to
the extent possible at the time.