Interaction in a digital world

There is nothing like the morning commute to make one think “What on earth are you all doing?”. Here we are, rush rush rushing down narrow tubes in the ground (in cities with subways, unless the drains are your preferred means of cross-city travel) or in cars, buses and trains if you travel overground. And there always seem to be too many people, not enough space and not enough time.

Day in, day out, the vast majority of working people prove that widespread teleworking is little more than a myth. We all spend hours upon hours daily going from one place to another, in expensive transport systems that turn tons of precious fuel into tons of nasty pollutants. And for what? The easy answer is because our work requires us to be somewhere other than where we live. The more thoughtful answer is that people need to be with people – and will go to ridiculous lengths to do so.

But do we need to be physically close? Is there something specific about the physical presence of other bodies that we need? Or are businesses so stultified that they drag us into the office because they feel we need to be there? Or because they don’t trust us to work if we’re not there?

And this is where social media comes in. We know, because of the success of the telephone, that the need for contact is so intense that people will spend hours on the phone simply to speak with others, despite the loss of quality, the inability to see the other person and so on. But a phone call, like a conversation, is synchronous. The true triumph of social media has been to develop – and make people enjoy using – both synchronous and asynchronous communication.

The situation is constantly changing. It’s only a few years ago that William Gibson could write in “Pattern Recognition” – ‘Right now there are three people in Chat… and the chat room she finds not so comforting. It’s strange even with friends, like sitting in a pitch-dark cellar conversing with people at a distance of about fifteen feet. The hectic speed, and the brevity of the lines in the thread, plus the feeling that everyone is talking at once, at counter-purposes, deter her.’

Technology, unusually, is faster even than Gibson. With Facebook’s desire to become an email platform; Google’s launch of Google Buzz; GMail’s integration of video chat; and all of the innovations bubbling under in skunk works; social media’s agglomeration of multiple modes of communication, of the asynchronous and synchronous is beginning to develop the promise that we all hoped it would have years ago.

But we’re not there yet. Most importantly, we’re still nowhere near replacing the physical experience of being present. Which means, I’m afraid, that you’ll still be commuting for the near future. And you’ll need to use an agency that understands that communication does not happen in some kind of digital or physical nirvana – but instead, happens wherever people are, whether in person or online, whether synchronously or asynchronously.

We need to be close to people. The trick of the future is going to be working out what that closeness means – and how we work with it.


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