The Tech Threat to Face-to-Face… circa 1969

A 1969 videophone

A 1969 videophone

As a professor in NYU’s interactive communications and journalism program, Clay Shirky spends his days studying the Internet and digital networks. So my ears perked up when Shirky, the lunchtime speaker at CEIR Predict in NYC last month, began talking about the kind of networking that’s done when you run into someone in the hallway.

The idea that some new technology will arise to supplant face-to-face communication goes way back,  Shirky told attendees at the annual economic forecasting conference hosted by The Center for Exhibition Industry Research.

“The old idea we had about face-to face contact and communications being substitutes for one another is wrong,” Shirky said. “That idea has been in the press since the 1964 World’s Fair, when AT&T first brought out the videophone. “

Every press release for every video product since then has carried the same closing paragraph: “We hope that this invention will finally overcome the need for business travel,” Shirky said. “It has never happened once.”

The reality, Shirky said,  is that“communications and transportation are complements to one another, they are not substitutes. It turns out that when people meet face to face, they want to keep in touch afterwards.And it turns out that when people communicate with each other long enough, they want to get together in the same room afterwards.”

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