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8.4 Conceptual weaknesses of conferencing

It is useful to consider the following conceptual weaknesses in both electronic networking and in conventional face-to-face conferences:

1. Conceptual amnesia

The tendency for a network of participants to forget, or repress, points made in earlier time frames. Participants become addicted to novelty and devalue concepts articulated earlier. The ability to build a complex conceptual structure over time is therefore constantly undermined. Such amnesia is in effect a process of conceptual resource destruction.

2. Conceptual fade out

The tendency for a complex conceptual structure to fade at the edges, so that the scope of any emerging conceptual structure is constantly being eroded by limitations of conceptual span, whether for an individual or for the network of participants collectively. Just as there is a need for screen refreshment, so there is a need for systematic concept refreshment.

3. Conceptual burial

The tendency for concepts to be buried in a mass of text, whether explanatory, anecdotal or otherwise. Little effort is made to distinguish concepts from contextual material which may not be essential to their subsequent use in articulating a complex conceptual network. Many environments are designed to bury concepts almost as quickly as they are generated. The conditions ensure a high concept mortality rate.

4. Conceptual haze

The tendency for a multiplicity of concepts to be simultaneously present in a diffuse haze through which participants wander (or blunder) with little more than a confused sense of orientation. Everything is relevant to everything, but little can be effectively distinguished. People enter and leave the conference environment confused.

5. Conceptual swamping

The well-documented phenomenon of information overload. The amount of information inhibits creativity.

6. Conceptual mouse-trapping

The tendency of a conference to premature conceptual closure. Given the conceptual confusion which tends to prevail, any ordering which emerges tends to be seized upon and used to impose order before alternative perspectives acquire sufficient weight to call for their integration in a more complex conceptual structure. This is associated with conceptual big-game hunting, namely the tendency to focus on the most obvious and dominant concepts and to ignore other aspects of the conceptual ecology represented within the conference -- and possibly vital to the healthy growth of the conceptual ecosystem.

7. Conceptual collapse

The reductionist tendency to blur subtle distinctions, collapsing them into a simpler concept. The complexity of a soap bubble would thus be reduced to that of a blob of water on a two-dimensional surface. Unusual, counter-intuitive or paradoxical structures are thus not adequately protected in the normal conference environment.

8. Conceptual stasis

The tendency to define concepts in static terms, when a dynamic definition might be more appropriate in response to an evolving, turbulent social environment. The concepts needed at this time may only be representable in dynamic terms (as with resonance hybrids in chemistry).

9. Conceptual consensus-mania (or disagreement-phobia)

The tendency of a conference to avoid disagreement and seek consensus, when more realistic conceptual articulations might be based on appropriate configurations of complementary, but opposing perspectives. Within a network this tends to result in theeffective exclusion of those who disagree -- leading to a form of conceptual incest or inbreeding. The conference environment is not designed for conceptual variety, unless variants are screened off in their own sub-conferences.

10. Conceptual contraception

The tendency for conferences to be designed in a sanitized, "safe-sex" mode to avoid conception and the collective creation of viable new conceptual configurations. There is a strong emphasis on conceptual foreplay and titillation, with success being associated with a form of conceptual orgasm, hopefully to be repeated on subsequent occasions. But conceptual progeny are as unwelcome as the risk of being infected by dangerous ideas.

In response to such assessments, it is usually argued that these difficulties can be avoided if the conference is appropriately organized with a "strong chairperson" or "moderator" to "keep things in focus". This is in effect a betrayal of the original non-hierarchical inspiration of networking.

The further suggestion that the conference should have a "clear agenda" tends to imply that the agenda is decided in advance, thus inhibiting the creative, self-organizing process whereby responsible people redesign the framework through which they interact in response to new insights emerging from that interaction.

Most of the burning international issues call for conference environments in which the agenda is constantly redesigned as an evolving conceptual framework. A frozen agenda precludes creativity and implies a frozen, still-borne outcome. The formation of only the most probable coalitions is possible at a time when only the less probable are appropriate to the task. The emergence of more imaginative coalitions is not facilitated.

Is there no way that responsible individuals can get there act together without a "policeperson" or a conceptual straitjacket ? It can be argued that much more could be done with networking software to facilitate conceptual activity.