Being Digital Is Being Virtual

I have an confession to make. I no longer have an office. Oh, I have a job. Just no office.

Have you been to an urban café lately? It’s not uncommon for a third of the occupants to be sitting in front of their laptops, completely engrossed, day and night. Ever wonder what they’re doing? They’re being virtual. We all know nobody knows you’re a “dog” on the Internet. What’s equally important is nobody knows where that “dog” is.

In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, published “Being Digital,” a manifesto of musings and predictions for the digital age. Most of Negroponte’s predictions weren’t bad. His main thesis is information moving from the realm of atoms (physical matter) to that of bits (the digital ether) has profound implications on how people work and play.

Negroponte foresaw the Internet would be more about individuals pulling the information they want and less about centralized broadcasting. He recognized the digital world’s social networking potential. He assumed broadband access in homes would become ubiquitous. And, I would contend, he predicted the PVR (define), popularized by TiVo and its derivatives, and the effect it would have on TV as we know it.

“User in control” has been a recurring theme at the Media Lab since its inception, and it’s a consistent thread throughout Negroponte’s book. He recognized that being in control doesn’t just mean deciding what you want and when you want it; it also means controlling where you are, divorcing physical location from task.

Two small sections in the book are particularly insightful: “Place Without Space” and “Being Home and Abroad at the Same Time.” They describe separating physical location from identity. Location independence comes from the power to access the network from anywhere. Once you have access to the network, you have access to communications, media, applications, family, friends, colleagues, and customers. Enter Wi-Fi (define), and access is further separated from wires, making it possible to “jack in” just by being in the proximity of a hotspot. Why should a knowledge worker notspend her days in cafés?

Yet most of us still work in offices. The reasons people who predominantly work in front of computers and on phones spend so much of their lives behind desks is less obvious than ever. Real estate costs are high, and office space comes with all kinds of overhead. Sure, employees have a need for personal contact with coworkers and in-person meetings. But much of what’s done in person is habit, not need. Why make employees show up in their cubicles every day? Productivity surely isn’t the answer.

Have you tried Skype yet? How about Vonage or one of the other VOIP (define) services? You can make a call from Skype or Vonage from anywhere in the world (as long as you have a high-speed Internet connection and a computer), and nobody will know where you are. VOIP services divorce your phone number from a physical location, much like a mobile phone does. You can call me from New York on your 415 area code number, and I can’t tell you aren’t calling from down the street. You won’t pay those high long-distance fees, either. Every call is a local call.

IM (define) and email work the same way. We’re accustomed to receiving email without knowing where it’s coming from.

“So what?” you ask. “E-mail isn’t new, and people have never known my location when I make calls from my mobile phone.” The difference is significant. So much of my life has become digital, I’ve reached a tipping point. Judging from all those cafés, I’m not alone.

My laptop has become far more important and useful than any desk or office. From it, I check my voicemail, read and write countless email messages daily, make travel reservations, do my holiday shopping, read blogs and the news, and listen to the radio. I store my entire music collection and all my pictures on my laptop, too. I organize my calendar and get directions to a meeting (at a café, of course) on it. I pay my bills and even make many phone calls from my laptop. Soon, I’ll be downloading movies and playing them on my laptop, too.

Physical location means less than ever. Negroponte was right: the trend is toward everything being digital. The implication of that trend is everybody and everything can be virtual. Not only can individuals be virtual, businesses can too. Physical location will matter less and less for employees and for the customers who buy a company’s products and services.

A business with virtual employees and no physical location is selling its products and services to virtual customers who spend their days… well, we don’t really know where they spend their days.

Want to market to virtual customers? Want to know how you can be virtual and spend your days in cafés, too? Next month: how to connect with the virtual customer whose entire life just may be on her laptop.

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