Communicating in the virtual world creates some built-in hazards for us humans because we originally evolved to communicate face to face.  The virtual world has enveloped us in a few rapid years — far too fast for us to evolve in any sense to keep up with its different demands.  Let’s look at a few of the problems in order to understand better why virtual communication is so difficult and unsatisfying.

First, virtual communication is plagued with a lack of feedback.

This is the problem from which — in one sense — all the rest of the problems in the virtual world flow.  Humans, evolutionarily speaking, are relatively feeble creatures.  We run the risk of falling victim to lots of bigger animals with paws and teeth that can reduce us to dinner with a swipe or a bite.  So, we evolved to be prediction junkies, and really adept at scouting out patterns.  We want to know, always, what’s going to happen next, and we want to know, does that shadow mean a tiger is lurking over there?

Our brains constantly scan the spaces around us, looking for danger patterns and making predictions.  We use the five senses that we’re aware of, and others that only our unconscious minds keep track of, like sensing the way the air changes around us when other humans or animals are drawing near.

The virtual world deprives most of those senses of information most of the time.  We simply don’t get the feedback we’re used to getting constantly and analyzing obsessively.  So what happens?  Our brains respond by manufacturing the sensory data, making it up with memories, imagined stuff, and panic.  And thus we find the virtual world repetitive, confusing, and tension-filled.

We suffer in the virtual world, first and foremost, because of the lack of sensory feedback.

From this lack comes a deficit of important information about other people.

Because we don’t get much information, we don’t get much information specifically about how other people are feeling.  The mirror neurons that normally send us constant data about other people’s emotions are deprived of the sensory feed, and so they once again make it up.  You start to imagine that the person on the other end of that email is angry at you because you don’t really know what they’re thinking.

This lack of information, and resulting misinformation filling the pipeline, lead us to poor or incorrect analyses of other people’s emotional states.  Our normal high levels of empathy are reduced or rendered inaccurate.

A side issue that arises from this lack of empathy is that the virtual world is less interesting, since a big part of what engages our time and attention in the real world is figuring out what other people are feeling.  And so, in the virtual world, attention spans are shorter, maybe as short as 10 minutes. But habit dictates that meetings are usually scheduled in hour-long segments.  Some even longer.  Our meetings, especially virtual ones, are outstripping our attention spans.

And all of that adds up to a lack of control — the feeling that we don’t know what’s going on because we don’t have our normal data telling us what other people around us are doing and feeling and thinking.

But there’s more.  The virtual emotional desert we live in is arranged largely by and for machines.  It can remember everything, and that means you leave endless digital footprints everywhere you go.  In the real world, people forget and forgive.  In the virtual world, as many job applicants have found, all those embarrassing photos from your wild college parties are still out there, ripe for the harvesting.

It is possible to manage your virtual persona to a certain extent, but on the whole, it’s as if every step you ever took was memorialized in wet cement as you ventured forth.  The virtual world is the wet cement for every digital step you take.

That’s a lack of control of your information, and it’s debilitating.

This post is adapted from my new book, Can You Hear Me?, due out from Harvard in October.  You can pre-order it here.  


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