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“We are Latently Enslaved by Our Own Ingenuity”

Chuck Klosterman, in his essay, “Fail,” (one of several collected in the book, Eating the Dinosaur) wrote:

“We are latently enslaved by our own ingenuity and we have unknowingly constructed a simulated world. As a species, we have never been less human than we are right now.”

Is this really true? I tend toward thinking it is, particularly from my vantage point in a technology-driven industry as well as, frankly, my own tendency toward techno-pessimism. It seems that there is almost no separation between us and our technology.

This quote from Klosterman gets at the same point, but it also brought to mind some trends that I see specifically in the workplace. Much of what we do is enabled by communications technology. In particular, email, instant messaging, shared calendars, project management applications, social media tools and the like enable a team to quickly mobilize and complete projects even if the resources are spread out geographically. This is the modern, web-working paradigm. While most of these tools have been a revelation as functional enablers of otherwise dysfunctional team setups, efficiency and cost savings, I wonder if they are always the most effective thing available to us. Actually, I’m willing to just come out and say that at least sometimes they’re not.

In some ways, tools like these encourage our own inattention to detail. For instance, during the long periods in which we coordinate communication between client, creative and development teams, it can be very easy to simply be a relayer of information, rather than a synthesizer of information, and I think project management applications make this an easy mistake to make. If you are inundated with input — phone calls, emails, instant messages, etc. — your main concern becomes to simply keep your inbox under control, not to deal with the substance of the input. If you can just get that message into the system, the right person, be they the developer or designer, will get to it. But what if you are really the right person? You’ve essentially put your work on someone else’s desk by blindly relaying it. However, to properly synthesize it, you’ve got to take enough time out to sift through the message, extracting the right information for the right person. If you have done this, plugging that information into a project management system works great. But if you haven’t, you’ve just started a game of ping pong that could last a while. When I see this happen, it occurs to me that the most human approach — actually having a face to face conversation — is the most efficient way to proceed. After all, aren’t these tools ultimately a simulation of face to face conversations? When you can’t be face to face, their value is clear. But when you can be face to face, it seems strange (aside from obvious value of efficiency and documentation) to use a technology that simulates a non-technological act.

I can make a good argument for this, but it’s really not that simple, is it? I constantly instant message and email coworkers that are working just a few steps away from me. It’s fast and convenient, and allows me to have multiple conversations at the same time. It also means that those conversations are documented, so I don’t have to remember them on my own. I can rely upon Google to remember them for me.

In any case, I suppose at the heart of the matter is always trying to make the most appropriate choice when it comes to how we communicate.

— Christopher Butler, Feb 10, 2010, Chapel Hill, NC

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