Why we feel disconnected working remotely

Realizing that coincidental social interactions are impossible to have digitally made me wonder why that is and if there are other concepts that might be impossible to recreate digitally.

What is the digital world missing that makes coincidences impossible?

#The Lack of Digital Presence

The answer to this question is presence. It’s impossible to have presence in the digital world.

#What is Presence?

the state of being in a certain place, and not in some other place; being, continuance, or stay in a certain place

— The Century Dictionary

We cannot choose to not be present in the physical world. As long as we live, we can only be and continue to be in one certain place and people will be able to perceive us if they are there at the same time.

The digital world is the opposite. Space and time are optional. There we cannot be perceived unless we send information. Only when we send data, like messages, photos or our webcam video feed to the internet, others will be able to perceive traces of us.

#Presence vs Perception

It’s important to highlight the difference between presence and perception. Presence has continuance, while perception does not.

There is no continuance in the digital world. We can fake continuance by sending discrete signals with a high frequency, for example a stream of images as a video feed, but this continuance stops as soon as the sender stops sending data. It only seems to be continuous because the sender sends data in a high frequency, but each image is just a snapshot of the actual continuous and physical world.

Presence never ends, unless we stop existing. This is why digital presence cannot exist. It would require for us to continuously send data to be perceivable by others digitally as long as we exist.

#A short philosophical digression

These thoughts sparked my cryptic tweet, a couple of days ago saying: “Nothing exists digitally.”

Thinking about perception one quickly comes up with the following question:

Does something that cannot be perceived exist?

If you are interested in this question I can recommend reading about Solipsism or Immaterialism. The idealist philosopher George Berkeley for example argued that physical objects do not exist independently of the mind that perceives them.

Philosophical questions might seem far away, but have direct practical implications. Just consider how often you need to proof to a software that you exist by clicking on a button that says: “I’m not a robot.”

Screenshot of Google’s Recaptcha with the text "I exist."

Asking somebody in the physical world if they exist is unnecessary, because you can perceive the existence of that person. Otherwise who did you ask?

There are also other real world problems the lack of digital presence causes, for example the concept of ghosting in online dating. This is literally making yourself imperceptible for the other person by stopping and blocking all digital communication with them. It’s like you never existed. You become a ghost.

#We long for the presence of others

So why do we feel disconnected working remotely?

It’s because we can’t feel the presence of other people and presence can only exist in the physical world.

Instead we are alone in a room with a machine, that for short amounts of time makes it possible for us to perceive others and vice versa. As soon as the other side stops sending data they are gone for us. If we never receive a message from them again, it is as if they stopped existing.

Nothing can exist digitally, because existence requires continuance and digital continuance is impossible due to how digital works technically. Without existence there is no presence. Without presence there can be no coincidences…

… and so the circle is complete.