I can hardly believe it has been more than 10 years, since Virtual Distance International was born. I remember the moment the concept came to life. It was during the late summer in August of 2004. Earlier that month, on the day of the widespread northeast blackout, I shattered my right kneecap when I slipped and fell on a supermarket’s cement floor. After undergoing reconstructive surgery a few days later, I was sent home in a wheelchair with a cast that ran the entire length of my right leg. For the injury to heal properly, I had been instructed not to put any weight on my right leg, or bend it for any reason, for two months.
In the early morning hours of one particular summer day, while propped up on my white Pottery Barn slipcovered couch, I again poured over interview transcripts from the many dozens of people I had spoken with during the prior eighteen months. I knew the material well. I sorted and re-sorted the data looking for the key that might unlock the mystery. I was in that zone that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”. It didn’t matter to me that in a few hours the sun would be rising nor did I care that the infomercial being broadcast from the TV screen, promised white and bright laundry forever more. In the hundreds of pages of interview transcripts, patterns emerged that I sorted into physical distance and what was later to be named operational and affinity distance. Virtual Distance was born.
So here we are now, ten years later, with almost 1000 cases representing over 10,000 people from all over the globe. It’s the only dataset of its kind in the world. Virtual Distance has been featured in mainstream media and dozens of clients have worked with VDI to detect, measure and manage Virtual Distance within their own organizations. However, I strongly believe that we must continue to build awareness and act on the negative effects of Virtual Distance as it spreads further and further into every aspect of our lives.
One particular event at which I was asked to speak, underscores just how widespread and universal the concept of Virtual Distance has become. Not to long ago, I was invited to give a speech at a United Nations conference. As part of my presentation, I talked a bit about Virtual Distance and its potential impact within the context of the conference theme. When I finished, dozens of people lined up to talk to me, which was a huge honor. What struck me most was that they came from every corner of the world - Tasmania, China, Ireland, South America and dozens more locations. Each of them expressed a visceral and immediate connection to Virtual Distance and told me stories of how Virtual Distance was growing in their respective countries in all aspects of life - from government activities, to business, even at the family dinner table.
Fast-forward to April, 2014. Many of the technologies that existed ten years ago have already disappeared. Most would laugh if I said the main social network platform at that time was MySpace. The iPhone was just a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye. Facebook had yet to blossom. And Google had just gone public.
Ten years ago a typical person would never believe it possible, or even tempting, to send their child to what is now commonly referred to as a virtual school. In most cases virtual schools (sometimes called cyber-schools or e-schools) deliver all curriculum and instruction via the Internet and electronic communication, usually with students at home and teachers at a remote location, and usually with everyone participating at different times. Ten years ago the average parent would never have predicted that the technology yet to come in 2004 would create a massive shift in the way K-12 education is delivered in 2014. Over 200,000 K-12 students now attend school online and the numbers continue to grow exponentially.
As mobile technologies become extensions of our children’s hands, cloud computing continues its upward spiral, Google glasses are donned on more and more faces and Apple whispers about all the great features in its yet-to-be-released iPhone, one thing remains the same as it was ten years ago when Virtual Distance was discovered, the same as it was a hundred years ago, the same as its been throughout human history: what matters most to the health and well-being of individuals, groups and society at large, are meaningful human relationships, the kind formed around people’s true feelings for one another.
It is this quintessential emotional bond, developed through lived experiences in the real, non-mediated world, that’s at the heart of making innovations come to life, sparking a love for learning in children, and developing empathy and compassion for others who may be different than ourselves. So the concept of Virtual Distance, reflecting a vast, yet unseen and invisible set of challenges that insidiously make their way into our human spirit and arise uniquely from the wired world, must, as a leadership priority, climb as high as the clouds.
From here, the journey continues.