When time-shifting and telepresence collide

Technology is changing the significance of time and distance for today's workers

Yesterday I drove to a meeting in another state. On the way there and back, my car radio was tuned to no regular broadcast but instead to the pirate radio station in my briefcase. Its components: a $20 Belkin FM transmitter, a $90 Creative Nomad MuVo MP3 player, and do-it-yourself programming. As I drove to my destination, I listened to Shai Agassi's talk at the Accelerating Change Conference, courtesy of ITConversations.com. On the way back, I listened to an audio interview I'd done the day before, reviewing which parts I might want to use in a podcast or weave into an article.

When I got home, I dialed in to a conference call, fired up a WebEx session, and conducted another interview -- in this case, one that featured a demonstration of a software product. I made an audio/video recording of that demo, and, as soon as I get a chance to edit it down to the most interesting parts, I'll share it with you on my blog.

At the end of the day, it struck me that time-shifted content and space-folding telepresence are becoming complementary. For example, it wasn't strictly necessary for me to drive to that meeting. I could have made a phone call. Because it was a first meeting that may turn into a professional relationship, however, face-to-face was preferable. In the past that reasoning would have entailed a trade-off. Now, though, when I'm not folding space I can shift time. Given that I needed to listen to those recordings anyway, listening to them in the car -- away from interruptions and distractions -- was the most productive way to do it.

Being back in my office was arguably the most productive way to experience the WebEx demo. With the audio and screen recorders running, I didn't need to look away to make notes, but I could look away -- to search for background information that helped me ask better questions -- without being rude to the presenters.

Martin Geddes, who blogs thoughtfully at Telepocalypse.net about telecommunications and IT, recently asked an important question: "How do telecom and transport substitute [for] or complement one another?"

Geddes argues that although trillions of dollars ride on the answers, we mostly don't have a clue. It's a fascinating essay that I won't try to summarize, but one key point -- the distinction between "travel for sense of presence" and "travel for information exchange" -- is relevant here.

As Geddes notes, we're only now approaching the point at which telecom can sustain credible telepresence. Last weekend, my DSL was upgraded from 384Kbps to 3Mbps, and I can take it to 7Mbps if necessary. At what point does the link carry enough emotional bandwidth to begin displacing travel for sense of presence? I'm not holding my breath. Apple's iChat AV was cool before, and it'll be cooler now, but it's not going to replace face-to-face meetings any time soon.

Meanwhile, three megabits per second sure makes travel for information exchange seem sillier than it already did. Coupled with podcasting, it makes the two kinds of travel nicely complementary. The podcasting model is partly based on the assumption that TiVo-izing your audio content should be a scheduled process. Now that I can download hours of audio in mere seconds, I just grab what I need on the fly.

Shifting time, folding space, juggling atoms and bits -- is this how we want to live and work? Yes!

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