Jonathan Safran Foer writes a piece for the Sunday edition of the NY Times that raises a number of troubling questions about the degree with which we’re using technology (e.g. smartphones, email) as replacements for face-to-face communication. Foer calls these forms of communication “diminished substitutes”:
It’s easier to make a phone call than to schlep to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation — you can say what you need to say without a response; hard news is easier to leave; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up.
Shooting off an e-mail is easier, still, because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching someone. And texting is even easier, as the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.
I think Skype is an excellent example of a diminished [communication] substitute. I use Skype almost daily. It’s become a rather necessary tool to keep in touch with colleagues and coordinate projects. Necessary —and quite frankly, I’m reluctant to use the word indispensable because I would gladly dispense with Skype, and Basecamp too, if everyone I worked with lived in the same city and were able to work out of the same office. But of course, that’s not possible given the makeup of the typical digital team these days. Here in Toronto, traffic woes seem to be getting worse each year as our city’s population growth continues to strain the public transit system. The option to work remotely from home a couple days a week, I can tell you from first-hand experience, is a perk of the job I gladly embrace.
On any given week I’m working with people on 3 continents and sometimes 4 or 5 different time zones. Skype and Basecamp become necessary to keep the lines of communication open and coordinate efforts. But from my perspective it’s a less than ideal situation. Aside from the usual technical hiccups from lack of bandwidth to software and hardware issues, these cloud apps, which are routinely touted as the bright future of collaborative technology, only ever really work when all active participants have: a) a stable Internet connection and b) a bug-free device with no compatibility issues.
A team of people working in the same physical space, in my opinion, will always be more effective than a team scattered around the globe working remotely where there’s a reliance on these cloud based apps to help push projects forward.
Skype conference calls are, at best, a crude substitute for in-person communication. Nevermind Microsoft is apparently listening in. Skype’s instant message functionality seems to break almost weekly and has proven to be an inconsistent way to reach colleagues as an alternative to traditional long-distance phone calls.
Basecamp, in the same context, is an absolute crutch when in-person team collaboration is not possible. This is best illustrated by the seemingly harmless yet insidiously time-sucking project notifications lining one’s in-box each day. Anyone who’s ever used Basecamp knows exactly what I’m talking about. When a contributor makes an update to a project, Basecamp will send out an email notification to all team members involved. Unless manually overridden it’s possible to barrage your colleagues with a very unnecessary tsunami of daily email updates. The sheer amount of time required to sift through these notifications, on some days, is enough to leave you scratching your head to say, where did the day go?
If anything else this is the reality of working in the digital economy and a reflection of how inextricably connected we’ve become in relying on these tools and technologies to earn a living. For better or worse, I’m afraid we’ll just have to make the best of it.
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