Communication Perks And Panics

Communication has become a maddening thing over the past 10 years. Telephones, cable, VOIP – it all costs money, and it adds up.

How did we get in such a state? It’s easier than it looks, Start with the mailbox and residential phone line, then add business and fax/data lines, as well as an e-mail address, for a home office. That’s five channels. Add a car phone for each worker and then pagers (to cut down on skyrocketing car-phone bills) and you’re up to nine. Include a phone extension, fax line, and two e-mail addresses (one internal, one external) for my office and you’ve achieved a 13-channel mini-communications network without breaking a sweat.

Longing for the old days…

The five electronic gizmos were even easier to accumulate: a computer for each office, one for the house, and a PDA–which takes the place of a paper planner, electronically storing schedules, names, addresses etc.–for each career.

Suddenly your family needs a CIO.

The amazing thing, of course, isn’t how many phones or e-mail addresses we have but how much your house looks–or will look–like ours in the near future. Researchers report that the multiple-phone, multiple-computer household will soon be the norm, with all of us furiously dialing and voice-mailing and Web-surfing and scratching out little notes to ourselves.

That’s where you and I need the help. Because while I appreciate the benefits of the anywhere, anytime office as much as anyone–I am writing this column in Dallas, will e-mail it from Houston, and then review the final version in Cleveland–I’m getting awfully tired of looking in 13 different places several times a day for messages. And it is one of the ironies of the modern era that despite our supposedly enhanced ability to reach each other via various telecom devices, the best way for my colleagues to find me during the day is still to ask my assistant–who then directs them to the appropriate channel.

The help we need will require technology, starting with some kind of unified, wireless mailbox that combines e-mail, voice-mail, and pages into a single storage medium. Including the element of choice will be important, too. The boom 15 years ago in answering machines had as much to do with allowing us to screen our calls as it did with not missing messages. When our unified mailbox arrives, it had better allow us the ability to choose which missives to answer when, and how.

What technology can’t help, of course, is what we do—or don’t do–with all our new communications bandwidth. To cite just one example, while my once-peaceful morning and evening commutes are now filled with phone calls, I can’t say that I’m in any closer touch with friends or business partners. And the quality of those conversations–filled with dead air and sudden exclamations as I swerve to avoid all the other unfocused drivers gabbing on their car phones–is not the same as those conducted from my office or home. Lately I’ve been wondering if I might not be more productive by disconnecting the car phone–and maybe a few other lines–in favor of some old-fashioned quiet time. In fact, there’s only one question I have about dropping out of the race to be as wired as the next executive:

What would I do with all that free time?

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