Webcams and the real thing


The first webcam was invented in 1991 because of…coffee.

Before Nespresso machines were invented offices typically had a shared pot of coffee. It held 12 cups or enough for 6 mugs. If you were lucky it was hot and fresh when you arrived at the office.

If you were unlucky it was empty. Then you had to make another one and wait. It took ten minutes on average. That was annoying. It bothered a group of students at Cambridge University enough to lead them to invent the first webcam so they could monitor the amount of coffee in their pot. They could see when it was empty, go refill it and see when the brewing process was complete from their desks.

Twenty five years later I’m sitting at my desk in Barcelona. I’ve got their invention – the web enabled camera – on my phone, my laptop and my monitor. They’re ubiquitous.

The impact of the webcam is so large that it’s hard to overestimate. My business partner Buddy lives in rural Connecticut thanks to a webcam. It connects him with his teams around the world. We like to meet up in New Orleans around Mardi Gras each year to connect in person. The Crescent City is teeming with young people who have relocated from Brooklyn and Silver Lake. They work remote, doing their East and West coast jobs through webcams and other online collaboration tools.

The webcam has been a blessing. It has reduced the need for travel, added the layer of context and emotion that is missing in text and chat and redefined the conference call. The list of business advantages is long. There are people who claim that webcams are finally replacing the need for a face to face meeting.

I don’t agree.

The first face to face meeting between humans was invented about 6 million years ago, around the time that homo sapiens first came on the scene. Noam Chomsky has claimed that language was invented only 100,000 years ago. The first records of written language are less than 6 thousand years old. What were humans interactions like between 6 million and 100,000 years ago?

They were playing a very, very long game of charades.

Deals were struck. Misunderstandings were resolved. Long standing relationships were forged. All without words.

We try to do these things today with only words and it just doesn’t work. Even webcams leave us feeling that the relationships we have created solely online are not really “real.” We still need face to face interaction. It provides a complete first impression, direct eye contact, proximity, sense for gestures and a host of other indicators that we can’t get through a webcam. Without it we can’t fully collaborate with others.

25 years after coffee prompted the invention of the webcam, we still need to have a coffee together to create real relationships. Don’t give up on the face to face meeting just yet!

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