I remember attending the 1993 Academy of Family Mediators conference in Washington, DC and showing off ConflictNet (an early online resource for the conflict resolution field, and the precursor to Mediate.com) to whichever mediators were foolish enough to make eye contact with me in the exhibit area. I would connect over the dial-up modem, enter my password, and navigate the menus to show them the discussion areas, resource guides, and member lists. I even remember explaining “e-mail” to them: it’s like postal mail, but it goes over the computer instead of through the USPS. Now mediators are, as a rule, very nice people, but the body language I got was pretty unmistakable: dream on, you nerd. This will never work. It’s too clunky, too inefficient, too dehumanizing, and too… weird.
I also remember showing off early online dispute resolution (ODR) technology to some senior partners at a big law firm in Chicago in the early 2000s. I put our Resolution Room platform up on their computer and they peered at it through their bifocals, trying to figure out what to click on. I explained the benefits of asynchronous interaction in conflict resolution, the security of online document management, and the promise of video conferencing. They sighed with exasperation and complained it was all too confusing. You seem like a nice person, but this will never work. The law is deliberately designed to not be swayed by fads like this. They thanked me for my time as they walked me to the elevators.
Well, it’s about to be 2015. And the reality is, a lot of those people are dead. I couldn’t convince them that technology was the future back then, and many of them successfully fought it off for as long as they could. But they are now pushing up daisies, and the generation below them has now taken the reins. And this generation doesn’t need convincing. 2003 brought Skype. 2004 brought Facebook. 2006, Twitter. In 2007 we got the iPhone. Android launched in 2008. Now I meet retired Federal judges (and three year olds) who love their iPads, and who wouldn’t give them up for anything. If you want evidence, walk from the back of the airplane to the front and see how many people are looking at their personal screens. Look around while you’re on the subway and see how many people are on their phones or Kindles. The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not going back in.
The funny thing is, we’re still at the beginning. As Mark Andreesen has said, software is going to eat the world. In 2000 there were a half billion people on the internet. By 2014 that grew to three billion, and by 2020 that will grow to five billion. In 2014 there are three billion smartphones being used, and by 2020 that will grow to five billion. By 2020 75% of the global population will have regular access to the internet. The new iPhone CPU has 625 times more transistors than a Pentium processor from 1995. On the first weekend of the iPhone launch Apple sold twenty-five times more transistors than were on earth in 1995. Everyone now has a supercomputer in their pockets with them all day, and they upgrade it every year or two without fail. Soon every person in the world, no matter how far out in the jungle or desert they may be, will be able to access the whole of human knowledge with a few swipes of their fingers. We’re getting closer to the singularity, when the intelligence of machines will exceed that of humans. Experts predict it will happen sometime around 2040. Which is just 25 years away.
This is going to have a massive impact on humans, and human society. And by extension, it will have a massive impact on how we fight, and how we resolve those fights. We can’t keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them and expect that to work in a world that is changing so radically. We must take all the lessons we’ve learned over the past six decades of dispute resolution practice and integrate them into a vision for the future. People are just as complicated when they communicate over technology as they are when they communicate face-to-face. We can’t think that the challenges of the future are so new that we can’t learn from the past.
We have to learn to leverage the growing power of technology to make peace and build understanding, instead of letting it drive misinformation and conflict. Every decision made in developing online environments needs to think about the impact on the humans that interact within those environments. It’s not enough for us to sit on the sidelines saying, call us if you have a conflict. We need to take our wisdom and experience and play a formative role in building these systems. We need to embrace the power of the tools technology is offering us, and learn to leverage their benefits and mitigate their challenges.
I can easily envision a world a decade out where we reserve face-to-face interaction only for our most intimate friends and family members. The bulk of our professional and public lives will take place online. The idea of driving down to the doctor’s office or to the courthouse will seem as antiquated as getting your water from a well. Along with electricity and water, access to the internet will be a new utility – a new human right, even. Our identities will be seamlessly online and offline, and navigating from one to the other will be entirely normal. Boring, even. The next generation will take HD videoconferencing for granted in much the way we take telephones for granted. I can also envision a world where our social technology is designed in a way that builds human empathy, identifies and resolves conflict early and effectively, and introduces an era of greater peace, justice, and happiness. It will take a lot of work to get there, and there will be a lot of bumps in the road, but I can see it plain as day. That’s my hope for the future of mediation.