Mediate connection in the Age of Entanglement

mediate connectionWhat do we need to understand to mediate connection effectively today? Inventor and computer scientist Danny Hillis gives us some helpful context:

“We humans are changing. We have become so intertwined with what we have created that we are no longer separate from it. We have outgrown the distinction between the natural and the artificial. We are what we make. We are our thoughts, whether they are created by our neurons, by our electronically augmented minds, by our technologically mediated social interactions, or by our machines themselves…

…We are our perceptions, whether they are through our eyes and ears or our sensory-fused hyper-spectral sensors, processed as much by computers as by our own cortex. We are our institutions, cooperating super-organisms, entangled amalgams of people and machines with super-human intelligence, processing, sensing, deciding, acting…

…Our networks of commerce, power and communications are becoming as richly interconnected as ecologies and nervous systems. Empowered by the tools of the Enlightenment, connected by networked flows of freight and fuel and finance, by information and ideas, we are becoming something new. We are at the dawn of the Age of Entanglement.”
Danny Hillis, The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Entanglement

Mediating connection via technology

People usually think of technology as “anything that was invented after you were born”, as Alan Kay put it. But it’s much more useful to think of technology as anything made to solve a problem. Defining technology in this way opens our eyes to technologies that we all unthinkingly use every day, technologies that are essentially invisible because they have always been part of our lives.

We’ve been creating and using what I call human process technology — which includes language, writing, and science — for a very long time. Language, in all its forms, is the oldest human process technology:

“Every culture and tribe has its own language it has invented to solve the problem of real-time communication between its members. These technologies are so old that they are invisible to us. They are part of our culture, the human air we breathe. Language, writing, and science are tools outside our conventional, narrow-scope view of technology. We instantiate these tools using invented conventions: sounds, gestures, and symbols. These sounds, gestures, and symbols, however, are secondary features of these ancient technologies. Ultimately, language, writing, and science are primarily about human process.”
—Adrian Segar, Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way

Clearly, we are groping our way towards mediating connection with each other via technology. The COVID-19 pandemic provides a dramatic example. In a few months, we moved from meeting primarily in person to meeting online. Our connection became mediated by screens showing live video of others and speakers broadcasting their voices. Printing, telephones, fax machines, email, and messaging have all impacted how we connect, but nothing has been swifter than our switch to meeting in real time online.

In addition, technology is increasingly creating rich data that’s useful or necessary to mediate connection. Automatic speech technology (ASR) systems caption meetings and translate into other languages in real time. Software routinely writes news reports, and can now generate accurate summaries of articles for more efficient human review. All of these technologies have become feasible and commonplace in the last decade.

Mediating connection in an increasingly entangled future

If artificial intelligence systems can perform the above tasks now, it’s not fanciful to predict that they will progressively take over human activities that currently mediate connection.

For example, future systems might be able to moderate group meeting conversations. (Imagine a Zoom breakout where an intelligent virtual assistant facilitates a small group’s conversation on a topic.)

Or consider meeting curation: a task that is taxing, if even possible for humans. Perhaps it will eventually be possible that an IVA for real-time meeting curation could do a comparable job to the crowdsourcing human processes I’ve developed during the last 30 years.

Ten years ago, the idea of speaking to your phone to tell it to do something was laughable. Today, the development of deep feedforward networks for acoustic modeling has made such technology invisible to my grandchildren. They just use it—and it (nearly always) works.

So let’s keep in mind how Danny Hillis concludes his article:

“We can no longer see ourselves as separate from the natural world or our technology, but as a part of them, integrated, codependent, and entangled.”

As our technology advances, it will become, more and more, a normal and largely invisible contributor to how we mediate connection. Its benefits—and drawbacks—remain to be discovered.

 

Why digital tools aren’t always the right choice for events

Every day I receive a barrage of pitches for event technologies. Each one markets digital tools, like apps for marketing, registration, venue booking, staffing, sponsorship, engagement, etc. Newcomers to the meeting industry who experience this onslaught could be forgiven for believing that digital software and hardware technologies are the only tools available and worth considering for meeting improvement.

Well…no.

The reason that digital tool marketing fills event professionals’ mailboxes and feeds is simply that there’s money to make by selling these technologies. Much more money than from tools like the participation techniques covered in my book The Power of Participation, which require either no “technology” at all or inexpensive tools like paper, Sharpies®, and Post-it® notes.

Yes, digital event technology has had a big positive impact on events. For example, no one (except the companies that printed them) regrets the demise of the massive printed conference guides that attendees had to drag around, most attendees appreciate the quantity and timeliness of information available on their mobile devices from well-designed event apps, and voting apps and throwable microphones allow greater interaction between presenters and audiences.

Nevertheless, in my experience, the human process tools I’ve been using and improving for the last twenty-five years provide more benefits more effectively (and, obviously, at lower cost) than current digital tools.

Let me illustrate with a current story taken from one of my earlier careers.

A massive difference
Before accidentally entering the meeting industry, I spent twenty-three years as an independent information technology consultant. During this period I was an active member of the global software development community and my friends included some of the leading practitioners of this challenging art.

Large software projects involve teams of programmers who work together to develop complex systems where a single error can have far-reaching consequences. Everyone makes mistakes, and one of the hardest tasks when developing software in teams is to implement design process that provides the required system functionality while minimizing flaws. Because the system implementation is constantly changing during development, continual software testing is an essential component of the whole process.

As you might expect, software developers are leading-edge creators of software tools. Sophisticated code repositories, automated testing suites, and complex project management tools are routinely used and constantly improved.

And yet, it turns out, some of the most important tools are not digital. Here’s an illustrative tweet from Mathew Cropper, an Irish software developer, and a follow-up response from Canadian consultant Dave Sabine.

“Last week we moved from a purely digital backlog to using a physical wall. The quality of conversation improved massively. It’s like talking with a different group of people.”
Mathew Cropper tweet

“If a team hasn’t yet tried a big, visible, physical wall of roadmaps/backlog/tasks… then any discussion about digital tools is like buying new tennis shoes in order to quit smoking.”
David Sabine tweet

The most sophisticated digital tools that money can buy are no match for a wall full of sticky notes!

Successful process for software development and meetings
There are many reasons why a wall of sticky notes is a useful and powerful tool for successful team software development and effective conference program crowdsourcing and engagement. Both human process environments thrive because a sticky note wall provides:

  • One place to easily capture every piece of information that any individual thinks is relevant;
  • A public display of information that many people can easily view simultaneously for as long as needed;
  • Simple public manipulation options, such as note clustering, inclusion/exclusion, ranking, and public modification;
  • Somewhere for appropriate people to document and discuss progress and develop and implement process; and
  • A natural focus for easy spontaneous conversation, communication, and creativity.

It’s hard for current digital tools to provide any of these benefits as simply and well. Let’s compare for each of the points above:

  • Information capture: Wall requires writing with pens on sticky notes. Digital tools require access to a digital device for each attendee plus the interface knowledge necessary to use it.
  • Public display: Wall requires a flat surface for notes. Digital tools require a BIG (expensive) screen.
  • Public manipulation options: At the wall simply pick up a note and move it. Digital tools would require a big touch screen plus some form of note-dragging interface. [aka Minority Report wizardry]
  • Document and discussing progress & implementing process: Wall layout can easily be repurposed/redesigned whenever needed to accommodate different process tools such as project management or ranking to-dos. Digital tools typically require specific process techniques to be precoded.
  • Focus for conversation, communication, and creativity: Walls provide all the above functionality simply and in ways accessible to any attendee. So they are natural foci for conversation, experimentation, and creativity. The barriers listed above for digital tools make them far less accessible for such purposes.

Given these significant advantages, coupled with much lower costs, it’s a shame that more conference organizers haven’t discovered the value of simple process tools like sticky note walls and are still seduced by the relentless marketing of digital tool suppliers. So to learn more about many other powerful human process tools and how to use them effectively, buy my “tool chest” book The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.