Electronic Context of Future International Meetings
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Presentation to the of the 16th Associate Members meeting of the
Union of International Associations (Brussels, 7-8 October 1996)
We hope that you
have come out of our meeting on the Future of
Meetings in an Electronic Era with a feeling that tomorrow's
meetings might be different... Using 50 interconnected notebook
computers has certainly marked the beginnings of further
evolution in international meetings.
experiments during our meeting a few years ago with
Open Space Technology (OST), any such computer
offers much food for thought.
For both techniques
the emphasis is placed on participants, their
interaction and communication between them. But here the
similarities seem to end.
can be thought of as a
"light" system using as hardware, only
a few bits of paper, pencils and several small meeting rooms.
With minimum facilitation and preparation, it gave participants
complete freedom and responsibility to organize their work and
create their own dynamic -- on
their own initiative.
By contrast, at our
latest meeting, the computer assisted
technology helped to gain understanding of many new
possibilities. But in the form we experienced this week, we were
both thrown into the most advanced technology, while in other
respects we were back 20 or
30 years ago, before the infrared
era, in a room full of wiring and invasive hardware. And, for the
first time in the history of our meetings, we had no
"simultaneous interpretation". But, when allowed by the
facilitators, we did have the possibility of communicating all
our ideas and thoughts simultaneously -- "simultaneous
For some of us, the
degree of structure imposed by the
facilitators demonstrating the technology was greater than that
which is acceptable in many international gatherings -- where at
least provision is made to challenge the decisions of the
chairperson through a "point of order". Clearly however such
structural formalization is appropriate to some styles of
meeting, even if it would be less than welcome in others.
As part of the UIA
team, we feel that we now have a better view
of what future meetings might have in store. We would like to
continue our own meeting by taking advantage of the facilities
offered by Internet and the Web.
To start the
discussion, we should like to communicate with you
some of the "lessons", experiences, and reflections that we
derived from the meeting:
- The technology used could be based on an infrared (or locations.
- Participants should have facilities to make explicit, non-public observations/complaints,
to those controlling any formal session - specifically with regard to abusive
use of the session, lengthy presentations, inappropriate treatment of participants
(especially from other cultures), etc. If their frustration is not taken into
account they should be free to make better use of their time through the communication
The level of participants "electronic communication rights"
may become a criteria for attendance at a meeting.
- The contribution of facilitators should be determined by participants individually.
The technology could be used to allow those requiring "heavy" facilitation
to receive it -- allowing others to benefit optionally from other "lighter"
kinds of facilitation. Several facilitators might in the future even use the
same hardware to compete amongst themselves in offering alternative ways of
catalyzing the evolution of the meeting -- rather like competing TV networks
offering alternative perceptions to paying audiences that select one or other
TV channel. It may not be strange to see vendors of software packages and
supporting services offering competing facilities for communication within
meetings ~- much as telephone monopolies are increasingly forced to compete.
Conference centres will need to be clarify whether they are offering a "monopoly
service" or a service to enable those offering communication facilities
to compete in the best interests of participants.
- Conference centres will have to worry a great deal about how such facilities
can be abused. Such abuse can take forms such as loss of confidentiality,
abuse of the system by organizers and other parties (including electronic
surveillance and espionage), deliberate or inadvertent introduction of viruses,
modification of messages to subvert exchanges, and the many forms of inappropriate
communication already covered by much-discussed Internet "netiquette"
codes (to deal with "flaming", "spamming", advertising,
harassment and abusive language). Individual participants may be happy to
benefit from filters to reject unsolicited messages, or messages from other
participants they specify. It would be convenient for participants to be able
to "delete" messages they no longer wish to have presented to them
(including jokes, once read).
Meetings will go on back-to-back - meaning physical meetings will be
preceded and followed by electronic meetings -- just as physical meetings
may give birth to electronic meetings. And that is what we want to do now.
. . . This text is being placed on our website (at http://www.uia.org),
as well as being sent to all members who have e-mail addresses. Clearly
the implication of all such possibilities is that wireless) system. Conference
rooms of tomorrow should therefore be appropriately equipped.
Participants should increasingly be able to come to a conference with
their own notebook machines, be issued with software by the organizers (who
might install it for them), thus allowing them to connect into a network
of communications linking the participants (whether within sessions, between
sessions or from hotel rooms), in order to freely interact with each other.
Conference organizers/centres should be able to rent pre-set notebooks to
participants who do not bring their own -- in ways similar to the rental
of interpretation headsets or mobile phones.
When desired, participants should be able to save portions of any interchange
to disk that they can take home with them. Equally they should be able to
bring texts on disks to be able to share through the system to other participants
under appropriate conditions.
Although we recognize the validity of the argument of the facilitators
at our meeting for an approach requiring "heavy" facilitation,
at the UIA we are also interested to understand how similar technology could
be used with "light" facilitation (and possibly at much lower
cost). This could emphasize support of patterns of use and communication
that emerge during the meeting -- rather than having to be predetermined
and heavily controlled. This would be a different style of meeting appropriate
to other kinds of gatherings. The new technology will be strongly resisted
if it alienates people of a particular age, status, culture or attitude
towards hardware-mediated communication. Its use needs to become unobtrusive,
or else it may be forbidden in meetings -- just as restaurants are increasingly
discouraging use of mobile phones.
- It is essential that consideration should be given to the possibility of
translation facilities. This could take the form of translators appending
translations to messages input to the system, or possibly the use of the relatively
crude, but commercially available, translation packages. Such translation
could be done casually or formally -- possibly on a pay-for-what-you-request
- Participants should be able to make full use of the technology in parallel
with formal meeting processes. Except in the most formal organizer-driven
gatherings, they should be free to decide how they use their time in the meeting.
For example, wordprocessor facilities should enable them to draft positions
papers and resolutions to be shared and refined "confidentially"
amongst members of a like-minded group of participants during the session.
For those who like to "doodle", they should have access to software
offering such facilities. Above all individual participants should be able
to message other individuals of their choice. Where possible, individual participants
should also be able to receive messages from distant
Conference venues that make a higher order of secure communication possible
-- at a reasonable price -- are going to have a major competitive advantage.
We believe that marketing of venues will in future place increasing emphasis,
not only on the hardware facilities, but also the software and support facilities