Every time you use your cell phone, camcorder, or laptop, you are benefiting from an invention that Gerhard Sessler and Jim West, two physicists in Bell Labs, came up with about half a century ago – a revolution in microphone technology.
The instruments used in the 1950s were quite bulky, as you may remember from the early photos of radio announcers shouting into a big metal grille, recount Ori and Rom Brafman in ‘Click’ (www.landmarkonthenet.com). Size of the microphone was big because it consisted of small carbon granules with an external source.
“After months of back-and-forth conversation about how to improve the device, Jim and Gerhard hit upon a simple yet ingenious solution: why not insert an electric power source (an electret, composed of a charged foil) directly into the microphone? With no reliance on external power, you could create a much smaller device.”
But there was resistance that the duo ran into. Bell Labs questioned why two of its most promising scientists would occupy themselves with a seemingly impossible problem, and there was too much pressure on them to abandon the project.
Yet, what made the breakthrough possible was the bond between Gerhard and Jim. “If I had to do it alone, if I didn’t have Jim there, I would have given up a long time ago,” reads a quote of Gerhard cited in the book. “That same spark that initially drew us together kept us going even when everyone told us to abandon the project.”
The two scientists relied on their bond to keep them charging ahead, explain the authors. They add that in a very real way, quick-set intimacy can help to bring out the best in us, especially in facing challenges.
“Every time we feel that sense of being fully engaged and alive, whether as a result of a connection with another person, an activity such as sports – being ‘in the zone’ – or simply feeling at one with the world around us, we experience a surge of dopamine through our brain.” Interestingly, as the authors note, the magnitude of the chemical reward we get when we make these intimate connections stands in stark contrast to our complete lack of such a reward when we are feeling socially disconnected.
The book, as you would have by now understood, is not about mouse-click, but those mysterious moments in life when we click, when we are fully engaged and feel a certain natural chemistry or connection with a person, place, or activity.
Typically, it takes weeks or months before most of us feel truly comfortable with a new person, the authors elaborate. “We have to gain the other person’s trust, and he or she needs to gain ours. We need to find a common language, understand each other’s quirks, and establish an emotional bond. But sometimes this process is greatly accelerated, and the connection seems to form almost magically and instantaneously.”
Sharing personal information
In terms of clicking with someone new, the book mentions the example of a study by Rutgers communications professor Jennifer Gibbs and her colleagues from Michigan State University and Georgetown. They found ‘that Match.com members who made an active choice to share more personal information about themselves in their profiles and in communication with others were more likely to experience success in the dating process.’
Our natural desire to reciprocate by being vulnerable – and consequently take the relationship to a deeper level – is so ingrained in us that scientists have found it can even be triggered by a desktop computer, inform Ori and Rom. They cite a study by Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon, in which students were asked to interact with a computer program she had developed; it asked the students to answer very personal questions about their biggest disappointments in life, the personality characteristics they were most proud of, and situations in the past that had hurt their feelings.
“Most of these students were reluctant to pour out their hearts and kept their responses fairly safe and guarded. For instance, when asked, ‘What have you done in your life that you feel most guilty about?’ the overwhelming majority either lied (‘Gosh, I don’t think I feel guilty about anything’) or skirted the question altogether (‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’d rather not tell anyone’).”
While that is not surprising, given that humans are generally reluctant to disclose their innermost feelings to a computer program, an insightful twist to the experiment was the reprogramming of the software that Moon did, so that the computers now asked a different group of Harvard students the same questions but framed in a self-disclosing context.
“Rather than simply asking, ‘What have you done in your life that you feel most guilty about?’ the computer first divulged information about itself: ‘There are times when this computer crashes for reasons that are not apparent to its user. It usually does this at the most inopportune time, causing great inconvenience to the user. What have you done in your life that you feel most guilty about?’” Importantly, to ensure that none of the participants mistakenly thought that they were conversing with a human being, Moon never used the pronoun ‘I’ but ‘this computer.’
What was the result? When the computer opened up, revealing ‘personal’ information about itself, so did the students, report the authors. “The students’ answers were more intimate and more sincere. And when asked how they felt about the computer they interacted with, they were significantly more likely to describe it as likable, friendly, kind, and helpful.”
Looking at the general reluctance to make oneself vulnerable through self-disclosure, the authors are of the view that the failure to self-disclose is because we don’t realise just how powerful it is in establishing instant intimacy. We are conditioned to reveal information only on a need-to-know basis, they rue. “But if self-disclosure is done at the right time, with the right person, it can transform a relationship, letting the other person know that we trust them and that we want to get to know them on a deeper, more meaningful level.”
In an age of zero-distance that is facilitated by email, video chat, and phone, you may laugh at the thought that proximity can be an important factor in the ‘click’ phenomenon. But that exactly was the subject of a study in Bell Communications Research, involving a group of five hundred scientists, the majority of whom held advanced degrees in engineering or computer science.
These scientists were encouraged to collaborate on project and to publish the results of their cutting-edge research, Ori and Rom narrate. “From an outside perspective, it looked as though the disadvantage of geographical distance was offset by the use of telecommunications. Emails flew between work teams, and frequent phone conversations and conference calls allowed everyone to keep in touch. Although the scientists worked in buildings forty miles apart, as a group they made significant scientific progress and published numerous articles.”
Surprisingly, however, the pattern of research papers revealed the power of proximity. The Bell research discovered that if we were to visit one of the scientists sitting at his or her desk and then walk down the corridor, there would be a 10.3 per cent chance that we would bump into someone that scientist has collaborated with, the authors write.
“But continue down the corridor and out to the main part of the floor, and the chances of the scientist collaborating with someone there suddenly fall by a factor of five, to 1.9 per cent. And if we were to get on the elevator and visit another floor of the same building, the odds of our scientists collaborating would drop to a fraction of a per cent.”
Why so? Because of ‘spontaneous communication,’ one learns. The term, as Ori and Rom instruct, refers to unplanned, ordinary conversations and exchanges that occur when people interact serendipitously because they are in the same place at the same time. “Over time, these seemingly casual interactions with people can have long-term consequences…”
“My gym has a discarded touch-screen…”
“To help make fingertips stronger!”