Idea Mashup: Barbara Pantuso & Brian Shuster, Disconnected

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Connected, but disconnected. So close, and yet so far away. How is it that we have the tools and technology to connect to the opposite side of the world, and yet often, we don’t even know our next door neighbors? It is a paradox of our networked era that we have more access to each other than ever before, and yet we are still lonely. This week’s Idea Mashup pairs two entrepreneurs who are focused on bringing us closer, in very different ways.

Brian Shuster is a 3D virtual worlds developer. His goal is to create virtual worlds that are visually faithful to the real world. He asks, “If people are going to be spending [so much] time in front of the computer anyways, isn’t it better if they doing it in a platform that is designed to be as close to and – really, at the end of the day – be as fulfilling as a real world experience, going out and interacting with people in the real world?”

Barbara Pantuso is also interested in creating a digitally-augmented community. And yet for Pantuso the challenge isn’t making an online experience that is as fulfilling as a real world experience, for her, the real goal is to make the real world experience as fulfilling as possible, by using digital tools to help us reconnect. Pantuso is the founder of Hey Neighbor! a startup dedicated introducing neighbors, fostering trust and building community networks. For Barbara, the solution to the “Connection Paradox” was to build not only a tool for the real world, but something that was focused on fostering hyper local connections. “It struck me as odd,” says Pantuso, “that my door can be four inches away from somebody else’s door and I don’t even know who lives behind that door.”

Connected to the entire world...
Connected to the entire world…

It begs the question – what does it mean to be close to someone else? Is it a matter of physical proximity? Trust? Vulnerability? Certainly as the real and virtual worlds continue to overlap, we engage with each other just as much online as we do face to face. How do we compare the closeness of friends holding virtual hands in an online world, with that of strangers standing in line at a neighborhood grocery checkout?

As Shuster points out, “If you imagine that everybody is able to live and work in a virtual world, suddenly that does sort of blur the line. And you say well, what kind of wardrobe do I actually need? Well if I was living in a virtual world, I don’t really need a work wardrobe in the real world. I can have pixels.”

But what is lost when we stop interacting face to face? For Pantuso, there is no substitute for the real thing. As she says, “Social contact is huge, there have been so many studies done about how our health benefits from it, our safety, security and just our general social mental and physical well being is much improved, the more connected we are.”

The re-emergence of real world social networks?
The re-emergence of real world social networks?

Ultimately, everyone wants the same thing, to be close, and to be connected… whatever that might mean. Of his virtual world visions, Shuster says, “if it was done properly, it will be a beautiful change and it will bring humans back to a place where we’re more like our ancestors, in that we’re tribal again.” For Pantuso, the time for that change is now, and it’s starting in her own apartment building.

What do you think? Closer than ever, or divided by screens? Do you feel more connected or increasingly disconnected? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter @rdigitalife




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