Sunday, September 05, 2004

The Leash

In real life, I am a database administrator (and I hope beyond hope that that isn't what ends up in my obituary). One of the consequences of this job is that I am often required to be "on call", which means that I have to be available twenty-fours hours a day to address problems with our databases. When I am on call, I can get calls from users complaining about technical issues, and that that does happen sometimes, but it is far more typical that I'll be paged by one of the machines with a message saying that there's a problem with it and a description of the problem. Trust me when I say that there's something eerily anthropomorphic about having a machine call you with a plea for help.

I am just old enough to remember a time before answering machines. In that ancient era, if someone wanted to get a hold of you by phone, they simply took their luck in hoping that you'd be home to answer their call. If you weren't, their only option was to try again later or to find you some other way. The critical thing about this was that the burden to contact you was on them.

I am no Luddite. Quite the contrary, I strongly believe that the overall effect of technology has been towards the enhancement of our quality of life. Nor do I believe that answering machines were a bad idea. In the days before such devices, it was very easy to miss important calls for the mere sin of going shopping or out to a movie. Once answering machines hit the market, they were eagerly embraced for the very reason that they were so utterly useful. Never the less, when answering machines became common there was a subtle shift in the burden of responsibility. Instead of having the responsibility for contact being upon the caller, the responsibility – and the expectation – to return the call was now upon you. In many ways, I think that this was the camel's proverbial nose.

My mother was a senior telephone operator for AT&T back when AT&T was simply known as The Phone Company (or, more affectionately, as Ma Bell – a name that seems more than a little Orwellian in retrospect, but I digress). One of the perks of this was that she had discounted access to a lot of things that were beyond the reach of the general public. This is the reason that I got a pager when I was eighteen. This was back in the days when having a pager typically got you mistaken for a drug dealer. This is one of the reasons that I stopped using it – the lesser reason.

With an answering machine, there was no necessary urgence to return a call if you didn't want to. You always had the plausible excuse of simply not being in until some later time. Some people even took to actively screening their calls although there was a general perception that doing so was a bit obnoxious (not that this stopped very many people). With the advent of pagers, the burden shifted again. Wherever you were, it was assumed that you would get the page. At that point, the requirement was on you to find a phone and return the call. In my own case, the convenience of being able to be reached by my friends was swiftly outweighed by a flurry of spuriously urgent pages from my father who decided that the pager was an excellent way to keep hourly tabs on where I was. I started to think of the pager as a fifty mile long leash and, consequently, started to "forget" it at home. Eventually my mother got the hint and returned it to the phone company.

I got my first cell phone in 1994. I did this because of one incident where I needed to make an urgent call and couldn't find a convenient phone booth. When I did finally find one, I got trapped in a very awkward conversation with a woman who was clearly just a little bit crazy. Back then, mobile phones (as they were more often called) were fairly bulky and the battery life on them was pretty dreadful. Never the less, the ability to place calls from wherever I was without having to search out a public phone made them well worth the effort. Once again, however, another subtle shift of responsibility was ushered in.

When you page someone, you can't expect them to immediately respond. For all you know, they could be on a rural road somewhere without access to a public phone for miles. When they have a cell, however, the general expectation is that will be there to answer you that instant. Of course, this isn't an absolute. There are socially acceptable reasons not to answer the phone or to turn it off altogether (on the other hand, all modern devices now come with voicemail, so there is an expectation that you'll return the call before too long). Likewise, when I speak of these shifting burdens, I don't want to imply that the burdens are Sisyphean in scope. The truth is that we have embraced these devices because they do represent conveniences. Never the less, the conveniences come with a cost.

In my mind, the one genuinely troubling aspect of modern telecommunications has been to blur the distinction between the home and the office. Again, it is a realm of trade offs. A perfect example of this is how I deal with those curiously anthropomorphic pages from work. If I am at home when I get one, I do not have to drive to work. I can get on my computer and connect to work via a Virtual Private Network that allows me to connect to my office computer. In most cases, this means that I can spend a few minutes solving the problem and then go back to bed (inevitably, the pages come in the middle of the night). Given that our database servers need to be running 24 hours a day, this was simply part of my job description and I understood that when I took the position.

What of other jobs though? The very clear delineation between work and home no longer exits. Where once we could look forward to being off the clock at 5 o'clock, now it's very easy for a manager to call someone at home and tell them that they need to write up a report or a spreadsheet and email it back to the office by 8 o'clock. The very fact that it is not an excessive burden means that it is a burden that a manager may be willing to impose where, in the past, it would have been deferred because it would have been far too much to expect an employee to drive the report back to the office – unless it was very important indeed.

Now wireless laptops are becoming common. You can go into any Starbucks or Borders and have effortless access to the internet. In most cities above a moderate size, you don't even need to do that. You can surf the internet from a bus or from a park bench. Once again, this is a great convenience and, yet, these devices can easily be turned into remote extensions of our offices. With powerful new PDA devices that have all the power that used to be reserved for laptops, we don't even have the excuse that they are too cumbersome and expensive to carry around everywhere we go. Our offices are poised to crawl into our purses and our pockets.

I can only wonder how much further this trend will go. Will we eventually find ourselves living in a state of perfect communicability where the vast advantages of communication will require us to permanently forgo the simple luxury of occasionally being beyond the reach of home and office or will we, finally, reach a point where we will draw a line and say "go no further!"

The future shall tell.

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