Ambient Presence and Virtual Social Capital

In previous articles in this series on virtual geography, I considered the 50-foot rule and its reconstruction for a digital world. Let’s return to the theme from another angle: ambient presence. Let’s say you and your spouse work in different cities. You both sign up for a VoIP service like Skype, but instead of dutifully talking every evening, you just turn up the speakers on your respective computers, and leave the Skype connection on. You occasionally say something to each other; you can hear each other’s TVs and kitchen noises. That’s ambient presence. Communication technology becoming so cheap that you can afford to leave it on to create a passive background connection. It is a pretty darn cool concept, so let’s take a serious look at it.

Creating Ambient Presence

The key to ambient presence is the ability to connect the sensory environments in two different places, to create a shared sensory experience that is calm enough and cheap enough that you don’t feel obliged to send torrents of bits down it just because it is there. It isn’t video-conferencing. I first heard the term from David Grandinetti, a really smart guy over at Wireless Grids, but the notion probably goes back at least to that story of Bill Gates going on virtual cell-phone movie dates with his girlfriend. Here are examples of ambient presence connections:

  • An Instant Messaging conversation that doesn’t trail off in an uncomfortable series of gtg, ttyl exchanges. The first time I had to deal with a guy who operated this way, it made me very uncomfortable. He’d start a conversation that never “finished” — dead silences would be followed by random remarks over an hour or more. Initially, I used to kill the windows or try to initiate the gtg protocols, but eventually I ‘got’ it: the guy was treating me like I was in the same room, using IM to occasionally make a remark to me.
  • Twitter is the same idea in a more communal format.
  • Open Skype connections are a notch more intense, and I haven’t yet tried them. I suspect it’ll take me some time to get rid of the urge to do my phone-closure ritual.
  • Webcams are a twist on the idea, but I think of them as one-way ambient (or worse, voyeur-exhibitionist), with one party usually active rather than passive. Webcams targeting environments don’t really count. On a big screen at my workplace, we’ve had a browser open and pointed to various interesting public Webcams but so far I haven’t felt like I was there.
  • Ma Google is reputed to be working on an ambient-presence system that listens to your TV playing in the background, figures out what you like to watch, and feeds you relevant advertising.

What Would McLuhan Say?

If you are familiar with Marshall McLuhan’s notion of hot and cold media, which he introduced in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, then the zeroth-order analysis is obvious. Hot media carry highly-complete, dense and packaged information. Cool media invite participation and interaction. Movies and radio are hot, TV and comics are cool. Cool media encourage construction of meaning. Hot media deliver meaning. Within this framework, media that enable ambient connections are the ultimate “cool” medium — so cold as to be downright chilly. They encourage construction of subconscious meaning.

So to ask the question McLuhan would ask: what is the message of ambient-presence media? My tentative answer: trust. Ambient presence media, whatever they actually transmit, actually influence and re-wire trust relationships. Whether you balked or went Wow! at the Google-listening-to-your-TV example reveals whether you trust Google the way you would trust a friend in your living room, or whether the very idea sounds like an intrusion.

How Ambient Presence Media Work on Trust

Here’s how I think this works. Regular media are expensive at a per-bit level. Silence beyond normal whitespace requirements is pretty expensive to transmit, so regular media tend to carry a lot of information in the Shannon sense. Now imagine the socio-psychological effect of being in a regular-medium interaction with lots of silences. Unless you are Bill Gates and have cell-phone minutes to burn, every non-whitespace second of silence will make you feel uneasy. To make it ridiculously clear, imagine our two-city couple in the 18th century. Imagine husband and wife writing letters every day, whether or not they have anything to say. They send blank letters on days they have nothing to say. So each blank letter, at the cost of a stamp, would essentially say, “I remember you.”

The reason this feels silly is that to sustain trust in relationships we need a continuous stream of low-intensity mutual stroking. In physically close interactions, this can be as low as a nod or a glance, or even being willing to stay in the presence of another person. But the moment we need to pay, the low-intensity stroking becomes high intensity. Imagine how odd it would be if that guy you meet at the bus stop every day suddenly switched from just nodding and saying Hi! to trying to hug you everyday. You would rightly suspect that he’s joined a cult. It would be too much. To sustain trust, you need the intensity of regular contact to be below a certain threshold. Why that is I don’t know. Maybe some social psychologists do.

Ambient presence media enable that by lowering the minimum cost of interaction to below communal-stroking levels.

Virtual Social Capital

This brings us to virtual social capital. I’ve mentioned before the work of Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, where he argues that social capital has been on the decline in America since the sixties. Now, at its simplest (ignoring institutions, culture and the like), social capital is about the patterns of trust in a community, and about the large-scale mutual stroking that keeps it alive, in between more intense interactions like business deals, parties and active conversations.

So if virtual social capital is accumulating via ambient presence connections, where is this value accumulating. Certainly, no downtown districts are being revitalized. No bowling leagues are being revived (to use Putnam’s prototypical example). I don’t quite know the answer, but some hints are emerging. Here are some places to look:

  1. Online social networks: I hadn’t thought much about the differences in various communities, besides the standard observation that Facebook is a younger crowd than LinkedIn (and I find my younger and older friends on those two sites respectively, being sort of on the demographic cusp). But the point really hit home last weekend when I finally took Orkut seriously. To my surprise, a huge proportion of my high school class was there, and I learned it was because Orkut is much more popular in Asia. I reconnected with some old friends, but not in the old-fashioned heavy-duty catch-up mode that long-lost friends of the 18th century had to endure. The re-engagement was a much gentler affair, via instant messaging. It struck me that this was vastly more powerful at sustaining the social capital than 10-year reunions. So that’s one place where virtual social capital is accumulating: in the online aftermath of temporary physical communities. I now regularly ambient-IM a couple of guys that I haven’t seen in 15 years.
  2. Corporate weak-link webs: On my corporate IM buddy list, I find that at least a third of the people are weak links: people organizationally very far away, who I happened to interact with once or twice. Quick casual chats and questions still come up, rather like hallway bump-ins, and rather more often than they would if left to geography, email and the phone. The interesting part is not that I get work done faster (that is a fringe benefit). The interesting part is that the relative strength of my weak links has increased, compared to the strengths of my links to immediate co-workers.

You can probably come up with other examples. But the million dollar question is this: is there some sort of conservation of social capital going on? Are the intense reserves of the stuff in town squares being stretched like a thin, gossamer veil across the Internet?

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


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