In a recent episode of the cartoon King of the Hill, Bill– an overweight and depressed character who loves to eat– falls in love with the woman who takes his orders at the local fast food drive-in, only to find out that she is working from a call center in Arizona. He drives out from Texas to meet her, but discovers that she is a young girl who is repelled by him at first sight. Crestfallen, he comes home.
Such scenarios may even increase in the future, according to Jonathan Zittrain. In a recent interview with Nokia’s Ideas Project, Z talks about “ubiquitous human computing” where an organization uses human resources like fungible resources– combining the minds of people in various locations to solve the problem at hand. He gives examples of people working at home “plugging in” to various jobs from one location.
“Our technology has outpaced our social development, and our ability to build the kinds of social and cultural structures around the new technology that tend to temper and channel its use,” he says in the interview, adding that the “cheap networks” are what make ubiquitous human computing possible.
While this collective force–one that moves Wikipedia and one which Z hopes will fuel Herdict— is certainly cost efficient, how effective is it in utilizing advanced human resources? I still believe that some kind of personal element is required to make the most of people’s abilities and is that personal connection combined with the incentive of networks that brings out true productivity. Without that personal connection, you can only reach a certain level of quality.
I’m sure that in the future, people will develop tools to make communication via technology a more personal experience, but I’m worried that before it gets to that point, people will stop wanting to make the extra effort it takes in dealing with face-to-face communications. Even now, as I work remotely– most of my assignments/conversations with Z are through email– I wonder if I am becoming less sociable, burrowing deeper into my hole of specific interests. Email communications cuts out small talk because you can get right to the point. I find that my work emails are becoming more like archived instant messages or brief tweets with less full sentences and only absolutely necessary information. Mobile computing (iPhones and Blackberrys,etc) encourage this.
On the plus side, I can dress comfortably, feel inhibited about multitasking, and not be bothered by officemates who talk loudly on the telephone or smell bad. I don’t have to wait in front of someone’s office for a 15-min. slot. I can pick my nose, fart, or belch at will. I can play computer games full screen without worrying about someone looking over my shoulder. However, I don’t know if someone’s mother is sick, if their kid was in the school play, if they have an obsession with Battlestar Galactica… or have attention disorders. Such things may not seem important and are things that may bog down productivity in the short run, but are elements that keep people connected even after the task at hand is finished. And when it comes time for the next project, they are reasons for those people to work more efficiently– a relationship that becomes more productive over time.
At the end of the day, I always seem to be coming back to the idea of sociable networking (not social networking) and craving for a way to make technology a more personal experience. I think integrating more voice and video is a step in that direction. While text is certainly rich in terms of the expanse of creative interpretation that it lends, I think sound and sight adds the degree of personal connection that can enhance relationships. Ultimately I think that touch and smell are what seal personal experiences, but hopefully we won’t invest in technology to the extent that we want those elements remotely instead of in person.