The virtual world offers us two great conveniences. Indeed, you can make a reasonable claim that the virtual world depends for its success on these twin pillars: freedom from friction, and freedom from simultaneity.
What does that mean? Before email, we had to write or type out letters, memos, reports, white papers – the entire catalogue of written communications – and then cause them to be conveyed in some way to the intended recipient. It’s amazing to think about today, but we used to have to include in creating a proposal, say, the time it took to convey the paper from my office to yours. Weekends made it tougher, rather than easier, because the Post Office was not reliably open.
That’s friction, in digital speak – the difficulty in transmitting a document from one place to another. Email made that difficulty virtually obsolete.
Instead, alas, we have new difficulties. One of the most irritating features of modern emailing life is the last-minute communication. It goes like this. You’re heading to a meeting at 9:00. Perhaps you’re in traffic, and surreptitiously scanning email in the slowest moments. (Don’t! Put that phone down! You’re a hazard to yourself and others!) At 8:15 you receive the following email:
I’m not sure you’ll have a chance to look at this, but in case you do, here’s a report which could entirely 180 our approach to the client at 9:00 this morning. It’s long at 27 pages, but there’s a 3-page summary at the beginning which will give you the gist of it. See you at 9:00 sharp!
But on the whole, of course, freedom from friction is a great convenience, and has led to innumerable improvements in efficiency, changes in work and home behavior, and lovely conveniences like being able to send that birthday gift to that certain someone you only remembered because of that Facebook reminder.
It’s all good. Mostly good.
Freedom from simultaneity is equally fabulous and equally complicated. In order to communicate, we no longer have to be face-to-face, in the same room at the same time. We can all comment on the same document in the two days before it’s discussed in the (virtual) team meeting, and we can derive the benefits of reading each other’s comments, even though our team is spread out all over the world in different time zones, continents, and cultures. The difficulties of managing that kind of coordination in the pre-digital era would have challenged the most resourceful of overworked, under-appreciated office managers.
And yet, a huge amount is missing from our communication as a result of the release from friction and simultaneity, especially the latter. What are the missing pieces?
We are all familiar with the perils of the email sent too quickly, hitting the “reply all” button when we meant to reserve that snarky comment for the author of the original email, not the entire team. Or, we’ve responded in haste and anger to something and regretted it later.
The primary danger of a reduction in friction, then, is that when you make communication too easy, we are at risk of communicating our first thoughts too widely, too emotionally, too thoughtlessly.
Twitter, meet President Trump.
The solution to this problem is pretty simple in theory and tough in practice: self-restraint. Introduce a policy of waiting until you’ve cooled off. Or writing an email and sending it the next day, after you’ve slept on it and had a chance to re-read it. To be able to do that, of course, you need to build back in some of that time that our friction-free universe has allowed us to cut out.
That pressure will never go away, but for any kind of communication via the written word – email, text, and so on – and for many kinds of verbal communication – voice mail, video messages, and so on – the more you can build in a waiting period of some duration the less likely you are to send a communication that embarrasses you, ends a relationship, or terminates a career.
The dangers brought about by the elimination of the need for simultaneity are considerably subtler and more difficult to mitigate. If we’re not communicating face-to-face, then we’re losing a huge amount of information that we’re not even consciously aware is missing.
Here’s what goes on. We think we’re communicating that touch of irony that makes our critical comments about the recent conference witty and easy to bear, but unfortunately the recipient doesn’t pick up on the irony and is simply devastated, or furious, or resentful. We think our hilarious comments about the patriotic fervor of Canadians are received in the loving way they are intended, but unfortunately the Canadian team misses both the humor and the love. We think the woman we’ve been dating recently will see the rightness of our recommendations for how she might dress differently, couched as they are in warmth and a little self-deprecatory humor about our own wardrobe, but unfortunately she doesn’t.
Comments made in person, especially critical comments, can be softened with a touch of the arm, a smile, a twitch of the eyebrows. But the entire richness of the communications stream that we offhandedly dismiss as ‘body language’ is lost in digital communications, even when we’re hearing audio – and, to an astonishing extent, even when we’re on video together.
Wait a minute, you say – I thought the danger in eliminating the need for simultaneity had to do with not being able to make immediate corrections. Surely on an audio conference or especially a video conference, you can see or see and hear a negative or uncomprehending reaction and correct it?
Well, yes, and no. The problem with audio in the virtual world is that the transmission of audio compresses the sound in order to make it easier to send, and the compression reduces the amount of emotion that is conveyed. Emotion is conveyed in the overtones of a human voice, and especially the undertones, and both of those frequency ranges are compressed or eliminated altogether in audio files sent virtually.
In video, an even subtler elimination occurs. First of all, because the same audio compression algorithms get used, the same impoverishment of sound happens. Second, because three dimensions are reduced to two, another kind of visual compression happens. We have a harder time estimating how far away someone is from us, for example, and the further away we think someone is, basically, the less we trust them.
So watching someone on video is not the same experience as seeing them in a room. But beyond that, something else is cut out: air pressure. To an incredible extent, our unconscious minds measure the distance between us by the changes in air pressure we pick up as someone moves close to us or further away.
Think for a moment about the electricity of a kiss – the excitement of the closeness is visual, of course, but it’s also measured by your unconscious mind in air pressure.
In sum, each of the communication modes in the virtual space is impoverished: written, aural, and visual. Algorithms are not the same as people. At least not yet.
How can you solve the problems created by the digital release from simultaneity?
I’ll take that vital question up in part two of this post, next time.