Hamish McRae: We need to do more and email less

The consequences of almost infinite knowledge are only slowly becoming clear

Related Topics

Do you BlackBerry on holiday? Come on, own up. Because, if you do, the chances are you are also putting in an extra 15 hours a week when you are back at work.

That conclusion, at least, would follow from a survey by the Manchester employment law firm Peninsular, which suggests if you have a BlackBerry you spend an extra couple of hours a day doing some form of work. It is apparently a "health and safety" issue because it means people are working longer than the hours prescribed for them by the European Union.

That may be so, but surely the more interesting issue is not the legal aspects of the technological revolution, but the social and economic implications of electronic communications that become ever more competent and ever more accessible. The BlackBerry was an important pioneer but now that a cheap laptop can connect to a mobile signal anywhere (they are even given away free as part of the contract) the BlackBerry has become quite a small part of the revolution. Yes, it spawned the string of jokes about the CrackBerry because it was so addictive, but the world has now moved on. If you really want to be online 24 hours a day, there are many ways of being so.

A huge amount has been written about the social consequences of this revolution. Take the intrusiveness of always-on communications. The problem is that new technologies develop much more quickly now so we have less time to adjust our habits – to develop a social etiquette. It took a generation before the telephone moved from being a luxury product to become a mass-market one. So there was time to figure out the social rules for phoning people: when it was polite to call, how one should use the technology, and so on.

We are still figuring that out with mobile phones. Should you, for example, text someone before you call to check if it is a good time to talk? Or would it be more polite just to text? Or more polite still to email instead? Or do you text if it is a close friend, and email if you don't know someone so well?

In another ten years all this will have settled down. We will have decided when it is acceptable to peck away at whatever handheld device has become the new standard – that is, if we have to peck away at all – but it is still fluid at the moment. On the other hand there are social consequences of the availability of information, as opposed to the speed of communication, that are becoming evident. Two examples: one is internet dating. I learnt from the famous video shown to Sony executives last year that one in eight marriages in the US are by people who met online. I also learnt that every day there are now more texts sent and received than there are people on the planet. The other is Google itself. Here the numbers are stunning: there are upwards of 31 billion searches on Google every month.

But the social consequences of access to almost infinite information are only slowly becoming clear. I think most of us Google people now before we meet them for the first time just to brief ourselves about them. Is that intrusive or simply good manners? As more and more information is accumulated and people leave behind more and more of an electronic trail, the whole notion of privacy will be transformed.

But if a lot has been written about the social implications, much less attention has been paid to the economic consequences. The reason is that the social side is out there for everyone to see, whereas the economic side is happening under the surface.

Come back to those extra hours supposedly being worked by BlackBerry addicts. What is really happening is not so much that people are working longer, for people who choose to work long hours or are in jobs that require that will always do so. Rather it is that their downtime is being used much more effectively. So it is the moments that would have been wasted, the ten minutes waiting for a train, that are now being used more effectively.

This has huge consequences. There are only a certain number of hours in the day, and only a certain number of people in the workforce. Even if we all go on working into our 70s, the numbers of people available to do the jobs that have to be done will start to shrink here, as they are already shrinking in Japan. One possible outcome, as is happening I am afraid in Japan, is falling living standards. That may happen here. One of our weapons against that is to use communications technology to figure out ways of enabling people to work more efficiently.

There are obvious ways in which technology is saving time and cutting costs: the way we book flights online, and how can even print rail tickets too – or at least you can for Virgin trains. All that will continue to develop as both the technology and our competence as users improves. But the greatest gains will come from changes in our personal work habits, our competence as producers. The use of downtime is one of the most important of these. But because the ability to use the odd five spare minutes to bang off a few emails is still so new, we probably at the moment use that time badly. It is not just a question of hitting the send button before we have thought through the consequences of our email; we probably send emails that don't need to be sent at all.

That will be the overriding feature of most people's work for the next few years. We are several months into a fearsome squeeze on most private sector companies, forcing them to figure out how to get more work done with fewer people. We are about to see a similar squeeze on the public sector. As this newspaper reported yesterday, the Prime Minister now accepts that cuts in spending cannot wait and will have to be outlined this autumn. We have to be clever about this. We have to focus on the quality of output rather than the quantity of input.

One way forward will be for people to use downtime, time that was previously wasted, and that is where the BlackBerry or equivalent comes in. But the other and harder task will be to work out not how to communicate more but rather how to get things done while communicating less. In the Second World War the railway posters asked: "Is your journey really necessary?" Now, maybe it should be: "Is your email really necessary?"


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.  

Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb

Janet Street-Porter
Rohingya migrants in a boat adrift in the Andaman Sea last week  

Burma will regret shutting its eyes to the fate of the Rohingya boat people

Peter Popham
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor