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The End of Cyberspace

  • «[N]ew tools are inexorably changing the way we navigate. It’s true that we use signs in tandem with personal navigation systems today, but that may not always be the case. Beatty envisions a future in which we trust digital directions so completely that we no longer make much use of real-world cues.»
  • «»Prediction markets are powerful forecasting tools. They have the potential to aggregate private information, to generate and disseminate a consensus among the market participants, and to provide incentives for information acquisition. These market functionalities can be very valuable for scientific research. Here, we report an experiment that examines the compatibility of prediction markets with the current practice of scientific publication. … We conclude that for integrating prediction markets into the practice of scientific research it is of advantage to use subsidizing market makers, and to keep markets aligned with current publication practice.»
  • «They are the most wired vehicles on the road, with dashboard computers, sophisticated radios, navigation systems and cellphones. While such gadgets are widely seen as distractions to be avoided behind the wheel, there are hundreds of thousands of drivers — police officers and paramedics — who are required to use them, sometimes at high speeds, while weaving through traffic, sirens blaring. The drivers say the technology is a huge boon for their jobs, saving valuable seconds and providing instant access to essential information. But it also presents a clear risk — even the potential to take a life while they are trying to save one.»
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The End of Cyberspace

A recent article in The Guardian reports that «[a]s the virtual workplace becomes more prevalent, many staff find teamwork difficult to build.»

For many freelance employees these days, turning up at the office is a rare occasion. As a freelance journalist, I’m part of a virtual team that communicates through email, or text. Not only do I rarely see my workmates, I can spend weeks not even talking to them. And I am not alone: non-verbal, virtual communication — particularly in white-collar workplaces — is becoming more and more common. However, this trend is increasingly coming under scrutiny amid signs that more traditional methods — like face-to-face meetings and talking on the telephone — are more effective….

Somewhat ironically, the growth of virtual working over the past decade has highlighted the importance of non-verbal communication. Non-verbal cues — like body language, tone of voice and a simple glance — within a face-to-face conversation represent almost two thirds of the way we understand what is being said. «Non-verbal cues build trust,» explains [occupational psychologist Caroline] Shearsmith. «People don’t know how to communicate on email, for example, where things like sarcasm and jokes don’t come across.»

Much of the rest of the article is taken up with a Cisco Systems study that «shows that virtual teams can take up to four times as long to build trust than face-to-face teams.»

The «somewhat ironically» bit struck me as notable, because it seems to me that the growth of various kinds of virtual work and virtual spaces have served to highlight the normally hidden values or uses of their physical counterparts— and stimulated innovation in them. Ten years ago, we were talking about the obsolescence of the office and library; but neither one has gone away. This despite the fact that tens of millions of people telecommute, more library patrons use online resources and interlibrary loan, and virtual call centers are giving outsourcing a run for its money.

Essentially, what seems to be happening in corporate offices is that spaces for doing what you might call fairly routine knowledge work, administration, and service work are being blown away, but the spaces are being converted to support more unusual or innovative kinds of work. While much of a company’s office space might have once been designed to enforce established processes (just as a company’s competitive advantage was based on doing familiar things ever more efficiently), today more emphasis is placed on fostering creativity, developing new products, or solving complicated problems.

Likewise, in contemporary library design, sociability is the new black: libraries aren’t just places to commune with books and sit quietly, they’re places to meet and work with like-minded people. Academic libraries have pursued this vision aggressively, but even public libraries (like the new San Mateo city library) are designed less around providing fixed services than spaces that users can borrow and customize.

In both cases, users and designers of these spaces discovered what the Cisco study confirms: the continuing importance of face-to-face communication— or perhaps more accurately, the difficulty of replicating its subtleties online.

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