The Effect of Telecommunications Technology on our Work and Play


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Cell phones have changed the atmosphere of our workplaces, making them more escapable physically, yet at the same time making them less escapable mentally. Enhanced with other phone services such as caller ID, call forwarding, and answering machines they have created whole new sets of contacting games between employee's and their co-workers. They have made our roads more dangerous, yet having them in our cars has made it easier to call a tow truck when you're stranded, or to call a radio station to report gridlock. The same person that uses their phone in line at the store to get the advantage over the unreachable employee to gain status at the office, also loses status in the community due to the snickering behind them in line. The recent telecommunications improvements provide an opportunity for the appealing psuedo-self-employed aspects of telecommuting. For parents, cell phones have eliminated the excuses of the late night returning child when asked 'Why didn't you call?" Cell phones have obviously intruded into our lives in more ways than we even realize at first glimpse, while making a great deal of things we do much easier. In this paper I will attempt to expand on how these changing relationships effect our always stressed out society.

Wireless Communications is in the grand scheme of technological development, a rather recent event. But the quickness to which the market of cellular phones has expanded shows that some people have definitely embraced it as a positive. The graph on the following page shows the rapidity of America's love affair with the cell phone.

Radio Telephone technology started in 1977 when Motorola, American Radio Telephone, and AT&T were licensed by the FCC to develop a high capacity radio telephone system for shortwave radio bands. In 1978 AT&T began the first radio telephone system test operations in Chicago. The Japenese inaugurated the first commercial cellular telephone system in Tokyo in 1979. In the United States, the Federal Communications commission authorized commercial cell phones in 1982 and the first system was set up by Ameritech in Chicago the following year. AT&T and Motorola followed in 1984 with their own systems in New York and Washington D.C.. The amount of customers and potential customers rapidly expanded and by 1990 there were systems in place, or close to being completed in every market in the United States. As the graph shows the early 1990's gave way to an exponential growth in ownership of cell phones especially as the new digital lighter weight phones became available in 1992.

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By 1997 the total cellular phone subscribers had eclipsed the 46 million mark. (www.cellmart.com)

The introduction of this new technology into the workplace has literally removed the worker from their desk in most office environments. With the help of call forwarding, the employee can actually seemingly be at their desks while physically being miles away at the beach, picking their kid up at school, or as the employer hopes they can be on site at a potential clients office, thus increasing their efficiency. Young corporate ladder climbers are given the opportunity to impress their boss by being able to be reached whenever necessary. Conversely, the same employee can realize the drawbacks to such extra efficiency as the phone rings at two in the morning, so the boss can run over some of your figures before making an important overseas call to the Tokyo office. This type of phenomenon is increasingly coming back to haunt the employee as the line between his work and leisure life becomes blurred. Whereas ten years ago, home phone numbers were not visible to co-workers, and if known were well respected, cell phones are used for both work and home under the same number. The manager can call the employee at seven in the evening hoping that the employee might still have it turned on. The employee, doing errands, thinking that it's her child needing a ride home from a friend's house, answers and becomes involved in a fifteen minute call with her boss about an eight AM meeting the following day. This is an example of how an extra fifteen minutes adds to the increase of work, and more importantly the decrease of family life and leisure (especially if the child's call for a ride is met with a busy signal). In the same sense, cell phones can enable people to physically shorten their work day. It's six in the evening, and you've been waiting since four for an important phone call to come in, and you're getting very hungry. With a cell phone you can leave the office at five and forward the call to your car as you get that well deserved meal. Even though you are still mentally at the office the physical separation is very appealing to many people.

Ten percent of Americans currently telecommute. There are some readily apparent benefits to this type of work for both the employer and the employee. For the employer, the employee might actually be more productive at home. The employee might get more done when not bothered by the constant interruptions that occur in the office. With the amount of current technology the employee's physical presence is hardly necessary at work. Or is it? Telecommuters often miss the important connections made in a social office place that could lead to raises and promotions. Telecommuters are often looked down upon by their managers as escapists wasting time and money. This causes telecommuters to actually waste time and money hard copying everything they work on to prove their worth. Environmentally speaking, telecommuting is great simply because there are less commuters traveling less amounts of distances to work. The employer, as Rifkin points out can save money on leasing office space. But telecommuting can have a real apparent impact on blurring the work/home dividing line. This can be bad for both the employer and employee. The employer might be losing work to a second job such as child care and housework being done during the employee's normal work hours. In fact many firms request that you keep your prior day care arrangements when you start telecommuting. On the opposite end the employee could be continuing their work well into the evening hours, cutting into their leisure time.

A disgruntled tennis fan who was constantly interrupted at the US Open by the guy next to him in the stands making both personal and work related calls throughout the match speaks up:

"If you get the urge to use a cell phone at a sporting event, here's a tip: get your ass off your seat, and go out of the stadium to the nearest pay phone. Yes. I actually mean that YOU should be inconvenienced by your inconvenient life, rather than driving everyone else around you crazy" -(pages.prodigy.com/squares/uncell.html)

There has definitely been a backlash to people whipping out their cell phones in inappropriate places. At first it was probably more of a factor that cell phones were somewhat of a status symbol used only by executives making important decisions. Many people thought the cell phones were used in public places to show off. But more recently as cell phone usage has boomed to forty six million people it is becoming apparent that there are still some places in which cell phone use is societally unacceptable. The most common complaint has been cell phone use in the car. While having a cell phone in your car can save you in an emergency situation and provides us with good Samaritans calling 911 to report an accident or to call the news to report traffic, people simply do not pay attention to the road when they are talking on the phone. According to a recent New England Journal of Medicine study a person is four times more likely to have an accident when on the phone. According to the same study, that's equivalent to the ratio of accidents incurred with a .08 blood alcohol content, the legal limit in some states. California legislators tried unsuccessfully to pass a law that limited car phone use to speaker phones that don't require hands. Besides in cars, people seem annoyed by usage in places like shopping centers and restaurants. I find that this will become less of a problem as people get vibrating cell phones and as the shear number of cell phone users increase.

Finally, there are a number of externalities that cell phone use incurs. Cancer, due to the radioactivity that cell phones cause near the brain has been more prevalent in people who use their cell phones more than an hour a day. This has especially been the case with the new digital phones. The second major externality is privacy concerns for both work and private conversations. On a radio scanner, it is just the press of a button to hear hundreds of conversations. Encryption is available in the newer and more expensive models but many users talk to whoever wants to listen. People don't treat the cell phone like radio communication psychologically. People talk about important company secrets, and give out their credit card numbers to the air waves. People need to wake up to this reality. Similar concerns can be felt in telecommuting, such as people hacking into the company files pretending to be a telecommuter. Both of these externalities, I believe will become more of a problem as cell phone users continually increase.

The rush into more advanced telecommunications such as the cell phone, modems, caller ID, and call forwarding has changed our offices in many ways. Most believe the major advantage is freedom and convenience. But this is only physically being free from the office that they enjoy so much. There is a second freedom that is entirely lost which I like to call the freedom of a snowy day. Let's say you wake up in the morning and the roads are covered with two feet of snow (2 inches in Portland). The freedom and exhilaration of this feeling that you don't have to go to work is wonderful, unless your the owner who stands to lose money. But to the telecommuter this is the beginning of another hum-drum day at the office. To the cell phone and pager owner, the buzzes still start at nine AM. The employees mental freedom becomes extinct and the concept of a snow day will become only a remembrance in the minds of the increasingly accountable population. This is my biggest fear of the power of accountability that cell phones have on our lives.


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