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Why COP15 couldn’t be done at a distance

January 17, 2010

Video links are not a credible alternative to personal attendance. There is a broad misconception about how deals are really done at the highest levels, but if you’ve ever attended a local council meeting or a residents association meeting, you will know that it is virtually impossible to hammer out the details of any agreement in the public eye.

It is also the case that nearly all diplomatic and economic deals between governments and major institutions are done in private, in back-rooms and corridors, over breakfasts and dinners, even on golf courses. Deals are made using all the bargaining chips available, over timescales that have little bearing on pressing agendas, and compromise is the order of the day.

It isn’t that the process is corrupt, so much as simply expedient. China wants the US to set a CO2 target, but agrees not to push the point in exchange for a favourable review of trade tariffs. Russia wants people to get off its back about Georgia so does a deal assuring stable gas supplies to the EU in exchange for a revised foreign policy or a new NATO initiative. Little countries with hardly any clout or resources to bargain with band together so that their voice may be heard, and it is only by personal representation that they will get a chance to bend the ears of the major players.

The public meetings and conferences are simply the dressing, the place where the deals are announced, having already been done. Debate, such as it is, will be staged and predictable, but little will be changed by what is said in public. The deals that will be done are quiet, private and circumspect, and no video technology could possibly facilitate such agreements and deals.

I should mention here that I am an ex-CIO, not that I intend to demonstrate some authority in this discussion, merely that I am quite aware of available and developing technologies, and to dispel any possible notion that I harbour any anti-technology feelings.

While video conferencing is, in some situations, a very useful technology (and obviously far more ‘green’ that flying around the globe), there are limitations that lead me to observe something you took issue with, namely “no video technology could possibly facilitate such agreements and deals”.

There is no available technology that could convey the richness of intercourse of personal meetings. Body language, tiny movements, the background, the nuance, the time of day or night, the feelings and moods of those we talk to – all these and many more aspects of communication are compressed or eliminated by cameras and screens. There is also a fixity in such systems: you must be in the right place at the right time, which eliminates the casual meeting in the hallway or in the bar. You must be in range of a microphone, you must be in the visual range of a camera. You cannot move, you cannot talk while you walk to another meeting. You cannot buy a chap a drink to smooth feathers when things get hot or share a meal. These last are important strategies for improving communication, especially when things get tough and heated.

When difficult subject are being negotiated, all these limitations and more impinge on the ability to use all the communicative tools and ameliorative methods we have developed as a species. To cut to the chase, technology cannot be a substitute for the human experience. It is an excellent supplement to it, but only when used appropriately, like any other tool. Negotiations of this scale and importance cannot be conducted efficiently when so much nuance is lost.

And to end on a topical but cynical note, who in their right mind would use a technology like this to conduct delicate and expedient negotiations when ever word and gesture could be captured, recorded, hacked and distributed to one’s enemies? In light of recent events, this doesn’t sound like a good strategy to me.

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