The transition to remote life is upon us.
You are probably using Zoom or Google Hangouts or Microsoft teams to get work done, and maybe also connect to your family members.
The internet is abuzz with memes which convey these ideas much better than I can express in mere words.
Well-edited artwork aside, if you are the part of NASA’s team for controlling the Mars rover, you are also working through video calling software.
Given that remote calling tools are now extremely critical to both our work life and family life, I don’t think the current products match up at all.
Because humans need a sense of space, all the time.
The fundamental flaw in remote tools – humans need a sense of space. And we need it all the time. As the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman points out in his book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow‘:
Whenever your eyes are open, your brain computes a three-dimensional representation of what is in your field of vision, complete with the shape of objects, their position in space, and their identity.
No intention is needed to trigger this operation or the continuous monitoring for violated expectation.
No intention is needed – means that human brains are doing this operation all the time. In other words, you cannot not scan your surroundings. Everything with its position and shape gets scanned. And this gives you a sense of your own ‘place’.
In fact, this process might be so strong that disorientation in space can be a form of torture – put someone in a room with no color, no objects, no sound, and they will suffer immense mental pain. There are reports of this being used a device against political prisoners.
Remote tools, being inherently 2 dimensional, can’t replace the sense of space provided by physical locations.
But that’s not all, remote tools also lack the human touch. People want to be with people, and not just representations of people, no matter how good the representation.
Some stories affirm this stand, as shared by the VC Fred Wilson in a recent blog post:
After five weeks of total and complete self isolation in our home, the Gotham Gal and I started inviting another couple over for a socially distant cocktail this week. They come and go via our driveway, we sit in the back yard, separated by ten feet. I serve drinks in latex gloves. We talk. After an hour or two, they depart the same way and we wash everything up in warm soapy water and then have dinner back in our self isolation.
It has made a big difference to our frame of mind.
In person social interaction is the core of being human and I think this pandemic is reminding all of us how vitally important that is.
Hence, I feel confident that remote tools will not ‘take over’ in the long term. But given the pandemic, they are going nowhere in the coming months. Conclusion – we need better, much better remote tools.
(Note: I refer only to conference tools here. Tools like Google Docs and Slack, and even email are also remote tools, but of a different type. Heck, the internet is a remote tool.)