Act as if You’re Really There

What learning to speak remotely teaches us about how to compensate for the coming era of social distancing

Douglas Rushkoff
OneZero
Published in
7 min readMar 16, 2020

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Photo by Tayler Smith; Prop Styling by Caroline Dorn

InIn one way, at least, I was prepared for this crisis. I’m an author of books about technology and society, and I make my living traveling around the world giving speeches to people who would rather listen than read. Over the past couple of years, however, I’ve been doing an increasing number of my speaking appearances over the internet. It’s better for the environment, there’s less wear and tear on my body, it saves money, and I don’t have to block out as many dates on my Google Calendar.

What I didn’t realize is how much my work refining the style, format, and content of these remote appearances would prepare me for the era of social distancing.

Make no mistake: Video conferencing is really no substitute for live engagement. Real, face-to-face encounters engage a host of painstakingly evolved social mechanisms for establishing rapport. Subconsciously, we register subtle cues, such as whether a person’s pupils are dilating to take us in, or if they are nodding almost imperceptibly as they agree with us. Our listeners’ breathing syncs up with our own as we establish rapport. This, in turn, activates the mirror neurons in our brain, which releases oxytocin into our bloodstream, bonding us as securely as a breastfeeding mother gazing into her infant’s eyes.

None of this happens on Skype. The person on the other side may say they agree with us, but even at 1080p we don’t get the subtle cues that say this to our bodies. Instinct tells us the person is lying to us.

Likewise, in-person appearances — whether in a local classroom or tremendous convention hall — engender a sense of physical presence that doesn’t come through in media. A person on a screen often comes across as a giant Big Brother or a blurry amateur. Worse, it feels like they couldn’t even bother to show up. It’s discomfiting, which is why many are reluctant to let us make appearances this way.

But there are easy ways to mitigate the alienating effects of telepresence.

The first thing I do for a remote talk to a real conference audience is to compensate for my physical absence with a live…

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Douglas Rushkoff
OneZero

Author of Survival of the Richest, Team Human, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://teamhuman.fm