I had lunch downtown with a friend the other day. As we settled into our seats, he took his cellular phone out of his pocket and set it on the table. Just as we began to talk, the thing let out a little "bleep." He looked down at it and said, "Voicemail. I'll check it later."
A few moments later, the phone buzzed and vibrated. "Text message," my friend said. "I'll check it later." As we talked, his phone continued to try to communicate with him with a series of blurps, blips, and buzzes. He'd look down and check the screen with every noise. "E-mail from my son," he'd say. Or, "That's the office. I better take it." The latter was (gasp) an actual phone call.
My cell phone is a primitive model, no e-mail or Internet connections — and I'm not a texting kind of guy. But I am on a laptop all day. When I get an e-mail, a little envelope icon starts bouncing at the bottom of the screen. If one of my favorite websites is updated, I get a notice. More often than not, I'll stop what I'm doing and check out the alerts.
Our connections to the world at large have become instantaneous and have thoroughly transformed the way we work and interact. Much of this is good. I can't imagine, for example, having a teenager these days without being able to track them down via their cell phone.
And this interconnectedness is invaluable in my work. A couple weeks ago, I was editing a column that referenced General Custer's last stand at Little Big Horn. I needed to know how many men were killed with Custer, so I went to Wikipedia and, voila, there was the entire saga of the battle, complete with maps, a timeline, etc. Ten years ago, I would have had to go to an encyclopedia or called the library.
But there's a downside to this instant research capability. In this instance, I became fascinated — and diverted from my original task — by the article. An hour later, I was so well-informed about Little Big Horn, I could have given a lecture on the subject. Meanwhile, the article I was originally editing took an hour longer to turn over to the design department. So there's a trade-off here. Learning and communicating with others has never been easier. Staying focused on the task at hand — or a simple conversation — has never been more difficult.
Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."