Cyborgs at Work?

Posted: May 28, 2011 in Human Value, Organization Culture

I have wanted to write this post for some time now, but for some reason have been putting it off.  On May 27, 2011, however, for the first time in US history,  a bill was signed into law by a mechanical autopen at the direction of President Obama who was in Europe. This historic event, and dare I say a great money saver, provided the inspiration I needed.

About fifteen years ago, while in graduate school, I was tasked with developing a model to explain organization dynamics. At the time I was working in a manufacturing environment so the human-machine interface was obvious. The manufacturing equipment was part mechanical, part electrical, and the factory was supported by IBM mainframes, DEC Minicomputers, and other smaller computers. Supervisors were equipped with shortwave radios and beepers for more effective communication. Personal computers had started to enter the workplace in 1981 accompanied by dot matrix printers and later, ink pen plotters. For me, the most obvious concept was the CYBORG Model.

I specifically remember one of the first outbursts against the invasion of the Cyborgs that populated the model. In the late 1980’s we had hired Dr. Wayne Dyer to come to the world’s largest factory of its kind and speak to the salaried workforce in the auditorium. Within minutes after his opening remarks, someone’s beeper went off.  Dr. Dyer abruptly stopped his planned talk and went into a ten minute rant about “electronic leashes” He chastised the group for being slaves to technology and not taking personal responsibility for deciding when to turn it off. I wonder how he feels today.

Technology began to evolve at an ever increasing pace. Palm Pilots were the Personal Digit Assistants (PDA) of choice, but were later eclipsed by the BlackBerry, with other models spanning the gap. Car phones became mobile phones and entered the workplace. Productivity steadily increased as did distraction.

“Crackberries” soon began showing up in meetings. They tended to be the higher level managers that the company had chosen to supply with the technology. The behavior of checking the device increased in frequency.

As technology continued its whirlwind advance, computers became more useful and cell phones smarter. Our ability to connect with others increased exponentially as did our ability to disconnect on a personal level.

It’s not uncommon today to see more than one person in a meeting checking emails, text messages, or even just entertaining themselves as Cyborgs. A bigger complaint, one I have experienced myself, is the one-on-one meeting with the “manager” who during the course of the meeting will glance at his computer screen for incoming email, check her cell phone for text messages or take an incoming call, and yes, even answer the “land-line” phone.

What has happened? In science fiction it’s called assimilation. Have we become assimilated by the technology? All technology devices I am aware of have On/Off switches.  Could Dr. Wayne Dyer’s rant in the 1980’s been a foreshadowing, a warning about the future?

As much as I observe and sometimes criticize Cyborg behavior, I am not immune from it. I would not be able to function without my laptop; and just recently I was seduced by the Sirens of the smart phone. My rational was that I needed mobile access to my email when I traveled. Little did I realize that the lure of its capability would capture so much of my time and attention – the Android may well be the cousin of the Cyborg.

I haven’t even addressed the Internet or the World Wide Web. And now that Web 2.0 has arrived, perhaps the entire concept of the human-machine interface is changing. Check out this popular 4:31 minute video by Professor Wesch and pay special attention to the ending messages. It’s called Web 2.0… Machines are Us/ing Us.

Incite: To what degree have you been assimilated? When personally connecting with other people at work, can you control or even shut down your machine-side?  What can you do to show others that they are more important than your technology?

  1. Linda says:

    Your website is terrific. I especially enjoyed the most recent entry on Cyborgs. It’s been 5 years since I retired, but it didn’t take me 5 seconds to recall the faces of a few “crackberries” from my past. Well done and best wishes. Linda

  2. Ray Capek says:

    Ah yes, man and the machine. It is nothing new, as my distant relative Karel described in Rossum’s Universal Robots. We can all be seduced by things, things that we interact with, things that we feel we “need”, things that we envy in the possession of others. I think the most dangerous though, is the things we interact with. They usurp our communication with other humans in a more direct way. They allow us to ignore communication we don’t want to deal with. What does that do to the workplace? What kind of games can we play in not communicating in a direct way?

  3. Rick Phelps says:

    Linda & Ray, thanks so much for your comments. Linda, ‘not sure what the new name will become for “crackberries” as iPhones and Androids begin to proliferate. Ray, I like your categorization of “things.” Distant relative, eh? Sounds like you got at least one gene.

  4. Rubi says:

    Great questions
    To what degree have you been assimilated? 70% – I just made it up. But I do ignore my phone most of the weekend. And usually reserve the evenings for people in my life. Hummmm… 70% seems like a lot maybe I should rethink.

    When personally connecting with other people at work, can you control or even shut down your machine-side? It’s so difficult! I try. Your focus on the subject will make me more self-aware.

    What can you do to show others that they are more important than your technology? Listen, listen, listen – and don’t reach for the crackberry! I believe being a good listener has contributed to success in my life. I love being completely immersed in a conversation; it’s one of my favorite things!

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