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Tianjin Talks: videoconferencing is for wimps (or idiots, actually)

October 6, 2010

The Tianjin talks being underway, there is a fair amount of coverage bearing in mind that the attendees are rather less glamorous than the Copenhagen turnout –and perhaps this is all to the good, since there may be less posturing and more work done. Indeed, one report in the Guardian has it so; good organisation, quiet efficiency and a sense of purpose, if not accomplishment. For that, I suspect we will have to wait a little longer.

But once more in the forums I see an argument whose irrelevance is only exceeded by its naivety. This trite little jibe – for it is little more – asks why attendees don’t use videoconferencing. Their answer, predictably, is that all this is some kind of jolly.

In the first place, people making this argument can’t have travelled for a living. Jaunts like Tianjin are a rush of tedium, interspersed by brief moments of communal intelligence and immense frustration, sometimes simultaneously. Days and nights merge; any thoughts of seeing the sights are entertained only by bag carriers. Everyone else is heads down non-stop, desperate to keep up with the rapid shifts in emphasis, new agreements in draft, sudden arguments, old enmities rearing their heads, new enmities coalescing as existing alliances break down and reform, reshaped and rearranged to suit agendas nobody knew anything about until 15 minutes ago. This is the breathless stuff of conferences: massive amounts of boredom, the action taking place in 45 seconds’ conversation in a hallway, a nod and a wink over plastic self-service trays laden with plastic self-service food. Behind it all, the dangers of drinking – just when you get settled in to a nice bored buzz, all hell inevitably breaks loose.

So let’s get real: this isn’t fun. It might be a rush the first time, maybe even the third or fourth. But after that, the airports merge into one vast impersonal hallway, the airline staff blending in with ubiquitous hotel functionaries to mount some Faustian conspiracy to stick it to the tourists in ever more subtle ways. Do enough of these events and you can’t remember where you are, what language the porter is speaking, how much you’ve tipped them – and if you are now in mortal danger either from the gross insult or the ostentatious display of excess wealth. All this before you ever make it into the conference venue.

* * * * * *

If you think I exaggerate, remember the stories coming out of Copenhagen, a considerably more prestigious event. Important people kept waiting in line, queuing for hours just to get in. Is this anyone’s idea of a fun time? But never mind all that, let’s talk about power and how it works, because it is very clear to me that the people suggesting this kind of thing can be done by videoconferencing have never been anywhere near an event at which serious decisions were made – about anything.

Decisions are not made in meetings. Deals are not done in public. What the public sees during events like this are the staged events; formal, predictable (to the delegates), a done deal. When did the deal actually get done? In a chat lasting two minutes in a hallway, based on a half hour chat over dinner last night, which in turn depended on hours of patient staff work to hammer out all the tiny details, like who’s paying who in what currency. It’s like they say about laws and sausages – you never want to let anyone see what goes in to making them. Deals will be done on issues so distant from climate change, the public would have a hard time appreciating quite how their futures are routinely traded. Yet this is how all deals are done. Quietly, and behind closed doors.

Is it corrupt? Depends on how distant you want to remain from the way the world works. Read Machiavelli; in The Prince he documents the same processes that Kissinger called ‘realpolitik’, the same principles of maintaining power, of doing whatever deals are necessary to keep the balance between the public perception and the private good.  The Roman empire was built on the same pragmatism, and they were only copying the Greeks.

* * * * * *

That’s enough about the negotiating mechanisms. Can we just dwell briefly on the constraints of technology. You’re in a meeting with 16 other people. What kind of videoconferencing will allow you to keep a close watch on the expressions of all 15 other delegates? What about noting which of the second tier count – the quiet men and women who stand behind their delegates, feeding them vital information, acting as couriers. Know who they are, and you have a lever to pull on, assuming you can find something to attach to that lever. Anyone think this can be done looking at 15×2 inch square icons on a computer screen?

The subtleties of face to face communication are compressed down to a meaningless level when you videoconference. You can’t tell the difference between a delegate storming out in disgust or protest, and a man in need of an urgent piss. Anyone who thinks high-level deals could be done like this has never negotiated anything beyond repayment terms on an extended credit card. It is the thinking of middle management, of the envious, of the powerless. I do suspect that many of those complaining so bitterly about delegates travelling to exotic-sounding places are exactly those who have never been to exotic places – at least not on the company expense account.

And one last remark: after CRU and the ‘intercepted’ emails, what kind of fucking idiot would do a dodgy backroom deal using a technology that not only could be hacked, but recorded in all its devious glory?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Dr. Tom permalink
    October 6, 2010 7:01 pm

    As usual, right on Graham! I’ve been to many conferences, presented at a few and there’s nothing like the personal contact, the colleagues you meet after a presentation and the ideas exchanged. But they are not fun and most of the things you attend are irrelevant to problems that you may need help with. One has to pick and choose carefully and exchange ideas with others to help you decide which functions to attend. Keep up the good work!



  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    October 6, 2010 8:17 pm

    Dr. Tom – that’s spot on. The thing about irrelevant stuff is that you have to go to those meetings etc in order to find out you don’t want to be there. It’s a bugger, frankly!

  3. The King In Yellow permalink
    October 7, 2010 1:36 pm

    Whilst a big fan of v/c, you are right that there is no replacement for face to face discussions, and if I ever wanted to get a decision from senior management it’d be by catching them in the corridor or looming over them at their desk blocking their means of escape.

    All the best.

  4. October 13, 2010 8:10 pm

    While I think that greater use of videoconferencing would generally be a good thing for all kinds of meetings and conferences and even negotiations and deals (I have participated in job interviews by videoconference and know many others who have as well), I agree that high level international negotiations are too important to risk miscommunications and too complex to conduct purely by video.


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