Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Life Before Email? Does Not Compute

Our tablets, phones, and laptops of 2011 chug away in harmony, not unlike J.C.R. Licklider’s 1960 vision of human-computer symbiosis. Licklider—a veteran of Harvard and MIT computing-based endeavors—maintained that the human-computer connection would allow machines to address mundane, time-consuming tasks in a highly efficient manner. For the field, his work was outstanding; for a trained psychologist, his contributions were absolutely incredible.

Licklider saw computers as tools with tremendous capability, even convincing his employers to purchase a $25,000 computer in 1957. Imagine? He imagined future work desks as command stations tethered to the wall, with the essential “umbilical cords” completing a “telecommunication-telecomputation system.” Much like his conceptual sketches of electronic libraries and information retrieval (hello eBooks!), Licklider was years ahead of his time.

In fact, Licklider's ideas were accurate enough that they seem basic to us today. Using a computer for essential tasks? Sure. Plugging in at work for the ultimate human-machine team? Done. We use our “machines” to handle the mundane and necessary, and that includes email, which originated with two geeks leaving “Read Me” notes on disk files in the '60s. They wanted electronic mail for practicality's sake, and we still do today – despite the naysaysers who claim that email is dead. But were we productive back when we weren't answering emails every few minutes? We were, but just not as concerned with hearing back from someone a few seconds later. Others argue that we're getting worse in the productivity department: according to a recent study, American office workers spend up to three hours daily on tasks that aren't work-related (44 percent of that time “playing” on the internet), with lost productivity cost employers an estimate of $750 billion last year.

It's also about expectations—and memory retention. Once we know what our machines can do, it's easy to decrease acceptable communication waiting time, permanently. But while Grandma still says that handwritten thank-you notes are more considerate (and, of course, human), there's another reason to turn to paper occasionally: permanence. If you don't want your words to be edited, muddled, or misconstrued in the digital age, making hard copies wouldn't be the worst idea—this New York Times piece says it all. Plus, with new studies showing a 15 percent to 20 percent increase of memory retention in 3D digital media, we're in for a wild ride in advertising.

And I don’t care what anyone says, email is definitely not dead.

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