The Human VOICE: Computer Conferencing Systems for Global and Organizational Consensus-Building

Gregory Searle
International Development Research Center
CommonSpace Interactive, Canada


Modern communities transcend traditional notions of space and identity. By extending human interaction beyond geographical and chronological boundaries, the Internet has enabled us to broaden our definition of community to embrace communities of interest. Businesses, organizations, and even political movements have begun to redefine themselves, using distributed technologies to interconnect and revitalize human relationships. A paradigm-shifting age of global dialogue seems to be just around the corner.

New tools for conferencing and collaboration could help mediate this transformation. The unprecedented popularity of the World Wide Web has made it possible for aging VT-100 conferencing systems such as CoSy and Caucus to reinvent themselves as open-standard, multimedia-capable tools for collaboration. At the opposite end of the spectrum, NetScape and its recently purchased subsidiary Collabra are designing conferencing products that will devolve the open-standard enterprise-wide intranet into a proprietary competitor to existing groupware solutions such as Lotus Notes.

Although it is clear that the Internet needs worldwide conferencing systems that will inspire and enhance communications processes, development in this area is increasingly favoring the high-end user. The rapidly evolving software industry targets lucrative business markets, promoting the development of cutting-edge tools that sometimes leave global civil society in the dust, clinging to newly obsolete hardware, software, and network infrastructures that do not support the latest innovations. In today's emerging global marketplace, enterprises, organizations, and communities need systems for promoting global communication that will cater to the broadest possible range of client capabilities.

Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC) has developed such a solution through a partnership with CommonSpace Interactive. The resulting open-standard system, CommonSpace VOICE (Virtual Office-space and Interactive Conferencing Environment), enables high- and low-end users alike to maximize communication through global electronic conferences. These conferences can be accessed through a variety of client systems, from HotJava-enhanced WWW browsers to FIDOnet e-mail-only systems.

CommonSpace VOICE is a suite of public-domain utilities and tools, which employs a user-authentication database to integrate the proven marriage of Internet News and Listserv with such complementary features as rich user profiles, directory services, document stores, shared bookmark files for group URL collection, and multimedia facilities for real-time interactivity. The system, with its multilingual capabilities, is being deployed by businesses, governments, Internet service providers, community networks, and international organizations around the world to provide clients with multiple levels of access to global discussions. Leveraged by boards of directors, working groups, steering committees, and ad hoc interest groups, VOICE demonstrates that the most functional, cutting-edge technologies can be enriched by aggressive backward-compatibility.