Buckle Up

By David Shenk, CIO |  Software

I. TRUE STORY. On a cloudless morning near the dawn of the information revolution, a youngish senior executive of a surging Seattle-based software company trots on board an airliner, takes his seat, buckles himself in. A few minutes later, a pleasantish elderly woman comes aboard and sits down next to him. Engines churn, safety instructions are parceled out -- "In the event of a loss of oxygen, an unexpected water landing...," and so on. The plane taxies, takes flight, climbs to a comfortable cruising altitude. The passengers relax, loosen their collars and ties, settle in. This young man was raised to be polite to all strangers; he makes some friendly small talk with his seat neighbor. They go back and forth. "Some nice weather today," "Where are you headed?" and so on -- and then: "What business are you in?"

"I work for a firm that designs software for the internet," explains the fellow.

"Oh, I see," says the woman. "You're in the artificial urgency business."

II. It's plain to see that something extraordinary is happening to human society and how we communicate with one another. In considering how far and fast we have leaped into the future in recent years, forget for a moment about receiving e-mail on your cell phone; forget about RealAudio and RealVideo; forget about Yahoo and the price of Yahoo stock. Think instead about the long century of the unanswered phone.

The telephone first came into use around 1900. In 1986 I was a sophomore in college. When I called home to say hello to my family, if no one was at home, the phone rang and rang. After four or five rings, I'd hang up. If mom called me and I wasn't in my room, the phone would ring and ring, and then she would hang up. Neither of us would have any way of knowing that the other had called. Ringing and ringing and then hanging up and trying again later was a way of life for advanced civilization for a long, long time. On campus, friends routinely missed the chance to meet up with one another because of the unanswered phone. To combat this problem, we used markers and posterboard on dorm doors: "D -- Meet me at The Gate at 11-H."

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