On Friday, October 25, 1989 I drove home after a full working day at the office. In those days I was a Senior Manager at American Express. I had a company car – a Citroen BX Diesel.
On Friday, July 26, 2013 I was also driving home, also after a full working day at the office.
What was different?
Well, I have a much better car, and – arguably – a much better job today. I was much younger. But none of these changes are as important as the paradigm shift in mobile communication tools, and the impact this has on our daily lives. We take these changes for granted.
In 1989 American Express was – as it is, I guess, today – a state of the art company and we certainly did not lack in any technological tools that were available on the market. However, there WAS no mobile phone, there was no e-mail and there was no Internet. There were no laptops. We had a “portable” computer in our company that was the size of a sturdy sewing machine and it had no battery. We had a worldwide internal mail system (I mean paper, “snail” mail) and each day a series of envelopes would come to me from headquarters and elsewhere to deal with. Likewise, I would issue a number of envelopes each day, stressing to get them out of the door before the daily post would leave. For urgent things, we had a telex. When I ask younger colleagues if they know what a telex is, most of them have no idea. And when I describe the device, they look at me in astonishment.
In 1989 when I was in my car, I was “off the grid” and there was no way to get in touch with me no matter what. I COULD of course get in touch with others IF I stopped at a petrol station AND IF there was a phone booth there – and if I had coins with me or the guy would be willing to give me change. Although I did not know at the time, this absence of interference, and the knowledge that - bar disasters - no one would or could get in touch with me gave me a “weekend” feeling that simply no longer exists today. Because when I got home, of course I had a phone home and of course my company had my number, but they would only call me in case of a real disaster, which luckily never happened. Therefore, throughout the weekend I was completely at ease. And since there were no laptops, yes, I could take some files home. My work was of a nature that I really needed access to the mainframe so if I was busy, I would drive to the office on Saturdays. This I did do frequently and so did many of my colleagues. I believe we worked more hours in those days then we do today, but when we were out of the office, we were out of work. This has fundamentally changed: the mobile can ring, or an SMS can come in at ANY time and I can consult my e-mails at any moment, on multiple devices. And this is what I do, and I believe I am not alone.
The result is that work is never far off, and this “weekend” feeling is completely gone. This may surreptitiously add to a stress factor which is probably not necessary. Let us face it, I hardly ever get mails that require a reaction within minutes…
With this I do not mean that these tools are bad. I believe they are great and I now wonder how we handled simple things like appointments without a mobile phone. What did we do when someone was stuck in traffic and would be an hour late? Did we wait? How long? I simply don't remember.
That is the funny part of it: we simply don't remember. The human being adapts at lightning speed to new circumstances.
Once thing is for sure: we communicate a hell of a lot more today then we did 30 years ago. If we communicate better is another question.
Maarten van Leeuwen
Group Managing Director
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