Something for the Weekend, Sir? “Right, let’s start the meeting. Oh, could someone take the minutes?” And my heart sinks. They’ll see me and ask me to do it. They always do.
Bloody minutes of a bloody meeting. Every bloody time.
It was easier not to be asked back in the day when we used to attend meetings in a real room. If it was a big meeting with lots of people, I could hide behind a taller, fatter colleague or make myself look intently busy with something else such as aligning the clip of a pen cap with the fintech company logo down the side. If it was a small meeting, I’d do the opposite, keeping perfectly still, looking down and willing myself to shrink so as not to attract any attention.
For the benefit of younger readers, a “room” was a place where OK Boomers would discuss things, until COVID uninvented it. You may have heard that love means never having to say you’re sorry; well, a room means never having to say you’re on mute. It was less mics, webcams and bar snacks, more hard furniture, carpet tiles and limp sandwiches – and people asking where the wastepaper bin is.
When you meet on screen, there is no escape when that “Could someone take the minutes?” call comes through. It’s not like I can slip my webcam feed behind that of a fat person’s. And if I quickly disable my webcam, my face is replaced by a solid black rectangle that shouts my name out in 48pt Arial.
All I want to do is tune into the bit of the meeting that involves my participation and zone out for the rest. If I take the minutes, I have to listen to everything: every tedious repetition, every cough and fart, every pontificating tit droning on, every “can we just go back to that item from earlier?”, every groan when yet another any-other-business is raised. And there’s no way of knowing what’s significant or irrelevant to the discussion until it has been discussed, so I have to note it all down anyway, emotionally weary from knowing that most of these notes will be discarded when writing up the summary minutes later.
You’d think by now meetings could be transcribed and whittled down automatically. It has already been demonstrated that an AI monkey can write ersatz Shakespeare, so cyber-interpreting what the scrum leader is bollocking on about at 9am on Mondays should be a piece of piss.
Perhaps the reason an automatic meeting-minutes-taker has not yet been developed is because it’s indescribably boring. Great minds, even artificial ones, prefer to do fun stuff, not dull stuff. If you were an AI, would you choose to machete your way through big data to cure cancer or listen to Nigel from Accounts lecture the team on managing their cost centres? When the founding fathers of the USA were sitting in boring meetings debating rebellion against George III, the smarter gents in the room such as Ben Franklin would be daydreaming about flying his kite in a thunderstorm or electrocuting himself while tenderising turkey.
I bet they didn’t ask him to take the fucking minutes.
This helps explain why automated verbal and textual interpretation tasks tend to be assigned to computing teams that are actually pretty mediocre. Flash-bang tasks go to the smart guys with picture window offices overlooking the city; dull-o yawnsville guff heads to the basement boys.
Remember in Die Hard 2 when Holly McClane calls John from her aeroplane seat and jokes with her husband that he’s not keeping up with the times? “It’s the Nineties!” she chides. “Microwaves, microchips, faxes, air phones!” Woo, yippee-ki-ay mf, that’s what I call tech. Well, these were the same Nineties in which AOL and Google temporarily blocked anything to do with the English town name “Scunthorpe”. And even decades later, this week I read that Facebook has recently been caught out flagging references to Devon landmark “Plymouth Hoe” as offensive content.
Mme D has finally twigged why Facebook shut down her yoga page before she had a chance to upload a single post to it: we live in a town named after a nearby river, the Lez. Evidently Facebook didn’t like the idea of hosting extreme Plymouth-style hoe-on-hoe “lez” yoga action on its books.
I suppose it could be worse. We could live in Penistone or Clitheroe.
Transcription software works just fine. What it doesn’t do is understand. It would be lovely if someone could develop a minute-taking app that highlights when attendees make wild promises they have no intention of keeping – otherwise known as “action lists”, I believe. It would be especially spanky if it could also condense discussion, prune repetition and automatically recognise and mandatorily delete everything uttered by pontificating tits.
Even more importantly, minute-taking software would need to be able to read minds and distort reality. This would save me having to suffer the inescapably inevitable indignity of being told to “correct” my minutes because I have made the heinous error of recording what attendees actually said rather than what they wish they had.
To counter this annoyance, I used to put my smartphone in the middle of the desk with a flamboyant flourish and record every meeting to audio file so that I could play their words back to them later. Eventually I was asked to stop doing this. Apparently, audio recording what people say in a meeting contravenes privacy rights or the laws of physics or steals their souls or something. So, obedient team member that I am, I do not do this any more. I keep the smartphone on my lap.
Couldn’t I surreptitiously enable audio recording on my laptop while taking the minutes, you say? Only someone who has never done this would suggest such a thing. Go on, try it. You’ll end up with an hour of your keyboard clacking like a gattling gun with occasional voices between salvos.
No, let’s get that minute-taking app written, basement boys! Let me get you started with a simple workflow:
- Transcribe the audio in real time
- Condense the transcription in summary paragraphs
- Identify attendees’ voices so they can’t pretend they never said it
- Publish minutes with action points itemised by attendee name
- Send attendees a reminder via social chat of what they’d said or promised to do. Make sure the reminder is public to the entire group so everyone knows. Attach relevant audio recording snippets from the meeting
- Convert their promises into to-dos and insert them into their calendars with Priority 1 status or, better still, Overdue status right from the outset
- Trigger annoying pop-up notifications every morning to remind them
- Midweek, start popping up notifications every 10 minutes to remind them
- Towards the end of the week, set off a klaxon every 10 minutes to remind them
- Auto-recognise when they type an email containing the words “Could you correct the minutes…” and send a mild electric shock through their keyboard. Not so mild to be ignored as carpet tile static; not so strong as to tenderise a turkey
- This app goes all the way to 11. None more black. Do with it what you will
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He wishes that minutes could go back to being a record of a meeting’s discussions and decisions rather than a distorted reality document of political speeches and virtue signalling. Also, he’s well lazy. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.