I just attended my eldest’s high school graduation. It was the worst graduation I have ever attended, or even seen on video.
Now, to be fair, I’ve only attended a handful of graduations — mostly my own, then small affairs for kindergarten, elementary school, and junior high school. And to be even more fair, the venue was lovely, the graduates excited, and the events team did a fine job given the huge number of kids who had to walk up, get their diplomas, shake hands, and move on. The friends and family who were in attendance were appropriately excited for their young man or woman, and the music provided by the high school chorus was excellent.
What made it so terrible, I think, was a decision made by whoever planned the graduation ceremony to have all of the student speeches be pre-taped.
By that single decision, the Katy ISD school board transformed what should have been a real highlight for the graduates and their families into a torturous snorefest. And I spent the entire plane ride back trying to figure out why.
I have a hypothesis.
Memorex, It Turns Out, Is Not Live
Back in 1974, Memorex ran a very successful and iconic advertising campaign with the tagline, “Is it live or is it Memorex?” featuring Ella Fitzgerald. I remember watching versions of this commercial in the early 80s as a child.
It turns out that despite what Memorex might want to claim, pre-recorded is most definitely not live. We all knew that, but what about it is so different?
The valedictorian of my son’s graduating class, an incredibly well-spoken young woman, delivered a speech that was among the better valedictory speeches I’ve heard. I’m including the rather fantastic speeches at Yale Commencements I’ve attended in that mix. She did a very good job.
And yet, the speech fell completely flat. It was lifeless, joyless, laughless. None of her jokes landed, none of her personal stories hit home, and none of her positivity, her exhortations, her reflections… none of it landed. At all.
I believe it was because the speech was delivered by a 50’ tall image on the stadium jumbotron standing behind a lectern in a film studio somewhere. It was not being delivered by a spritely young woman on stage (meanwhile … she was sitting on stage just feet from the podium).
Had she delivered that same speech live, most of her fellow graduates on the football field and their friends and families in the stand could not have seen her on stage, and would have looked at the jumbotron of her ginormous head talking. Exactly as they did when the pre-recorded speech played.
And yet, I truly believe that it would have been completely different had she spoken live, in front of her friends and family.
Rock Concerts and Movies
That line of thinking got me back to a question I’ve been asking myself since I was in the 8th grade. Why do we go to rock concerts? Why do we go to the movies?
As a precocious and somewhat obnoxious 8th grader, I was all about classical music and the opera in particular. I thought there was nothing more beautiful, nothing more amazing than natural instruments and the human voice amplified by nothing other than the shape of the concert hall. Microphones and speakers, I thought, were abominations. What was the point of going to a “live” performance where the music was coming at me through speakers, when I can hear the same thing through speakers at home?
Of course, that phase of immature arrogance did not last. I went to actual concerts where singers were singing into a microphone to have their voice projected to us via speakers. They were magical experiences. But I did always have a question as to why Zac Brown singing on stage at a stadium, image projected onto the huge screen, sounded better and more interesting than Zac Brown singing on my TV screen.
Same question with movies. In the age of surround sound home theatre experiences, what was the point of going to the movie theater? For the overpriced popcorn and soda?
Yet, I couldn’t deny that watching Master and Commander on the big screen was better than watching it at on my big screen at home. There was something else at work in a theater.
Connecting Is Not Mere Words and Images
I do quite a bit of public speaking. Most of my speeches incorporate a rather lengthy presentation; it’s the style I have developed over the years. And I am on stage in front of hundreds, maybe even thousands of people. Very few of them can see me; they look at the large screens behind or to the side of me.
When COVID lockdowns happened, I ended up doing a few virtual presentations because companies and organizations were doing virtual events. Every single one of those sucked. I happen to think I performed marvelously, with compelling content delivered with humor and passion and knowledge. But it sucked nonetheless.
The audiences were plenty engaged, there were lots of questions in the Q&A period afterwards, and the organizers were pleased by the presentation. But it still sucked.
It sucked for the same reason that my son’s graduation ceremony sucked. There was something missing.
Human connection is not just words and images, even if our most direct experience comes via amplified voices and on-screen images. There is something else at work when a human being gets up on stage in front of other human beings and speaks to them, or plays music for them. I can’t put my finger on it directly, but it has to be the combination of the crowd around you plus the human on stage and the subtle give and take, interplay of emotions, the realness of being right there as it’s happening.
I’m sure that Katy ISD wanted to minimize the risk of the valedictorian stumbling over words, or saying something idiotic (which teenagers are apt to do sometimes), or something else going wrong. That’s why they pre-recorded the message. But it is precisely the risk of stumbling, the risk of hearing something idiotic, as it is happening that makes live live. The rest of us in the audience are connected to that live thing happening right in front of us in realtime.
Memorex might sound identical, but it is not live. Zoom is fine for meetings, but a virtual conference is not a real conference. There’s something missing.
Connections, Time and Place
Real human connection requires place. Being live instead of being Memorex requires that the speaker and the audience share both time and place. You have to be where the live thing is actually happening. And you have to be there when it is happening.
If you want to get philosophical, I guess you can say it’s because we human beings are physical creatures bounded by time. Those are absolutes that can’t be wished away. Having bodies, being physical, means place is essential to connecting with other physical beings. Being bounded by time means unity of time is essential. Same time, same place — these are the fundamental basic requirements for connecting as physical beings.
This observation has implications for the real estate industry. Since that’s my niche, I’m going to explore it.
Work From Home Is Not the Way
First is that the Work From Home phenomenon that we have all seen and often lived through is probably not going to be the norm.
Sure, many companies will continue to do WFH because financially, it makes sense, and it’s easier to recruit people if they don’t have to move. But ultimately, I think the erosion in human connection will show up. Zoom meetings are just fine, but if you actually want to build a company culture, and bring people into that culture, then unity of time and place is necessary. Same time, same place, live and in person as things are happening — these are required for real human connection.
Perhaps a hybrid approach that combines WFH with frequent in-person meetings is the one that will work for most desk-job companies.
This is not to say that the downtown office towers will return. CRE is going through a rough period, and perhaps it should. Place and time doesn’t have to mean that place at that time. It is simply to observe that a real company needs a place where its physical embodied human beings can gather at the same time at least periodically.
The office is dead; long live the office.
An End to Virtual Conferences
With the COVID experiments behind us, I think it is safe to say that virtual events are not events at all. Sure, you can offer a stream for those who can’t make it and just want to hear speakers and panelists — that’s little different from attending a large Zoom meeting.
But same time, same place applies to events and conferences. If you want the magic of speaker and audience, you need people to be in the same place at the same time.
This is especially true when most of the value of attending an industry conference is not the official program, but the #lobbycon. It’s good to see most companies in real estate returning to the in-person conference. Here’s to seeing that continue.
Houses and Places
Finally, this experience reminded me once again that I do not work in finance, no matter how closely real estate is tied to finance. I work in places. The house is the ultimate and most importance place for all human beings. I work with that.
Valuations, negotiations, contracts, prices, mortgage rates, etc. etc. are all important and all critical… but in the end, I work in the industry that helps embodied human beings find a place where they can lay their heads at night, where they can share meals together, where they form the bonds and connections with other human beings that make life worth living.
Perhaps housing developers will start to pay greater attention to the importance of place for human connections and actually do more than just put a photo in the brochure. Common areas in developments, rec-rooms in multifamily buildings, these things are perhaps seen as a waste of money, as costs that reduce margins, and as things that don’t make a difference to buyers and tenants.
Maybe they don’t make the difference to buyers and tenants, but if those places are done right, they make a difference to the people who live there. Those buyers and tenants will become residents, and then those places will matter a good deal more.
Now that I live in Las Vegas which is more like a collection of mini suburbs surrounding The Strip… I feel nostalgia for the small New England towns of my youth. Those older towns and villages that grew up more organically throughout the decades before cars were a thing have places like town squares. They have public buildings that were gathering places, out of necessity. I miss those sometimes.
I think others do too. Might be something for developers to keep in mind as they build out communities.