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Newsletter, July 2007

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Attention deficit in the electronic age

A long conversation this week with a group setting up pan-European online dialogue about a new constitution, agriculture, and the future of Europe generally. Can we help?

Of course we can - if only by steering them away from what won’t work. But we started by reviewing what computers and the Internet are good for, in terms of such dialogue. I always begin with a general principle: “You should use online processes to do things that would be impossible by other means.”

These impossible things usually involve, first, scale and spread: the ability to involve large numbers of people in diverse places who would not otherwise be able to ‘gather’ to discuss issues of common interest. Secondly, the ability to collate and display to people the results in a way that enables them to surf for what really interests them. I pointed out, as usual, that while an electronic forum is great for the first, it is usually much less satisfactory for the second. We easily agreed on this.

What else, they asked, do you think an online process is good for? I thought rapidly through all the online work we have done recently and contrasted it with the face-to-face meetings and workshops that are still an important part of Dialogue by Design’s workload. Somewhat surprised, I found myself replying that online processes are good for helping people to focus and concentrate on what is important to them.

It should not have been so surprising: one of the virtues of online processes, particularly those that involve consultation on long documents, is people’s ability to pick out the points that really concern them and not to have to scour through dozens of pages of peripheral interest.

But actually I was contrasting it with the increasing difficulty of getting people to concentrate in face-to-face workshops. Compared with ten years ago, the workshops I facilitate are getting shorter: people seem to want to be away by mid-afternoon, slaves to the tyranny of e-mail and ever-shorter deadlines. Worse still, asking people to switch off mobile telephones or refrain from fiddling with their Blackberries is increasingly futile. Every few minutes there is an insistent bleep from somewhere in the room and a not-so-discreet scrabble to peer at the wretched thing under the table.

Sustained concentration and serious thought are the victims. In the past I would have said that the weakness of online processes is the lack of human, face-to-face contact. Now I am inclined to say that one of their strengths is, compared with workshops, the lack of distraction by people who are not even in the room. The flood of e-mails may continue while you are working through an online process, but it is less distracting than talking to someone itching to look at their little screen for something more diverting than your conversation with them.

Andrew Acland


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