The human factor is something that I am starting to observe more and more as a ‘premium’ on services where in the past it was a necessity – often because of the lack of technology to replace it. Now, however, even if it might not be a necessity per se, I feel we crave it and still have to fully understand why.
After reading Susan Pinker’s book, “The Village Effect“, I found that there are already many convincing arguments behind this trivial intuition. Face-to-face matters and any so-called progress that move at the polar opposite of this seems to fail or bring negative consequences in the long run. I feel technology has not yet bridged the gap to replace, without consequences, a face-to-face interaction. It is often a tradeoff between quality (offline interactions) over quantity (online interactions).
Pinker raises an important point: there seems to be a cognitive dissonance between what we think we want (and what technology enables us to do) and what we actually need. We are wired for frequent and genuine social interactions. We need to know where we belong yet we get caught up by the appealing short-term productivity/efficiency boost of technology without realizing that often we are not making any actual progress, but there is too much noise to even realize it.
The Village Effect as intended by Pinker is built on face-to-face interactions and quality relationships B2C, and has been proven to be more efficient (overall) than the current ‘digital village proxy’ that technology enables us today. With that I don’t necessarily mean that digital only is bad, but rather a different balance might be closer to the long-term equilibrium.
Below are some interesting notes from the book:
(1) Scientific Research:
One 2010 study led by Harvard’s Isaac Kohane shows that the further scientists are from each other geographically the less influential their work is in their discipline. Even proximity on the same campus has been proven to influence the work of scientists.
(2) Idea Generation:
Even Google, a company which has enabled us to work remotely, has understood and utilized the Village Effect. Google has designed its Mountain View campus in a series of angular buildings, all clustered around a common green space equipped with seating and shade, to promote the “casual collisions of the workforce”. 8000 employees are housed in 65 connected buildings, none of whom are ever more than a two-minute walk away from any other employee. Urbanist Greg Lindsay remarks that it is “our preference for face-to-face interaction is why we are 4 times as likely to exchange ideas with someone sitting six feet away as sixty feet away”. I recall having read a similar concept in Steve Jobs’ autobiography, and the huge spaceship Apple is building in Cupertino has clearly adopted that concept.
In addition to increasing idea sharing and generation, the Village Effect has been proven to fortify your immune system by calibrating your hormones and rejigging how the genes that govern your behavior and resilience are expressed. For instance, see the below example:
“The Roseto Mystery” – the opening of Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers‘ – covers a similar point. Roseto is a village in Pennsylvania with a staggeringly low mortality and disease rate with respect to the rest of the United States. It has been classified as an outlier and has been studied with interest to understand and potentially mimic its secrets. I like this example as it is often cognitively easier to use geographical elements to justify life expectancy differences, but Roseto is the perfect empirical study to control for that and focus on other relevant aspects. Long story short, this study concluded that the reason behind the Rosetans’ strong health was not specific to any genetic trait or even dietary habits but rather to the community and culture that this “transplanted Italian village” had maintained over the years. The extended family clans and communal nature that underlay the social structure of the village was indeed what made these people so resilient to diseases.
Even in education, research shows that face-to-face contact with a skilled teacher for even one year of a child’s life has more impact on the child’s learning than any laptop program has had so far.
People need people. A business model based on disintermediation or ‘digital only’ does not necessarily have to mean a ‘human-less’ model. As technology becomes more advanced to be integrated and less prominent, I believe in the ‘return of the human factor’ as being the focus of the following iterations of companies/strategies. I imagine disruption (being technological or not) as a wave that requires some volatility before reaching its steady state. In the current wave, we are neglecting some fundamental pieces but I feel the rise of P2P Marketplaces and Business models is a convergence toward this new steady state.