Contents this month
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
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.