Reality Bites

Management Today, December 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Reality Bites


Far from being liberating, IT feels enslaving. E-mail becomes a daily tyranny, the mobile phone a corporate electronic tagging device.

Our relationship with technology has always had an on-off quality about it. Even the Romans - who have done plenty for us, technologically speaking - were sometimes ambiguous. Emperor Vespasian, rebuilding Rome after Nero's tumultuous reign, rejected plans for a new lifting machine that would cut the numbers of workmen employed lifting stones on the grounds that 'I must feed my poor'.

The Luddites who smashed the machines that threatened their livelihood were heroes of their day. But once we'd got used to the idea of machines doing work, the upsides of science and technology became more apparent: trains, medicine, sewers, telephones. Technology and progress have largely gone hand-in-hand for at least a couple of centuries - so much so that 'Luddite' has been a shorthand term of abuse for those few unenlightened souls standing against the onrush.

Now, though, we look to be entering another period of ambiguity or even antagonism towards technology. Concerns over GM foods, biological weapons, cloning and stem-cell research are, of course, part of the story, but the real causes of the new scepticism are closer to home: that boxy, blinky thing on your desk and that beepy, wobbly thing in your pocket.

Information and communications technologies - especially computers and mobile telephones - are experiencing a backlash. Few of us have so far taken a Luddite sledgehammer to our PCs. But most of us have wanted to.

Not because computers are not taking over our lives in a scary, sci-fi manner. None of our computers has decided, like HAL in 2001, to start exterminating us. It is death by a thousand e-mails instead.

One of the latest 'rages' (rages being all the rage nowadays) is 'inbox rage', defined as something like 'noun. The feeling of powerlessness, despair and anger felt by one who logs on after an hour offline to find 43 new messages, eight marked with a confirm receipt request'. A typical manager receives hundreds of e-mails a week. And with texting, mobiles and laptops there is, it feels, no escape. IT has allowed some bosses to talk admiringly of their 'Martini' workers - prepared to work and talk anytime, any place, anywhere.

This is a tragedy. For all the faults and frustrations, IT is potentially the most progressive force for change in the workplace since at least the rise of the trade union movement. It could free millions of workers from the drudgery of the nine-to-five and the absurdity of presenteeism. …

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