Hamish McRae: We need to do more and email less

The consequences of almost infinite knowledge are only slowly becoming clear

Wednesday 26 August 2009 00:00 BST

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?"


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