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The International School of Ignorance ?: an ongoing experiment in online dialogue meeting design


The International School of Ignorance ?
Why avoid participating?

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A series of eight experimental, face-to-face meetings have been held at various locations over the past decade -- partially inspired by an earlier version of the criteria indicated below. This has evoked the question as to whether an online version is possible and what form it might usefully take. Only one of these dialogues has been tentatively described in a document (Anthony Blake, A Self-Organizing Group in Dialogue, 1994). Several have been captured in "visual minutes" by Tim Casswell (Reduced version of colour flipcharts as PDFs: Wales, 1993 session, 9mb; Scotland, 1994 session, 6mb). Such records are contested as unrepresentative by participants. (See also an earlier variant of this document)


  • There are many creative experiments with dialogue at this time, whether online or otherwise
  • Valuable potential participants already suffer from information overload
  • There is a sense of "dialogue fatigue" setting in
  • There is a widespread sense of apathy
  • Valid questions are raised concerning the fruitfulness of verbal interaction
Framing a possibility for new dialogue

There is a healthy concern that not enough is being learnt from past initiatives and, whilst many new initiatives are being explored, there is a frustrating sense that these may not be focusing on less tangible underlying issues and processes. A checklist of possible concerns might include:

  • Exploring learnings evoked by endeavouring to respond to challenging times
  • Moving beyond issues that are symptomatic of poorly explored tensions
  • Avoiding issues for which there are well-established dialogue arenas
  • Avoiding distraction by well-explored communication patterns
  • Exploring ways of moving beyond the deficiencies of online dialogues
  • Emphasizing perspectives sensitive to new paradigms and old wisdom
  • Recognizing frameworks offering solutions, without buying into them
  • Challenging the dialogue process and experimenting with new approaches
  • Emphasizing insight and avoiding information overload
Focus and purpose

The focus and purpose of the dialogue is, to a large degree, the nature of  "focus" and "purpose" in a dialogue amongst people with strong commitments, extensive experience, and a weariness with old patterns and efforts at facilitation towards consensus. The dialogue will tend to question easy framings such as this text. In a real sense the direction favoured by each participant will be considered, or experienced, as tangential to what will remain an undefined purpose. Such tangents will tend to be valued as intersecting baselines from which a common purpose may be inferred -- by some -- but not captured in words.


Potential participants will tend to be busy individuals, experienced in group process, with strong views and commitments -- and a wide range of interests. The need of each to "do" and to "accomplish" something through any encounter (especially where there are strong preferences on meeting organization) introduces a special tension in an agenda-less, leader-less situation where each is co-responsible and none wish any particular view to dominate.

There is no particular process or mode of facilitation. Most participants are only convinced of the merits of such a gathering by word-of-mouth discussion with others whose views or qualities they respect.

The decision on whether it is appropriate to participate can therefore really only be made intuitively. There are absolutely no guarantees on the value of the experience, the composition of the gathering, or the scope of the exchanges.

The urgencies have not gone away either, so the indulgence of participation will continue to be challenged.

The challenge is to describe the online dialogue in ways which will encourage some to participate and will discourage others for whom there are many more appropriate online contexts. Part of the challenge lies in reflecting on the design to ensure that it offers new opportunities -- whether or not these are implemented.

Online advantages

There are well-recognized advantages of online interaction over face-to-face encounters. These include:

  • Ability of participants to take time to reflect about communication content
  • Reduced impact of verbosity
  • Opportunity for participation by distant participants with travel constraints
  • Extension of potential range of participants and inputs (by discipline, culture, etc)
  • Ease of engaging in sub-dialogues or one-to-one interaction
  • Possibility of involving people with tight schedules
  • Reduced risk to participants with only tentative interest
  • Reduced cost to participants (for travel, accomodation, etc)
  • Tighter control over any communication experiments
  • Avoidance of obvious distractions of personality style
  • Ease of unsubscribing
There are of course well-recognized limitations where valued body language, personality and other factors do not communicate well.

Experimental message policy

The challenge is to overcome the well-recognized constraints of listservers, newsgroups and e-mail in general -- especially overload. Key factors are brevity, variety, focus and dynamics -- however these may be usefully interpreted. It is expected that the message policy will be treated as experimental and subject to continuing redesign. Features that may possibly be included are:

  • Combination of e-mail and web facilities, with e-mail being used to point to longer communications on the web (whether specific to the dialogue or posted elsewhere)
  • Restriction of message length -- possibly using web forms
  • Disinguishing between participant status: full (read-write), partial (read-write via moderator, for possible write-in), constrained (read-occasional write), observer (read-only)
  • Exclusion of messages more appropriate to other online contexts
  • Moderation, possibly for certain (new) participants only (purgatory technique)
  • Encouragement of participants to develop their own message filter rules
  • Use of a multi-site technique, switching some messages to alternative sites
  • Use of visuals (image, audio, or video)
  • Spam control
  • Issue, rather than personal, orientation of messages
  • Pattern building

It is expected that participation would provide its own justifications -- which would be variously defined. Outcomes might include compilation into book form, preserving anonymity, although the website might serve this need.

Why participate?

  • If you feel an often desperate sense of urgency in endeavouring to discover new frameworks of response to the many tragic world issues
  • If you believe that meetings can be a useful learning laboratory in which risks need to be taken if they are to produce anything of wider relevance to social transformation
  • If you are interested in the exploration of co-created meetings
  • If you are weary of conventional pre-structured events and presentations and the low level of expectations that they encourage
  • If you want to test your ability to respond spontaneously to new meeting possibilities
  • If you recognize the need to hold dilemmas and paradoxes without resolving or by-passing them
  • If you question the wider social impact of the resolutions, declarations, pledges and plans that are laboriously negotiated as the main product of conventional international gatherings
  • If you are intrigued by the possibilities of collective self-transcendence
  • If you are prepared to accept that all participants, including yourself, are as much a part of the problem as a key contributor to the solution
  • If you believe that you are prepared to question your most fundamental assumptions
  • If you believe that you learn and grow through being challenged by radically different views
  • If you consider that much of value remains to be discovered from larger group experiments in self-organization
  • If you are weary of intellectual frameworks and fashionable models and are intrigued by the possibility that new metaphors are required to navigate the strategic challenges of the future
  • If you are intrigued by possible breakthroughs from collective concentration of attention in the moment
  • If you believe that participants should be collectively responsible for the fruitfulness of an evolving meeting process
  • If you enjoy surprises and the unexpected

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