Over the last 15 years the computing environment has changed from one dominated by the laborious production of paper-based documents to one drowning in easily published computer-generated documents. The Internet has transformed from a relatively quiet, elite, scientific and technical community to an international playground with vast stores of information (and misinformation), a wide variety of entertainment and billions of dollars of commercial activity.
Older, less computer-savvy employees have left the workforce. These were the people who checked e-mail twice a day, at the same time every day, if they bothered to check it at all. They printed and filed their e-mail in a folder, could only deal with a printed telephone book and thought that a Boolean operator was someone running a telephone switchboard in a third-world country.
Younger workers, who have used computers their entire lives, are now gaining a toehold in the workplace. Need help figuring out your personal digital assistant (PDA), cell phone, computer or any software associated with them? Just ask the new 20-something kids in the information technology (IT) department. Do not expect to understand them, just let them tweak your device and hope you can still use it later. You may even remember having to do something similar when you were younger, and someone asked you to program or set the clock on a videocassette recorder. If only the new stuff could be as simple as that old VCR.
Yes, technology is a lot smarter. Instead of cordless telephones with 10-speed dial numbers, there are cell phones that hold 500 numbers, synchronize with the contacts list in your personal computer (PC), and remind you about birthdays, anniversaries and other significant events. VCRs, which used to be the apex of home entertainment confusion and convenience, are now being replaced by digital video recorders that not only record programs, they also remember what we watch and recommend (or even automatically record) other programs their programming determines we might like.
Do you feel like you have lost control of your work environment? Do you become completely dysfunctional if you lose network connectivity or e-mail? Does your computer sound off with Eric Idle saying, "Message for you, sir!" when e-mail arrives? Then this article is for you. Controlling technology has a double meaning: There is a difference between controlling technology and technology controlling you. In this issue, we will start with the most insidious addition to the work environment today: e-mail.
E-Mail is My Life
I freely admit that I am a chronic e-mailaholic. I cannot resist the siren call of my e-mail alert sounds and have to stop what I am doing every time the alert goes off to check my mail. I cannot resist endlessly assigning individual sounds to tell me who among my family, friends and co-workers have sent me e-mail. I am getting better, though. I have cut down to only three or four e-mail accounts, and my two main inboxes have fewer than 100 messages each at least once a month. While I still respond and reflexively check my inbox like one of Pavlov's dogs when the e-mail alert rings, at least I have stopped drooling.
I am not alone. E-mail not only dominates our desktop, but thanks to remote devices like Blackberry, it can follow us anywhere 24 hours a day. With return receipts telling senders when messages are both delivered and read, we have become significantly more accountable to everyone above, below and around us in the chain of command. We have learned to use e-mail return receipts for much the same purpose as routing cover sheets on staff packages. The main differences, though, are that it is much easier to send e-mails than to send paper files. The e-mail system records all the distribution and delivery information automatically and allows multiple deliveries with a single transmission.