Dispute resolution through employment of digital technologies – I
Technology, especially digital technology is progressing at a breakneck speed. Normally we tend to assume that not much has happened in the last decade or so. But stupendous changes have indeed taken place, particularly in the field of communication technology, e.g., Facebook was founded in a dorm room at Harvard in 2004. Twitter was started in 2006. Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007. The Android mobile phone system was released by Google in 2008.
Albeit not very old, these innovations have sparked major changes in society – almost to the point where modern life has become unimaginable without them.
Today in all walks of life, technology is being widely used even in some developing world: take the smart phone, for instance. These days most of us carry smart phones all the time. Without them, we’d feel lost literally, because of our dependence on GPS and Google Maps). We now routinely utilize computers for many of our most intimate communications, largely because smart phones and tablets have become so convenient, portable, and easy to operate.
In fact, calling them “phones” is a misnomer; in reality, they are powerful computers we carry everywhere, connected wirelessly to the global cloud. Each individual cell phone has 100 times more computing power than all the computers NASA used to send a man to the moon. These devices are constantly patched and upgraded getting newer and more powerful models each year.
How did one manage before? Means like telephone, recognition tips, signals, intelligent guesses, distinguishing marks and features were and still used. But they have given way to instant communication.
These technologies are changing the way we interact with each other in profound ways. We now routinely utilize computers for many of our most intimate communications with coworkers, friends, and family member, largely because smart phones and tablets have become so convenient, portable, and easy to operate.
Moreover, these devices also enable us to transcend distance like never before. We can now communicate with anyone in the world with a few swipes of our fingers. Offices, colleges, businesses, teaching institutions, industry and family disputes – practically all use this technology.
We can stay connected without worrying about geography. These developments will inevitably affect the practice of dispute resolution. Technology is changing not only the way we communicate; it is altering the way we disagree and the way we resolve our disputes. And it is generating new kinds of disputes, many of which grow out of all the new capabilities we enjoy. It is also changing people’s expectations about how disputes should be resolved. People now believe that they should be able to report a problem at any time of day and get quick, round-the-clock support to resolve it transparently and effectively.
Presently, almost every industry, from medicine to finance to entertainment, has been transformed by the expansion of information and communications technology. A practitioner plucked from any one of those fields 30 years ago would have trouble recognizing it today. All these changes are putting pressure in dispute resolution field also to either adapt or risk a growing disconnect with the people.
Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) is the application of information and communication technology to the practice of alternate dispute resolution. Only about 15 years old, it has now expanded rapidly alongside the increasing digitization of society. When ODR first started, its sessions at conferences they were populated by relatively small group of technology enthusiasts who asked abstract questions about where things might be heading. But as the pace of technological change accelerated and more people getting integrated with Internet into daily lives, the ODR community has also expanded.
To illustrate, there are now thousands of ODR neutrals, program managers, developers and designers working across five continents. It has own journals, books, web sites, conferences, and ethical standards.
The key question for dispute resolution professionals is, how can we leverage technology to best assist parties in resolving their disputes?
In other words, ODR is no longer a novelty – it is now one of the practical and recently practiced means of Alternate Dispute Resolution.
(The writer is Visiting Faculty, Department of Defense and Strategic Studies,
Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. Earlier, he served as President Islamabad Policy Research Institute; Adviser, COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Islamabad; and Head, Dept of International Relations, NUML University, Islamabad Campus)