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AppRising delivers insight into new broadband applications, exploring their impact on networks and their implications for public policy.

AppRising is written by Geoff Daily, who covers broadband applications and the business of online video. Based in Washington, DC, Geoff regularly advises applications developers, network operators, community leaders, and public officials on how to maximize adoption and use of the Internet.

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November 26, 2007 8:42 AM

Telecommuting Meet McLuhan In the Age of Broadband

For Thanksgiving this year, I headed out to Colorado to visit friends.

The wife of the family we stayed with has recently entered the ranks of telecommuters as her employer was acquired and their Denver office closed. This isn't an altogether new world for her, though, as she runs sales and marketing of retail goods in Asian markets and has managed a small overseas team for quite some time.

As we continued chatting, we started discussing the pros and cons of telecommuting.

While we both agreed on the oft-cited pros of flexible schedules and cons of not having enough separation between work and play, what I found most interesting was how strongly she spoke out against the efficacy of telecommuting relative to physically being in the same office as her coworkers.

Her primary point was that even though applications like videoconferencing allow for face-to-face conversations that doesn't mean the quality of the communication is the same, in particular when it comes to building real relationships with coworkers.

I have to admit: at first, this sentiment took me aback. I tend to be an unabashed cheerleader of broadband, citing its ability to supplant all kinds of traditional in-person interactions.

But then I began to see the truth to her observation. Building personal relationships often demands casual conversation, especially when you're first meeting someone, and videoconferencing is rarely conducive to getting to know someone on that level.

There are the technological issues that sometimes hamper the back-and-forth flow of conversation. There's the somewhat distant, sterile environment of sitting in front of your computer vs. physically sitting in front of a person. And unless you're using a high-end telepresence system, there's no eye contact.

These limitations aren't as big of a deal when you already know the person you're talking to, or when the conversation you're trying to have has clear parameters and/or goals. But they can be significant hindrances to more casual types of conversation that can be crucial to relationship building.

So simply put, chatting through your computer is not the same as chatting in real life, even if the people talking can see each other.

Taking this line of thought a step further, my mind hearkens back to a college communications course when I was first introduced to the writings of Marshall McLuhan.

The ways in which conversations change when conducted through computers are a prime example of McLuhan's famous credo that the medium is the message.

Without delving into communications theory, the core element of this idea is that the medium through which information is delivered has a fundamental impact on the nature and efficacy of that message.

For McLuhan, the medium that sparked this thought was TV.

Today, I'm beginning to think this core concept needs to be revisited as it relates to the new paradigms being introduced by computers and the Internet.

Because no matter how cool new technologies may be and how close what they enable mimics real life activities, we can't assume that just because a medium can do something it will without altering the message, for better or worse.


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