Very well disconnected

In an age when it’s almost impossible to be out of contact, are we missing a trick, asks Jonathan Margolis.

September 11 2009
Jonathan Margolis

Twenty years ago, I was writing for a big American news magazine and arranged a drink in New York with my esteemed editor, a Yorkshireman I admired hugely for his general excellence and majestically laid-back attitude. Chris turned up at the bar, half an hour late, apologising. “I just got back from a trip and had 998 e-mails to deal with,” he said. Dimly aware that e-mails were the big new thing, I said that was pretty good going, answering 998 of these e-mail things in half an hour.

“No, the half an hour was to delete them,” he said. He went on to explain his theory that if any of the messages were sufficiently urgent, the sender would soon phone him. Otherwise, their input couldn’t have mattered that much in the first place.

I was impressed. When the same chap moved to London to head the European bureau of the same magazine 10 years later, he accidentally-on-purpose dropped a new gadget he had – it was called a BlackBerry – into the Thames. He had found himself spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week answering queries from all over the world, many of which, he continued to argue, were unnecessary or trivial and would sort themselves out sooner or later, leaving him to sweat the big stuff.

Since then, of course, we have become even more perennially in touch than the BlackBerry made us. It’s not just that e-mail on your mobile has become universal; a new generation of mobiles, starting with 3 network’s iconic INQ phone, which won this year’s Global Mobile Award for best handset, also keeps you abreast of news and messages from social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter as they happen.

With phone, SMS, e-mail and a clutch of such new communications methods targeting us, we have wandered practically sleepwalking into a quite extraordinary milieu of connectedness. If you don’t get an immediate response from someone by one method or another, you worry that they are in trouble or even dead. And very few people now feel secure or even vaguely comfortable leaving their house without their phone. This syndrome even has a semi-jokey name – nomophobia. No wonder in the advanced mobile communications culture of Finland, phones are known as känny, meaning “extension of the hand”.

So, in an age when the Queen apparently has an ever-present mobile, President Obama carries a BlackBerry-type device, the Masai Mara often use them and you even see some homeless people touting a pay-as-you-go, where precisely does that leave the few remaining people on the planet who choose not to be in touch at all times? Is shunning 24/7 contact almost the equivalent of going around naked or not bathing, with the resultant social and business death? Or is it just possible that not responding like a dog to a whistle to every phone call and written communication beamed to you could be a way of making people feel that finally getting through to you is something a bit special and valuable? Could opting to be a little difficult to track down actually be a way of making yourself a rather more valuable commodity in both work and social terms?

In the world of work, many of the more successful people I know now have a policy, like my Yorkshire-via-Manhattan editor, of seeing all, hearing all but saying nowt – and it doesn’t seem to serve them badly at all. One such, a regular in various rich lists, carries a mobile, but has it set not to take voicemail. Callers hear a slightly apologetic (but not really) message saying, “I’m afraid you can’t leave a voicemail on this, so if it’s urgent, send a text or try again later.” This chap, however, always answers e-mails to his BlackBerry – even, alarmingly, when he’s flying his helicopter. This system, he swears, sorts the sheep from the goats.

Another wealthy and hyper-successful acquaintance operates a similar but crucially different form of triage: he absolutely refuses to do e-mail or text in any form, but is a phone demon. Like my old editor, he figures that the old-fashioned, steam-operated voice phone call takes such an effort that only those with something worth saying will go to the bother of making one.

Another contact still, also successful and, I have to say, pretty damned effective, only deals with e-mails in office hours. She refuses to check (or at least respond to) her work e-mail at home, doesn’t have a BlackBerry or any other way of getting e-mail on her phone – and, additionally, keeps that device’s number a secret known only to her family and ultimate boss. A person’s direct landline used to be his or her most guarded secret; now it’s devalued currency. The number you want is a person’s mobile – it’s almost as if it’s the direct connection to their brain.

So does it work? Does, in effect, using technology counterintuitively to keep your distance rather than to stay neurotically in touch make you seem interesting, mysterious and important, or like an oddball? It’s hard, obviously, to be definitive about it but there is anecdotal evidence, if merely from the continuing business and social success of the uncontactable hardcore I happen to know, that if you have the confidence there is merit in this method.

There’s no doubt that our 21st-century ultra-connectedness has turned us all into communication hamsters. E-mail has been a terrific business innovation but, according to research last year for the BBC’s Money Programme, with 2m being sent every minute in the UK alone, up to half of some people’s working day is currently spent ploughing through inboxes. One FTSE company has reportedly calculated that dealing with pointless e-mails costs it £39m a year. Equally, I’d wager that the majority of you reading this are well aware that the phone call – the right call at the right time, that is – has become to some extent a lost business art, and is mightily effective when practised correctly.

And another thing: high-profile people who are too contactable do rather lose their sheen. One well-known serial entrepreneur I could name responds from his BlackBerry within seconds at any time of day or night to e-mails addressed to his easily guessable address. It results not in his being admired and fêted, but his seeming a little too over eager to be taken seriously.

You want to argue with this and say that the only way to be a success is to be super-available? Sure thing, e-mail me. If you’re agreeable and non-threatening, I’ll answer at some point. You really want to discuss it? No problem. Call me on my mobile – I’m sure you have the number.