Reality bites

Reality bites - Far from being liberating, IT feels enslaving. E-mail becomes a daily tyranny, the mobile phone a corporate electronic tagging device.

by RICHARD REEVES, a consultant and business writer
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Far from being liberating, IT feels enslaving. E-mail becomes a daily tyranny, the mobile phone a corporate electronic tagging device.

Our relationship with technology has always had an on-off quality about it. Even the Romans - who have done plenty for us, technologically speaking - were sometimes ambiguous. Emperor Vespasian, rebuilding Rome after Nero's tumultuous reign, rejected plans for a new lifting machine that would cut the numbers of workmen employed lifting stones on the grounds that 'I must feed my poor'.

The Luddites who smashed the machines that threatened their livelihood were heroes of their day. But once we'd got used to the idea of machines doing work, the upsides of science and technology became more apparent: trains, medicine, sewers, telephones. Technology and progress have largely gone hand-in-hand for at least a couple of centuries - so much so that 'Luddite' has been a shorthand term of abuse for those few unenlightened souls standing against the onrush.

Now, though, we look to be entering another period of ambiguity or even antagonism towards technology. Concerns over GM foods, biological weapons, cloning and stem-cell research are, of course, part of the story, but the real causes of the new scepticism are closer to home: that boxy, blinky thing on your desk and that beepy, wobbly thing in your pocket.

Information and communications technologies - especially computers and mobile telephones - are experiencing a backlash. Few of us have so far taken a Luddite sledgehammer to our PCs. But most of us have wanted to.

Not because computers are not taking over our lives in a scary, sci-fi manner. None of our computers has decided, like HAL in 2001, to start exterminating us. It is death by a thousand e-mails instead.

One of the latest 'rages' (rages being all the rage nowadays) is 'inbox rage', defined as something like 'noun. The feeling of powerlessness, despair and anger felt by one who logs on after an hour offline to find 43 new messages, eight marked with a confirm receipt request'. A typical manager receives hundreds of e-mails a week. And with texting, mobiles and laptops there is, it feels, no escape. IT has allowed some bosses to talk admiringly of their 'Martini' workers - prepared to work and talk anytime, any place, anywhere.

This is a tragedy. For all the faults and frustrations, IT is potentially the most progressive force for change in the workplace since at least the rise of the trade union movement. It could free millions of workers from the drudgery of the nine-to-five and the absurdity of presenteeism.

It holds out the promise of valuing workers on the basis of their output, not the number of hours spent with their backside in a company chair.

It could strip away wasteful tasks, allowing people to spend more time thinking bigger and more creatively.

But far from being liberating, IT feels enslaving. E-mail becomes a daily tyranny, the mobile phone a corporate electronic tagging device. Companies have invested billions in new technologies, but failed to grasp the revolutionary potential of their spending. In particular, they still expect their staff to work set hours, even when IT makes this unnecessary. Advertising images of attractive young men and women using their laptop on the beach or lying in a bubble bath merely exacerbate this feeling for those commuting to work in the real world.

At the same time, the very ease of communication means that companies are bombarding themselves with largely unnecessary information. The 'cc' field of e-mails is responsible for corporate waste on a staggering scale.

It is not unusual to see e-mails with 40 names on the cc list.

People use cc as a pre-emptive defence. If you send an e-mail, you decide to copy Marketing in so that they don't complain they weren't in the loop, then HR, then Finance, then New Product Development, and so on. That way, if anyone objects to your initiative down the line, you can say: 'Didn't you read my e-mail?' Which of course they didn't, because no-one can read every e-mail anymore. The 'cc' is for electronic arse-covering.

As a result of what Michael Strangelove, an internet pioneer, calls 'chronic communication', British fathers now spend more time on e-mails than they do with their children. People come to work, cappuccino in hand, download their new messages and, before they know it, an hour has passed. E-mails have an immediacy that is hard to ignore. And computers themselves lure us into a sort of semi-catatonic trance, in which we flip between applications until we realise we've forgotten what it was we were doing.

All the ergonomic advice to make ourselves as comfortable as possible with our computers means that we never leave them. So smart executives are now putting their PCs on a shelf or a windowsill, at which they have to stand to read e-mails. Or going home laptopless for a day to do some actual thinking. IBM once said it wanted to see a computer on every desktop, and we're getting pretty close to that target. Maybe now it is time to start taking them off again.

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