Opinion: Balancing Ubiquitous Connectivity and Human Deliberation

Will unified communications deliver too much 'presence'?

by / November 4, 2008

"My plans require time and distance." That's the quote carved in stone below a statue of Pacific Northwest pioneer Marcus Whitman inside the entrance to the Washington State Legislature. Of course, the commodity Internet has been collapsing time and distance for more than a decade. Still the technology juggernaut's time efficiencies have been frustrated -- by the deliberate process and pacing of legislatures at the institutional level, for example, and by you and me.

There is a name for this neo-Luddism that lurks just below the surface of even the most enthusiastic technology booster: latency. We carbon-based life forms are the prime source of latency in semiautomated processes. Without us there would be no "semi" in semiautomated. (Read: We are the problem.)

This isn't a new problem. Latency has a language of its own in communications media -- mail (Return to sender), broadcast (One moment please), over-the-counter (Back in five minutes), phone (Leave a message), e-mail (This is an auto reply) and mobile, instant messages and short message service (Subscriber could not be found. Message may not be delivered.)

Unified communications (UC), the latest evolution in converged networking, promises to remove these excuses by making the underlying problem -- humans -- more available. Enter "presence" -- described by its supporters as "the dial tone of the future" because it keeps real-time tabs on the availability, ability and preferred mode of communicating. Presence is also the component of UC that's aimed at reducing or eliminating human latency; it's also the key differentiator between UC and previous iterations of any-to-any networks that combine multimedia communications, such as voice, data and video; call control; instant messaging; conferencing like audio, video, tele, Web; and mobility.

Are UCs a sleeper issue? Perhaps. In a recent survey of 82 self-selected public agencies conducted by the Center for Digital Government, 22 percent of respondents reported that presence was the highest funding priority in their communications strategy. That's well behind voice (60 percent) and video (38 percent), in line with data (26 percent) and e-mail (26 percent), and ahead of instant messaging (16 percent) and mobility (11 percent).

Presence is a compelling idea for institutional improvisation and productivity. But presence is also a very personal matter. It's about my presence and yours -- when and how to reach us, especially when we're away.

It reminds me of the first time I was issued a cell phone in 1988 -- convenient yes, but maybe too convenient. Cell phones began to blur the lines between work hours and personal hours, professional spheres and personal space. Two decades later, we have become accustomed to how cell phones have reordered our lives -- call it accidental technological determinism. Presence is smarter than cell phones by themselves -- our planning for presence and response to it needs to be more deliberate because we could use a little time and distance.


Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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