I published this Reflection on December 10, 1997. Given what all of us have been through during the last 18 months, I thought it may be of interest. The article was edited on July 9, 2021.
I often get asked whether the Internet as a new medium will reduce people’s desire to get together in person or whether people will just sit in front of their Internet connection and never go anywhere. I consistently said I did not think so. Following are a few examples from 1997.
ThirdAge.com founder and CEO Mary Furlong told me the senior community website has been responsible in part for 14 marriages. I stopped by ThirdAge and met with Mary and her management team. She took me for a tour of the Multimedia Gulch in downtown San Francisco. New Media companies were abuzz with activity. Employee bicycles were in the lobby of the second floor. Computers were on sawhorses with wooden doors as a desktop. We had a small roundtable to talk about the future of the Internet and new media. We also watched a video tape which profiled some seniors and their activities. The Web was taking off, including for seniors, but in-person interactions were essential for all.
I had recently learned about a Web site built by a group of students at Sachem High School in East Suffolk County, Long Island, New York. The students had learned about my personal Website and sent me an email. We had a few exchanges and then the students asked if they could visit IBM. A few weeks later a yellow school bus pulled up in front of our Advanced Internet Technology laboratory in Southbury, Connecticut with a few teachers and a group of a dozen students who called themselves the Web Slingers. We had a wonderful afternoon getting to know these great kids, showing them through our lab, and giving them demonstrations of technology we were working on. Their eyes were as big as saucers when they saw our IBM SP2 supercomputer Web server. My team and I were excited about the enthusiasm, the questions, and the knowledge of the students. Could this visit be duplicated on the Web? I don’t think so.
I had recently gotten a new home gym and decided I needed some wall pictures to help me learn the position of some of the exercises. I searched around the Web using Dogpile search (Google was not founded until 1998) and found a tremendous amount of information but not the pictures I was hoping for. I left a posting at one Web site and quickly got a suggestion to visit another site. I visited the site and learned about another. I was getting warmer. The trail led me to the Global Health and Fitness site. Bingo. Pictures of exercises; video too. I posted a message and within the hour I got a reply from the proprietor of the site, Chad Tackett. Chad told me all about the offerings of the site, suggested exactly how to get the pictures I was looking for, and encouraged me to subscribe to the Global Health and Fitness program for $49 per year. I exchanged several emails with Chad, asking questions, getting fast answers. He said as a member I could email a question at any time and get a reply. I checked out his curriculum vita and looked around the site a bit. I was quite impressed and subscribed. Then I noticed on one of Chad’s emails he was based in Portland, Oregon. Turned out I was going to be in Portland the following Monday to visit an IBM customer so I asked if I could perhaps stop by and meet Chad. I had already gained respect for him, and it occurred to me putting the name and the face together would be a good idea. Chad said not only could I stop by but he would give me a workout at the real gym he owns in Portland. He further offered to develop a custom exercise program for me I could then take back and use with my new home gym. After a full day on Monday, I got a ride to Loprinzi’s Gym in Portland. It has been there for 50 years. I hadn’t been in a gym for many years, and it was a colorful, real as it gets, experience. I changed into gym shorts and had an exhilarating hour of learning exercises tailored to my goals. I put pictures of Chad and Loprinzi’s Gym in my photo gallery.
I changed back into business clothes and rushed off for a flight to San Francisco to give a keynote speech the next morning at the Technologic Partners Personal Technology conference. Before my talk I got to meet Eric Savitz from Barron’s Magazine and after my talk I met with Sam Perry from Reuters. Putting their stories together with faces, gestures, and a short conversation made subsequent stories they wrote more meaningful. From there to Project World in Santa Clara to give a speech. Hearing the 500+ person audience laugh at some of my light humor and having an engaging Q&A session with them is a hard to beat experience. After the talk a woman I had met years earlier at a conference in Moscow came up to say hello.
All this in one week and it was only half over! Will the Web eliminate in-person interactions? I don’t know anybody who loves the Web more than I do but, no, I don’t think people will give up on meeting in person because of the new electronic medium. There are far too many valuable interactions which would be missed.