Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Zapped! Mobile technology in the conference chamber

In the past, in a negotiating conference room, one could always tell when something was afoot. Delegates would be moving around the room – often with unseemly speed - clutching sheaves of draft text. Conclaves of ambassadors would huddle in a corner to sweat out the immediate joint response to a smart proposal from another delegation or group. Junior members would be sprinting to the photocopiers and nicotine addicts would be pacing around outside together conjuring up fixes – I even know of diplomats who took up smoking so as to be part of the smoke-filled rooms that always seemed to be where the creative ambassadors and others produced the ground-breaking work.

Now mobile technology is changing all that. Calls and text messages via phones or Blackberries rebound around the conference room. Vibrating handsets have given a whole new meaning to the “buzz” in a room. Jokes are zapped through – although how these work in an intercultural environment makes me wonder about the wisdom of that – we can only hope that smiley faces are sprinkled liberally throughout: “International incident caused by text message” is undoubtedly a newspaper headline of the near future.

One of the phenomena that I’ve become increasingly aware of is that when a delegate takes the floor, his or her phone seems to start to ring immediately – the microphones pick up the signal even when the phone is set to silent.

It could be my imagination, but it this phenomenon seems to occur with more frequency when the speaker is making a statement on behalf of a group of states. In a recent meeting I attended, a regional group convenor took the floor to respond to a critical point made by the chairman, and, immediately, his phone gave a message signal and he looked at it. Again maybe my imagination, but this normally astute, to-the-point diplomat, said nothing of significance at all and his statement seemed to be cut short. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. But in the pre-mobile communication era, nobody could have signalled to him that they were in disagreement without running up to stop him from speaking and exposing themselves and the disagreement within the group to all. Now they can, so maybe they do.

Another consequence of the use of mobile communicators in the conference chamber is the now well-known “reporting back by factions” strategy. Within large delegations, in a politically-sensitive negotiation, there are often deep divisions. These divisions can be political, institutional or personal – often all three. In some of these delegations, those with opposing views, who wish to see differing outcomes, are reporting back to capital in situ using wireless internet communication or hand-held email communicators, such as Blackberries.

In the past, this was done after a speaker had made her point to the floor: one of the opposing factions would be seen running out after the speech to report back by phone to capital on what she had said and how this had served to subtly undermine the government’s agreed position. Fights would then break out back at the embassy later that evening and a set of new instructions and shifted positions would emerge overnight or over a period of a few days.

Now, when she is speaking, one of the opposing factions sits behind her - email communicator in hand - reporting back as she speaks. Even while she is speaking, her phone will be buzzing with text messages, sometimes of support and sometimes to attempt to intervene and influence her trajectory. The pressure must be terrible.

As with most technologies, there are good, bad and downright dangerous applications of mobile communicators. In the world of arms control negotiations, they can be used both as enablers and as controllers, as John Borrie has described:

“They enable a negotiator to gain access to distant resources and sources of information more easily. Conversely, they lose their value if these links became a straitjacket restricting object-oriented responses flexible enough to capitalize on opportunities emerging from negotiating dynamics (of “being in the room”)”.

They can promote social bonding through jokes, expressions of concern and support, or they can convey terrifying messages of accusation and threats whilst one is speaking. The impact of these technologies on the way delegations are doing business in the negotiating room is hard to measure and is something we’ll return to in the future in this blog – in the meantime I strongly encourage someone to take it up as the subject for their PhD thesis.

This is a guest blog from Dr Patricia Lewis. Patricia, Director of UNIDIR, is the owner of a mobile phone, a laptop, but not yet a Blackberry.

Reference and further reading:

John Borrie, “Rethinking multilateral negotiations: disarmament as humanitarian action” in John Borrie & Vanessa Martin Randin (eds.), Alternative Approaches in Multilateral Decision Making, Geneva: UNIDIR: 2005, pp. 7-37 (to download a free PDF version, click here or on the brown book cover at left on this page).

Image retrieved from Flickr.