Blogs & Comment

Cellphones are not a substitute for travel

The age of virtual communication is here, so how come we only use it to talk to those close by?


(Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)

Absence can occasionally make the heart grow fonder, but research suggests that when it comes to relationships, “out of sight, out of mind” is the more truthful maxim. And that’s especially true when it comes to the relationship between the people you call on the phone, and the people you see regularly.

Researchers at MIT Senseable City Lab, IBM Research, Orange Labs and Université Catholique de Louvain teamed up to study a year’s worth of cellphone data from a large European provider, and tried to determine whether a phone call can be a substitute for physical travel.

Carlo Ratti, an author of this paper and a director of Senseable says in a report that “In the 1990’s people thought so, fueling dreams of telecommuting activities from the peak of Mount Everest or, more prosaically, from our kitchen tables. The results of our research actually show that, for the time being, human relationships do not sustain themselves in a virtual space alone, but need the support of exchanges in physical space.” 

The paper found 90% of callers shared the same physical space at least once in the year, even if living far apart. Those studied mostly called people nearby, or people they would eventually see in person. Of course, with social media and video calling not accounted for, it’s hard to say whether these tools make a definitive difference in this human tendency to favour relationships of convenience with their cell phones.

In terms of business, this is valuable information. Telecommuting allows offices to gain access to employees with specific skill in remote locations, and it’s on the rise but this research would indicate that some face-to-face interaction is crucial to strengthen these working relationships. In fact, many sources suggest that in order to get the most out of remote workers, you have to have regular face-to-face meet-ups.  It improves communication, stops the person from being so easily forgotten and keeps the workers connected to the office culture