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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Can you still do business while unconnected? Amid the legions of the digital fanatics are the professionals who just say no to gizmos and gadgets

August 18, 2008

I'm not big on those classification schemes that put people into categories. You know what I mean, schemes such as, "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who classify others, and those who don't." I'm not sold on Myers-Briggs, for example. I consider it a parlor game with no significant predictive value. All classification schemes leak around the edges, so I avoid them for the most part.

However, there is one categorization to which I now subscribe: those who need to be hooked into a virtual network, and those who don't.

This epiphany came about when I recently flew down to a client's office in a Southern state. To get to his office, you almost literally have to drive to the end of terra firma. You can see the Gulf of Mexico from his office window.

This man runs a thriving, profitable training company and boasts at least two major American companies as ongoing clients, and many smaller ones, with a full staff of at most six people, including him. He spends most of his life in hotels and airports.

I would have thought he'd be a natural candidate to maintain a rich cyber-life as a way of keeping in touch, but that's not the case at all. Aside from his cell phone and his CD player, he makes almost no use of modern gadgetry. He has a computer, but rarely taps its keys. As he himself admits, he may get an e-mail from somebody, call the sender, and ask the sender what's in the e-mail.

He does not use an instant messenger, to my knowledge, nor does he have a listing on any professional or personal networking site. When he works with others developing training materials, somebody else always does the typing.

His world is paper. He has boxes full of resources, ideas, old training materials, brochures, and the like, that he riffles through for reference. It's not that he snubs technology. He merely hires people like me to use it for him, for the most part. And he does not intend to learn for himself, preferring his old habits.

By contrast, the first thing I did when I arrived was to unpack my laptop and sniff out the wireless connection. So did one of the other consultants there. For the rest of two days, we transferred files and emails, went to the Web for information, developed materials on screen, and generally made heavy use of our mutual connectedness.

For him and me, the online world is an extension of our minds, where information is stored, colleagues can be queried, and printers can be accessed even in remote places. When the day was done, both the other consultant and I opted out of a condominium near the beach for the night, preferring to drive back toward civilization and stay at a chain hotel. You can probably guess why: There was wireless at the hotel.

What makes the two of us so happy to be tethered to a digital umbilical, while our colleague is perfectly content to ignore the 21st century? Is it the nature of our jobs, or the idiosyncrasies of our personalities? Or are we in our jobs because of our personalities?

I only know that when I'm cut off from the Net, I feel stranded. Connected up, almost any question can be answered, wisdom about any subject downloaded for free. Without it, I have only half a brain.

What's the capital of Indonesia? What's the annual rainfall in the Amazon basin? What's "adoxography"? How many ounces are in a liter? And even more practically, I can make hotel and plane reservations, check my bank accounts, share my calendar with others, and lots of other things. With it, I feel powerful. Without it, I feel bereft. When connected, I become a node, a participant in, and beneficiary of, a greater network.

So there really are two kinds of people in the world. The nodes I understand intimately, and the isolated ones I can only watch in amazement. Perhaps I was like them many years ago, before the personal computer, before the Internet, although even then I had a personal library at home of some 3,000 volumes to supplement my memory.

I know others besides my client who foreswear the things I love so much, and while I like those people, I can't say I comprehend their thinking patterns. Others have said the two groups represent the future, and the past. Perhaps. But it's also possible that it reflects a personality style.

I need a constant cascade of information about the world, a flow that would choke many people. And there are considerable numbers of others like me. For us, the cyber-world is a godsend, the fire hose we've come to depend upon.



Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.
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