Re-defining the Human Space

My colleague Bill May made a good point during our recent talk at FSI about Edward R. Murrow’s fabled last three feet when he explained that his kids have virtual friends that they have never met in person and may never meet in person.  But they are still friends.  They still influence each other.  They have entered Edward R. Murrow’s three feet range but they have done so electronically.   

Putting the human space in context

Let’s update Murrow and maybe put his statement in context.   Of course, the social media didn’t exist in his time as it does today, so he was talking only about broadcast media when he said electronic media.  He was right back then and he is right today – if we talk about broadcasting.   

The three feet idea refers not to physical presence but to human engagement.   Engagement w/o physical presence was nearly impossible in Edward R. Murrow’s time; it has become easy to do today.  So we should modify the three-foot-theorem, but not abandon it.   And Murrow’s admonition about overestimating the reach of electronic media still applies.

You can’t have a two-way relationship with a million friends …

The key is engagement and engagement still requires human interaction.   I have previously written about the Dunbar number, which postulates that individual human beings cannot maintain meaningful contact with more than something like 150-250 people.  There just is not enough time in the day and we don’t have the cognitive power to do more.   Even if you could keep millions of relationships straight, the recipients might object.   Most people like to think that their friends care about them.   How much can a guy with a million friends care about any one of them?   There has to be some kind of sorting.

… but maybe machines can

There is a qualification, however. People are increasingly comfortable interfacing with machines and artificial intelligence.  For example, I feel I have a relationship with something like, even though I am certain that no human at knows my name or cares about me as a person. has a very good algorithm which figures out what I like by comparing my previous purchases to those of others. Google does a similar thing with search.   

Kids love their teddy-bears

They are just making comparisons and projections based on the past behavior and revealed preferences, but it sure seems like human intelligence. And just like the kid who personifies his teddy-bear, I have to admit that I have personified, Charles Schwab, the Nature Conservancy and many of the other organizations that play these kinds of personalization games with me. I like to think that there are humans behind all this, but I don’t think there are.   Or more correctly, the humans are also part of this personalization machine.  If I call an actual person at Charles Schwab, they are very friendly and they know a lot about me – BECAUSE of the relationship we both have with the algorithm.  This is not real human contact.

Does human interaction have to be with humans?

The implications are both comforting and frightening and public affairs professionals have to pick up both ends of this stick.  Some “human” transactions can indeed be put on autopilot and the interactions may actually improve.   I prefer to do my banking, travel arrangements and much of my shopping online and would rather interact with a computer database than with a person.   But that goes only for things I already understand. I still trust humans more when I am making unfamiliar decisions.  We need both.

The test of artificial intelligence is how long it takes before you know that there is not another human on the other side of your conversation.  As technology improves, it takes us longer to know and we care less when we find out.  The machine has an advantage over us: it never forgets.  That means it can recognize long-term trends and patterns we might miss in ourselves and others. They say that a good friend is someone who sometimes knows you better than you know yourself. Welcome to the new world.