Convenience rather than urgency as a driver of constant connectivity

An interesting insight from Losing the Signal, a nicely written book about the rise and fall of Research In Motion. On pg 59, the authors describe how the company found little interest in constant connectivity on grounds of urgency, because phone calls would suffice for anything truly urgent. On the other hand, the prospect of continual connection was appealing on grounds of convenience, allowing people to utilise dead time in order to perpetually battle the flood of communication:

When Balsillie and his new product manager, David Castell, began testing consumer appetite for a mobile e-mail service on the Leapfrog device, they assumed traveling salespeople and other busy professionals would line up for a product that constantly relayed urgent e-mail updates. Instead, focus group research revealed there was no burning desire by participants to quickly read or reply to electronic messages. If they needed to reach colleagues urgently, a phone call would do. At a focus group in Sunnyvale, California, one participant grew antagonistic when showed a device announcing e-mails with a buzzing noise. “If this thing buzzes every time I get an e-mail, you’d better ship it with a hammer,” he warned. A more helpful insight came from a participant who spent much of his professional life on the road. He approached with dread his evening hotel ritual of downloading the day’s flood of e-mails on his laptop. It was a chore that inevitably involved hours of reading and replying. “If I just had a tool to help me with my volume of e-mail on the road, I’d pay anything,” he said. Convenience, not urgency, was a more potent marketing pitch.

The problem is of course that constant connectivity only increases the flood, as ever greater tracts of daily life become open to sending email. Furthermore, urgency is a moving target because the assumption of constant connectivity weakens commitment to prior scheduling and facilitates re-coordination right up until the point of meeting. This extract from pg 73 conveys the early days of this process in a corporate setting:

The constancy of BlackBerry e-mails gave new urgency to business communications. Bosses with BlackBerrys chastised lieutenants for slow responses to e-mails that many still took a day or two to read. They made sure that changed. Senior BlackBerry-using executives in turn ordered BlackBerrys for their direct reports so they could stay in touch constantly. The BlackBerry virus was starting to spread.

In a perverse way, constant connectivity creates the problem it is expected to solve. What really struck me is how the travelling salesman’s problem, a daily flood of emails accessed only once per day, now stands as one of the most often invoked solutions to the problem of email: only check your email once per day.

Perhaps constant connectivity can be seen in terms of trading spatial autonomy for temporal autonomy – the prospect of utilising idle time felt like autonomy but was actually something more like flexibility. From pg 60:

Idle time between meetings or lost time in taxis and airport lounges could be productively spent processing e-mails. Employers would be able to reach staff any time of the day and employees would not have to be tethered to computers. Bosses would never know e-mails were coming from baseball games, the golf course, or family homes.