The Greater Fool

Of instant messages and second phonelines

I spend most of my workdays in front of a computer and interact with people a desk away or a few states away in the same fashion. Usually through an IM or email. As a software developer (nee knowledge worker), I detest anything that breaks my concentration. My biggest obstacle on any given day are the various distractions that interrupt my workflow. Some are self-inflicted but necessary like coffee breaks to refill, bathroom breaks to relax, and twitter breaks to refresh. Others are brought on by day-to-day business needs like answering questions, code reviews, defending against zombie attacks.

Either way, these distractions add up to significant delays so I've tried to limit my exposure to them by various methods. Wearing headphones (with or without audible content) to deter the drive-by Q&A sessions. Scheduling all my meetings at the beginning or end of day a la Paul Graham's maker's schedule. Disabling all distracting notfications for IM, email, and phone; no pop-ups or ringing for me, please.

A recent article on CrunchGear made me think about how differently we communicate today than just a few years ago. Today, IM, SMS, and email rule. Telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings have declined by a similar degree. Why is that? I attribute it to the increase I knowledge workers and the habits they keep.  The former communication methods are all asynchronous meaning we fire off our message and we may or may not get back an immediate response. Actual conversations, whether by phone or by person, require the relative full attention of both parties. Synchronous communications are more likely to break the knowledge workers' workflow.

I abhor actually talking on the phone to most people now. It prevents me from multitasking and disrupts my train of thought. The only thing I find worse is to call someone on a landline now. Why do we have shared phonelines any more? Calling someone's "home" line is treacherous at best. Chances are, they have a family, you aren't going to catch the right person. Then you have to interrupt at least two persons' workflow. God forbid, the person you're trying to reach isn't available. Then you have to "leave a message." The chances of said message reaching the appropriate person accurately and in an actionable amount of time is slim to none. Remember the one rich kid we all knew back in middle/high school that had their own phoneline? That was so awesomely exclusive. Now every kid has at least one mobile phone. We also had "long distance" phone service that cost 10¢ per minute if we were lucky. Even more exotic was the assisted "person-to-person" calls where the third-party operator would find the actual perso I wanted to speak with lest I waste my time and dimes.

I wonder what communication advances we'll see in the next decade. The ironic thing is that the worse our communication skills are, the more connected we are. I have 4 different telephone numbers, 5 instant messaging accounts, and 6 different email addresses.