Are Calling CardsNo Longer Necessary?

published in Distans, Stockholm, Sweden. May 1995.

I was at a meeting in Oxford the other evening and found myself sitting next to a very interesting gentleman. A man of some distinction, he had been Knighted many years ago for his major contributions to the social well being of the citizens of Britain and although well into his eighties, he still continues to work, being in the middle of writing a book.

During the course of our conversation, I mentioned a telephone call I had had the previous evening with a colleague of mine. To my surprise he commiserated with me, and began to reflect on the "mis-use," as he put it, of the telephone. "When we first had a telephone in 1930, people would only telephone if they had something very important to say, and only for the direst emergencies would the telephone be used after six in the evening, otherwise," he went on to say, "it was considered to be the most appalling intrusion into ones privacy." I was immediately transported in my imagination to a time gone by when "tea time," in England anyway, meant 4 o'clock in the afternoon, when people sat around the fire together in the evening, with no more distraction than to listen to a radio programme, and when there was a morning and afternoon post.

Now I know that this is a ridiculously romantic view of the past, and that life in the 1930's was not all "crumpets" round the fire. People probably died because communications didn't exist that could transmit vital messages quickly enough, and all too often chauvinism of one sort or another would be the result of the inevitable isolation, but are we not in danger of creating another and more subtle form of isolation now that we are wired up and linked to such sophisticated forms of communication? Now that we are available to be "rung up" at any time - day or night.

I have in mind a friend of mine, John, who as a manager in a multinational firm has chosen to take up his company's offer to work from home. As an employee, he is having to face the problem of how to set boundaries for himself. Wired to head office, ideas and thoughts can be transmitted from his Managing Director from whatever country he is in at the speed of light. Messages cascade from the Fax machine and flit across the computer screen all day and night. The telephone no longer has to be left in the home office when John decides to make a coffee; it can be carried conveniently in his pocket so that no calls need go unanswered. No one needs to know that he needs to eat, drink, or use the W.C., and time is no longer a barrier to communication. Always ready to receive, the faithful Fax will spew out its messages at any time. The answering machine will record messages from countries in different time zones allowing John to respond whilst the rest of his country sleeps. Whilst he sleeps, e-mail collects the messages which then wait reproachfully for acknowledgement. There is no longer for John such a thing as a natural break. He lives in an exciting, but very demanding world. How does he say "enough is enough?" How does he say "I'm off duty?"

As I began to think about John's situation and of others like him, I realised that this Electronic Baby that has been brought home, and that enables him to work anywhere he wants to, has become a hard task-master. No one has said that John must reply to the Fax from America on Sunday evening, but he feels in some curious way that his performance, and therefore ultimately his job, depends on the speed at which he responds. Of course, this has consequences for his fellow employees and an unspoken competition is set in motion of who can man the Fax machine the longest. A neurotic need to be seen to be working and to be taking advantage of all the new possibilities that technology is offering us. Are we, I wonder, trying to be a machine ourselves? Are we serving the technology rather than the technology serving us?

No one it seems to me is saying you must be on duty twenty four hours a day, but no one is saying you mustn't. The managing director will be quite happy to allow John to continue with his exhausting routine, but I'm not sure that it is he who is setting the pace. Surely, it is simply that technology is now making it possible for this pace to happen.

It used to be that life had a natural rhythm and set itself natural boundaries. The old gentleman I was talking to didn't have to set his own boundaries. Protocol demanded that no one called on anyone unless they announced themselves first with a calling card. It is now possible for the whole world to intrude into our private lives should it want to. Our electronic machines make it possible for us to be available at all times. We now need a protocol. We have to find a new way of saying politely but firmly, "I'm not here at the moment," and that takes courage when it must seem at times that other people’s capacity for work is inexhaustible. Someone needs to be able to say firmly, "I have better things to do on a Sunday evening than work." My hunch is that it is a sentiment that would be met with a sign of relief.

Pauline Hodson