Imagine a hypothetical panel discussion at a future conference for telco risk and assurance professionals…
Eric Priezkalns, panel moderator: So panelists, how do you each feel about the need for more industry collaboration?
Panelist from telco 1: If carriers don’t work together then we’ll never defeat fraud.
Panelist from telco 2: From a security perspective, we have to be more effective at sharing information than we’ve been in the past.
Panelist from telco 3: Whether you’re talking about revenues or risks or whatever, I’m a big fan of more collaboration between operators. There’s much we can learn from each other.
Eric: That’s great to hear. So who wants to tell the audience about specific examples of collaborations that you’ve been working on together?
Telco 1: I can’t talk about that in front of this audience. It’s sensitive stuff.
Telco 2: Is this being streamed live to the internet? Do you know who’s listening?
Telco 3: I never agreed to that question. If you expected me to answer that question then it should have been notified to my company’s Corporate Communications department in advance. They need to approve questions like that first.
There is an old English saying about the impossibility of having a cake and eating it. I often think about that saying as I contemplate how to navigate the contradictory demands of telco managers that engage with my nonprofit, the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG). I respect why some topics of conversation are only suitable for limited audiences. For example, no sensible fraud manager wants to explain the intricacies of a real fraud to an audience of organized criminals. I also understand why people would prefer to watch a conference from the comfort of their armchair. Travel is time-consuming and expensive, and perhaps your boss will refuse to pay for it. However, there must be a trade-off between controlling who is in the audience and using the internet to make content remotely accessible.
Some people might try to limit who has access to a virtual event by requiring people to register, but that control is hopelessly weak unless you have a way of preventing the registered recipient from letting others watch their screen. Others talk in grand terms about global cooperation whilst always expecting the rest of the world to congregate in one particular country. There are conflicting objectives that cannot be reconciled in practice, but we end up with the worst of all possible outcomes if we pretend we can have our cake and eat it. The notion of a ‘hybrid’ conference, where some participants travel to a common physical location, whilst others engage online, is the metaphorical cake that cannot be eaten whilst remaining whole.
Nothing can be said during a hybrid conference that would not have been said during a conference that solely occurs online, begging the question of why anyone needs to travel to participate in a hybrid event. In other words, a hybrid conference is an expensive way of achieving what could be achieved more cheaply by not being hybrid. Perhaps the hope is that the people who chose to travel will also engage in other, more private conversations when the cameras are turned off. However, this goal is undermined by effectively encouraging many potential participants to remain at home. As soon as you tell people an event is online then you damage the business case for anyone to travel to it, because they know they will meet fewer people at the destination. You also reduce the number of expert speakers who can take part, because Corporate Communications departments often apply stricter rules when a professional asks permission to speak at an event with an online audience. This might theoretically be addressed by pre-recording content so it can be checked and approved, but this is unwieldy in practice and it denies any possibility of audience interaction.
One thing I have noticed about organizing recent conferences is the number of people who assume content is going to be made available online when nobody has suggested it will. Conversely, it is always surprising how many people expect they will need to register to view online content when RAG just makes it available for anyone to watch without registration. Nobody registers to watch a YouTube video, and I doubt there are many cases of people registering to watch webinars only to be refused permission. Most webinars demand that you register so your contact details can be given to salesmen, but if your goal is to foster cooperation then it is a mistake to turn everything into a transaction. RAG has no need to harvest email addresses because we are not selling anything, unlike associations that charge membership fees, and which hence have to make their content exclusive in order to sell themselves.
When RAG does require registration, as is mandatory for attendance at our in-person conferences, the downsides of collecting this data soon become apparent. Registration forms act like magnets to irrelevant weirdoes whose personal data is not wanted by anybody. When it comes to registration forms, data is not the new oil. Registration forms are more like garbage cans than oil cans. RAG has to sift through a lot of garbage from a combination of unwelcome salesmen, prospective illegal immigrants and pitiable lunatics just to connect with the minority of real professionals who belong at our meetings.
The assumptions that people make about online interaction show it is harder to change human behavior than to change technology. There are now plenty of online platforms that allow online groups to message each other whilst limiting who belongs to each group, but many older professionals will never adapt to them because they insist on using email for everything. I well remember that one of my bosses at the beginning of my career decided he would adapt to email by making his secretary print his emails out for him. That is why RAG will pursue two parallel models of interaction with our professional community without ever confusing them. We will have in-person conferences because people know what it is like to go to an in-person conference. And we will have live broadcasts and other television-type shows because people know what it is like to watch TV, or to participate in a radio phone-in show. Those are two distinct models. They both work. People understand them, and so they understand how they are expected to behave. They each have their strengths and weaknesses. And both models would be ruined by trying to do them both at the same time.
One of the banes of my career has been dealing with government appointees who failed to comprehend that the world wide web is not just a television with more channels. Their simplistic understanding of how people can interact in an online environment leads them to believe telcos should ‘switch off’ channels that do not receive government approval, with no comprehension of what it would mean to monitor every webpage, every tweet, and every private DM for something which may be distasteful but which may also be legal. I once had to explain to an especially dimwitted government employee that running an ISP in one country did not give me the power to strike down a web server in another country, just to prevent the content on that server being seen by anybody. But there probably are Israeli companies who wander around governments, trying to sell exactly that capability, so it is no wonder if a government appointee who studied fine art at college and only landed their job because they are somebody’s brother-in-law might struggle to comprehend the sheer diversity of interaction between different systems and different people. That person got a high-paid government job because they were known and liked by somebody else in a high-paid government job, so they probably assume every technological problem can also be reduced to getting one nerd to talk to another nerd they know.
It is not just government types that lack imagination. I had friends of my age who genuinely believed they would never want a mobile phone, until they realized they were the only friend who did not have one. Young people are more adaptable because they are less likely to have preconceptions about how the world should work, but erroneous preconceptions can be found amongst every age group, every nationality and every demographic. There will be ways to run an online conference that would maintain the perfect balance of open-but-not-too-open, closed-but-not-too-closed. Exclusivity can be reconciled with a warm embrace for large numbers of online participants. It should even be possible to orchestrate the right balance between experts receiving an appropriate share of the audience’s attention whilst permitting everyone the opportunity to interact and ask questions. The main obstacle to RAG accomplishing this in practice is that I have never seen anyone do it, and nor have you. And that is not because of a lack of technology, but because people would need to accept new conventions for how they interact, just as children need to learn to raise their hand before they ask a question in school.
I have full confidence that the problem can be solved, but not by people working in the comms industry, even though the comms industry has most to gain. Consider the benefits of living in a world where politicians have a climate change conference that does not require fleets of aircraft and limousines to transport them to the same place! Such a breakthrough would be good for communications businesses as well as our planet. This kind of innovation will never be delivered by anyone in government, nor by any businesspeople who have been trained to think all solutions must come from vendors that have already received the approval of their company’s procurement team. The solution to this problem will come from gamers.
Habitual players of online video games, or ‘gamers’ as they are known, expect to interact with other people online for pleasure, not as a necessary burden to perform their job. They have good internet connections. They are willing to spend large amounts of money on powerful computers with advanced graphics, in addition to buying and using all sorts of novel interactive devices, such as virtual reality headsets they wear over their eyes. They increasingly come together in large numbers, whether to play a game that involves a shared online map, or to spectate on e-sports. Gamers are not afraid to complain when things do not work properly, and this leads to improvements. Bad behavior occurs online, but most gamers will gang together to fight it, and so they also prompt the development of ways to enforce civility online that mirror how we use social rewards and sanctions to encourage civility when meeting face to face. The moment in time when RAG will be able to deliver an online conference that can accomplish all the same results as an in-person conference will perfectly coincide with the moment that RAG has sufficient professional followers that are also avid gamers.
So, in the meantime, please stop asking if RAG Dubai is going to be broadcast live, of if recordings will be shared afterwards. And no, we will not be streaming RAG New Orleans either, and none of the conferences we run afterwards. If you want to listen remotely to great speakers we have a superb library of content built up over three seasons of RAG TV, and a new season will be broadcast later this year. We also recently recorded a special series of 20-minute shows where we analyze the results of RAG’s big leakage survey with four experts from the survey’s sponsors, Subex. The first episode, where I am joined by Rohit Maheshwari, Subex’s Head of Products of Strategy, can be seen here. So watch if you want to watch, and if you would like to enjoy a conference then please come to one of our conferences! The world is opening up for business again. It would be a pleasure to see you in person so we might swap some thoughts, information and insights that cannot be shared through websites like this.