Bookmarked Commuting is Morally Bankrupt (by Stowe Boyd)

Commuting is unavoidable if physical presence is needed. Moving around big cities always takes heaps of time (Paolo always says ‘about 50 minutes’ when you ask him how much time it will take to get to some place in London, for Paris my rule of thumb is 30+mins each movement, in Amsterdam I assume 15mins because I cycle there and it’s much smaller)

When I still had an office to go to (1997-2004) it was a 10 minute cycle, later a 5 min walk, each way (same office, moved house). Then, as consultant visiting client offices (2004-2008), it would regulary be 5 hours each day, but it wasn’t a commute and it was different each week. I would work from home on days I wasn’t visiting client offices, as my employer did not have offices. From 2008 onwards working at home was the default, while aiming for at most 3 days per week visiting client offices. Since moving to the middle of the Netherlands, travel times are below an hour each way to most of the rest of the country, for the one or two days per week I don’t work from home. Despite travel I haven’t ‘commuted’ for 18 years.

My company has offices in Utrecht (in the walkable city center across from a public transport hub), and we have them both as a meeting space and because our more recent employees want a place to work. We provide the tools and means of course to be able to collaborate and communicate asynchronously and remotely.

We’re 8 people. Four live within cycling distance of the office. The other four within 30-50 minutes each way (by public transport or car). None of us are expected to show up in the office each day. Some are there 3-4 days, others once each week. I am usually there once every other week. We don’t provide lease cars, we do provide public transport cards (which include cycle and car rental/parking when needed for the ‘last mile’ from the nearest train station). Travel time to client offices generally is counted as work time, not a commute.

Commute times are the result of balancing three building blocks I think. Your own work location and nature of your job, the place you would want to or can afford to live, and the work location and nature of the job of your partner. Usually those three don’t shift simultaneously, meaning the arrangement of them is almost by definition suboptimal. Generally it seems people optimise for a commute below an hour.

Is commuting really morally bankrupt? Not by definition. Place of residence and the jobs you and your partner want are individual choices (though most certainly not free of constraints).
The moral choices of my role as employer concern less the commute, more the demands we make of people to be at our office, the expectations we have w.r.t. how many days per week a team member works on client projects and at their offices, and what expectations of clients we do or don’t cater for. E.g. we don’t take on projects where the client expects us to be there 5 days per week, and mostly aim for 3 days of client work per week as a healthy balance with other tasks. Office presence mostly is the result of wanting to be there. Commute time is the result of those choices and their morality. Because of other considerations other than the employer’s playing a role in commute time, it’s mostly not even a good proxy for the employer’s morality. Unless the employer’s choices are the dominant factor determining the commute, whether by deliberate choice or as consequence of inconsiderance. That’s when an employer doesn’t fulfull its duty of care for their employees.

This posting is part of a series of postings on how our understanding and interpretation of cultural categories is shifting due to our use of the two infrastructures internet and mobile communication.

This posting is about Mobility

Tranquil mobility in Copenhagen harbour

More Mobility is Different
Mobility is one of those things that immediately takes on new meaning and scope whenever an infrastructure comes available that reduces distances in time and space. Railroads, highways, telephone lines, mail, airlines all influenced mobility. Increases in the speed of exchanges, and the action radius an individual has within one day of travel were vast in the 19th and 20th century. Mobile communications and internet have a deeper impact however than the infrastructures that came before. More is different in this case and has a number of qualitative effects.

Virtual Mobility
First, there is the impact of instantaneous speed-of-light communication with anyone on the globe. This creates an increased virtual mobility. Writing and mail are technologies that have allowed to transport our words, desires, commands, stories, love, sorrow, and accounts for ages. Transporting them across physical distance, and beyond that across time as written traces of our collective history. Internet and mobile communication increases this virtual mobility to whole new levels. Our virtual mobility means we don’t really need to be ‘away’ when we are so physically. I’ve seen a father read bed time stories via webcam to his kids from a Danish hotel lobby, while his kids were being tucked in bed 6 timezones away in North America. His reading teleported him right into their bedroom. I’ve heard teenagers get cooking instructions from their mother, while she was on the same delayed train I was on several occasions. This fall I spent 5 days travelling to Portugal and back without my clients even noticing I was away, as I was responding to phonecalls and e-mail just as normal, and delivered documents on the agreed times. Where you are geographically no longer really needs to impact your ability to stay in sync with those important to you, or in touch with all those that expect you to do so. It must have felt that way for those that had access to telegraph messages in the 19th century as well. But there is an enormous difference between merely reducing the time delay between sending and receiving a message, and reducing that difference to zero. And not just in voice (like telephone) but in video and text as well, simultaneously if you want.

Being interviewed in Vancouver by Lilia in the Netherlands

That aspect of instantaneous exchanges other than through telephone also impacts how we perceive our online exchanges as socially close or more distant. When bandwith and throughput are scarce and slow you stick to exchanging essential information. When exchanges are cheap, unlimited in any meaningful sense, and instantaneous it doesn’t matter what you share. All of a sudden we think it is useful to share via Twitter or Jaiku that we are having coffee, or that your bus is late again by 5 minutes. These trivial items of information we were used to sharing only with those geographically in our immediate vicinity (family, close colleagues etc.), because it was too costly to share them with a wider circle. Because of it we equate the exchange of those trivial facts with social proximity. Now however I know who in my circle of contacts is having coffee or missing a bus half a world away. And it makes them feel close to me. It makes their lives feel more real to me. They are teleporting into my social vicinity, and I am teleporting into theirs. It makes me emotionally more attached to them, effectively incorporating them into my circle of empathy.

Immersive virtual concert experience

A whole other level of virtual mobility is created by virtual worlds like Second Life and many others. They do not transport me to your place virtually, or transport you to mine, but transport both of us to a shared space that only exists in bits, not in atoms. Those shared spaces create an immersion that tremendously impacts our sense of being together. I look avatars in the eyes on the screen when I talk to them, even though I know full well that they can’t see that. But it means I am actively engaged with the person behind the avatar, because looking someone in the eye when you talk to them is such a human gesture of engagement, that it isn’t just an expression of it but also actively causes engagement. Going to a concert in a virtual space, and watching it with others, is a marked difference from seeing that same concert lifestreamed in your video application. You are transported into the experience.

Physical Mobility
All that increased and qualitatively very different virtual mobility, compared to before the availability of mobile communications and internet, is impacting our physical mobility in at least three major ways as well.

Virtual mobility also increases physical mobility

The first impact on physical mobility is, perhaps paradoxically, the increase in our desire to travel, to meet up face to face with those we usually meet virtually. In the past 6 years I have spend considerable amounts of time and money just to be able to meet face to face. Using conferences to meet up with people, or travelling to Antwerp, because it happens to be half way where I am and where Jon was at the time. Organizing our own events or planning our summer in Canada to include three more people, and their families, to meet and see them in their own home environment, adding a week and a couple of thousand kilometres in the process.

The second impact on physical mobility of our virtual mobility lies in the flexibility with which we can turn our desire to travel into action. If you give me a reason to meet you personally I can arrange for the trip online this same day. No middle man, no waiting time for the process involved. If I have the funds and the time, and the carrier has the capacity I can be on my way in the morning, havin
g booked tonight and printed my own tickets, boarding passes and luggage tags. Flexibility also expresses itself in more mundane matters other than international air travel, such as being picked up at a train station. When I was a student I would call ahead before I left which train I intended to take and what my arrival time was, to be picked up when visiting my parents. That would be different now. Calling ahead doesn’t make sense because my train might be delayed. Much better to call when I actually know when I will arrive, in other words, call when the person picking me up needs to leave to arrive at the railway station at the same time my train rolls in.

Working during my train commute, photo: Elmine

The third impact of mobile communications and internet is in the use we can make of our time spent travelling. My grandfather needed to plan a trip to the Hague at least a week ahead (about 200km, and currently 2.5 hrs away), and arrange for a place to stay, to be able to make it worthwile the effort. Arranging who to meet, and weighing the travel time against the time spent in the city. My father infrequently went to the Hague for a day for meetings. He used the time on the train to prepare for the meetings reading documents, and otherwise looked out of the window waiting to arrive at his destination. I travel multiple times per week, sometimes just for a 90 minute meeting. I can afford to, because I can use the travel time in much the same way as if I were at home in my office. (Even though working on the train is only comparable in effectivity if I have a direct connection.) Going to the Hague for a 90 min meeting means a normal 8 hour work day, with 5 hours spent working in a train. (In fact I am typing this crossing the country from the Hague to home by train, just having had a Weizen beer served at my chair by the German bartender on this train to Berlin, fully connected to the internet and 220 V, and just having talked to my wife Elmine that she better not wait with dinner for me as the train is delayed.) In short, I think nothing of doing a trip 4 times a week my granddad took a week to plan, and my dad made one time a month at the most. My granddad would have thought my commute impossible, my dad would/does think it insane. I think it effective, because of the affordances mobile communications and internet provide allow me to make it effective.

Mental mobility
All this additional mobility, both virtual and physical, increase the dynamics around you, and the speed with which things can and are expected to be handled. If there is no longer any physical or technological reason not to receive or respond to an e-mail I receive while abroad the likelihood of it getting answered is high as well. If people have no way of knowing where you are anyway, any time is good to call as any, leaving me to decide to pick up or not, and expecting me to be there for them when I  do pick up. When I pick up or respond to their e-mail I need to switch to their context. It used to be clients and contexts were affixed to geographic locations to a large extent. (I often named projects I worked on after the location the client was at) Not anymore, and because of it I see myself and loads of others make much more context switches during a typical day. In fact ‘fast context switching’ was listed as a core skill in the company I was employed at until last year. It still is a core skill for me. My client list used to be around 2 or 3 at a time. Now I handle three times that number of clients at times and their projects. That shift happened because it is much easier to keep the interaction with a client going now other than when you meet up. My list of current projects  in my personal wiki shows that shift as well. It currently lists 34 active projects, in around a dozen different contexts. I ‘visit’ at least half of those contexts on any given day. My mental mobility is needed to get and stay in flow, as my increased virtual mobility turbocharged the way I stay in touch and in sync.

Anchoring, F2F Scarcity, and Co-creation As Result
All that mobility, in all three senses mentioned, all that highspeed switching, brings into focus several additional effects.

The need for anchoring increases with increased mobility. You need the quiet ‘eye’ in the ‘storm’ of mobility and dynamic change. Anchoring in the midst of all the virtual possible distractions and the information abundance is now an important information skill. Anchoring to a place you call home, being rooted, is equally important, to be able to do fast high volume context switching without loosing your footing.

Second the importance of face to face cross roads, where my path and that of others actually touch is increasing. Staying long enough on such a crossroads to create value together is the new place of scarcity. That changes the way I need to make sure that I am aware of those cross roads first. Dopplr, Plazes, and other location and context based services show me the potential crossroads and alert me to opportunities. It is how I first met with Peter Rukavina, and it is how I keep track of others if they happen to pass through ‘my neighbourhood’. It means I need to arrive at that cross roads well prepared to make the most of that encounter (and ‘making the most’ can very well mean enjoying a beer together), it means leaving that encounter ‘well prepared’ as well so that the transfer into other modes of interaction is easy (i.e. next actions and follow up).

Meetings shift to other levels of collaboration

Face to face cross roads are a precious resource, and you don’t want to waste them any longer with having to exchange information that you could have done through another channel before. This third resulting shift is impacting even meetings with people that are moderate users of both internet and mobile communications. Client meetings I attend increasingly are no longer about sharing information or sharing and allocating tasks but about co-creating something. Because that is the best use for your face to face time. It is a shift towards a higher level of collaboration when face to face because the lower levels of collaboration (sharing of info, division of tasks) are dealt with beforehand.

Internet and mobile communications are reducing distance in time and space in a qualitatively new way. Because of it our mobility is shifting.