Shared Space is a term coined by Gordon Thompson, long time chief of scientific staff at what is now Nortel. I had the good fortune of getting to know Gord very early in my career in the late 1970’s. Gord’s claim to fame was that his name was on the patent for the "Stored Program Electronic Telephone Exchange", in other words the modern phone switch. For this, he should have been as famous as Alexander Graham Bell himself. At the time, he was known as the "Private Sector’s Marshall MacLuhan" But now there’s almost no mention of him on the Web, save for some blog notes from a conference where visionary Don Tapscott credits his influence. And what an influence it was.
Believe it or not, Thompson had a pretty good idea of where communications technology was going even back then. He also owned a music publishing business, and we had lively discussions about how technology would have an impact on the meaning of copyright and how this would change models for valuing intellectual property. Here we are nearly three decades later and we’re still working it out.
But back to shared space. Thompson coined the term to refer to the change in the way people interact with each other as a result of the constraints imposed on them by the communications channel that they’re using. It’s a corollary of MacLuhan’s famous "the medium is the message" mantra, except at the level of personal communications rather than mass media. I’d prefer to coin "interaction manifold" as a better term, although it still doesn’t have the "punch" required to make the idea stick in the media.
Thompson and one of his colleagues rigged up a leading edge demonstration of shared spaces that really should have caught on. They hooked up two Radio Shack TRS-80’s with a modem, then patched VisiCalc so that when someone on one end of the line pressed a key, it was transmitted to the other end and relayed as keyboard input. In one stroke, they demonstrated how two people at opposite ends of the continent, using a voice connection and a data connection, could expand their interaction manifold to, say, review quarterly sales results, or to develop new projections. All of this was in aid of Thompson’s argument that the Displayphone, at the time an emerging product, should have two phone lines rather than the one that it had in the prototypes (imagine that, you can access your data or talk on the phone, but not both at the same time)!
These days we have many more examples of interaction manifolds and how they influence communication. If you want to lie to someone, you use a telephone because it has the intimacy and interactivity needed to communicate truth but removes the facial expressions and body language that would otherwise betray you. Flame wars erupt in newsgroups because using the language in an informal way — without the interactivity common to informal person-to-person use — is stripped of verbal signals. Jocularity and sarcasm, when stripped of cadence and intonation and conveyed in text, can become the same words. Emoticons were a necessary development in order to add this level of content back into the interaction manifold provided by text.
These interaction manifolds should be a fundamental way of looking at communication technologies, with the goal of finding ways that technology can approximate the big fat sensory space we call face to face communication. The applications of each technology that brings us closer to this will be massive. I’m particularly interested in how we will learn to interact in new, imperfect manifolds as they emerge.
Back in the dot com boom, when somehow a cadre of antisocial hacker types managed to convince venture capitalists that online shopping would somehow displace traditional retail, my pitches used to include this heretical statement:
"On-line shopping will account for the majority of retail sales some time after the technology exists to have satisfying sex over a virtual connection. For the vast majority of consumers, shopping is a sensory, exploratory experience. It’s an adventure of sounds, smells, texture, and discoveries. It’s going to be a hell of a long time before a Web browser will give you that."
I could see sometimes that this statement was the deal-breaker, the moment when the pitch failed. This pleased me, because who wants someone who can’t understand something that fundamental holding your purse strings?