On Tuesday of this week, Paul Kapustka interviewed Alec Saunders, who, in addition to having the same last name as a number of my relatives, is one of the co-founders of the presence software startup iotum. Since writing last week’s post about the wonders of the virtual office, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to virtual communication, and what ‘face-time’ really means in an increasingly web-based society. I receive writing assignments via email, I communicate with those that I work for via message boards or additional emails, and a majority of the time, I don’t even exist in the same geographic location as the people that I am actively engaged with on a daily basis.

It isn’t surprising to me that, within this context, a company like iotum could come to be, and also thrive, because what is missing, from all of these interactions, is something that hasn’t been bred out of human consciousness quite yet: a desire to connect, in a more immediate, visceral way, with another human being. Saunders hopes to solve some of this with his application that enables you to move beyond a busy signal or interminable ‘stay on the line’ muzak into a realm where you know, with some degree of certainty, whether or not the human being you’re trying to reach is actually there. It’s an effort, albeit one fraught with privacy issues, to put a human face, or at least a human presence, back on tech-based communication.

This concept brings me to TED. TED, the Technology Entertainment and Design conference (not the Ted vaguely related to your third cousin who enjoys sitting around in his wifebeater drinking gin out of mason jars), is a similar effort concerning technology and ‘presence’, if you will. Granted, it involves a hell of a lot more money, and is executed on a larger scale, but, I believe that those involved with it are intimately invested in the same basic concept: how do we, in our increasingly web and technology-based society, maintain and even celebrate the human element that these advancements are designed to serve? In making things ‘easier’ for ourselves via technology, how do we guarantee that we don’t write ourselves, and our interactions with one another, out of the equation?

Answering that question is, I believe, a matter of presence. The TED giftbags this year contain, amongst other things, a year-long gift subscription to the Home Edition of ElephantDrive. Accompanying this gift is a letter that emphasizes the company’s desire to find new ways to further their socially responsible efforts. And at first, to be entirely honest, I wasn’t sure what socially responsible data storage could look like. Sometime over the course of this week, however, and after reading Kapustka’s interview, I realized that it all boils down to, once more, this notion of presence. Not data storage in and of itself (though, it is admittedly excellent), but, who, exactly, was storing data, and who could later access it.

Presence, in this instance, can mean that a free ElephantDrive account, given to a school in southern India, will enable schoolchildren in western Massachusetts to access data that will open the door to another culture, another way of being, another understanding of a different human presence. It can be an opportunity for education, and a means of creating a greater shared sense of connection between groups of individuals, or individuals period, who might not ever have interacted otherwise.

It can be the difference, in a greater sense, between getting a busy signal , or going into the web 2.0 environment and hearing a very human ‘hello’. It is a chance to pause, and be present with one another, even though we are far apart. And that is a form of presence infinitely worth supporting, and preserving.

Categories: General