What We Make of Place and What it Makes of Us

As I sit here writing, I am looking out onto a winter scene through the two windows in my office. The ridge of a snow covered roof line cuts across the bottom of my Eastern view where a watercolor smudge of orange across a lightening achromatic sky is the only indication of a coming sunrise. Bare tree limbs are etched darkly against the uniform grey clouds in an appropriately early twenty-first century, almost Asian minimalist display. The mercury (or whatever entirely neutral substance has been mandated for thermometers these days) hasn’t managed to cross a Fahrenheit zero yet, and off to the North a power plant puffs an enormous, stark white tower into the atmosphere.

This is a picture from a particular place at a particular moment in time. For me, very analog and actual. I am considering whether to go get a sweater to guard against the chill radiating off these two windows. For you, displaced from that moment by both time and location, something more like digital, a representation. Perhaps the words have invoked your own senses and memory, pulling up pictures in your mind of some similar place and moment. It is, indeed, one of the great wonders of the digital revolution how quickly we can share at least some slice of our experience across great reaches of space and expanding distances of time.

We live in a time when it is increasingly possible to separate much of our work from a particular location. Yes, a preacher needs to be up in her pulpit on Sunday or at a bedside weekdays. A manager should show her face now and again in each particular cubicle of her domain. The doctor reaches out to gently grasp a wrist and feel her patient’s pulse. All true, but for all of us a great deal of the information and interaction that helps us grow in our professions, broaden the impacts of our contributions, or redirect our focus comes through the intermediated experience of a digitally supported communication.

E-mail, electronic forums, the conference call, and even the public Internet are all necessary staples of the modern professional. I’m astounded how easy it is for me to get connected in airports, hotels, remote offices and even on trans-continental flights. I plug in (usually virtually through a wireless connection), hook up to the corporate mother ship and am working away oblivious to my actual surroundings with barely a ripple of effort.

The Paperless Office, the Video Conference, and Other Inflated Promises
So why do I travel so much? The week where I spend every night at home in my own bed is an exception. That’s not entirely the common experience, but how many times a week or a month do you get up from your desk, walk out of your office, and down the hall into a meeting in a conference room, or get in your car and drive somewhere for business? Perhaps it’s to a training location or to a customer’s site, or a service call your making, or just to have lunch with a professional colleague to “stay in touch.” Whatever it is, it’s a demonstration of attachment to physical proximity, whether to a person, building or piece of paper.

One way of writing the history of the last twenty or thirty years is to chart the steady disappearance of the need for physical presence. And good riddance. I like the tellers at my local credit union. They’re pleasant to interact with and even occasionally funny and entertaining. But I still use the ATM or automatic deposit for almost every transaction. It’s just so much easier than driving to the credit union, parking the car, walking through that sub-zero weather, filling out the deposit slip, and pushing it and check or two across the counter, walking back to the car, remembering where I put my keys getting back in the car and going onto whatever. I like being able to take that time and effort and attention and apply it to other activities that mean more to me.

But that dislocation is not perfect nor do I want it to be. Ok I’d be happy to get away from that vestige of presence, the fifty or sixty dollars of change that I skim out of my pockets over a few months and have to drag it down to the credit union to deposit. But I like being in the presence of the guy I’ve talked to for over ten years about mortgages and other financing I get from the credit union. I like walking into his office, talking over whatever my current situation is and hearing about his children. I like knowing he knows some my history and I know some of his and that in our conversations he sometimes identifies a beneficial financial play in my life that I’d missed. There is a tangible value in the confidence, ease, and fit of services to my particular business or personal needs, built over many years of presence. I have no similar story of comfort built over years from a digital only presence.

When Inflated Promises Take Flight
Tech history is littered with mirages that expanded so realistically and energetically only to deflate just as we reached for them. Of course, that litter is sometimes hard to see between the digital promises that panned out. I like my cell phone, the ATM network, e-mail that keeps me in the presence of my thirty and forty-year friends that I haven’t actually seen in years. From chat rooms to xBox on-line to MySpace through YouTube and even to Second Life, we’re building a kind of digital interpersonal presence that is clearly preferable to no presence at all. It’s not clear to me, though, what of analog place and community is being recreated and what’s just being let fall between the bits and bytes.

Looking at the 80’s portable phone in a box with a shoulder strap it’s hard to imagine the slim little phone I drop in my pocket as I rush out the door. In a similar vein it’s hard to see where all this digital community is heading. Ebay and Amazon are remaking the marketplace and the connection between the stuff we buy and places we find it. The Corporate Executive Board and other on-line business forums are stealing some small slice of the business IP exchanged on the golf course or at conferences. Clearly digital presence will be a part of our world and experience in every greater degrees.

Through the Looking Glass of Place
Once in my educational career, I took a class that was half on-line and half classroom. We alternated, week over week, between the two. I really liked the idea because I was traveling for business a lot then as well and could work my travel schedule to match the timing of the on-line sessions, and attend remotely. It didn’t quite play out that smoothly though. I found that my on-line student personality was not nearly as effective at my in-person student personality. I type pretty comprehensibly at well over 80 words a minute, am comfortable in front of a computer, and always thought I multi-tasked pretty well between this window and that. Seemed like a natural fit.

And yet in the moment, on-line, my personality changed. In person, I asked questions, participated in discussions, threaded together different ideas and parts of conversation and just generally emerged the new perspectives and skills that are the goal of education. On-line, things just never quite jelled. Yeah, I’d pitch in a bon mot once in a while. I’d swap over to look at somebody’s written or imaged contribution and back to the chat window. I watched the ebb and flow of electronic conversation there. But predictably at the end of our time together, I was more frustrated than illuminated. I often found myself waiting for the following week of presence where I usually was able to grasp the fraying ends of the previous week’s on-line discussion and weave it all into some comprehensible and portable.

It’s possible that I’m just an old fart whose time has passed. Once I became aware of the dynamic and started looking for it in my class mates, I saw many folks, usually younger than I, who manifested just the opposite transformation between the class room and the on-line sessions. So it might be a generational thing that points to an increasingly digital sense of place for the workplaces, shopping malls, schools, and families of the future and I just need to get used to it. That’s possible, even probable.

So Where are We?
What’s certain is that this digital age and all the capabilities it enables is changing the way we project ourselves into the world. Certainly as time passes and our capabilities evolve and expand, the new pushes aside some things that have value. I regret that I missed the age of great ocean crossings by ship or flying boat with it’s time for reflection and intimate involvement with various way points. That doesn’t mean I want to take a month both ways every time I need to visit my business associates in India or take two days both ways to visit folks who work for me on the East Coast. I just wouldn’t do it.

The challenge in front of us as managers, peers, and members of various more personal communities is to understand, to adapt to, and to shape that interplay between physical, analog presence and the representational, virtual digital presence. We have evolved, over thousands of years, various standards and means of privacy, personality, presence and interaction that are entirely dependent on the separation in time and space that is imposed by physical location. As digital presence short circuits that separation in time and space, it also short circuits the evolved societal and personal norms that rely on them.

In the workplace that means an advancing erosion of the boundaries between the personal and professional with all kinds of shifts to be managed from personal use of company resources to corporate takeovers of personal time. Out on the streets of our societies, it points to tectonic shifts in our legal structures whether for the intellectual property of record companies or control of our various public identities and the information associated with them. At home, the relationships and roles of parents, children and siblings are redefined based on not only technical competence but also on emotional, physical, and spiritual ability to apply these new capabilities to productive ends.

It’s tempting to use that favored phrase of the Digital age, “This changes everything.” In actual practice though, I still live someplace where for two or three months of the year, I have to remember my hat or my bald head gets really, really cold. Building my digital presence skills isn’t a substitute for competence in a physical world. It still makes sense to look both ways before crossing the street. Now, more then ever, that digital world we create with our cell phones and iPods and countless other tech gadgets distracts us from the physical world in front us. So be careful out there, and don’t forget to actually be out there.

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