Technology is allowing people to become more and more connected via social and mobile networks. These connections span from people in their locality right through to people on the other side of the world. This growing number of connections can create alot of noise and we do start to see marginal disutility within the social network as the connections become less valuable to the person. Traditionally, we were only able to foster connections with those in close physical proximity but what role does proximity now play as the world becomes increasingly open.
As a lens of looking at this issue, I came across the principles of Gestalt psychology. This theory is based around the concept that the brain is holistic, parallel, and analogue, with self-organizing tendencies which affect how we perceive things around us. Proximity is one of the grouping principles that this theory is based on and it occurred to me that it may relate to how we subconsciously self-organise our networks. The principle states that, all other things being equal, we perceive stimuli that are close together as part of the same object, and stimuli that are far apart as two separate objects. This simplifies things in our mind and reduces the number of small stimuli we need to process. Whilst this theory does most typcially apply to visual perception, focusing on the idea of our brain having a tendency towards self-organizing, it may not be too much of a stretch to consider physical proximity to be a grouping factor we use in organising networks to reduce noise.
Therefore as a way of coping with the growing amount of connection noise we experience, we may start to see people subconsiously group those people that are in close physical proximity together. They then may devote more attention to this group, allowing them to cope with the excess of less valuable connections within the network. We would of course be more likely to interact with these people on a regular basis and the effect may be exacerbated by the fact that content is becoming more and more tailored to what we are more likely to engage with (take Facebooks top stories timeline for instance). This would mean that proximity plays a role in the value of a connection as the closer you are to the other person, the more likely this connection will be on your radar. I know I spend alot more time interacting with my friends that I see on a regular basis than any others. So what does this mean for the reality of how much more utility we gain as the world becomes more connected, do we get as much value from the long distance connections as we do the local ones?
It’s not a new concept that proximity fosters valuable relationships among people, especially when considered in the work environment. A recent research paper gave some credence to just how much of an impact it can actually have (see reference link below). An analysis of a decade of Harvard biomedical research collaborations, found that the closer the proximity of the offices of key research partners, the more influential their joint papers were likely to be. It mattered whether collaborators were walking down the same corridors through the office, or eating at the same cafes. It seemed to be that the presence of physical collaboration through closer proximity produced better work from the team, despite on the surface being able to communicate just as efficiently over long distance via technology. The continued importance of location may seem unnecessary with the advent of Skype, smart phones, and other technologies that make it effortless and inexpensive to collaborate with people around the world, but location still seems to matter. Being able to communicate across distances means we can do alot of different things more efficiently but face to face contact and proximity is still important as the noise from our connections increase and it simply can’t replace personal interaction.
Whilst technology is allowing us to become more connected and break down geographic barriers, I believe that proximity may still play a role in how we organise our networks (even if only subconsciously) and can be an indicator of the value that a connection provides.
Lee K, Brownstein JS, Mills RG, Kohane IS (2010) Does Collocation Inform the Impact of Collaboration? PLoS ONE 5(12): e14279. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0014279