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We’ve Got a Bad Case of Digital Gizmosis

By Joan O’C. Hamilton, Business Week – 2000

The other day, I was standing in Peet’s, a coffee emporium in Menlo Park, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley. All around me, typically impatient entrepreneurial types, moms with young kids, and sleep-deprived techies were waiting to refuel. Suddenly, from a guy in a suit came a classic display of a high-tech ritual best described as ”pocket bongo.”

Pocket bongo begins when something on somebody beeps. But the somebody doesn’t know (or pretends not to know) which of the many devices he’s carrying is bleating. Is it the cell phone in the jacket? The pager on the belt? The personal digital assistant in the trousers? The pocket bongo player starts patting himself all over, with mock embarrassment. But his look screams: ”I’m wired, and I’m proud.”

Sound familiar? You don’t need to parody the wired executive anymore because real life provides too many examples of comical, rude, and bizarre intrusions of technology. Each smaller, sleeker, charcoal-gray, battery-operated thing we add to our personal arsenals seems to be turning us into electronic marionettes.

You can’t even begin to relate pocket-bongo incidents without getting interrupted by another ”too much technology” story. My friend Philip Whitcome, for example, is chairman of the Alameda (Calif.) biotech company Avigen Inc., but lives and consults in the New Haven (Conn.) area. A bicoastal exec like Phil might seem like he needs to be wired to the teeth. But in truth, he’s the type of manager who likes looking people in the eye. Still, he recently gave in and allowed one of his companies to give him a laptop and cell phone. It was peer pressure, pure and simple, he admits: ”We were doing a road show for an IPO, and I was in a limousine with six other guys for several days. They all had beepers and cell phones. I felt like an orphan.”

EMOTIONAL ANGST. Insidiously, these devices have become part of our collective emotional angst. Have you noticed that the new motif for positive change in movies and on TV is someone tossing a cell phone out a window? Such acts are often accompanied by rousing audience cheers.

It’s too late to turn back, of course. For every over-the-top abuse, we can all name instances where some little piece of circuitry saved our necks. Maybe a cellular call got our children picked up when they might have been stranded, or E-mail clinched a business transaction. Clearly, many people find E-mail and voice mail a huge advantage–like Xerox executive Jerry Murch, whose territory involves most of Asia. With the time differences between those countries and his office in Rochester, N.Y., his voice mail and E-mail not only allow him to work more efficiently but ”cut down the number of face-to-face meetings I have to have by about 60%.”

Not everybody thinks that’s good. ”The face-to-face meeting becomes the lowest priority because it’s constantly being interrupted [by technology], and you can’t figure out what you don’t have to pay attention to,” complains Brian Vogel, senior vice-president of a Boston design firm, Product Genesis. Indeed, a few voices are now crying in the digital wilderness for balance and common sense.

An outfit dubbed Etiquette Survival Group, in Los Gatos, Calif., offers executive videos and etiquette seminars, it’s President and Author of Etiquette For Dummies and Business Etiquette For Dummies, Sue Fox, gives advice to her clients such as: “If it’s so important that you be available for that call, wait for it in your office, not at your local bistro.”

A sense of humor, of course, can defuse most technological emergencies. Murch says checking his E-mail in Japanese hotels at times has demanded downright dangerous choreography: ”Most hotels require that you dial ‘0’ for an outside line. Not all telephones will recognize the zero sent from the computer. The trick was to set up the dial string, push zero on the bathroom phone, run to the computer and hit the return key while trying not to kill yourself on the dash.” Such are the perils of modern life.

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