Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Untethered Life

I remember when voice mail changed my life. In the early 80s we were building a company with global ambitions, and I was traveling a lot. The way I figured out if anyone was looking for me at the end of a long journey was to call the office and ask my assistant. This worked well if a) the assistant was doing their job (and mine was great, thanks Gail!), b) the assistant was at the office, and c) a phone was available for calling in.

As we continued to grow, the number of people traveling or working remotely grew, as did the administrative burden to support messaging. Then we hired a VP of sales from a larger company, who implemented an exotic new technology he had used successfully to manage his prior sales force - voicemail (those old enough to remember, it was Audix). Suddenly, (a) and (b) didn't matter so much. Whenever and wherever I could find a phone, I could call voicemail to see if anyone was looking for me.

This development had positive and negative consequences. Our admin people had reduced message taking/relaying overhead. Traveling employees didn't lose messages, and could respond in a timely fashion. But employees in the office began using "send this call to voicemail" as a way to ignore calls completely. This behavior was further encouraged by the "send all calls to voicemail" button on their new phones. It could be argued that communication in the office got worse as a result of this technology.

For the youngsters reading this, note that email was just beginning to emerge around this time, there was no public Internet and cell phones didn't exist. We will get to them later.

For all its faults, I loved voicemail because it was completely in service to me. Not only was the communications asynchronous, the network connection model was intermittent. This meant that time spent in transit was used for thinking. Thinking about how the next meeting was going to play out. Thinking about how our strategy should change in the face of recent competitor's moves. Thinking about where the family might go on our next vacation. These were ideas that I had to surface, remember and prioritize, not a response to someone else's external stimulus.

Then GTE invented AirPhone. Suddenly, if I had a flash of insight at 35,000 feet, or needed to respond to an urgent inquiry, I could make an outbound call from the plane. Since this only worked on domestic flights, the most time it could have ever saved was about 6 hours. This came in handy a few times when I was working as a Wall Street analyst and was able to get back to a reporter on deadline, but, other than that, there was never anything I was doing that was so important it couldn't wait until I landed. Since calls were only outgoing, I still was able to concentrate my thinking -- or read a trashy novel.

I was issued my first cell phone (a Motorola StarTAC) in the late 90s when I went to Wall Street. This was considered an essential business tool because a) everyone else thought that they were more important than you , b) a mayfly's lifetime was considered long-term, and c) you got paid on perceived results for clients who subscribed to (a) and (b). Even in this world, most of my cell phone calls were outgoing, either as a response to a voicemail message or another external event. That's probably because cell phones had not become pervasive - one's cell phone number was still considered a novelty, and the number of last resort.

By the time I left Wall Street, the first Internet bubble had popped, and Blackberry had become "crackberry" for Street types in the big shops. Having subordinates tied to mobile email is a great way to assert dominance and hide insecurity, so it's perfect for Wall Street. Meanwhile, the wireless companies were doing a good job of convincing the public that life just wasn't good enough unless you had a cell phone. How else were Mom and the kids going to keep track of their busy lives? And what if Aunt Em got mugged while stuck by the side of the road with a flat tire?

My wife succumbed to the wireless marketers, and got us a family plan with Verizon for herself, the kids, and her parents. My phone was still subsidized by my business. What was interesting was the difference in usage patterns between the adults and the kids. Whereas my wife and her parents had a similar reaction to cell phones as I, my two daughters, and all of their friends, were using this technology to augment, and many times replace, face to face social interaction. I'm not going to dwell on this topic - plenty is written elsewhere. But I will note that the combination of an alway-on Internet and always-on mobile devices has reduced, if not eliminated, the large chunks of think time I described above for what is now almost two whole generations. This has at least changed, and some might argue, diminished, the quality of leadership and management in many organizations.

Time has marched on and I have been inexorably drawn into new Internet technology as Google and Facebook have emerged as dominant players. I was never really into text messaging and therefore had a hard time understanding the excitement over Twitter. Then I lost the job that had subsidized my cell phone, and I had to consider my options for a replacement.

Economics played a big part in my decision, but so did my history. I just don't need to be always on and always connected to self actualize and accomplish my objectives. So a pay-as-you-go AT&T phone has replaced my far more expensive cell phone and contract. Most of the time the power is turned off. Lately I have been advised to join Twitter as part of my job-hunting network building. After joining via the Internet for a few weeks, I can only admire Monty Python's prescience in Life of Brian when Biggus Dickus asks "why are they twittering"? Paying text fees on my cell phone for this is a non-starter.

The most significant change in my untethered life came courtesy of Apple. My old Palm V was getting creaky, and I needed something to replace it. I also had an ancient Windows laptop that was making sounds like knives being sharpened. The solution? Not an iPhone. An iPod Touch. This device has all the Internet connectivity I need, when I need it, via WiFi. It allowed me to stop carrying a laptop, which has made airport security just a little less heinous and has made my old arm joints happy. And it, too, is mostly turned off.

But the iPod isn't perfect. I still have to carry a few USB sticks around for file transfers. And the screen, while beautiful, is cramped when I want to read a long document or cluttered web site. What I really wanted was a bigger iPod Touch with a decent filesystem. Apple seems to have countered these objections with the iPad. I'll have a little more to say on that in a future post.

Meanwhile, I am happy being untethered. I still seem to get all my calls and emails (and you are reading this), but when I'm mobile I connect to the Internet when needed, and am free from the financial obligation and interrupt-driven behavior of the always on life.

1 comment:

  1. Do you pay for wi-fi access (a la T-Mobile Hot Spot) or, as Ms. DuBois, do you rely on the kindness of strangers

    I am interested in how inexpensively one can participate in the tweeting, status updating, sharing world in which we live.