“Watch for wood!” yelled my Dad to his kids as we scooted off in small boats during our long summer holidays on Vancouver Island. My Dad knew that the hazards of boating on the BC coast included all the wood pieces, logs and stumps floating on the surface and lying in wait for unsuspecting boaters. He used these words so often that they became his signature phrase of wisdom and we have since applied those words to all kinds of different situations as a loving reminder to be careful and safe.
My husband and I spent our summer holiday this year boating in Desolation Sound (lucky us!). Our travels were assisted by sophisticated technology in the form of small and amazing GPS systems that display the surrounding geography, directions and ocean depths with incredible accuracy and definition. GPS has made boating so much less stressful because you can identify fixed hazards immediately (without consulting a formal chart).
On the other hand, we have learned the hard way that this technology is not perfect. One day a few years ago we were boating slowly near Thetis Island. We were focusing our attention on our new GPS and its multiple features when we were startled by a loud noise. We had struck a log!
Note to self: GPS technology does not warn you of floating debris. And floating debris is everywhere.
My Dad’s wise words echoed in my mind…
So just what has this got to do with mediation? There is lots of talk these days about how technology can improve access to justice by making conflict resolution processes more accessible, cheaper and simpler than the alternatives (the formal justice system). There are many different types of applicable technology from web conferencing tools used to conduct mediation from a distance to online dispute resolution (ODR) platforms that operate completely asynchronously and 24/7. There is enormous potential here to improve people’s ability to resolve conflict simply and cheaply.
My worry is that while ODR will work well for many disputes this kind of technology on its own may fail to address many of the real drivers of the conflict. I have a sense that for many conflicts technology will need to be combined with a more personal touch both to guide people to the right process for their conflict AND to facilitate a resolution.
Even though sophisticated radar can identify other watercraft it does not pick up floating logs, branches or wood pieces that can really muck up your propulsion system. Technology is great but it can’t identify the “floating debris” which can be barriers to resolution of conflict. Real people are still needed to “watch for wood” to catch the nuances of the dispute, identify underlying causes and concerns and help the parties select the best process for their situation.
Good research will help us to understand better how technology and human intervention / guidance can work together to create improved access to justice for citizens.
One recent article may address some of these concerns: “Technology, Ethics and Access to Justice: Should an Algorithm Be Deciding Your Case?”. This is the abstract and I will include a link to the full paper as soon as it is published.
Until then…remember: Watch for wood!
Photo courtesy of: http://www.svfreya.ca/journal/42_round_vancouver_island_2009_4.php