Culture, Technology — June 7, 2012 8:56 am

Face (to Screen, to Screen,) to Face: Airtime Aims To Re-Humanize The Internet

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In this epic journey you and I are on, we’ve done a lot of talking about nothing.  We started with the conceptual, moved through utter abandonment and made our way to control without a controller.

So it’s about time we talked about “somethisngs.”

Today’s something is our old friend the video call, putting us together with our favorite someones for ages in our imaginations and for about a decade in any practical terms.

Photograph: geeksugar.com

Let’s begin with the up-to-the-moment: Airtime, the just-released video calling app brought to you by, among others, Justin Timberl– I mean, Sean Parker.  TechCrunch has a host of stories about Airtime this week–it’s a site as much about the business and industry of technology as it is about the silicon and copper wire.  Because the only way we could POSSIBLY make technology more interesting is to add accounting figures!

But while the “inside baseball” of tech may not be your cup of tea, it has substantial ramifications for your daily life.  We need look no further than the saga of Steve Jobs to see a world-changer who built an empire, was cast out, and returned not merely to save but to bring undreamed of glory to the company he once only imagined.  That story is one of vision, and Sean Parker’s vision has changed your life at least twice.

He aims to do it again, and TechCrunch has given voice to that aim in the glowing headline “How Airtime Will Re-humanize The Internet.”

In the age of Tupac’s virtual re-humanization, this claim doesn’t sound as bold as it might have once.  Still, it brings to the fore a question of a difficult reconciliation: how do we get the technical into the most human terms possible?  (If you answered that rhetorical question with the word “replicants,” you have earned my undying respect.)

Airtime’s answer is in the details.  It can offer up interests sourced from your Facebook profile as topics of conversation, nudging you to open up about who you really are (or at least who you claim to be on Facebook).  It puts participants side by side in equal-sized windows as a subtle nod to the equal footing all good conversation requires.  You can pull in YouTube videos to watch together in real time, a desirable alternative to dropping the link on their Facebook wall and refreshing to see if they’ve clicked “Like” yet.  Google+ Hangouts can do this, but Airtime doesn’t require making a new account to chat, instead using Facebook’s social graph to connect you to yours.

Photograph: slashgear.com

At least in name, Airtime probably reminds you of another video-calling system: Apple’s FaceTime. FaceTime holds the notable advantage of being always in your pocket (provided you’re an iPhone user). But its mobility is not limited to its portability; the form factor and the ability to switch between front- and back-facing cameras allow the user to orient the conversation and the person on the other end in physical space much more easily than balancing and swiveling one’s laptop on one hand.

But let’s come back to the word “re-humanize” for a quibble or two. There’s that pesky prefix to consider–was the Internet ever humanized to begin with?  And the more important question is the aforementioned bit: the conflation of the technical with the personal, the intimate.  The truth is that replicants, HoloTupacs, and video calls are all facsimiles of actual human interaction, and that list is in descending order of realism, with the humble video call bringing up the rear.

In reality, the quibble is probably more with the billing than the results.  When you’ve got a Sean Parker on board–a guy with a proven record of shaking things up in a big way–and then you start tossing lofty words like “re-humanize” into the equation, you build skepticism-inducing hype.  It’s the opposite of what happens with the DrawSomethings of the world.  Think of the pitch on that game: it’s Pictionary on your phone but no one wins or loses.  That’s the kind of ho-hum pitch that renders you surprised and delighted when you wind up having a great time.

But the hype dynamic for video calling is fraught with much more than a tech blog’s article. The very idea of video calling captivates us. We want so badly for it to connect us to one another in a real, meaningful, human way.  We’ve grown up with fanciful ideas of its revolutionary powers.  In fact, our grandparents grew up with the very same: Fritz Lang had a video phone in his 1927 futurist silent masterpiece Metropolis. Think on that: a man printing moving images on film stock that couldn’t carry sound dreamt of sending moving images on air and wires with live audio.

“Never meet your heroes,” the admonition goes–they can’t possibly live up to your expectations.  Lebron James, billed as Jordan 2.0, is dealing with the same issue, and he’s been in the public consciousness for a decade, not a century.  We’ve met video calling, and it ain’t as revolutionary as we’d hoped.  It can’t replace a hug.

It doesn’t have to, though.  If there’s a gap between expectations and results, we have two options to make the scales balance: up the results or lower the expectations.  In this case, I’d argue lowering expectations isn’t such a bad idea, and even better, we need only lower them a smidge.

Photograph: skype.com

I got an iPad, complete with FaceTime, for Christmas (thanks mom and dad!).  Within a day of getting the thing, I had a better-than-the-TV-ads experience.  My cousin had given birth to a baby boy days earlier, and we hopped on FaceTime to speak to her dad–my uncle–about how everything was going.  And wouldn’t you know it, we’d been speaking for about 5 minutes when in the background, through the window, we noticed a car pull into the drive: my cousin was bringing her brand-new kiddo home from the hospital at that very moment.

Six months later, I have yet to meet the little guy, but I got a sense of the joy he brings my family by witnessing that moment live.  All because we happened to be on a video call at the time.

Humans–new humans, in this case–are what it really takes to re-humanize the internet.  The video call, even done right, won’t do it for us. It can, however, make it a whole lot easier.

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