At the heart of every technological innovation is the desire to strengthen relationships between people and the hope that we can improve quality of life. However, lately I feel we have created “not-so-social” networks. The mechanics of connecting with others has changed dramatically over time, primarily due to visionary inventors, accomplished technologists, and the growing pressure to continuously do more in less time.
Early on, doing business was all about relationships, and consisted mostly of local person-to-person interactions. (Two people knew and trusted each other, so they talked in person about how to trade, buy and sell.) While personally satisfying and a fine way to meet local needs, the model was not terribly scalable.
Since necessity is the mother of invention, along came the inventors of the telegraph, telephone, steamship, steam locomotive, automobile and airplane to create things that let people to do business at increasingly greater geographic distances — solving the scale issue while keeping person-to-person interactions central to the business equation.
However, the technologists who took the mantle from those inventors clearly had a different idea about how large a role people should play in the business equation. Humans are, after all, inefficient beings who make mistakes and require downtime time to eat, sleep, take vacations, enjoy holidays and recover from illnesses. Technology — which requires none of those things — offers much greater leverage.
Thus, the technologists went to work building out the Internet, bringing down the cost of business computers, creating new channels for business communications (voicemail, email, etc.) and creating online e-commerce and customer support systems designed to reduce the need for live human-to-human interactions in business.
Now, while I appreciate the technological conveniences at my fingertips, I do wonder whether something important might have been lost in this move from developing true business relationships to accelerating business transactions. I’m concerned that well-intentioned efforts to replace the “art” of doing business with the “science” of doing business will incur significant societal costs we don’t yet see — on both professional and personal fronts.
A decade ago, when I took a family vacation, I completely unplugged from the work world, usually for 7-10 days at a time. I’d come back afterwards completely refreshed and energized. Well, that is not my reality anymore (nor is it the reality of pretty much anyone I know). Why? Because the thought of all that email piling up would preclude me from actually enjoying my time off, and even if I managed to forget about the 1000+ messages appearing in my inbox while I’m out, the first sight of my inbox would likely erase any relaxed state I might have achieved. So, like most businesspeople, I stay “plugged in” to some degree during my vacations and return to work a little more rested, but rarely am I totally refreshed and energized. This is progress?
I do business with clients for three reasons: 1) I have a genuine interest in the products and services they create; 2) I get to learn about new things as well as share the marketing and communications expertise I’ve developed in the last few decades; and 3) I enjoy spending time with smart, curious people trying to make the world a better place.
I used to have regular face-to-face meetings with clients; now most of my daily business interactions — even with local clients — are over email, chat, or text. The process is near real-time, but I’m not sure it’s as effective as we believe it is. An expedient answer may be at my fingertips, but arriving at the best answer just might require some time for real thought and possibly sitting down with others in the same place.
Lest what I’ve said imply that I’m a Luddite or don’t value social media, I should mention that I was among the first 100,000 LinkedIn members, I have been actively tweeting for 4 years, posting on Facebook for 5+ years, my Klout score is currently 56, and my iPhone is my constant companion during waking hours. They can all be very valuable tools when used appropriately.
Lately, however, I’ve noticed that business people seem almost utterly incapable of being totally present in meetings for any length of time. In the vast majority of the meetings I attend, there is obvious multi-tasking going on at most points in time. I see meeting participants engrossed in checking their phone logs, emails, texts, Twitter streams and FB pages, despite the fact that important business discussions are going on and smart, informed decisions need to be made.
The same is true for the general population. People are pretty much glued to their phones; this summer, I saw a family on vacation where all four family members sat at the same table at Starbucks riveted to their phones and ignoring each other.
Think about the irony: the very tools that were supposed to enrich our lives by freeing up time to think, learn, create and interact with others instead have become our masters, demanding our attention every waking hour. I’d hazard a guess that most of us spend more time each week interacting with some sort of screen as we do talking with business colleagues, friends, and family members.
That’s why I believe we’ve created “not-so-social” networks lately. What do you think?
Marianne O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her on Twitter at @marianneoconnor.
Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo.