The Intensity of Web Communication

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Bodies are finite envelopes. Put too much or too little into them and there are clear medical and esthetic consequences. Everyone knows that. This is one reason half the population seems to be on a diet and the other chooses its food as if it will confer either instant death (bacon) or life forever (tofu on a bed of greens).

Wassily Leontief received a Nobel Prize for analyzing input-output economics. Anyone with a scale does the same thing every morning. n But what about the mind or brain or spirit or soul or whatever you decide to call it? Is the notion acceptable that not only is it desirable to have an immense array of interests and to pursue a large number of different intellectual directions, but that in some sense doing it makes it easier to do more? That, like exercise, reading five newspapers makes a person more effective at reading 10? That knowing the latest Liszt recording smoothes the way to understanding neatly the musical genealogy of Keith Jarrett? That seeing Iranian movies improves your capacity to generate theories about the sources of style?

Just go into your good neighborhood magazine store and you will realize how limited is the purview of your mind's eye. There is an impossible luxury available to you of publications reflecting every conceivable focus of interest from the skin of starlets to the earnings of professional billiard players to a comparison of rotary saws for cutting formica. This is to say nothing of the flood of contributions to the same issues but from other countries?Italian bikerwear, Brazilian gardens, Japanese platform shoes, Dutch sailboats, the latest Zen chants.

This overwhelming cornucopia is of course wonderful in every sense. It is the most colorful possible demonstration of the intellectual and artistic vitality of the community, and of the consequence of a relatively unfettered freedom of expression. But it has to be set aside from the other media of communication that are available also, and which absorb time like the desert soaks up water. The most obvious at the moment is the Internet and its role in organizing the millions of e-mails that flash around the world each hour. It would be interesting to know how many hours of each workday are spent in the office exchanging an array of messages that have little or nothing to do with why a paycheck arrives every two weeks. Don't get me wrong. Communication with the outside world is vital for employees. At a management conference in Colombia I made the point that a main characteristic of working-class jobs is that there is no easy phone access, and I suggested that every factory floor have a large red telephone centrally located on which otherwise mute employees could make and receive urgent calls about their lives away from work. So e-mail and now cellphones offer more people what only a relative few used to have?"Miss Smith, call the Coast."

My concern is with time. E-mail is phenomenally useful and its cheapness, speed and interestingly laconic dialect provide an immense advantage to the people, businesses and societies that use it. Through the various interest groups served by instantaneous communication between hundreds of people at once, useful information or tasty gossip or simple assertions for their own sake can be retailed with the cost and efficiencies of wholesale.

But the time! What is to be done with the 30 or 40 or 50 messages or many more that may accumulate while the owner of the computer is sleeping peacefully or quietly knitting scarves or unreeling a movie? Delete them before reading? Set up a system of barriers? Or plow through them, especially the ones marginally of interest and which, anyway, are they? I recently was invited to join a somewhat select group interested in a particular matter that involves my job, and I have been almost swamped by the intensity and volume of communication among people whose work is all about communication, so it is no surprise that that is what they do so readily. But things that are in print are readily converted to electricity and then to e-mail, and so there is a flood of stimuli that only time and decision-making can discipline.

It is like having the whole magazine store in your workroom. Where do you start? and where do you put things? and, oh golly, here comes next month's batch. It is a management problem drastically worse than the early days of VCRs, when countless people taped countless programs they hadn't time to watch when they were broadcast but then of course hadn't time to watch at any time. And all this can take place at home, so that not only are North Americans working longer hours, but more of their hours at home are likely to be scented by the rumor of the workplace.

Now the Ford Motor Co. announces that it will provide each of its 350,000 employees all over the world high-speed PCs, color printers, home pages in 14 languages and unlimited Internet access for 17 cents a day. You can bet your bottom share of Microsoft that the barrier between work and family will become ever frailer as information about work is available at the kitchen table while the recipe for dinner, if anyone is around to cook it, is being accessed during an Internet break down at the plant. This will happen in India as well as Canada, Poland as well as Mexico. The implications are immense for the company and the communities in which it operates. And every employee will check the price of Ford stock on which he or she has ownership or options 10 times a day, and the general interest in the stock market will be further enhanced when a huge percentage of the population has access to the minute-by-minute information about the market, which used to be one of the principal privileged tools of those who worked on Wall Street, not Main Street. The Brave New World won't be that brave, but it is certainly new.

When people move to a city, they have to choose a neighborhood. The world is now a city. Every neighborhood has some amenities, some pains in the neck, some charm, something better, something worse. People take for granted that they cannot live in all neighborhoods at once all the time. The same sense of limitation is not accepted about the neighborhoods of the mind. The assumption is that brainpower and attention-power expand to receive the available interesting subject matter. But they can't. That woman who comes to play tennis during her lunch hour but spends half of it on her cellphone, or people having dinner together who talk to other people on their phones, suffer from a crowding disease the symptoms of which are not yet altogether clear.

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