Reach Out And Telecommunicate

A new set of skills needed to understand
the possibilities of the electronic meeting place

One of the articles in Sustainability (IC#25)
Originally published in Late Spring 1990 on page 7
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

Many people active in the peace and environmental movements keep in touch and share information via PeaceNet and EcoNet, computer networks administered by the Institute for Global Communications. But EcoNet director Bill Leland, interviewed recently by IC Editor Robert Gilman, thinks these networks could do a lot more. Contact IGC at 3228 Sacramento St., San Francisco, CA 94115, 415-923-0900.

Robert: Are people using networks like PeaceNet and EcoNet to their full potential?

Bill: On the positive side, information is being shared, it’s being distributed around the world and people are participating. Much of the information in the [computer] conferences is posted by experts and the prominent organizations in their respective fields, so the quality of the information is extremely good.

On the negative side, it’s very unfortunate that more people aren’t making good use of it. Teleconferencing is one of the most under-utilized resources on our system.

Robert: What impact have these networks had so far?

Bill: Their impact has been quite substantial in two ways. One, they permit organizations to work more closely together. There have been very good signs of more collaboration among environmental lawyers, for example, who are using EcoNet to communicate with their legal colleagues as well as with grass roots organizations and international organizations.

Two, there have been a number of situations where there was a need for rapid communication on a certain issue, or where some action was called for, and the network has been used effectively to meet these needs. But relatively speaking, this technology is still in its infancy.

Robert: One of the critiques of computer networks is that they take a fair bit of dedication – and maybe even a hacker’s interest – to navigate.

Bill: Telecommunications is far from a turnkey operation at this point – the best analogy is to the beginning of automobile days, when people were very willing to get out in front of their cars and crank it a few times. No one would buy such a car now. In telecommunications, we’re probably somewhere between the crank stage and being able to just turn the key. Still, it is a tool that is used successfully by "normal" human beings.

Robert: How do you see systems like EcoNet developing in the future?

Bill: There are two streams happening. One is advancing technology, and the other is understanding the fundamentals of human communication. It’s the latter that’s got to receive maximum attention. In our world of instant this and that, including instant global communications, we tend to forget the human foundations.

There are fascinating new dynamics involved with global reach, and with people communicating through the electronically transmitted written word, often without ever meeting each other face to face or using any other kind of communications.

There’s a need for understanding those dynamics, so that meetings or conferences that happen electronically are not only effective but also respectful of all involved. I think we really need to develop a new set of skills to understand what the electronic meeting place is all about.

Note: See "Humanizing Hyperspace" by Peter & Trudy Johnson-Lenz in IC #23 for more on this topic.

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