Upward Mobility
By Hugh Garvey, Fri Nov 30 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Mobilizing business processes may have many of us re-thinking how it impacts our personal lives.

In a business culture where wireless is more, mobile technology has forced us to reckon with the boundaries between the personal and the professional. Perhaps we should stop talking about the problems of technology, and focus on ourselves.

We've come a long way from that scene in Oliver Stone's 1987 movie Wall Street where Michael Douglas swaggers down the beach barking into a mobile phone the size of a shoebox. Back then the mobile phone was an icon of power, exoticism, and ruthlessness.

The contrast was there for dramatic effect: a beautiful beach, and a power-hungry man oblivious to its beauty because of his greed... and his phone. Now we'd be shocked to find ourselves on a public beach absent of bathers toting mobile phones and other wireless devices. Of course, in a very short 15-year span, mobile phones went from being tools only for moguls and robber barons to standard issue for corporations and individuals.

While the mobile phone's overt drama has faded, it's subtle and meaningful impact on our lives is even more dramatic. No longer is the mobile phone an object distinct from our lives, but an almost invisible conduit between the outside world and us. Forget the future of technology, the way we behave with technology right now is profound enough.

In their brief life so far, mobile phones are already inspiring a sort of instant nostalgia. Sellers on eBay are starting to refer to the old "brick" style mobile phones of the 80s as "vintage" cell phones. We already have to reach back into the past to reclaim that sense of novelty that mobiles first inspired. If only times were so innocent gain.

It's no surprise professionals who came of age in the cellular era, late-twenty and early-thirysomethings-people who saw the phone go from exotic to necessary-fell that we no longer have a free choice as to whether we use the technology. What's more important to them, is how we turn ourselves on and off.

Blurring the lines

Malerie Marder runs in the more glamorous circles of contract work: an art and magazine photographer, she shoots for national publications, showing her work in Europe and the States. This past summer she bought a global phone for work-so she could keep in touch with her editors and galleries when she was travelling on assignment.

At first it was a novel purchase, almost a fashion statement. "It felt so liberating and exotic. Like I was becoming a world citizen," recalls Marder. Then September 11th came. Suddenly the phone's glamorousness disappeared. It became the focus of how she saw herself and her place in the world. She hasn't traveled since the attacks, and the phone, in all its global glory is used exclusively for domestic calls. It was the physical manifestation of her hopes and fears. And just as Marder sees her phone as a symbol of all that could be, but which is still on hold, thousands of Americans flocked to buy mobile phones in the wake of September 11th. These people conversely saw the phones as lifelines, as safety tools, and comforting communicators.

But now that two months have passed and work and life seem to approach a sort of normalcy again, the mobile phone is mundane part of Malerie's job again. The quick turn of emotions isn't lost on her: "It changed our lives without us even noticing." Marder has had to make conscious efforts to keep work from encroaching in to her live in unwanted ways. "You can turn it off," she says. But there are limits as to how long it can stay off. "You can't fall off the face of the earth. People assume there's something very wrong, they take offence rather than think you just don't want to talk at that moment."

This constant connectedness has lead others to very strict rules about how they conduct their day jobs. Even at the peak of the dot-com craze, one high tech worker was positively old economy about how he approached his workday. As an editor at Cnet, Eric Steinman was one of a group of employees who carved out a 9 to 5 workday for themselves, not seeing a need to be unregimented in setting boundaries when the rest of their job-writing and posting content-was all about regimentation. Working in Cnet's San Francisco headquarters, the cradle of tech, Steinman developed sensitivity into how technology's influence on society was playing out around him.

Drawing the lines

"It used to be when you worked beyond 9 to 5 you were working to get ahead," says Steinman. "Now the lines are blurred and you're reachable 24 hours a day. The level you could be reached is deeper. No longer is it simply: 'page me.' Now you can be sent a spreadsheet and asked for your instant response.

As the 80s boom came, people felt they could be doing more. Now it's a question of when do I remove myself from the 24-7 business cycle." This accelerated, hyper-connected work world lead Eric to a hyper-attentiveness to where his workday ended. "It's not about lending yourself to business, it's about subtracting yourself from that."

And it's this reversal that as a society we're not quite adept at yet. Los Angeles-based literary manager Marc Gerald has come up with a unique solution to the encroachments of his mobile phone. As a talent manager the city is his office-and the car his executive suite.

After several years of driving around the city and realizing that Los Angeles had become a blur outside his car window as he gabbed on his phone, he simply got rid of it. "I found the cell phone and the connectivity encroaching on my private space and dream time. My cell phone kept me from seeing the city." So he ditched it. But completely losing connectivity would've been career suicide.

So Gerald replaced his mobile phone with a Motorola Timeport two-way pager. And as a result he found himself not only seeing the city with renewed eyes, but he also started working more efficiently. "So many people use phones purely out of habit. If you have to commit your thoughts to the page, you end up being a little more judicious."

Gerald tells a story about one of those rare moments when business and society coexist peacefully-and quietly. He was having a business lunch with a producer at the 4 Seasons discussing a film project. Several collaborators on the film couldn't make it to the lunch, but their input was needed. Luckily they too were toting two-way pagers.

Gerald recalls: "Instead of being obnoxious about it in the middle of the dining room" the producer two way-ed the others with questions about the story. "In a few short minutes, we had the plot sculpted and were on our way. It was very impressive, very 21st Century." A symbiosis for which we must all very consciously strive.

Hugh Garvey is a writer in Los Angeles.