Peter Wynn Thompson for The New York Times
A recent NY Times article on advances in video conferencing and its use, fuelled in large part by rising transport costs, brings together two aspects I have studied from the frame of peace negotiations – inter-cultural mediation and virtual interactions.
There is a certain paradox in telepresence, in that it is all to simulate the richest form of human interaction: people talking to each other, face to face. And it is not a perfect substitute. Ms. Smart, the chief of human resources for Accenture, still travels about 10 days a month. “You don’t learn about other cultures in telepresence,” she said. “You get things from being there, over breakfast and dinner, building relationships face to face.”
Telepresence is all the new rage. To the companies that make telepresence solutions, the term video conferencing to describe their products is as outrageous as calling a Alfa Romeo 8C Compretizione just a car. It so is not.
Cisco was the first off the block with this new generation of virtual meetings that uses a combination of positional audio and video cues, high-def screens undergirded by good broadband connections to make the entire video conferencing experience that much more real.
But therein lies the caveat for those of us in Sri Lanka. We don’t have good broadband, severely vitiating our ability to save the planet by using these technologies (and even the more humble but for most situations quite capable Skype Video).
For the countries that can and do use telepresence (and Skype Video) the potential for its use in mediation needs more serious study. I know of a couple of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) providers who are now keenly looking at incorporating Skype Video into their ODR products (some already have Skype VOIP built in). Richard Susskind at the ODR Forum in Liverpool in April 2007 spoke about telepresence, but a year on in Victoria at the ODR Forum this year, no one who demonstrated their products to my knowledge had video as an integral part of the feature set.
As a slight aside, although the iPhone 3G doesn’t support it, most 3G Nokia’s and other phones support voice calls, enabling even those in the field to connect using video. My greatest problem with video calls is that they just don’t work for me. For one, holding up a camera to one’s face and talking just makes one loud and obnoxious. The resulting jitter results in migraines for everyone else. And the quality is really still quite poor.
But the question is does telepresence or at its most basic, Skype video, have the ability to build bridges across cultures? Or more specifically, does it do this any better than say email, POTS or VOIP? I think so and disagree with the assertion that you don’t learn anything about other cultures through online video interactions. At the most basic, there are the visual cues. For sure, such cues are mediated through the webcam (which is not the same as the cues one would experience in a real world F2F meeting) but for the sensitive speaker / mediator, they are still valuable markers of those “in the room” that are simply not available through email, a teleconference or even on VOIP.
I’ve worked from a home office set up for over two years. Most of my interactions are over email, but because of the deteriorating security conditions in Sri Lanka, voice communications related to human rights protection and humanitarian work in particular now go through Skype. I rarely use Skype video, but have used it once or twice quite well late in the night.
Point is, I communicate daily with a range of people across the world, work on peacebuilding, innovate and produce multimedia content all from an abysmal “broadband” connection. I avoid rush hour / school traffic and don’t even have an office space anymore in Colombo.
On the other hand, I have already logged more air miles this year than I did for all of 2007 and I can’t see that decreasing. My experience with work at the UN at a high-level is one example of group discussions and the management of competing group dynamics that simply cannot be managed virtually.
So I take the point that telepresence even today cannot replace real world F2F. But here’s the rub – given how far telepresence itself has come from the underwhelming video conferencing of yore, just how long do you think it will take for the next generation of systems to say holographically project 3D images of people around a table?
We already have mobile phones with mini projectors.
How long before we can project avatars of our friends wherever we are?