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May 28, 2008

Does Location Matter? MESH 08 Session Notes

One Degree would like to thank Edelman for providing session passes to MESH 08 for our correspondent, Kathryn Lagden.  Kathryn attended three sessions at MESH and will be providing her insights here.

Nora Young, host of CBC’s Spark, a blog, radio show, and podcast about technology and culture, interviewed Bill Buxton, a principal researcher with Microsoft and a designer concerned with the human aspects of technology. I was particularly interested in this session because like many, I work remotely and rely on technology to stay connected (and productive!) with colleagues.

The hour discussion went in many directions but kept coming back to the central idea that the technology we use to interact online needs to incorporate the social protocol of existing interactions. It quickly became clear how my two main tools, instant messaging and conference calls, fall well short of this need.

One of the challenges we face when communicating online is how to deal with approach and departure. For example, having a face pop up on your monitor is like having someone suddenly appear six inches from your nose. It’s an abrupt invasion of space and I can’t think of one social situation where that's accepted behaviour.

Bill talked about gaze awareness and how we need to see both the foreground and background to effectively respect people’s time and space. Seeing a wide-angle view of the workspace communicates who is busy, on the phone, available for a quick discussion, etc.

We wouldn’t barge into a colleague’s office if they were on the phone or deep into conversation with another person. When designing technology, it needs to incorporate these (and other) existing social protocols.

Of course, the thought of all these cameras raises an issue of surveillance. According to Bill, “paranoia is justified but misdirected. It depends on who is doing the surveillance as to whether it’s good or bad”. He cited an example of a woman who got her stolen computer back because the thief was automatically logged in to her IM client and she had one of her IM friends take a photo of him (he was later identified by another person).

Two interesting discussions about the digital divide and incorporating different cultural norms concluded the discussion. In the case of cultural differences, Bill used the example of showing availability by indicating if your door is open or closed. A closed door in Germany has a different meaning than a closed door in North America. Which leads nicely into Bill’s final point, “heterogeneous social networks are more important than heterogeneous computer networks”.

The full audio/video is on the Spark blog.

For other videos from this year's Mesh Conference, check out Mesh TV.

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