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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.

After the experiments during our meeting a few years ago with Open Space Technology (OST), any such computer assisted meeting 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.

OST 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 communication".

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 system.

  • 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, 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 basis.

  • 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 available.

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