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Jul 11 2008   3:41PM GMT

Is pervasive mobility perverse?

Tessa Parmenter Tessa Parmenter Profile: Tessa Parmenter

In my last post I quoted a description of a phone from Craig Raine‘s poem “A Martian Sends A Postcard Home:”

“In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet, they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.”

Who knew that the end of my last post would be a prelude to my time at Burton Group Catalyst Conference last June. I ended up unknowingly booking at a haunted hotel! (“In [hotels] a haunted [Tessa] sleeps…”) The haunted Horton Grand Hotel

And I’m not one to believe in ghosts, but the Travel Channel, hotel maids and several newspapers insist there is a presence of an other-worldly being at The Horton Grand Hotel — in the room next to where I stayed.

Though I didn’t end up seeing the so-called “roger the lodger” (the name of the mostly-friendly ghost), the other form of ghosts (described in the poem) did a bit of their own haunting…

 The reason why was made clear to me after I attended the “Do I Really Want to Be Anywhere at Anytime? session, presented by Burton Group Executive Strategist Jack Santos.

Santos said “You can work from anywhere on earth and you can access just about anywhere on earth, [but] there are implications that go along with that.”

The implications were listed in Santos’ consequences of pervasive mobility: The first one being “the organization effect” where instead of individual knowledge we now have the ability to share knowledge across a group; knowledge is easily transferred from the individual to an organization. The second consequence was “message bloating:” One thought suddenly spawns many messages. Then came what Santos called “royalty syndrome:” Once a client or manager had your number they could call you at any time to ask you to work for them now. The last notable consequence was “total serfdom.” Santos said that “people have to have their devices.”

The last two consequences of mobility I find particularly vicious: If you have to have your device, then you consequently have to receive calls from your boss asking you to work for them then, which means you’re never fully away from work.

There were, of course, positives to having pervasive mobility. For instance, Santos said “there’s remote-ability, accessibility … and the ability to extend organizations,” which can not only save organizations, but also save individuals commuting fees.

Do these positives outweigh the negatives, though? In this information age, we are experiencing information overload — which is almost as bad as no information at all.

We're on a wireless leash Worse still is the idea that “we’re leashed on a wireless leash,” said Santos.

This concept of a “wireless leash” is something even the general public feels the weight of. Take Jonathan Clare, for instance in his blog post on humans complicating their lives with technology:

“Cell phones are probably the most handiest and intrusive technology today. They are life savers when you need them, and they create stress when you don’t. You are always reachable… always. This leaves little space for privacy.”

What’s really unnerving is that people attached to their devices and computers all day and night are finding normal conversation difficult. “Live talk — conversation between real people — is awkward,” says Santos.

I can attest to this in my own experience when I work for prolonged periods of time by myself in my home office. I often find verbalizing thoughts extremely challenging. And human interaction isn’t made any easier when you realize it’s not acceptable to hold up a sign that says “BRB” — you have to figure out how to express your need to leave a conversation momentarily in a tactful manner. After a while you begin to forget what tact and acceptable exchange is.

I remember a person who would start a conversation, and midway through — without warning, excuse or farewell — would simply walk away. He did this with everyone he spoke to.

That loss of tact and respect was something Santos saw as a consequence of pervasive mobility: “We need to define a work in this culture of civility and respect … we’re losing these things.”Hammer-smashed phone

So how can we do this? Santos suggested we switch from pervasive mobility to pervasive civility. “Let’s not forget the human element,” he said. My personal suggestion is to start talking to people in the cubicle or desk next to you. Not IM — or, god forbid, text.

In Santos’ session synopsis he wrote: “Hammers will be given out at the end of the talk to destroy Blackberries, iPhones, and other mind-threatening paraphernalia that is ending life as we know it.” 

They weren’t given out, but we were strongly urged through a march-like mantra to “turn off your mobile phones!” “turn off your devices!” “go to places where you don’t have service on the weekend.” — which was a tune I happily marched to, and have no qualms about singing now.

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