Where’s My Global Village?

It’s common wisdom that long-distance relationships are hard work. In spite of all the journalistic hyperbole about our ‘global village,’ in spite of Skype and FaceTime and all the other magical technologies that are supposed to erase the distance between us, the planet can still feel like a pretty big place. Any relationship – business, friendly, or romantic – that relies on these technologies to remain afloat is subject to bizarre, alienating glitches and rhythmic disconnects: the sudden freezing of a friendly face into a hideous, twisted grimace while its oblivious owner continues chatting away in the background. The awkward awareness, as someone rotates the laptop, that you’re the only “head on the screen” at the meeting. The David Lynchian chill of realizing suddenly that you’ve been talking for five minutes to a dead line . . . 

Even on the rare occasions when these tools work flawlessly, they leave us vaguely wanting. It’s better than nothing, of course. And videophones are arguably a step up from the telephone, which was loads better than the telegraph and smoke signals. Still – we’re a long way off from the global village we keep talking about, and it’s unclear when, or whether, we’ll get there. In the meantime, we need to be honest with ourselves about the strengths and limitations of these technologies as we design businesses and restructure our lives around them. 

Skype’s Jaan Tallinn on the technology of trust

Until the fall of the USSR in 1991, Jaan Tallinn’s native Estonia was Soviet-occupied. A bright and curious child, he was drawn to mathematics, physics, and computer programming, he says, because these fields are less easily politicized than, say, filmmaking. It is interesting and no coincidence, perhaps, that Tallinn – the intellectually adventurous son of a tightly-controlled society – has since become one of the world’s foremost experts on connecting people electronically. A pioneer in constructing P2P (peer to peer) networks, which enable users to share information and files freely, Tallinn now works for Skype and his own Blue Moon Interactive, making online communication ever faster, smarter, and more seamless. But while video telephony can help people maintain long-distance relationships, Tallinn says, it’s doesn’t suffice for building real and lasting trust.  

Can We Get There From Here?

Tallinn isn’t so sure we’ll ever be able to build networks that can replicate– even in a business context – the communicative power of meeting in person. Instead, he believes, we’ll continue to edge asymptotically closer. Exponential increases in bandwidth will soon eliminate some of the hiccups and stuttering that currently plague internet telephony. Beyond that, even for Tallinn, the next step is a complete unknown. 

Jaan Tallinn: What’s interesting, though, is that at the zero level, below text, there is still significant communication possible.  There was a psychology experiment – in Denmark, I believe – they had people communicate with one bit that indicated: “I'm thinking about you.” So imagine they had an IM-like software, but instead of sending messages you just clicked a person’s name and a pixel lit up on their screen that indicated that they were being thought of. And they found that it really had a positive effect on the relationship.

Do you accept Tallinn's hierarchy of communication, with one-bit "pokes" at the bottom and face-to-face interaction at the top? Or is each form of communication qualitatively unique and incomparable? (The lost art of letter-writing, for example.) What exactly do we lose in long-distance relationships? 


The series Re-envision is sponsored by Toyota. 

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