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Posted by on Jul 8, 2008 in Internet Geekdom, Real Life | 0 comments

Old-school private eyes, interconnectedness, and you

I read Merlin Mann’s post at 43 Folders which asks:

What does a company get out of its employees spending half their day using an email program?

And then I read Crystal King’s post at her blog Cynosure which asks “Does Technology Connect or Disconnect People from Each Other?”

This, naturally, got me thinking about private eyes. Not the modern kind – they’re all using cell phones, the web, etc. No, the old school, literary kind. The archetype of this breed for me has always been Philip Marlowe. If Raymond Chandler wrote a single word about him that I haven’t read, I don’t know where it would be.

And given Marlowe’s chronological disadvantages, i.e. inhabiting that shadowy temporal region somewhere between Chandler’s 1930’s beginnings as a writer and death in 1954, Marlowe had a lot of interconnectedness challenges. The tools at his disposal were landline telephones at the office, house, or whatever pay phone he could get to, telegrams, the US Mail, and the occasional messenger.  If that didn’t do the job, he’d have to get in the Packard or a taxi and deliver the wetware, often getting sapped in the back of the head for his trouble. Privacy, security and anonymity were nil; all of the above channels involved snoopy operators, taxi-men, etc., and he often had to do without because of such complications.

Marlowe often talked about being isolated. His romantic entanglements were few in number, despite being in a glamorous profession that stereotypically brings in all the women. Worse, and more to the point, he often seemed to be cut off from critical information at the worst possible time, or would be “trapped” waiting at the office for an important phone call. I suspect that Chandler planned it that way for him, but that only underscores the early 20th century stress that the real-life reader of Marlowe’s adventures could relate to, even if their job was more boring and less dangerous.

Unlike Sam Spade, Marlowe lacked a gorgeous, cunning secretary, so “customers” would often be waiting for him at his office when he got back from being sapped (or came in late because he had been on a stakeout all night). Said “customers,” be they an actual would-be client or just some tough waiting to rough him up, would often crack wise about what an easy life Marlowe must have if he didn’t have to keep regular office hours.

But I don’t think Marlowe had such an easy life. Slowly coming around to Merlin’s question – Spending half your day “using an email program” isn’t bad if the alternative is to spend 2-3 days typing and mailing letters, going to someone’s office and asking questions, and/or making 20 phone calls. That was Marlowe’s way of doing it, and even in the ’80s when I began my career (as a sales guy, not a PI), that was pretty much how we did it. Oh, we did have a fax machine. By the ’90s, it was even plain paper, not thermal. But I remember how tedious it was; we knew it was tedious even before there were alternatives.

On the surface level, then, Merlin’s question is pretty easy to address. A deeper question (and I know 43 Folders asks this kind of question all the time, so I’m not knocking Merlin, just posing his initial question for the sake of argument) is: Are we using this efficiency wisely, or we using it to delay or avoid work? We’ve all seen the company-wide e-mails about the fact that there’s cake in the break room, jokes, excessively personal disclosures, etc., and perhaps the ease and convenience of e-mail does facilitate this kind of woolgathering. But trust me, when I send 50 e-mails out in a day, I’m GTD. So don’t bug me – it’s quicker than Western Union.

Crystal’s essay poses a simple question, and my simple answer is “the former.” Technology connects people to each other. Again, I say that because I think of poor old Marlowe, and it makes it seem pretty obvious. The amount of technology he didn’t have you could almost crowd into the Rose Bowl, to paraphrase one of his bizarre analogies, and he was often isolated because of it. He needed a cell phone and an e-mail account, at minimum, and if he’d had them maybe he would have kept up better with that mystery woman you meet again at the end of Playback.

But notice I said maybe. Not to pick Crystal’s question to pieces (and her own essay does a good job of that, so again I’m not arguing with her or it, just putting my own spin on it), but I’m tempted to answer neither  or it depends. Something tells me if Marlowe had a cell phone, he’d still never call you unless he needed information on a case. As with e-mail, technology constitutes tools we can use, not use, or misuse. Perhaps one of the systemic problems with technology-driven tools is they’re close enough to free  (in time, money, trouble, etc.) that we fail to count the cost, until we’re drowning in useless information. It’s up to us to know when to say when, and to make intelligent decisions about what channels of communication make sense. Are we using these tools to GTD and connect with people, or to avoid work,and people? I’m willing to bet that our personalities, rather than the presence or absence of particular tools, determine the results.

Speaking of, I thought those communications professors back in school were stating the obvious when they told me about using the right channel for the job, but that was when there were maybe 2-4 in any given situation. Do I mail a letter, send a fax, pick up the phone, or go see them? Now the options include IM, e-mail, various flavors of telephony, posting notices to the web site – I could go on and on. But it takes some discernment these days, perhaps more than it used to, to decide between, say, phoning and e-mail. Sometimes people send 5 e-mails back and forth trying to understand each other when one phone call would do. I think that’s kind of isolating (and time wasting, to go back to Merlin’s question). Getting an engagement broken by e-mail is ALWAYS isolating (but isn’t getting an engagement broken in person isolating as well?)

And yes, speaking of GTD, I spent about an hour on this post, interrupted occasionally by a co-worker’s request and a phone call in response to an e-mail which clarified things so I could dash off another e-mail. Was it a waste of time? I’ll never know unless you comment!