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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

In a typical thought provoking article on MeetingNet, Sue Pelletier kicks off  2018  with a challenge to the Business Events industry:

“What would a truly human-centric meeting look, smell, sound, taste, and feel like?

Her question arises from an article in the New York Times quoted by IMEX in the 5 trends they see shaping the Business Events industry in 2018. The original article “Prozac Nation is now the United States of  Xanax” is a wide ranging examination of contemporary culture gripped by an almost permanent anxiety

” … that feeds on alarmist CNN graphics and metastasizes through social media. As depression was to the 1990s  … so it seems we have entered a new Age of Anxiety. Monitoring our heart rates. Swiping ceaselessly at our iPhones. Filling meditation studios in an effort to calm our racing thoughts.”

Digital media giant Skift has also highlighted this phenomenon in its magazine Travel in the Age of Permanxiety underling the

“… near-constant state of anxiety that exists around the world. Travelers endure a barrage of worries about terrorism, security, neo-isolationism, racial tension, Trumpism, technology and its adverse role, the widening economic gap, culture wars, climate change, and other geopolitical and local issues.”

Better, Cheaper, Faster?

So we wanted it faster, better, cheaper and we got it. The couple of idle minutes you used to get in the morning when you switched on your Desktop and waited for it boot up, that’s now gone with ever faster processors; the internet-free plane ride during which you used to read a book, that’s gone too with better connectivity; the roaming changes that made mobile calls prohibitively expensive, they’re gone all over Europe with cheaper mobile plans. We’ve reached the Promised Land with our faster, better, cheaper lifestyle but it’s nothing like we imagined it would be and we’re left first with an sense of pervasive anxiety, and then anger at having been duped, betrayed and cheated.

Then, of course, we start mis-remembering what it was like in the past and fall headlong into sentimental nostalgia, believing that the analogue world was infinitely better. We recall with great fondness what it was like in the vinyl record era (see my pre Christmas post for a good example of that!) when you had to own the record if you wanted to hear a particular song. We reminisce on a childhood free from blinking screens when we played street soccer, walked around our neighbourhoods, knew our friends’ parents because we presented ourselves physically at their doors instead of Whatsapping. We remember the time when everyone watched the same TV shows at the same time and so were able to share together the excitement of the latest plot twists.

Not much better at all

But, of course, it wasn’t really better then at all. The anxiety was there  too. It was a different sort of anxiety, maybe, but it was there all the same. The brave new world that we’ve been building across our Western democracies over the past 50 years isn’t delivering on its promise at all and we’re left with unequal, imbalanced societies full of people chasing love and happiness in all the wrong places. The “anxiety” referred to in the New York Times and Skift articles is the “angst” that bothered the philosopher Kierkegaard and all the existential thinkers that followed  him. It’s akin to the “hunger” that Philip Larkin so magnificently identifies in “Churchgoing”, his  poem on post-Christian Britain:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground …

Human Centred Meetings

So how do we get back to human centred meetings after this massive digression into contemporary philosophy? Well maybe the distance between the two thoughts is not as far as it seems. The recurring questions in philosophy since Greek times all pivot around the identity of the human person –  “Who am I?” “What is a human person?” “What makes me different from other mammals?” “What’s my purpose?” We’ve constantly struggled  to answer these questions or, at least, to agree upon the answers and we plot our identity and purpose as humans on a very wide spectrum. On one side, we identify ourselves as sentient beings whose life begins and ends on earth while, on the other, we define ourselves as reasonable beings whose life continues after physical death in an afterlife.

The deeper causes of the anxiety and hunger that pervade contemporary society are undoubtedly to be found here in the disconnect around how to answer such fundamental questions as “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” Without a common starting point,  it’s unlikely we can arrive at a common destination or maybe even agree upon it. Think about it in business terms. If like we’re asked to organise a meeting or event but the client is unable to provide precise answers as to who the audience is and what outcomes are required.

So back to Sue’s question again: “what would a truly human-centric meeting look, smell, sound, taste, and feel like?” We can certainly set out some principles that align with most viewpoints around what it means to be human. For example, human-centric meetings ensure that each attendee can participate as fully as they like,  that their viewpoint is listened to and shown respect, that they are safe from bullying behaviour etc etc etc

However, the answer to Sue’s question is, in fact, another question or series of questions around what we understand a human person to be because until we have clear common ground in that regard we’re always going to be wading blindly in sea whose depths we have no idea about.

Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney and Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with Destinations, Hotels and Venues on Strategy, Marketing and Training for the Business Events Industry. 





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