QUESTIONING TECHNOLOGY: Boss on the Belt

Cheap pagers and cell phones have made "staying in touch" a big business. However, along with the proliferation of these devices comes a subtle shift in human relationships and -- in many cases -- a massive loss of personal privacy.A television commercial depicts a businessman being instantly reachable on his cell phone while putting away on a golf course. Another shows a wireless computer user doing business while lounging in a swimsuit on the beach. At first glance the message can be quite compelling: Through the wonders of modern wireless communications technology, the harried worker can be productive (translation: "do business") while pursuing a favorite leisure activity outside the office.What's missing from this appealing concept is the fact that the technology also puts one perpetually "on call" to business associates, customers and friends at any hour of the day or night. Once you've invited the outside world to contact you directly on a pager or cell phone, you have surrendered your privacy to the whims of others. That pager or phone can quickly become a boss on the belt.Studies of mobile workers have found that wireless communications technology extends -- rather than contracts -- the working day. Those who have power over the mobile worker -- whether a boss or important customer -- tend to no longer respect traditional business hours when feeling the need to make contact. The business call at 10 p.m. quickly becomes as common as the one at 10 a.m.Just as the use of the Federal Express overnight delivery service has become the norm rather than the exception in routine business package delivery, your instant availability is quickly taken for granted. The boundaries between personal and business time evaporate when you are only a phone call away.There is a simple way to use modern communications technology without giving up one's privacy. To do this, the user must remain acutely aware of the privacy implications involved in using these tools and resist buying into the traditional marketing messages used to sell them.In fact, it's quite simple to devise a strategy for using pagers and cell phones to gain privacy, rather than loose it. It's a twist on the "staying in touch" strategy promoted by the phone and pager companies. It reverses the power relationship, will keep you as informed as you want to be, and will also save considerable money over time.This privacy-first strategy uses the pager and cell phone in tandem. It also requires a subscription to a voice mail service with the ability to trigger your pager when you have an incoming message. The idea here is to use mobile communications technology without others necessarily knowing it. Here's how it works:Step 1: Have a single phone number that you give to people who need to reach you. Have voice mail that picks up calls to that line when you are not available. As far as your callers know, this is the only way to reach you. If you are not available when they call, they leave a message and assume you'll pick it up in a reasonable amount of time.This voice mail capability can be in the form of an answering machine or phone company messaging service. In either case, it should be capable of sending a signal to a pager when a message is received. I prefer phone company voice mail because it takes messages while you are talking on the line, it's more reliable than answering machines and, in the long run, it's cheaper.Step 2: With this voice mail set-up you can choose to be paged each time you get a new message. No need to keep calling in to check your messages when you are expecting an important call. Alternatively, when you don't want to be disturbed, simply turn off the pager.But remember, don't announce this voice mail/pager link to the world. If you do, callers -- knowing you're being paged after they leave a message -- will expect you to return their calls immediately. The idea here is to take calls on YOUR terms, not those of the caller. The beauty of this system is that if you are expecting an important call, you can check in to get the message immediately without the calling party knowing how reachable you actually are.Step 3: Use your cell phone only to return calls, not to receive them. Never give out your cell phone number. That means even to your closest friends or associates. Do not subscribe to cell phone voice mail. And, most important, keep your cell phone turned off except when you choose to make an outgoing call. Use the cell phone only as a convenient way to RESPOND to messages when a regular phone is not available. (The rest of this set-up will easily pay for itself with the money saved from cell phone air time charges.)OK, so this system might be fine for the independent worker, but what about those who have pagers and cell phones assigned them by their employer? How can one maintain a degree of personal privacy once the normal workday is done?This condition cannot be solved with technology. It demands personal resolve by the worker to fiercely protect his or her personal time and privacy. If being "on call" after hours is not an essential part of the job, the situation requires the worker to set clear guidelines with both employer and customers as to what is and what is not acceptable after hours contact.As new communications technology and the pressures of a global economy force workers increasingly toward an endless workday, the price to be paid by the worker in terms of increased stress and loss of privacy are enormous. This treadmill will stop only when workers fully understand what "staying in touch" means and learn to say no to that boss on the belt.

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