Technology has remarkably changed the workplace, the boundaries of the workplace, and our expectations of productivity while at work and at home. The changes have been so pervasive and quickly adopted by the general population that we almost fail to perceive them anymore.
Our telephones are portable – really portable, not just cordless. They kindly even tell us who’s calling before we answer the telephone. And we have the choice, just on our phones, to communicate either by voice (or voicemail) or text messages. If we have Smart phones, we can add email to that list.
Our laptops are portable and can access the Internet anywhere via Wi-Fi. There, we can work on documents, check and send email, send and receive instant messages and now, even make telephone calls.
We can, without even physically toting the documents home in our briefcase, work on projects that float somewhere out in cyberspace. The system is “smart” enough to even notify our partners on a project that we’ve accomplished certain tasks.
We don’t even have to actually travel to meetings anymore. They can now be held with all participants in entirely different locations. They are still, undoubtedly, a supreme waste of time, but at least now one doesn’t have to endure canceled flights as well.
It makes you wonder: How in the world did a businessman, circa 1940 or even 1960, accomplish anything? Phones were just phones. Letters were dictated, taken down in a stenographer’s shorthand, and typed on a typewriter without the hint of an automatic spell-check.
Well, the best I can tell from the historical record, at least one of two things occurred: at least two people met face-to-face in real time or they spoke to each other over the telephone in real time. Even if you weren’t in your office, your secretary would take a message for you on one of those quaint pink “While You Were Out” memos.
So, telephone contacts were person-to-person in real time, projects were typed or built or diagrammed out on real pieces of paper and meetings were face-to-face, same place, same time. In other words, outside of three-martini lunches, it was fairly difficult to “fake” work for any prolonged length of time. Now that is not to say that people didn’t try, but they didn’t have the added assistance of today’s technology to help them out either. And all this technology and “make busy work” has come to, in some odd way, pass for work. One need not actually accomplish anything, as long as some data is shifted about.
Cell phones started it. You could be lounging by a Vegas pool or at home in your pajamas and still authoritatively answer your telephone, knowing exactly who was calling. Or, as long as that “Blue Light Special” announcement didn’t boom out through the entire store, no one had to know that you were actually out buying underwear.
Voice mail and Caller ID solidified the trend. You could now pick and choose which calls to take and which ones to avoid. And, having never actually spoken to the caller who left you a voicemail, you could always deny having received and listened to it, citing some system failure or another.
Email cemented it. Recipients began denying receipt of emails so much that new email programs began to include not only verification to the sender that the mail was sent, but that it was actually opened as well. Thus, if an email requested that you take an action that you preferred not to – such as work – or provide an update on a project that you hadn’t really started yet, you had a variety of options: you could deny having received the message for a while, then let them pile up in your in-box unread, and then answer with vague reassurances as to your hard work and brilliance on the un-started project. Who’s around to look over your shoulder and contradict you?
Text messages and Twitter didn’t help the matter. Now you don’t even have to come up with a full excuse – just one cleverly condensed.
With these changes, companies that operated primarily on the Internet eliminated telephone numbers in their contact information. Instead, one was invited to send an email and await its reply or – if you were lucky – type out your issues in a real-time “chat.” This leads to the infuriating and comical situation in which there is a true and actual glitch in a company’s website and you can communicate with them via email and twitter, you just can’t get them to acknowledge, much less answer, your emails. And, under no circumstance, are you able to reach anyone via telephone. So your order gets spat out, or your valid credit card number is refused, the tickets you’re trying to list are already for sale by some scammer, or you just can’t get to a real live person to say “the red button doesn’t work” or “how can you sell my seats?”
Somehow, I don’t think the inventors of such technologies meant this to happen. But it has. And I guess it’ll stay this way until we begin to vote with money and attention.