Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 4 / April 1, 1995 / Page 7

Editor's Note: In an effort to upgrade the variety of opinions made available to our readership, the editorial staff of CMC Magazine has acted swiftly, beginning with this April 1st issue, to recruit authors such as Christine Boese to provide alternative viewpoints.

An Immodest Proposal


by Christine Boese (

A problem before many organizations these days is the implementation of a computer-mediated communication system designed to facilitate discussion and decision-making within the organization. The first question asked has to be, "Is such a system necessary?" After all, a CMC system requires a substantial investment of time and capital, and it represents a major break with most conventional organizational communication modes.

I think it is agreed upon by all parties that CMC is already invading organizations in one form or another, from fax machines to document processing. To buck this trend with outright skepticism and limited employee access may risk an organization's competitive standing. So if we may allow that computer-mediated communication has become necessary, then the second question asked has to be, "What kind of system ought to be implemented?" Many organizations are currently proceeding in a kind of default mode, adopting communication packages and hardware configurations that are readily available, without stepping back to consider broad-based purposes and goals. Technical features of the system's design need to be looked at in light of communication goals and the organization's overall philosophy.

But my intention is far from being confined to a simple debate over purposes and goals for organizational CMC; it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in how one such system could be designed to meet a set of often-cited goals, in order to illustrate the advantages of integrating technical features with communication ideals.

As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many months upon this important subject, and having carefully weighed several CMC systems from various organizations, I have found most systems to be grossly shortsighted and timid in their use of technology in service of greater communication needs. Rather, I would advocate boldly embracing the potential of this medium. Let us put it into full service of the best ideas and ideals for organizational structure in the Information Age. Let's abandon the hardened arteries of hierarchical communication channels that slow down innovation and responsiveness to supply and demand. Let's pursue the productivity gains that can be achieved through full CMC support of collaboration and teamwork. Let's turn the workplace into a dynamic, information-sharing community working toward a common goal: greater efficiency and productivity, and higher levels of service and responsiveness to the organization's customers.

There is likewise another great advantage in my plan, in that it will work to dissipate conventional management fears of complete and open communication between all levels of participants. By embracing workplace democracy in service of collaborative productivity, and by boldly destroying restrictive hierarchies (Toffler 171-189), the only hierarchies that would remain would be strictly based on a meritocracy determined from easily obtainable records, open to all. Within this CMC system, no information or communication would be restricted. All participants would have complete access to all data and interactions.

Only with this kind of boldness and openness can real organizational community be achieved to the extent that will realize a significant gain in the marketplace. What I am suggesting is that this situation demands all-or-nothing boldness in order to achieve the greater gain. Those managers who would hesitate, who would censor some forms of communication or restrict access, need to take heed, for that very action could well be the force that dampens a community dynamic or restricts productivity gains (Zuboff 378-386). What remains is for an innovative organization to take decisive action and implement this proposal.

I shall now therefore propose my own design for a CMC system, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

The cornerstone of my system is its utter connection to the stated communication goals of collaboration and organizational community in service of greater efficiency and productivity. As I stated earlier, it is of utmost importance that the only hierarchies be based on merit. A crucial factor, then, must be how to facilitate electronic community while at the same time supporting a meritocracy.

I have been assured by very knowing computer programmers that advancements in artificial intelligence and software agents are outstripping their uses even as we speak. I have reckoned upon this development in light of the above needs and come upon a comprehensive solution. AI agents are already being developed to function as team members in computer-supported collaborative conference centers, applying rules and cursor-sharing protocols between public screens and private screens for collaborative design and writing projects. Why not make a comprehensively programmed AI agent into a collaborative facilitator, leaving it to efficiently handle the monitoring of various criteria for merit and advancement in a fair and rule-based manner?

Consider carefully what I am proposing: an organizational CMC system monitored by an AI agent to constantly screen and process all texts generated by the organization, from electronic discussion groups and forums to interdepartmental requests to formal proposals. This is not so far from what is already being done in many service-oriented businesses, legal and accounting firms, for instance, where such an agent could account for billable hours and monitor efficiency, as well as facilitate collaborative interaction. In screening and archiving all texts, the agent could check for legal liability flags, other content registers, as well as buzz-words which support current organizational goals and philosophies. The latter would be a helpful way to keep discourse communities from eroding, and by charting the evolution of keywords and threads, the whole of the organization can keep its finger on the pulse of its own community.

The agent could also serve the needs of a democratic workplace, for many have been concerned as of late that the perceived democratizing influence of equal access and removal of status cues in CMC is not being realized due to forms of social coercion and silencing within online groups (Ess 1994). This AI agent could apply a turn-taking queue to synchronous and asynchronous online forums, ensuring that some members could not dominate electronic conferences and silence others. Organizational decisions will probably be made within these forums. This facilitated turn-taking could only enhance the development of communities within organizations, since the agent would not post messages from potentially dominating members until all members had logged in on any given topic.

But to be truly bold in designing this system, we need to increase its comprehensiveness. First of all, enough memory and computing power need to be allocated to support the most important element of the AI agent's screening: daily statistical ranking of productivity and communication activity must be available to all participants at any time. There is no "boss" looking over these rankings and calling people into the office to make them squirm. This is a collaborative environment, and thus the "boss" becomes the whole group pulling together as a team. Any janitor or receptionist can call up the archives and statistics on anyone else, from CEO, if one exists, to members of the board.

There is another value of these extensive archives as well. For as texts are continually stored, from electronic whiteboard brainstorming sessions to collaborative logs, a library of templates will be born, a valuable resource that anyone in the organization can draw upon. Suppose one department has a proposal due in a week. With a couple of keystrokes, someone can call up texts of successful or unsuccessful proposals submitted within the past year, or within the past ten years, as the archives accumulate, perhaps delimited to particular keyword frequencies, or buzz-words from the most current advertising campaign.

I would take this notion of collaboration one step further in technical support, for surely the technology has advanced enough to handle the comprehensiveness I am about to propose. If an organization wants to be the most innovative, all resources should be shared generously, to promote greater esprit de corps. Beyond all documents becoming future templates, with no individual authorship or ownership, all workers should be provided with support for a home office linkup to the AI agent, with laptops and full teleconferencing capabilities. Productivity studies are already bearing out the advantages of such a move. Workers at home often put in longer hours than they do under the clock in the traditional workplace. And if the organization is becoming a true community, there would be no need for traditional clock hours anyway. The AI agent would have data on the communication activity and productivity of each participant as well. The home linkup activity would be treated the same as all workplace communication activity.

But consider for a moment the traditional workplace. With the development of a non-hierarchical, goal-oriented, collaborative community supported by a comprehensive CMC system, perhaps some physical features of the workplace need to be reconsidered as well. I propose, for instance, a central, shared resource area where all books and manuals are available communally, rather than scattered in private offices. As a matter of fact, this central area could become a core support area for a workplace without walls, where everyone can see everyone else from the central resource center. By abolishing private offices, collaborative teams can be served in open cubicle nodes designed for meeting support, as well as break-out cubicles for individual work on a terminal. Then if someone needed to ask a question of a co-worker, face-to-face as well as electronic communication would be supported. Since the AI agent would be monitoring key-stroke productivity data on all workers as well, anyone could run a quick check and see if her question would interrupt someone hard at work.

To support this level of immediate face-to-face access for the home linkups, teleconferencing could be used. A videocam monitor would have to be installed in each home, but the increased expense would immediately pay off. As a worthwhile corollary to face-to-face interaction in the new, open-air workplace, the videocam monitor at home would have to be always on and constantly screened by the AI agent (some technological development will need to occur for AI agents to be able to screen digitized video for content cues and communication data). And of course any worker can call up any co-worker for a quick, real time conference. In this way, workers won't be isolated from their communities as they work, and the payoff should be reflected in increased sensitivity to audience as well as group norms and goals.

But I have too long digressed, and therefore shall return to my initial call for boldness. I think the advantages of the proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance.

For first, as I have already observed, it would serve the greatest number within the organization, eliminating lopsided benefits to higher echelon workers. It will also remove individual supervisory roles, a subjective part of the workplace that often causes friction and power imbalances. Openness, access, and free, unfettered communication would be the watchwords. Jeremy Bentham, for instance, has argued that a panoptic system would be the most efficient way of organizing any goal-oriented institution, from prisons to schools to workplaces, because the system would be transparent and therefore all problems would immediately become known to all.

Secondly, futurist theorists such as Alvin Toffler and Newt Gingrich are already sounding the death knell for traditional management practices of "smokestack industries," Toffler's word for businesses which thrived in the Industrial Age but have become dinosaurs in the Information Age. Toffler espouses "flex-firms," organizations highly responsive to high speed supply and demand shifts due to their ability to bypass middle management gatekeepers and turf-watchers monitoring "cubbyholes" and "channels" of communication. According to Toffler, information will be the commodity of the future, a commodity that is only valuable as it circulates, and the more freely it circulates, the more valuable it becomes. When information is restricted or hoarded, it tends to lose its value (163-240).

Thirdly, whereas most often capitalists and Marxists seem at odds, this proposal seeks to unify and please both sides. For within this boldly constructed CMC system are the seeds of worker equality and ownership of the means of production, using electronic support for community and collaboration. And capitalists are more and more discovering that to base competitive advancement and service to customers on the shoulders of individuals is to overburden them, from individual sales reps to CEOs, to the detriment of the organization. Thus, many dyed-in-the-wool capitalists are coming to rely on collaboration and teamwork as the best way to compete with challenges from overseas markets and cultures, particularly the Japanese, who prosper by leaning heavily on various structures of corporate communities.

Fourthly, the intellectuals of the current age should be pleased with the ideals and the implementation of this proposal, for it directly reflects a social constructionist view of the world and draws on theoretical gains brought by this perspective. If social constructionism is a useful theory, then it ought to have a practical implementation, where decision-making and organizational action is explicitly guided by a clear sense of the social construction of knowledge and discourse communities. Postmodernists will cheer at how this CMC system deconstructs power within organizations and de-emphasizes individual authorship of texts.

Fifthly, this system will even appeal to Critical Theorists who apply the ideas of Habermas to CMC environments, for it integrates theory and praxis in a direct manner while avoiding an utter descent into the relativism of pure postmodernism/social constructionism and the utopian dreams of transcendental universalists (Ess 1994). This proposal is a blatantly human proposition, with human foibles and the rough edges of bald-faced human communication. The power to redeem in this electronically mediated environment exists in the use of information, and that power will be exercised, not through the AI agent, but through human agency, in the form of the collaborative group.

Many other advantages to this proposal might be enumerated, for instance, cost savings, but this and many others I omit, being studious of brevity. I can think of no one objection that will probably be raised against this proposal, unless it is a general discomfort at the role of the AI agent. Many would like to anthropomorphisize this agent and claim that it may hold power. But as to myself, having been around computers and the exercise of their logics for many years, I cannot envision such an agent coming to possess any more "personality" or independent action unless human programming simulates it, and then the "canned" nature of the simulation always becomes known to the astute observer. Therefore, let no one talk to me of other expedients.

I profess in the sincerity of my heart that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary proposal, but that I do work in the field of computer-mediated communication, and as the field advances, so may I. But I do not own stock nor participate in high-level software development. My only interest is the public good: a healthy economy with prosperous, happy workers. ¤

Note: With Apologies Jonathan Swift

The preceding work owes a considerable debt to Jonathan Swift. A careful reader will easily discern that a number of phrases have been lifted intact from "A Modest Proposal." This was done in the interests of parody and not to pass Swift's writing off as the author's original work. (Although Swift is in the public domain, and authorship is coming to mean little in electronic forums.)

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Christine Boese is a PhD student in the Communication and Rhetoric Program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. She's also a poet, a photographer, a multimedia producer, and a keeper of dogs.

Copyright © 1995 by Christine Boese. All Rights Reserved.

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