being face-to-face -- 3/28/14

Today's encore selection -- from Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser. The value of proximity -- of meeting face-to-face. In a world of Skype, email, text messages and endless other ways to communicate remotely, employees and businesses in a given industry nevertheless tend to locate in tight proximity to others in the same industry. The technology industry itself, whose employees tend to be the most adept at remote communication, is a prime example of this:

"Silicon Valley and Bangalore remind us that electronic interactions won't make face-to-face contact obsolete. The computer industry, more than any other sector, is the place where one might expect remote communication to replace person-to-person meetings; computer companies have the best teleconferencing tools, the best Internet applications, the best means of connecting far-flung collaborators. Yet despite their ability to work at long distances, this industry has become the world's most famous example of the benefits of geographic concentration. Technology innovators who could easily connect electronically pay for some of America's most expensive real estate to reap the benefits of being able to meet in person.

"A wealth of research confirms the importance of face-to-face contact. One experiment performed by two researchers at the University of Michigan challenged groups of six students to play a game in which everyone could earn money by cooperating. One set of groups met for ten minutes face-to-face to discuss strategy before playing. Another set of groups had thirty minutes for electronic interaction. The groups that met in person cooperated well and earned more money. The groups that had only connected electronically fell apart, as members put their personal gains ahead of the group's needs. This finding resonates well with many other experiments, which have shown that face-to-face contact leads to more trust, generosity, and cooperation than any other sort of interaction.

"The very first experiment in social psychology was conducted by a University of Indiana psychologist who was also an avid bicyclist. He noted that 'racing men' believe that 'the value of a pace,' or competitor, shaves twenty to thirty seconds off the time of a mile. To rigorously test the value of human proximity, he got forty children to compete at spinning fishing reels to pull a cable. In all cases, the kids were supposed to go as fast as they could, but most of them, especially the slower ones, were much quicker when they were paired with another child. Modern statistical evidence finds that young professionals today work longer hours if they live in a metropolitan area with plenty of competitors in their own occupational niche.

"Supermarket checkouts provide a particularly striking example of the power of proximity. As anyone who has been to a grocery store knows, checkout clerks differ wildly in their speed and competence. In one major chain, clerks with differing abilities are more or less randomly shuffled across shifts, which enabled two economists to look at the impact of productive peers. It turns out that the productivity of average clerks rises substantially when there is a star clerk working on their shift, and those same average clerks get worse when their shift is filled with below-average clerks.

"Statistical evidence also suggests that electronic interactions and face-to-face interactions support one another; in the language of economics, they're complements rather than substitutes. Telephone calls are disproportionately made among people who are geographically close, presumably because face-to-face relationships increase the demand for talking over the phone. And when countries become more urban, they engage in more electronic communications.

"Certainly some people still work alone, handling customer complaints or airline reservations, perhaps, over the phone in some spot far from any city. However, most of those jobs require less skill and accordingly pay less. In the average U.S. county with less than one person per acre, 15.8 percent of adults have college degrees. In the average county with more than two people per acre, 30.6 percent of adults have college degrees."


Edward Glaeser


Triumph of the City


Penguin Press


Copyright 2011 by Edward Glaeser


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment