Have Laptop, Will Travel

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, January 1996

I push my way through the herding passengers in the crowded airport corridor, hindered by an overstuffed briefcase and a heavy laptop computer. In case I should ever want to participate in the running of the bulls in Pamplona, this exercise should be good training -- otherwise it canít be good for my health. Why are we all doing this, I wonder? Why do we rush aimlessly from airport to airport, sleep short hours on unfamiliar beds, and subsist on minuscule bags of airline peanuts?

This is the new business world. Globalization is upon us, and the new imperative is that wherever you may be, you would be better off somewhere else. The ultimate restructuring seems to result in the virtual company, populated by virtual employees with virtual offices and virtual homes. The existence of these virtual employees of the future will perhaps only be confirmed by the cross-correlation of countless airline passenger lists, individual people being revealed like the traces in a cloud chamber that bear evidence of unseeable particles. Physical places that house real people -- bricks and mortar -- are out; cyberspace is in.

The new skill required in this world of permanent transience is that of working on the road. The trick is to be able to project an unwavering virtual presence from anywhere and everywhere, independent of space and time, using your laptop computer and various communications devices. I know people in our field who can do this, whose very names have become branded products, as it were. The engineering world whispers rumors of their sightings at various airports, but for most engineers they are only names flitting through the media. Nonetheless, these gifted people seem to have fulfilled through modern technology mankindís ancient dream of omnipresence. Their influence is always among us.

The tricky part of this for most of us is that there is a thin line between omnipresence and invisibility. You or I could follow around one of these jetset super-engineers, and either of us would fade to black, disappearing from any and all scenes. The difference is the skill at working the available media.

With laptop computers, email, fax, pagers, and mobile telephones it is always possible to be in touch with people and with information. In fact, the increasing availability of both general-purpose information and corporate proprietary information through linked hypertext on the web makes it ever easier to maintain an office on the move. I am reminded of Nathan Detroit in the musical Guys and Dolls, who maintained ďthe oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.Ē Maybe that is our model for the future.

All that theoretical accessibility we can take for granted, but managing it seems to require a new kind of skill that none of us has been taught. You can opt out, and become invisible, or you can leap in and do it badly, creating a displeasing caricature of yourself in the world beyond. All that power lies just beyond the keys of your laptop. By touching the keys you can magically touch the world. But be warned that being able to touch the world so easily also implies that the world is able to reach out and touch you -- and the world is a lot bigger than you are.

Remember when email was fun? Remember when it was exciting to get a fax? Do you recall when mobile phones were status symbols and wearing a pager on your belt meant you were an important person? Or do you remember when you couldnít open your laptop on a plane without a bunch of passengers leaning over to ooh and aah? Good times all, and all now gone.

Most of those good times had to do with the relative scarcity of access to electronic communications. The scattered email messages were all from people who were important to you, and the faxes commanded immediate attention because of their clear priority. Now, of course, all this has been devalued in a mediastorm of clutter. I hear numbers of 50 to 100 for the average daily email queue of engineers. That isnít an insurmountable number if you handle it every day, but miss a day because of inaccessibility on the road and youíre cooked. After a couple of days Iím afraid to log in.

Skillful manipulation of all that possible input/output on the road helps establish your virtual presence. On the output side, there are people who seemingly are constantly sending email messages in the dead of the night from exotic locations. Sometimes I suspect that they are using remailers to relabel the time and origin of their messages. Perhaps they have invented some kind of a time-release email capsule, have conceived an automated email generator, or employ a service firm to send random messages to a list of people. We need someone to write an expose, ďEmail tricks of the rich and famous.Ē

The input side is equally baffling to me. How do the successful people parse and prioritize all those incoming messages? I have tried software filters, using various criteria of estimated importance, but never have been able to reach a state of trust where I could actually delete all the messages electronically deemed to be unimportant. Of course, the same trouble exists when the prioritization is done by me or another person. The other day I was throwing out old telephone messages, and I discovered a three-month old message that I had never returned, but which I now recognized as being from one of the richest people on earth. Once I had a substitute secretary who didnít recognize the name of the chairman of the board of our company, and decided not to bother me. On the other hand, just yesterday I returned a call whose memo consisted of the cryptic and troublesome message, ďabout your taxes.Ē Of course it was a cold call from a broker selling tax-free bonds. These things happen.

Our working lives have become asynchronous. Messages fly back and forth over the net, while real people fly back and forth aimlessly over the skies. And why are they traveling? To see other people, of course, who themselves are flying aimlessly over the skies, making all this a difficult two-body problem. The irony is that, for all the power of virtual presence, it seems more necessary than ever to achieve actual human contact. Somewhere, sometime, real people have to materialize out of cyberspace to be face-to-face -- in the end thatís what it is all about. What a curious place this world is!

Robert W. Lucky