Sunday 6 January 2008

Happy new year Mickey

I recently had my telephone forwarded to my pager which sends a message to my cellphone which then contacts my voice mail which forwards a message to my e-mail so that I can always get back to myself in case I forget to do something and also in case I get an idea a minute ago that I want to think about now. What the hell am I talking about? All this technology is making me dumber with each passing day.

I remember reading a speech a few years ago, that the then chairman of the Disney Corporation gave, where he highlighted the perils of e-mail. While reading it he had my full attention. I used to think that it was perhaps only in IT companies where technology had made people stupid. As Michael Eisner pointed out back then, it is in all companies.

E-mail has commoditized letter writing and has taken the art out of it. We now have too much bad letter writing experiences with terrible spelling and crazy expectations and weird electronic online culture. Eisner stated that not so long ago we used to write real letters and we used to express ourselves articulately and with authority. We can use letter writing to reveal genuine emotion. We can use it to share deep friendship. We can use it to weather the hardships ahead. Eisner described the impact of letters written by great orators. And he went on to say that we should not just emulate the great letter writers of yore. We have options they lacked. We can pick up a phone or get in a car. As important as it is for us to use e-mail well, it is equally important to know when not to use it. We have written, spoken and body language – we must take advantage of them all.

Remember the "I LOVE YOU" bug. The fundamental problem here was not with technology. Eisner is spot on when he says that by bringing some patience and wisdom to this remarkable new communications tool we will truly get all the bugs out and then we will be able to realise its real potential in bringing people together.

How do you know when technology is controlling your life? When you are a slave to your e-mail. When you can’t make a move without your cellphone. We are slaves to technology. Ironic when one considers that technology was meant to free us up. It has tied us down in fact. The fundamental problem again is not with the technology but in the way we behave with respect to it. We need to exert some discipline. And we need to slow down.

We have lost touch with the art of communicating. Just a decade or so ago we were good at team building. These days we have outsourced this function to something called an e-mail list. E-mailing a bunch of people is NOT what relationship building is all about. This is where dysfunctional organisations stem from. Learn how to communicate effectively. Understand how to use technology so that you are always in control and not the other way round. All this e-mailing back and forth … when will it end? We might as well work from a beach (life is a beach isn’t it?). If we send e-mails to celebrate and e-mails to reprimand we don’t need to come into the office. All this e-mail is replacing the need for face-to-face communications. But wait a minute - this can’t be right! And here is my all-time favourite "Sorry, I can’t talk to you right now - I am in a meeting." So why did you answer that stupid thing then? Switch those damn cellphones off! Ok! I am just waiting for someone to say to me, "Hey, I can’t speak right now, I am in the middle of making love." What next? We can get in touch with people all over the world but we can’t seem to get in touch with ourselves. This is the progress paradox again. I have actually seen people fight it out over e-mail, hitting away at those keys, with such tension, only to discover that the two parties involved actually sit about 3 meters apart. Hey, leave those enslaving computers alone and go and speak to each other face-to-face. I am sure that if you look into their eyes you will see that they did not intend to scream and shout when they used upper case letters. Perhaps they just hit the "Caps Lock" key by mistake, ok.

We just don’t get it. I hate those BCCed group e-mails you get wishing you happy New Year etc. We might as well just hire a person to go through our personal phonebook and call each name on the list and say "Ronnie has no time for you so he wanted me to call you and wish you a happy New Year". Talk about a lack of the human touch. We might as well outsource anything that has to do with reaching out and touching people because sending a group e-mail has no substance what so ever.

Yikes, where were we? Oh yes, Eisner went on to to say that a drama coach can tell you that identical words can come across completely different when accompanied by varied intonation and facial expressions. If a person says "you klutz" with a smile over the dinner table it can be endearing. But in the cold cathode-ray light of e-mail the same two words stand there stark and accusingly. The spell checker does not check for anger, emotion, inflection or subtext. Only we can do that. And the most compelling part of Eisner’s comments are that people have always been careless in words and deeds. But the slowness of communications technology used to help protect us from ourselves. Not any more. Think about it the next time you hit that "send" button in anger. I hope one day a mouse called Mickey drops me a line in the old fashioned sense.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker