Apathy for the Real at the Virtual Workplace

Wandering around in downtown Chicago looking for a coffee shop last October (when I was supposed to be at the Second Life Community Convention ;-), I remember looking up at the towering masses of skyscrapers as the sun went down and the myriad of office lights started to twinkle, wondering what so many hundreds of thousands of people were actually DOING inside those little cells in the Chicago hive? No doubt there are a lot of very important activities happening – big business deals and the like. But what percentage of those cells are actually hosting priority meetings right that instant? How many support cells were lit up in preparation or anticipation of a very important meeting?

What I really wanted to know is, how many of those cells are occupied by people staring at a computer screen? How many of these people will occupy their cubicle today with no need to interact with fellow co-workers? When these people do leave their computer screens and meet with each other, what kind of activities are they engaged in? My guess would be that the vast majority would be sitting around a table talking to each other or viewing power point presentations. In very oversimplified terms, those kinds of activities are what business is made of – mostly.

I find a coffee shop with wi-fi, check my email and log into Second Life. I’m immediately offered a teleport to a meeting being held to discuss a new project on Architecture Island. A Japanese architect had finished building a replication of the Robie House, and several colleagues were gathered around discussing the project – one from Italy, one from California, and one from Australia. The mixture of accents (me with my midwestern accent, ya), really made it evident that these folks actually were accessing Second Life from all around the world. Yet all of us would have agreed that it actually ‘felt’ like were were sharing the same space. Using the voice client in Second Life further enhances that sense, for me anyway. All the while sitting around the hearth at one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece residences.

In comes another teleport, and I’m off to a presentation by someone else, somewhere else – surrounded by 40 other attendees from all over the world. We sit quietly and listen to the presenter, who speaks to us in English through a thick German accent, as he flips through his slides and rezzes 3D diagrams of the concepts he is describing. I think he’s a molecular biologist… this one is a bit over my head, to be honest. In the meantime, I’m panning around the audience with my camera to see who’s all there. I see a few friends, send them a ‘hello!’ in private instant message. I notice some new faces I haven’t seen before, so I click them for their profile. Aha – I can see this guy works for IBM, another is there from MIT. Oh, and this one’s profile shows she is interested in architecture, so I send her an invite to the Architecture in SL group and she accepts my offer of friendship, we begin to chat in IM. It turns out she’s a student of architecture from France, and that her University is looking to buy an island. I put her in touch with the right people and groups she will need to help them get started. I’m offered a teleport to a sneak preview of a new build at Princeton University. I’m able to spend a few minutes there, but I need to leave because a client is requesting assistance moving a platform on their private build. There I’m introduced to a new studio leader who will be using the platform, I accept his offer of friendship. We discuss the possibility of an extended maintenance agreement, and I email the project leader to inform him of this opportunity.

Suddenly a reminder pops up that an hour has passed on my wi-fi connection, and I need to buy another cup of coffee to stay connected. An hour!?! Wow, I’ve already been around the world and back, interacted directly with over a dozen friends, colleagues from all over the globe. I met with a client, made 2 new friends, and engaged in a plethora of networking activities that have a good chance at play out into a more comprehensive relationship sometime in the future.

My activities were more akin to ‘doing business’ than it would be to ‘playing a game’ right? When I recall the past hour, I remember having been inside buildings, visiting places and meeting people. I don’t think of them as anything less than real, because those encounters were very real. Networking interactions in Second Life, in my case, actually does translate into real dollars – from which I earn most of my real living as a freelance designer, strategist and Second Life consultant. I realize I am a relative minority in terms of the living I derive from virtual worlds, but more people are doing the same every day. Besides, the people I am able to network with in Second Life aren’t all petty acquaintances either. It is not uncommon to find high level managers and strategic thinkers from several of the largest companies in the world in attendance at virtual meetings. These managers, and quite often the companies they represent, share my enthusiasm and recognition of the potential of virtual interaction.

So, I wonder how my past hour’s activities would compare to those of in the offices within the skyscrapers towering above me? I think it would be a safe bet that the lion’s share of the cells filled in the Chicago hive, on any given day, are occupied by people who haven’t had to attend any meetings, and rarely left their computer. Their particular job didn’t require it, yet the custom of ‘going to work’ every day still grips the vast majority of the workplace. Its a kind of residual habit, not unlike those vinyl shutters we still put on houses today – even though they no longer serve a functional purpose.

Advancing communication technology has allowed telecommuting to become increasingly feasible, but I think there is still something lacking in a telephone call or video conference that makes a telecommute position a bit weaker than being there in person. If you ask a telecommuter, after a day of work in their home office where they have ‘been’ all day – they will tell you they’ve been at home. But, if you ask me where I’ve been for the past hour – I would list several ‘places’ I visited. I would tell you that I’ve been to Princeton University’s island, met with several architects at the Robie House, and attended a presentation on molecular biology. ‘Sitting at the coffee shop’ would be a secondary description of where I had been, since I psychologically ‘feel’ like I had been in all of those other places.

No amount of video conferencing, phone calls, or 2D instant messaging could have created that memory of experience. Even with the most advanced 3D modeling technology, like 3D Studio Max, Architectural Desktop or SketchUp would have enabled me to be invited to attend an actual ‘meeting’ inside those models the way I did at the Robie House. I suppose we could all agree to watch the same pre-rendered animation of the Robie House and talk on the phone while we watch it, but that’s not even close to the experience I shared with my friends sitting around the hearth in exact replicas of Frank Lloyd Wright’s furniture designs (the ones in SL are more comfortable 😉 . For obvious reasons, you can’t even sit on the chairs in the real life Robie House, and you certainly can’t teleport people from all around the world to meet you there instantaneously. Nothing compares with visiting the real thing, but if you’re an architecture student sitting in a high rise in Tokyo – you don’t always have that luxury.

This may sound crass, but these kinds of thought trials arouse a sense of apathy (for lack of a better word) for certain habits of the real world in light of what is and will soon be possible in virtual environments. We can’t teleport or build 3D models in thin air, and we certainly can’t meet instantaneously with colleagues from around the world inside of a shared space. Of course, nothing beats a handshake and direct eye contact but, on balance, I’m sure there is a tipping point when that value will be superseded by the hours of time spent sitting at the airport, or on an airplane – not to mention the financial and environmental costs.

Now its rush hour in Chicago and the freeways are predictably choked to a crawl. Hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people begin their ritual commute home. If I could cast an instantaneous poll of everyone on the freeway at this instant, asking them if they are enjoying their commute, how many would say they’re happy about it? How many would respond that their day’s work absolutely required their physical presence? Of those who could have done their job more effective virtually, what was the total cost of their physical presence? Their car, the fuel, the embodied energy of the building they occupy, the insurance, the energy needed to condition the air in that space, and more. How much does a day in that life cost? Some thought leaders like Christian Renaud are already leading the way toward a more carefully considered travel agenda, and have shared some advice on how others can do the same.

I’ve had my fill of coffee, finish up my correspondences and head back to SLCC. I sneak into a presentation, and my apathy sets in again as I walk into a room full of people sitting quietly in a dark room, some asleep, watching a power point presentation of words and static images. Too bad they can’t see each other’s profiles and learn more about their interests. Too bad they can’t actually sit inside the place in Second Life that the presenter is trying to describe with words and static images. I could also have a website up with the presenter’s bio and website open, augmenting the presentation experience. IMHO, this whole conference would have been so much better if it were held in Second Life. In fact, I think the same is true of just about any conference or convention, but of course, I’m biased – and the technology isn’t quite advanced enough – yet – but it will be.

Please don’t get me wrong, I value and appreciate the value of traditional modes of business and workplace communication, I really do. But the more time I spend in virtual places, the more I realize how this kind of environment can effectively augment, and in some cases replace, certain kinds of real life interaction. Every time I meet with a group of colleagues from around the world, I’m reminded of the phenomenal and far reaching opportunities afforded by this technology.

I look forward to the day when like-minded metaverse evangelists worldwide start to emerge, en masse, with proof-positive that they can actually collaborate more effectively, and more cost efficiently as a team inside of a virtual environment than they can in their real life offices. Some would argue that this is already happening, or have predictions about how it will unfold. Dave Elchoness from VRWorkplace has even established a businesses for the exclusive purpose of assisting companies with transitions into the virtual workplace. Just imagine the magnitude of effect such a transcendence would have? If the 2D web had a dramatic impact on the workplace, just imagine what adding a third dimension will do.

I’ve said this before, but I continue to wonder – could the virtual workplace become the ultimate in green or sustainable design? If a designer can eliminate square footage from a physical building in favor of a virtual workplace, shouldn’t there be LEED credit for that? After all, what could be more green than not building anything at all?

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