Anytime, Anywhere

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, July 1997

It’s late at night, and I’m feeling jetlagged as I lug my heavy laptop computer and light suitcase into an anonymous hotel room.  I glance wistfully at the bed, where a few years ago I would have gratefully collapsed.  Not now, though – I have miles of email to go before I rest.

Several large telecommunications providers feature the goal of “anytime, anywhere” as the centerpiece of their corporate missions.  Indeed, they have succeeded beyond expectation.  It is now possible to conduct our work at anytime, and from anyplace.  As I look around my depressingly canonical hotel room, I realize full well that this qualifies as being anytime, anyplace.  What has happened is that the ability to work from such a place at such a time has become a business compulsion to do so, rather than an option.  I must do my email; it is what our business environment now demands.

I am reminded of a list of trends that I heard from a business speaker recently.  One that caught my eye was “blending of work and play.”  The speaker didn’t elaborate, but it set me to thinking.  Certainly, our work is blending into the time that we previously considered play.  It’s not clear any longer when it is that we are on duty and when it is that we are off duty.

Occasionally I reflect on the advantages and drawbacks of various occupations.  When I see a tired laborer trudging home after a shift, I have ambivalent feelings.  I am thankful to be spared the physical demands that I imagine such jobs entail.  Then I think of the compensating advantage of off-duty freedom – the job doesn’t go home with the worker.  Then I come full circle with the realization that this freedom comes at a price.  Their jobs are not the central, inextricable parts of their lives that engineering gives to its professionals.  How nice it is to be free at night, but how awful to have your job only a peripheral attachment to your life.

It has always been true that in engineering the job has gone home in the mind of the engineer.  What is new is this intimate and continuous electronic attachment to the work environment.  It is as if tentacles are reaching out to us wherever we are.  I feel the tentacles undulating and probing for me in the viscous ether.  I can feel their hunger and their urgent need for attention.  Every day there are more of them, as the electronic community grows exponentially.  They envelop me, and I cannot sleep until they are sated.

It was only a few years ago that pagers and mobile phones were novelty items for the really important people, like surgeons and plumbers.  Now it seems as if they have become human appendages, conveying not status, but dependence.  When I had a pager, I felt my relationship to it was like the dog to its electronic collar.  When I first carried a laptop computer onto airplanes, I felt the warmth of friendship, as a piece of home away from home.  Now the planes are full of grim-faced business people, frantically typing away like so many pecking chickens, hoping to get the highest possible number of keystrokes before battery expiration.

It isn’t just the technology that is creating the urgency.  It is the number of people getting connected and the cultural expectations that are growing around the technology.  Every day I hear from new people who have just discovered the net – old friends from college or high school and casual business acquaintances flushed with the new power of connectivity.  I cannot let them down, and I feel the weight of my laptop growing as I carry it from the airport.  This weight is related to the sure knowledge of the information it contains that will keep me up that evening.

So I feel certain that there is a blending of work into play.  Is there, however, a complementary blending of play into work?  Perhaps computers and networking have also given this to us.  There has never been a time in my long career when there has been so much potential for excitement and fun in what we do.  Hardly a day goes by when I do not smile to myself at some wonderful new discovery on the Web, or I do not get a charming message from someone I haven’t heard from in years.  Secretly, too, I feel that the killer application for the computer is quietly taking hold at business meetings where the participants all sit in front of their laptops.  Apparently, they are taking notes at the meeting.  Actually, they are doing their email, and have successfully opted out of the actual physical meeting!

At a recent neighborhood party I was cornered by a stranger, who began telling me at length and with great enthusiasm about his work.  He had written a Broadway musical, and was in the process of trying to get it produced.  Privately, I thought his chances were zero, but I had to admit that it was all very interesting.  After fifteen minutes of this, he finally drew breath, looked at me closely for the first time, and asked, “What do you do?”

This is always the moment of truth.  What do I do?  Usually I give some flippant reply and change the subject.  Nobody wants to hear about engineering.  However, I was overcome with an attack of honesty, and I started to describe some of the things that occupy my workday.  I had hardly begun when he interrupted.  With a tone of skepticism and an expression of incredulity he sneered, “You like this?”

I was nonplussed by this rejoinder.  In my honesty mode I blurted out the truthful reply.  “I don’t know,” I said.  “It’s what I do.”

After this self-revelation, I began worrying about work.  Is it really more fun these days?  There probably isn’t any way to tell.  I do firmly believe, however, that we are working longer hours.  The global competitive environment currently demands this in many companies.  But there is also that electronic octopus with its waving tentacles, wrapping us up, engulfing us, and dragging us somewhere we know not, as communications becomes ever more intense.

Anytime, anywhere – you are empowered by the magic.  And you are its slave.


Robert W. Lucky