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Some of the ideas in the following text were sparked off by the monthly meeting of the Geneva Chapter of the Internet Society which took place on Wednesday November 19th at the ILO and was about teleworking.

Seeking to change the world?
Why not begin with how we use words?

What hold have we got on a world in which so many people seem to see the unacceptable as inevitable? Just take the daily announcement that between 20 and 2'000 people have been laid-off in the name of profitability by a firm somewhere near you. Today's C|NET, for example, carries a story entitled: "Wired Ventures to lay off 20%". Yesterday it was Silicon Graphics. The other day it was Apple and many more. Is it really necessary to deprive millions of people of their livelihood to make the world a better place for us all? The current economic system reminds me of the story of Emperor's new clothes. I hardly dare mention it for fear of the outcry I imagine I will provoke. Yet aren't we all accomplices in maintaining an absurdly tragic situation by not questioning the functioning of that economy? What can be done to wake us up from this nightmare so that we can act?

Questionning words

One possible course is to question the words used and beyond them, the underlying perceptions and values they vehicle. Why? Because our perception of the world is influenced by the way we and those around us express those perceptions in words. Words are frequently used to convey seemingly plausible images of the way things are, whereas in reality that use of words seeks to impose a partial vision for reasons that are rarely explicit. Leaving such words unquestioned is one of the major reasons why many people have a profound feeling of powerlessness.

Words that sell

Let's take an example. At the other day's Geneva Chapter ISOC meeting about teleworking, an expert, comparing the advantages and disadvantages of teleworking from various points of view, stated that management found that "teleworking increased productivity". A number of people in the audience questioned this statement, wanting to know exactly what criteria were applied to evaluate productivity. Without a clear definition of what is meant by "telework" and "productivity" and in what way the latter "increases" the former, this supposedly scientific statement "telework increases productivity" begins to sound more like a slogan aimed at convincing rather than an idea designed to help understand. Much decision-making is based on campaigns using words as in advertising. Such a sales logic in the use of words is not necessarily synonymous with seeking an appropriate solution to a problem, because the solution is predetermined by one of the parties with very specific, often self-centred interests in mind ... the proposed "solution" is part, if not the totality, of what is being sold. In many discussions about the so-called "Information Society" this is the case, where the necessity of the move to the Information Society goes unquestioned.

The effort needed

One of the apparent dilemmas in questioning words is that it takes considerable time and effort, whereas time is often seen to be short and action required as soon as possible. To come back to the statement about teleworking, nobody in the audience had the necessary information to clarify the issue. Clearly being sure that telework improves productivity, if such were the case, would be useful knowledge. What is important here, however, is to notice the use of words in an attempt to promote an idea by making an apparently justifiable statement which in reality means nothing? To be fair, the person in question was probably not out to sell anything, but unwittingly became the echo of other people's sales language.

Starting from where people "are"

One of the striking things about this meeting - from which I'd like to deduce a possible method for dealing with issues that require change - was that a number of people came up to me afterwards in private and raised extremely pertinent questions which they hadn't voiced during the meeting. One person, for example, talked of her husband's problems in becoming a teleworker, in particular in evaluating and obtaining sufficient remuneration for the additional costs of working from home. This is clearly an important issue. In exploring such a question a lot could be learnt. Beyond the question itself, the need to ask it points to an apparent isolation of teleworkers and their difficulty to find answers to their questions. It is probably also a sign of the lack of experience and knowledge on the part of the employer. What's more it raises the question of the form and difficulties of individual or collective negotiation between employers and teleworkers. In discussing key issues, would it not be better to begin with the practical preoccupation of participants and their perceptions of the situation and to try to build a more general understanding based on that experience by questioning the words used to express it and by comparing their experience with that of others present? The difficulty in such a method resides partly in creating a context in which people can raise points without feeling naive or stupid compared with the expert who is seen as knowing the answers.

... a common understanding rather than triumphing over others

This "method" of beginning from where people "are" with their preoccupation and their visions of the moment, might also have been applied to the expert stating that "teleworking increases productivity", provided we are entitled to see his or her comments as open to question rather than as a statement of how things "really" are. In other words, if we seek to understand together so as to be able to improve our capacity to decide, we need to recognise the sales discourse when it is present, to set aside that win-or-lose paradigm and to see each of our preoccupations and perceptions as potential material for understanding. In questioning ours words and those of others, however, we are not seeking to win a battle in which our ideas triumph, but rather to move forward together to a better understanding.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey, info@connected.org
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Created: November 21st, 1997 - Last up-dated: November 21st, 1997