Alumni Column: Proximity vs. Proxy–Progress?


It’s said that old, married couples think alike. They finish each other’s sentences, anticipate each other’s thoughts and develop near-telepathic communication.

Nature or nurture? Behavioral science says extended exposure to one another’s habits yields “mirroring” behavior. Neuroscience suggests something else: an actual melding of brain waves, or some other biologically-generated transmission that literally creates a mutual, exclusive and unspoken language bridge between people.

Whatever the source, there is incontrovertible evidence that an elevated exchange of communication — both output and receptivity — occurs when people become familiar with one another and spend time together in close, physical proximity.

As a veteran communications professional, I can vouch for the fact that the best creative work invariably comes of sweaty and cramped “war-rooms,” where high-IQ, high-energy brains work feverishly

close together.

Unfortunately, today I work mostly with “virtual teams.” It’s faster, easier and cheaper when we work alone and communicate electronically. But it’s just not the same creative thrill. “Magic” (camaraderie?) is lost along the way, and I’m never quite happy with the results.

Once, I had the pleasure of working with Dave Peterson (the guy who crafted Target’s cool, retro, graphically-captivating “bulls-eye” TV campaigns.) Dave crackled, twitched and ticked: he literally emanated visceral creative electricity. He drew, I wrote and ideas jumped between us like sparks across the gap in a circuit. Incredible synergy.

And for certain, it would NOT have happened via iPhone, Skype

or Webcast.

I’m not a techno-phobe. I just prefer the unlimited capacity of human head and heart — and believe the work of two heads and hearts, in close contact, are infinitely better than one! Glitzy, glamorous gadgets are what they are, and do what they do. But technology as a tool is simply no match for interpersonal communication, interaction or learning.

In my pre-technology era as a Colgate student (yes, indeed, we’re talkin’ the days of “typewriters”), every class was an “experiential learning” pod. Provocative questions from peers, animated and approachable professors. The flow of information, conversation and communication was up, down and sideways. No doubt the classroom was buzzing with highly charged brain wave activity!

Today Colgate’s technological resources like the Ho Center 3-D Visionary Lab are mindboggling! And the university’s commitment to acquire “best of the best technology” is fantastic. However, I believe it is still the exceptional “interpersonal learning factor” that distinguishes Colgate from peer schools.

President Herbst speaks passionately of Colgate’s remarkable and valuable “sense of place.” And, within that place, critical face-to-face interactions that can be optimized—but never replaced—by technology.

How fortunate for students that Colgate endorses and supports intimate liberal arts environment! Because beyond rich, deep academic experiences, Colgate affords every student the (perhaps unrealized) benefit of learning how to be an exemplary interpersonal communicator—the hallmark of a true leader.

Technology’s exponential evolution will continue to change the ways people opt to communicate. But human reality will never change; there will never be a more powerful way to learn, share, create or understand one another than sitting down and talking, in close proximity.