Sunday, November 20, 2005

Who's the boss?

One of my favourite Cary Grant movies, His Girl Friday, uses the ludicrous philosophy “production for use only” as the defense of a murder suspect. Have gun, must shoot. It's a screwball comedy, and it's supposed to be ludicrous.

But maybe it's not. Maybe it's a philosophy that is truly ingrained in our brains.

I've had a shaky relationship with cars. I got my license at 27 after starting to feel ridiculous at my state of licenselessness. After getting behind the wheel only a scary handful of times since then, I finally bought a car last year, at the shamefully late age of 34, and not because I really wanted one, but because I really wanted the job in the suburbs that required occasional travel to distant facilities. Despite all those years of happily walking, taking public transportation, or bumming rides, suddenly I'm one of those people who doesn't even think of alternate forms of transportation even when it makes more sense. Though I've never driven to the corner store, I have struggled for an hour through commuter traffic and fought for downtown parking when it would have been a relaxing 20 minute ride on the skytrain. Have car, must drive is not a philosophy I ever thought I'd follow, but I succumbed quickly. (Last night, a few months after moving to a suburb, I had a breakthrough and took the train to an event downtown ... and had a drunk kid throw up next to me on the way home. But my point is still valid. I think. Let me get back to you after I've done laundry.)

We all notice it with cell phones – some people can't bring themselves to shut them off, and if it rings, they must answer. A teacher friend of mine answered her phone in the middle of a tutoring session to tell me she'd call me back. A coworker recently answered her phone in the middle of a training session she was conducting, and continued the non-urgent conversation until her trainees wandered off to do some work. For some reason, the same production for use philosophy doesn't seem to apply to voice mail.

Our communications department just got a laminated, wallet-sized phone list of our coworkers so we can reach each other even when we're out of reach of the phone directory. I'm the only one of the 19 who has a blank space in the table under “cell phone,” which led to my boss wondering if I should get one. But I'm also one of the few whose job requires being in front of my computer most of the time. If I'm not beside my desk phone, I'm in a meeting, or driving to a meeting, or trying to catch a moment of respite from work. But if I end up filling in that gap in the table, I doubt I'll be able to preserve those moments. Have cell phone, must have better excuse not to answer than: “I went for a tea. Can't you wait ten *%$# minutes for a return phone call?”

Worse, the coworker who is preparing our emergency preparedness plan thinks we should all have BlackBerries. But my colleagues who have them now ruefully call them CrackBerries and end up answering non-urgent e-mails late at night, early in the morning, on weekends. Because they have the technology to do so, they feel an obligation to respond immediately. Again, production for use doesn't seem to apply to the off button. And while lives don't depend on us, people on the other end of those phone calls and e-mails equate the ability to respond instantly with the need to respond instantly.

I'm a low-level technophile, but not to the point where I need something just to have it. I'd love to play with a BlackBerry. A work cell phone would let me finally retire my poor old underused pay-as-you-go personal cell phone. But if I have a cell number, or access to work e-mail wherever I go, I know I'll get sucked into that world of synthetic urgency.

I can use this metaphor now that I'm (pretty much) over my car phobia: it should be me in the driver's seat, not the technology.