Eyjafjallajökull, the icelandic volcano that has put Europe upside down, has also shaken the almost unshakeable rules of the business game. Deprived of air commuting, due to airspace closure over most of Europe, many professionals† have turned to the internet to remedy their fate, and it turns out that they are enduring the challenge quite successfully. What we are witnessing is the beginning of business air travel getting downsized and the rise of alternative online channels for business.
Money is thicker than lava
We keep hearing reports that the ash cloud will clear “in the next 24 to 48 hours”, but what few want to accept is that Good-Old-Earth is spitting
fire ash all over our continent. Trying to control or predict this kind of violent behaviors is a fallacy. Inevitably with this and future uncontrollable natural outbursts humans will have to get busy in order to keep our infrastructures in place.
Even if Eyjafjallajökull closes tomorrow and goes to sleep for another hundred years, there is a larger than a volcano reason to believe that this telecommuting evolution will happen: we are a capitalist society and telecommuting is immensely cheaper.
All we need is better UX
There are numerous practical reasons to prefer traveling to telecommuting, but none of those reasons are inherent of the medium.‡ They are, rather, a consequence of the current limitations of human-machine interfaces. Cumbersome workflows, non standardized tools and platforms, video and audio quality restricted by bandwidth limitations, and in general many physical limitations of distant interactions across groups and locations.
So, in order to overcome these barriers, it’s not so hard to see how better design and better technology will facilitate the tools that will enable conferences across oceans just as transparently as some of us make VoIP calls instead of calls over line lines. As computing power and broadband increases workstations will specialize on telecommuting, teleconferencing and collaboration.
Money will go from roads and planes to fiber optics and wireless routers; travelers and bag-packers will reclaim traveling; we’ll see fewer and fewer suits and ties on planes and the business class will be rebranded as prosumer, premium or simply first class. And, in the process, we will be happier with better work-life balance and more free time to enjoy living outdoors in close contact with those we care about. That’s, of course, until the next volcano.
† One of those professionals would be the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg who is reportedly running the government via his iPad.
‡ Almost none, a handshake is still a handshake.
We depend greatly on voice but as new technologies arrive we are discovering new efficient channels for transmitting the same data. I dream of a day when I won’t be interrupted by voice. Unless I’ve tacitly agreed to have a conversation I do not welcome the demands that voice imposes.
Why voice is overrated
- Voice is intrusive. While we communicate with phones, webcams, and so on, we are also interfering with those present around us (who most likely do not appreciate this intrusion of space.)
- Voice is demanding, it requires both participants to be present at the time the communication takes place (for best results.)
- Voice is public and unsafe. It is basically screaming your secrets all around you. Think buses, parks, offices, bus shelters, waiting rooms, ticket lines… all of them places where spying can be easily done. Banks, service providers, etc, constantly ask for sensitive information to identify users on the phone. Credit Card numbers, Social Security numbers, even if it is as simple as name and address, it is still data that you wouldn’t volunteer to strangers.
Obsolescence or Death
Many are speculating about the “death of the written form” and meanwhile voice is also becoming obsolete; it is both slow to produce and to listen to. Other mediums such as text or image (static and moving) are more quick and efficient. When measuring information density voice is at the bottom of the scale with the smallest amounts of data transmitted per time unit.
Fortunately for many of us, more and more communication channels are making voice a secondary option. Ironically, Google Voice (the giant’s attempt at becoming a wireless provider) is actually reducing our dependency on voice with alternatives such as voice messages sent as text via sms or email.
Obviously this is not the death of voice (yet) but a shift on its use from highly functional towards more entertaining: social connections, education and entertainment among other might always depend on verbal communications. We want closeness and ease of communication but we don’t want to be forced to human interactions beyond our control.