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19 March 2020

Improving online events, for the sake of a better discussion of what truly matters

In a time of travel restrictions and operating from home, we’re all on a learning curve. There’s much for us to find out about alternatives to meeting in our usual physical locations.

London Futurists have been meeting in various physical locations for twelve years. We’ve also held a number of online gatherings over that time, using tools such as Google Hangouts on Air. But now the balance needs to shift. Given the growing Covid-19 lockdown, all London Futurists physical meetings are cancelled for the time being. While the lockdown continues, the group’s activities will be 100% online.

But what does this mean in practice?

I’d like to share some reflections from the first of this new wave of London Futurists events. That online gathering took place on Saturday, 14th March, using the meeting platform Zoom.

Hopefully my observations can help others to improve their own online events. Hopefully, too, readers of this blog will offer answers or suggestions in response to questions I raise.

Context: our event

Our event last Saturday was recorded, and the footage subsequently edited – removing, for example, parts where speakers needed to be told their microphones were muted. Here’s a copy of the resulting video:

By prior arrangement, five panellists gave short introductory talks, each lasting around 5-10 minutes, to set the stage for group discussion. Between 50 and 60 audience participants were logged into the event throughout. Some of them spoke up during the event; a larger number participated in an online text chat discussion that proceeded in parallel (there’s a lightly edited copy of the text discussion here).

As you can see from the recording, the panellists and the other participants raised lots of important points during the discussion. I’ll get back to these shortly, in another blogpost. But first, some thoughts about the tools and the process that were used for this event.

Context: Zoom

Zoom is available at a number of different price levels:

  • The “Free” level is restricted to meetings of up to 40 minutes.
  • The “Pro” level – which costs UKP £11.99 per month – supports longer meetings (up to 24 hours), recording of events, and other elements of admin and user management. This is what I use at the moment.
  • I’ve not yet explored the more expensive versions.

Users participating in an event can can turn their cameras on or off, and can share their screen (in order, for example, to present slides). Participants can also choose at any time to see a view of the video feeds from all participants (up to 25 on each page), or a “presenter view” that focuses on the person who Zoom detects as the speaker.

Recording can take place locally, on the host’s computer (and, if enabled by the organiser, on participants’ computers). Recording can also take place on the Zoom cloud. In this case, what is recorded (by default) is the “presenter view”.

The video recording can subsequently be downloaded and edited (using any video editing software – what I use is Cyberlink PowerDirector).

Limitations and improvements

I switched some time ago from Google Hangouts-on-Air (HoA) to Zoom, when Google reorganised their related software offerings during 2019.

One feature of the HoA software that I miss in Zoom is the ability for the host to temporarily “blue box” a participant, so that their screen remains highlighted, regardless of which video feeds contain speech or other noises. Without this option, what happens – as you can see from the recording of Saturday’s event – is that the presentation view can jump to display the video from a participant that is not speaking at that moment. For five seconds or so, the display shows the participant staring blankly at the camera, generally without realising that the focus is now on them. What made Zoom shift the focus is that it detected some noise from that video feed -perhaps a cough, a laugh, a moan, a chair sliding across the floor, or some background discussion.

(Participants in the event needn’t worry, however, about their blank stares or other inadvertent activity being contained in the final video. While editing the footage, I removed all such occurrences, covering up the displays, while leaving the main audio stream in place.)

In any case, participants should mute their microphones when not speaking. That avoids unwanted noise reaching the event. However, it’s easy for people to neglect to do so. For that reason, Zoom provides the host with admin control over which mics are on or off at any time. But the host may well be distracted too… so the solution is probably for me to enrol one or two participants with admin powers for the event, and ask them to keep an eye on any mics being left unmuted at the wrong times.

Another issue is the variable quality of the microphones participants were using. If the participant turns their head while speaking – for example, to consult some notes – it can make it hard to hear what they’re saying. A better solution here is to use a head-mounted microphone.

A related problem is occasional local bandwidth issues when a participant is speaking. Some or all of what they say may be obscured, slurred, or missed altogether. The broadband in my own house is a case in point. As it happens, I have an order in the queue to switch my house to a different broadband provider. But this switch is presently being delayed.

Deciding who speaks

When a topic is thought-provoking, there are generally are lots of people with things to contribute to the discussion. Evidently, they can’t all talk at once. Selecting who speaks next – and deciding how long they can speak before they might need to be interrupted – is a key part of chairing successful meetings.

One guide to who should be invited to speak next, at any stage in a meeting, is the set of comments raised in the text chat window. However, in busy meetings, important points raised can become lost in the general flow of messages. Ideally, the meeting software will support a system of voting, so that other participants can indicate their choices of which questions are the most interesting. The questions that receive the most upvotes will become the next focus of the discussion.

London Futurists have used such software in the past, including Glisser and Slido, at our physical gatherings. For online events, ideally the question voting mechanism will be neatly integrated with the underlying platform.

I recently took part in one online event (organised by the Swiss futurist Gerd Leonhard) where the basic platform was Zoom and where there was a “Q&A” voting system for questions from the audience. However, I don’t see such a voting system in the Zoom interface that I use.

Added on 20th March

Apparently there’s a Webinar add-on for Zoom that provides better control of meetings, including the Q&A voting system. The additional cost of this add-on starts from UKP £320 per annum. I’ll be looking into this further. See this feature comparison page.

Thanks to Joe Kay for drawing this to my attention!

Summarising key points

The video recording of our meeting on Saturday lasts nearly 100 minutes. To my mind, the discussion remained interesting throughout. However, inevitably, many potential viewers will hesitate before committing 100 minutes of their time to watch the entirety of that recording. Even if they watch the playback at an accelerated speed, they would probably still prefer access to some kind of edited highlights.

Creating edited highlights of recordings of London Futurists events has long been a “wish list” item for me. I can appreciate that there’s a particular skill to identifying which parts should be selected for inclusion in any such summary. I’ll welcome suggestions on how to do this!

Learning together

More than ever, what will determine our success or failure in coming to terms with the growing Covid-19 crisis is the extent to which positive collaboration and a proactive technoprogressive mindset can pull ahead of humanity’s more destructive characteristics.

That “race” was depicted on the cover of the collection of the ebook of essays published by London Futurists in June 2014, “Anticipating 2025”. Can we take advantage of our growing interconnectivity to spread, not dangerous pathogens or destructive “fake news”, but good insights about building a better future?

That was a theme that emerged time and again during our online event last Saturday.

I’ll draw this blogpost towards a close by sharing some excepts from the opening chapter from Anticipating 2025.

Four overlapping trajectories

The time period up to 2025 can be considered as a race involving four overlapping trajectories: technology, crisis, collaboration, and mindset.

The first trajectory is the improvement of technology, with lots of very positive potential. The second, however, has lots of very negative potential: it is the growth in likelihood of societal crisis:

  • Stresses and strains in the environment, with increased climate chaos, and resulting disputes over responsibility and corrective action
  • Stresses and strains in the financial system, which share with the environment the characteristics of being highly complex, incompletely understood, weakly regulated, and subject to potential tipping points for fast-accelerating changes
  • Increasing alienation, from people who feel unable to share in the magnitude of the riches flaunted by the technologically fortunate; this factor is increased by the threats from technological unemployment and the fact that, whilst the mean household income continues to rise, the median household income is falling
  • Risks from what used to be called “weapons of mass destruction” – chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons, along with cyber-weapons that could paralyse our electronics infrastructure; there are plenty of “angry young men” (and even angry middle-aged men) who seem ready to plunge what they see as a corrupt world into an apocalyptic judgement.

What will determine the outcome of this race, between technological improvement and growing risk of crises? It may be a third trajectory: the extent to which people around the world are able to collaborate, rather than compete. Will our tendencies to empathise, and to build a richer social whole, triumph over our equally deep tendencies to identify more closely with “people like us” and to seek the well-being of our “in-group” ahead of that of other groups?

In principle, we probably already have sufficient knowledge, spread around the world, to solve all the crises facing us, in a smooth manner that does not require any significant sacrifices. However, that knowledge is, as I said, spread – it does not cohere in just a single place. If only we knew what we knew. Nor does that knowledge hold universal assent – far from it. It is mocked and distorted and undermined by people who have vested interests in alternative explanations – with the vested interests varying among economic, political, ideological, and sometimes sheer human cussedness. In the absence of improved practical methods for collaboration, our innate tendencies to short-term expedience and point-scoring may rule the day – especially when compounded by an economic system that emphasises competition and “keeping up with the Joneses”.

Collaborative technologies such as Wikipedia and open-source software point the way to what should be possible. But they are unlikely to be sufficient, by themselves, to heal the divisions that tend to fragment human endeavours. This is where the fourth, and final, trajectory becomes increasingly important – the transformation of the philosophies and value systems that guide our actions.

If users are resolutely suspicious of technologies that would disturb key familiar aspects of “life as we know it”, engineers will face an uphill battle to secure sufficient funding to bring these technologies to the market – even if society would eventually end up significantly improved as a result.

Politicians generally take actions that reflect the views of the electorate, as expressed through public media, opinion polls, and (occasionally) in the ballot box. However, the electorate is subject to all manners of cognitive bias, prejudice, and continuing reliance on rules of thumb which made sense in previous times but which have been rendered suspect by changing circumstances. These viewpoints include:

  • Honest people should put in forty hours of work in meaningful employment each week
  • People should be rewarded for their workplace toil by being able to retire around the age of 65
  • Except for relatively peripheral matters, “natural methods” are generally the best ones
  • Attempts to redesign human nature – or otherwise to “play God” – will likely cause disaster
  • It’s a pointless delusion to think that the course of personal decay and death can be averted.

In some cases, long-entrenched viewpoints can be overturned by a demonstration that a new technology produces admirable results – as in the case of IVF (in-vitro fertilisation). But in other cases, minds need to be changed even before a full demonstration can become possible.

It’s for this reason that I see the discipline of “culture engineering” as being equally important as “technology engineering”. The ‘culture’ here refers to cultures of humans, not cells. The ‘engineering’ means developing and applying a set of skills – skills to change the set of prevailing ideas concerning the desirability of particular technological enhancements. Both technology engineering and culture engineering are deeply hard skills; both need a great deal of attention.

A core part of “culture engineering” fits under the name “marketing”. Some technologists bristle at the concept of marketing. They particularly dislike the notion that marketing can help inferior technology to triumph over superior technology. But in this context, what do “inferior” and “superior” mean? These judgements are relative to how well technology is meeting the dominant desires of people in the marketplace.

Marketing means selecting, understanding, inspiring, and meeting key needs of what can be called “influence targets” – namely, a set of “tipping point” consumers, developers, and partners. Specifically, marketing includes:

  • Forming a roadmap of deliverables, that build, step-by-step, to delivering something of great benefit to the influence targets, but which also provide, each step of the way, something with sufficient value to maintain their active interest
  • Astutely highlighting the ways in which present (and forthcoming) products will, indeed, provide value to the influence targets
  • Avoiding any actions which, despite the other good things that are happening, alienate the influence targets; and in the event any such alienation emerges, taking swift and decisive action to address it.

Culture engineering involves politics as well as marketing. Politics means building alliances that can collectively apply power to bring about changes in regulations, standards, subsidies, grants, and taxation. Choosing the right partners, and carefully managing relationships with them, can make a big difference to the effectiveness of political campaigns. To many technologists, “politics” is as dirty a word as “marketing”. But once again, mastery of the relevant skillset can make a huge difference to the adoption of technologies.

The final component of culture engineering is philosophy – sets of arguments about fundamentals and values. For example, will human flourishing happen more fully under simpler lifestyles, or by more fully embracing the radical possibilities of technology? Should people look to age-old religious traditions to guide their behaviour, or instead seek a modern, rational, scientific basis for morality? And how should the freedoms of individuals to experiment with potentially dangerous new kinds of lifestyle be balanced against the needs of society as a whole?

“Philosophy” is (you guessed it) yet another dirty word, in the minds of many technologists. To these technologists, philosophical arguments are wastes of time. Yet again, I will disagree. Unless we become good at philosophy – just as we need to become good at both politics and marketing – we will fail to rescue the prevailing culture from its unhelpful mix of hostility and apathy towards the truly remarkable potential to use technology to positively transcend human nature. And unless that change in mindset happens, the prospects are uncertain for the development and adoption of the remarkable technologies of abundance mentioned earlier.

[End of extract from Anticipating 2025.]

How well have we done?

On the one hand, the contents of the 2014 London Futurists book “Anticipating 2025” are prescient. These chapters highlight many issues and opportunities that have grown in importance in the intervening six years.

On the other hand, I was brought down to earth by an email reply I received last week to the latest London Futurists newsletter:

I’m wondering where the Futurism is in this reaction.

Maybe the group is more aptly Reactionism.

I wanted to splutter out an answer: the group (London Futurists) has done a great deal of forward thinking over the years. We have looked at numerous trends and systems, and considered possible scenarios arising from extrapolations and overlaps. We have worked hard to clarify, for these scenarios, the extent to which they are credible and desirable, and ways in which the outcomes can be influenced.

But on reflection, a more sober thought emerged. Yes, we futurists have been trying to alert the rest of society to our collective lack of preparedness for major risks and major opportunities ahead. We have discussed the insufficient resilience of modern social systems – their fragility and lack of sustainability.

But have our messages been heard?

The answer is: not really. That’s why Covid-19 is causing such a dislocation.

It’s tempting to complain that the population as a whole should have been listening to futurists. However, we can also ask, how should we futurists change the way we talk about our insights, so that people pay us more attention?

After all, there are many worse crises potentially just around the corner. Covid-19 is by no means the most dangerous new pathogen that could strike humanity. And there are many other types of risk to consider, including malware spreading out of control, the destruction of our electronics infrastructure by something similar to the 1859 Carrington Event, an acceleration of chaotic changes in weather and climate, and devastating wars triggered by weapons systems overseen by AI software whose inner logic no-one understands.

It’s not just a new mindset that humanity needs. It’s a better way to have discussions about fundamentals – discussions about what truly matters.

Footnote: with thanks

Special thanks are due to the people who boldly stepped forwards at short notice as panellists for last Saturday’s event:

and to everyone else who contributed to that discussion. I’m sorry there was no time to give sufficient attention to many of the key points raised. As I said at the end of the recording, this is a kind of cliffhanger.

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