Looking them in the eye and Peter Shankman's story

There’s a back-and-forth going on at Hacker News over Peter Shankman’s post, “The Greatest Customer Service Story Ever Told, Starring Morton’s Steakhouse.” First, read Shankman’s post, because what Morton’s did is, in fact, amazing, and I say this in an age where most of what people call “amazing” is, in fact, not. And I don’t want to spoil the surprise, beyond noting that he sent this Tweet as a joke: “Hey @Mortons – can you meet me at newark airport with a porterhouse when I land in two hours? K, thanks. :)”

The top Hacker News commenter said, “With modern communication systems, flying in airplanes to lunch meetings and flying back that night is such an absurd waste of resources it qualifies as obscene.” Someone else disagreed: “The difference of quality between meeting face to face and through a webcam is so high that it’s sometimes worth taking a plane just for one lunch.”

The second person is right: sometimes the quality of a face-to-face meeting is worth a plane trip. As Paul Graham said in “Cities and Ambition:” “The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle.” You don’t reproduce the same effect meeting someone in person when you “meet” them online. This doesn’t just apply to romantic partners, either, although that’s an obvious example of the effect described: how many people want to see their lovers solely on the Internet?

The high-bandwidth physical world argues for meetings, and I suspect Shankman wasn’t just going to New Jersey for the meeting—he was going to communicate how important the meeting was. You don’t just spend hours on a plane for something frivolous; he was sending a signal and reaping face-to-face rewards. If someone flew to Tucson solely to meet with me, I’d be impressed. Very few people fly on a whim.

A brief story, although it‘s not on the same scale as Shankman’s: I’m a grad student in English Lit at the University of Arizona, which means I teach freshman composition. Students e-mail me all the time. Constantly. Unless there’s some compelling reason to reply, I usually answer their emails in class; if they want or need a longish explanation, I tell them to come to office hours (note: if they can’t make office hours, I also do office hours by appointment, so I’m not doing this to stiff them).

This strategy has a three-fold benefit: it cuts down on the amount of e-mail I receive over the course of the semester because students realize I won’t answer frivolous e-mails twelve hours after they’re sent. If I have follow-up questions, or the student does, those questions are easier to ask face-to-face. Misunderstandings caused by not not being face-to-face are evaded; it’s hard to ascertain context from e-mail. I think everyone has had misunderstandings and hurt feelings caused by dashed off e-mails that aren’t carefully considered. Finally, if students want me to read their papers or other work and show up to office hours, I know they really want me to edit their work, and their desire to get feedback isn’t just a passing fancy as ephemeral as a Facebook status update. The back-and-forth that can come from reading work and immediately responding to it can’t be easily duplicated—especially among non-professionals—over e-mail or other asynchronous communications.

I meant to list three things, I really did. But the reasons kept popping into my head, and I think they’re all valid.

Taken together, these issues point to why I doubt face-to-face meetings will disappear any time soon. If anything, their value might rise as they become less common. When I can, I interview writers, and I only do such interviews face-to-face because I think they’re more valuable. I’ve signaled to the writer that their time is valuable enough for me to come to them, and the conversations that result are, on average, deeper than I think they would be otherwise. There’s something about a person sitting across from you that you don’t get over the phone or Internet.

EDIT: Regarding students and e-mail, this story by Wired’s Chris Anderson also gets it right: “Why is e-mail volume getting ever worse? I believe it’s because of a simple fact: E-mail is easier to create than to respond to. This seems counterintuitive — after all, it’s quicker to read than to write. But reading a message is just the start. It may contain a hard-to-answer question, such as ‘What are your thoughts on this?'” The solution is to reduce e-mail wherever possible by making it equally expensive for emailers as e-mail receivers. Office hours help do this, and showing up at them signals that the student isn’t merely wasting time.

This principle affects other scales, too. Big tech companies still have central offices, usually in very high-rent areas, where they make sure everyone in the company gets together on a regular basis. The willingness of companies to pay for offices indicates they still get a lot of utility from having large numbers of people hanging out in a concentrated area—perhaps because of knowledge-spillover effects, which is Edward Glaeser’s explanation in The Triumph of the City.

If there weren’t such spillover effects, companies would disburse to avoid paying for office space, people would move to rural areas with fast internet and low real estate costs, education wouldn’t consist of a group getting together in a classroom, and the world would look much different than it does. Even in an age of social media, a lot of people want to live in Manhattan—a city not exactly renown for its wonderful weather. Commenters have been predicting the death of distance and the death of place and so on since the dawn of the Internet, if not earlier, and so far they’ve proven wrong. As long as humans remain basically as we are today—in the absence, in other words, of some singularity-type event—I don’t think people are going to want to stop seeing each across a table, or standing next to each other in a room. Social media has not turned our world in Snow Crash, at least not yet. Shankman knows this. Digital technologies complement, rather than substitute for, real world experience. He uses Twitter and flies for face-to-face meetings. That’s the essence of one aspect of modernity: being able to handle multiple registers of communication fluently and realizing that most of them have their place for most people.

Looking them in the eye and Peter Shankman’s story

There’s a back-and-forth going on at Hacker News over Peter Shankman’s post, “The Greatest Customer Service Story Ever Told, Starring Morton’s Steakhouse.” First, read Shankman’s post, because what Morton’s did is, in fact, amazing, and I say this in an age where most of what people call “amazing” is, in fact, not. And I don’t want to spoil the surprise, beyond noting that he sent this Tweet as a joke: “Hey @Mortons – can you meet me at newark airport with a porterhouse when I land in two hours? K, thanks. :)”

The top Hacker News commenter said, “With modern communication systems, flying in airplanes to lunch meetings and flying back that night is such an absurd waste of resources it qualifies as obscene.” Someone else disagreed: “The difference of quality between meeting face to face and through a webcam is so high that it’s sometimes worth taking a plane just for one lunch.”

The second person is right: sometimes the quality of a face-to-face meeting is worth a plane trip. As Paul Graham said in “Cities and Ambition:” “The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle.” You don’t reproduce the same effect meeting someone in person when you “meet” them online. This doesn’t just apply to romantic partners, either, although that’s an obvious example of the effect described: how many people want to see their lovers solely on the Internet?

The high-bandwidth physical world argues for meetings, and I suspect Shankman wasn’t just going to New Jersey for the meeting—he was going to communicate how important the meeting was. You don’t just spend hours on a plane for something frivolous; he was sending a signal and reaping face-to-face rewards. If someone flew to Tucson solely to meet with me, I’d be impressed. Very few people fly on a whim.

A brief story, although it‘s not on the same scale as Shankman’s: I’m a grad student in English Lit at the University of Arizona, which means I teach freshman composition. Students e-mail me all the time. Constantly. Unless there’s some compelling reason to reply, I usually answer their emails in class; if they want or need a longish explanation, I tell them to come to office hours (note: if they can’t make office hours, I also do office hours by appointment, so I’m not doing this to stiff them).

This strategy has a three-fold benefit: it cuts down on the amount of e-mail I receive over the course of the semester because students realize I won’t answer frivolous e-mails twelve hours after they’re sent. If I have follow-up questions, or the student does, those questions are easier to ask face-to-face. Misunderstandings caused by not not being face-to-face are evaded; it’s hard to ascertain context from e-mail. I think everyone has had misunderstandings and hurt feelings caused by dashed off e-mails that aren’t carefully considered. Finally, if students want me to read their papers or other work and show up to office hours, I know they really want me to edit their work, and their desire to get feedback isn’t just a passing fancy as ephemeral as a Facebook status update. The back-and-forth that can come from reading work and immediately responding to it can’t be easily duplicated—especially among non-professionals—over e-mail or other asynchronous communications.

I meant to list three things, I really did. But the reasons kept popping into my head, and I think they’re all valid.

Taken together, these issues point to why I doubt face-to-face meetings will disappear any time soon. If anything, their value might rise as they become less common. When I can, I interview writers, and I only do such interviews face-to-face because I think they’re more valuable. I’ve signaled to the writer that their time is valuable enough for me to come to them, and the conversations that result are, on average, deeper than I think they would be otherwise. There’s something about a person sitting across from you that you don’t get over the phone or Internet.

EDIT: Regarding students and e-mail, this story by Wired’s Chris Anderson also gets it right: “Why is e-mail volume getting ever worse? I believe it’s because of a simple fact: E-mail is easier to create than to respond to. This seems counterintuitive — after all, it’s quicker to read than to write. But reading a message is just the start. It may contain a hard-to-answer question, such as ‘What are your thoughts on this?'” The solution is to reduce e-mail wherever possible by making it equally expensive for emailers as e-mail receivers. Office hours help do this, and showing up at them signals that the student isn’t merely wasting time.

This principle affects other scales, too. Big tech companies still have central offices, usually in very high-rent areas, where they make sure everyone in the company gets together on a regular basis. The willingness of companies to pay for offices indicates they still get a lot of utility from having large numbers of people hanging out in a concentrated area—perhaps because of knowledge-spillover effects, which is Edward Glaeser’s explanation in The Triumph of the City.

If there weren’t such spillover effects, companies would disburse to avoid paying for office space, people would move to rural areas with fast internet and low real estate costs, education wouldn’t consist of a group getting together in a classroom, and the world would look much different than it does. Even in an age of social media, a lot of people want to live in Manhattan—a city not exactly renown for its wonderful weather. Commenters have been predicting the death of distance and the death of place and so on since the dawn of the Internet, if not earlier, and so far they’ve proven wrong. As long as humans remain basically as we are today—in the absence, in other words, of some singularity-type event—I don’t think people are going to want to stop seeing each across a table, or standing next to each other in a room. Social media has not turned our world in Snow Crash, at least not yet. Shankman knows this. Digital technologies complement, rather than substitute for, real world experience. He uses Twitter and flies for face-to-face meetings. That’s the essence of one aspect of modernity: being able to handle multiple registers of communication fluently and realizing that most of them have their place for most people.

Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity — Marc Augé

Marc Augé’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity is fascinating because it describes a process and some places that almost all of us feel like we’ve been. In my post about Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, I wrote about one such bureaucratized space in the form of airports:

As I write this, I sit in a Tucson airpot bar. Airports have everything wrong with them: they are transitional, one-off spaces filled with strangers, the “restaurants” they offer consist of pre-made food with character slightly above a TV dinner, and for some reason we as a society have decided that Constitution rights and privacy don’t apply here. People I don’t know can stop me at will, and merely flying requires that I submit to security theater that is simultaneously ineffective and invasive. Everything is exorbitantly expensive but not of particularly high quality. Menus don’t have beer prices on them.

The airport, in short, is designed to extract money from a captive audience; this might be in part why I don’t care much for sports stadiums, Disneyland, and other areas where I feel vaguely captive.

And it’s miserable, at least to me, and Augé traces that feeling at least partially to a place’s relationship or lack thereof with history. His book is useful because it offers a theoretical framework for understanding why we think of some places the way we do and frustrating because it’s written in French academic-ese. John Howe translates it but can’t change the fact that most of the book is actually concerned with how ethnologists view places. In other words, the major action described by the title isn’t reached until about two thirds of the way through the book. And it takes until page 94, and nearly at the end, to get a somewhat clear definition of what constitutes a “non-place:”

Clearly the word ‘non-place’ designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals have these spaces. Although the two sets of relations overlap to a large extent, and in any case officially (individuals travel, make purchases, relax), they are still not confused with one another; for non-places mediate a whole mass of relations, with the self and with others, which are only indirectly connected with their purposes. As anthropological places create the organically, so non-places create solitary contractuality.

Any time someone uses “clearly” or “obviously,” they should have their text examined more carefully, because anything that is genuinely clear or obvious doesn’t need the modifier. The text itself is unsure: what are “certain ends” as opposed to “non-certain ends?” I’m not sure: maybe he means where people live. What is the ‘organically social?’ Presumably something like neighborhoods, common cause, not “Bowling Alone” and the like. The gap between what is said and what is probably meant looms large with these phrases, even if the passage as a whole at least yields some kind of framework for discussing the problem.

I would say that non-places are basically commerce or exchange economies, while places are gift economies. In other words, in non-places one cannot have any real recourse to common humanity: you can’t ask to borrow something, to be done a favor, or to expect to know the myriad of strangers you cross. In a place, you can expect to have local knowledge, to not have to rely entirely on signs, to be able to decorate it as you will, and to have the opportunity for whimsy.

One thing I like about universities is that they do a decent job of being both gift and commerce economies, thanks in part to state subsidies: although my students have to pay the bursar’s office to take my class, once they are within it, we do not discuss or exchange money directly, and this mediating bureaucratic influence helps maintain something closer to a gift economy. Most professors I have met are more than willing to give their time to those who do not waste it and who wish to learn. By “do not waste it,” I mean those who are prepared, conscientious, and willing to read or experiment per the professor’s instructions, as opposed to the inevitable students who, at least in English, want the professor to read a half-baked paper the night before it is due in order to receive a higher grade. Professors are willing, in short, to make what Augé calls a “relational” space that is “concerned with identity,” or, as his long quotes have it:

If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relation, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place. The hypothesis advanced here is that supermodernity produces non-places, meaning spaces which are not themselves anthropological places and which, unlike Baudelairean modernity, do not integrate the earlier places: instead these are listed, classified, promoted to the status of ‘places of memory’, and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position. A world where people are born in the clinic and die in hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotels chains and squats […]) (78 – 9).

This is the sort of assertion that almost works: notice how it starts with a major “if” at the start and never quite defines the terms relational, historical, and concerned with identity: although airports feel like they have none of those attributes today, they might a hundred years from now. Maybe airpots will one day be places in the sense that Belltown or the University District in Seaattle are. It’s hard to say, even if I feel like the idea that “supermodernity produces non-places” is correct, since those kinds of spaces (like airports, as stated above) produce the unhappy torpor of being totally unmoored and being buffeted by bureaucratic forces that cannot be directly negotiated with.

The last comparison Augé uses is curious: hotel chains feel quite different squatter camps, although I only have direct experience of the former. And being born in the clinic and dying in the hospital sounds like an improvement over being born in a hut and dying in a house, if the latter involve an earlier death. And what it means to be modern is something that seems like it’s being ceaselessly re-described—to be modern is to debate what it means to be modern, or to be acutely aware of history. This is another way of thinking about connections between people, among groups, and the like. Here’s one way Augé gets at that:

Collectivities (or those who direct them), like their individual members, need to think simultaneously about identity and relations; and to this end, they need to symbolize the components of shared identity (shared by the whole group), particularly identity (of a given group or individual in relation to the others) and singular identity (what makes the individual or group of individuals different from any other). The handling of space is one of the means to this end, and it is hardly astonishing that the ethnologist should be tempted to follow in reverse the route from space to the social, as if the latter had produced the former once and for all (Augé 51).

Neither wholly produces the other, but they both work systematically, space constraining daily contact and time constraining members in terms of particular history. Notice the idea of the “reverse […] route from space to the social,” although the social also affects space. In Jane Austen this happens less, but the space of the manor or inheritance affects everything the characters do: think of the vitality of the entailment on the actions of the characters in Pride and Prejudice. Love does not conqueror all in that novel, even if it affects relations with space and vice-versa. It is hard to imagine Charlotte Lucas loving the irritating Mr. Collins if not for his eventual, deferred wealth.

The book’s penultimate paragraph suddenly moves away from place and toward humanity:

One day, perhaps, there will be a sign of intelligent life on another world. Then, through an effect of solidarity whose mechanisms the ethnologist has studied on a small scale, the whole terrestrial space will become a single place. Being from earth will signify something. In the meantime, though, it is far from certain that threats to the environment are sufficient to produce the same effect. The community of human destinies is experienced in the anonymity of non-place, and in solitude (120).

The idea of distance and perspective is evoked from the first words: “one day” implies a day so distant that it cannot be envisaged, only held up as a trope. And the sense of vastness continues, with the “whole terrestrial space,” as opposed to the way we divide up now, and the possibility that such an orientation, however improbable that it will come to pass, might bring. I hope we get there, unlikely though it may seem, and unlikely as it is that non-places will bring us closer to place.

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