Lost conversations: erosion of the unexpected in today’s world of remote communication

You’ve just rushed from one conference hall to another to catch the end of a different talk. You grabbed all your things, hurried to the door and thought you’d make it just in time. But then you accidentally bump into someone along the way; you’ve never spoken to this person before. You’re sweating, frustrated. You still want to make the final talk, but instead, something else happens. You pause; you strike up a conversation with a stranger, and that exchange takes you in a completely different direction with your work and even your life. 

You may think conferences are about the talks, but they’re actually about everything in-between: the hallways, the things you overhear, the hum of background noise and the occasional note you latch onto. 

Now, of course, not all random conversations will lead to life-changing or work-changing experiences, but the vast majority of things that will impact you are unexpected. They happen by chance. Right place, right time; wrong place, right time. It’s a thread – something you can pull on and see where it goes. Innovation and creativity requires chance and a degree of chaos.

Communication in a remote world

Since the coronavirus outbreak, the majority of communication now happens online in a contained space. More companies are moving to remote-only models and most conferences have been virtual events. In this format, you have to listen to one person at a time, because overlapping voices makes understanding a conversation near impossible. The spontaneity of conversations with others during the event doesn’t exist anymore. No longer can you simply start a conversation with the person next to you.

Instead, it’s replaced with something like a public forum; people can comment on the talks and share ideas, but it’s less natural, more structured and some people might not feel comfortable sharing their views in that particular format. 

It’s now almost impossible to make the same connections you would have done pre-Covid.  In person, you just strike up a conversation when the opportunity presents itself or wait for the right moment when you can latch onto a thread before reeling yourself in. With remote communication, it almost seems like you need to have a reason to talk to someone.

In this Zoom-mad world, you need to have an email address, a phone number or meeting ID before true communication can begin. It’s a more gated world; one that is much harder to partake in.

Don’t get me wrong. I have worked remotely for a large part of my career and have spent the past few years building remote collaboration products. I enjoy it. It works incredibly well and has afforded me a lifestyle I otherwise wouldn’t have if I worked from an office every day. But the world I once lived in was a hybrid world. One where I was still able to go to events, conferences and festivals. And I was still able to pop into the office when I needed to. 

The coronavirus pandemic has changed everything. Even with lockdown-easing, I sense some might prefer the remote way of living and not seek to revert to the old way. This isn’t to say remote communication is bad and we shouldn’t be doing it. Just that we need to find a way to drastically improve the experience.

Evolving communication

I once envisioned a virtual world called ‘Eno’ which was named after Brian Eno. Why him, you ask? Because I used to escape listening to the track An Ending (Ascent). That song allowed me to get lost in a completely different world. A place where you can be where you are and also where you are not. ‘Eno’ wasn’t intended to replace reality with something else, but to extend it. To break the divide and enable you to immerse yourself in something real. A place where distance didn’t matter.

When my parents were both bed-bound in the final stages of their life, I desperately wanted the Eno world for them, but I could only comfort them with posters and sounds of nature. I longed for something else to replicate reality – something that would allow them to still feel connected. The Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” partially touches on some of these things.

Clearly, something that captures the essence of the real world, online is a long way off, but we can work towards that. And we should. Because in this interim state, all the best parts of communication are getting lost.

That virtual world would allow natural communication patterns to continue to exist. You could walk into rooms or gatherings and still get the hum, the spatial sound and unexpected experiences. Things wouldn’t be so formulaic and protected; instead, ideas could flourish. 

This new world is badly needed. As humans, we have tried to create that place over time – harmlessly playing with it in games, joining each other in virtual worlds like Second Life,  embracing augmented and virtual reality, but we have never quite reached nirvana. Even if we never get there, I believe some of the steps taken to build it could go some way to solving communication issues in a remote world. 

We can’t afford for the unexpected to fade. Our future depends on its existence.