Multi-option Technical Facilitation of Public Debate


Anthony Judge | Laetus in Praesens – TRANSCEND Media Service

Eliciting Consensus Nationally and Internationally


14 Jan 2019 – At the time of writing, the French government of Emmanuel Macron is about to engage in a three month Grand Débat National (January-March 2019). This is being instigated around the country as a means of clarifying issues raised by the remarkable uprising of the Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”), widely publicized worldwide. This exceptional process, whose organization is yet to be fully clarified, is seen as enabling all citizens to submit their grievances and suggestions locally, to be further clarified regionally and nationally, with the expectation that a degree of consensus will emerge. This is anticipated by the authorities as a guide to future governance.

Although it is readily assumed that there are precedents for the successful organization of such processes, it is far from clear that this is the case. The development of social media has suggested other possibilities but these too give rise only to limited consensus on specific issues. Such coherence, whilst it may be acclaimed as successful, has as yet to prove adequate to the challenges. Consensus and unity may themselves call for new thinking as separately argued (Comprehension of Unity as a Paradoxical Dynamic, 2019).

Popular assemblies (or people’s assemblies) of different scope have been organized or proposed in the past, including those seen as a complement to the formal processes of the UN General Assembly — possibly in anticipation of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly. Some have been associated with uprisings (Sveinung Legard, Popular Assemblies in Revolts and Revolutions, New Compass).

Over the years, some use has been made of groupware technology to facilitate such events, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the size and ambitions of the event — and the availability of such technology (History of Participant Interaction Messaging 1979 to 1995, 2007). The latter notes early experiments at large-scale events: UN Earth Summit Global Forum (Rio de Janeiro, 1992); Parliament of the World’s Religions (Chicago, 1993); World Futures Studies Federation (Turku, 1993), United Nations Environment Programme, Infoterra Meeting (Moscow, 1979). These were all severely constrained by the technology of the time, as with a seminal predecessor organized at a meeting of the Society for General Systems Research (London, 1979), as described separately (Metaconferencing: discovering people / viewpoint networks in conferences, 1980).

It is however remarkable that little attention is given to such possibilities in recent and future events, now that the relevant technology is so widely available. Participants may however make use of social media facilities independently of any facilities which may (or may not) be offered by event organizers. Ironically some elite events, such as the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, make heavy use of such technology to facilitate networking, whereas only the most limited use is made of facilitative technology at the World Social Forum — as the people’s counterpart.

It could now be said that social media and their many online fora already provide a degree of approximation to what might be possible on a different scale and with greater ambition. Despite its availability in various forms, what is however striking is the modest use made of such technology to facilitate public debate — or even to discuss the possibility of using it (as suggested by Global Sensemaking). A notable feature in the past has been the relative disinclination of many participants to make use of any such modality provided. This tendency has been modified by the widespread use of social media during the course of formal events, whether or not this is encouraged by the organizers. However this trend has been modified by the vastly greater importance now attached to social media communications — whether or not participants seek to gather physically at any time.

Any consideration of alternative modalities would appear to call for far more explicit recognition that fora of most kinds respond to the desire of participants to talk or “network” — whether in face-to-face situations or via social media. Critics of the French Grand Débat have already noted that it will enable much discussion but offers only the crudest facilities to enable any clarity or consensus to emerge from the volume of discourse. This could be recognized as echoing the processes of parliamentary assemblies world wide.

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