Strictly Business: Getting tripped up by technology

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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A buddy in my Saturday morning running group has been sidelined for weeks, and his iPhone is partly to blame. While fiddling with the phone one day, he ran headlong into a fire hydrant. That kicked up an old foot injury that has kept him from his rigorous running routine for the first time in decades.

While the circumstances of that mishap are unusual, we've become accustomed to tales of cellphone distractions that cause serious problems for ourselves and others. That's why many states, including Washington, have passed laws against cellphone chats and text messaging while driving, recognizing that a compulsion for constant contact can have fatal consequences.

I was reminded of the zeal of our societal desire to connect to the world at any time, and any place, when I read last week of another survey about the depths of that desire. Silicon Valley mobile communications provider Good Technology's survey found that more than 80 percent of people continue working when they have left the office, with an average of seven extra hours each week. They do it just by answering the phone and going online for emails, according to the survey of 1,000 U.S. adults.

Sixty percent said their work at home consisted of getting organized, but almost half said they had no choice and one-third said they work at home because they find it hard to "switch off." Half of respondents even read or respond to work emails while in bed.

Remember family time?

As for family time — good luck getting anyone's undivided attention in today's household. According to the survey, 57 percent of Americans check work emails on family outings, and 38 percent routinely check work emails at the dinner table.

While the results raise obvious issues about family life and unpaid work by salaried employees, Good Technology was hardly bemoaning its findings. It encouraged readers to post "some of the most unusual places they've responded to a work email," with an opportunity to win an iPad just in case they weren't already sufficiently wired.

One reader responded on the company's Facebook site with his pitch for the prize: He was checking email and updating a network diagram with his sleeping 3-week-old son in one arm and his iPad in the other hand, all while reclining on his couch. A sweet memory of early fatherhood.

I'm reminded of technology's great promise — access to information unimagined by any previous generation, tools to simplify our work, text messages to places ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe. We have that in abundance.

But I also recall an old political truism that when a political vacuum exists, someone will step in to fill it. With technology, we've created the tools to make life simpler and free up our time, and we're busy filling up the vacuum we've created — with more work.

It's tough to tell whether this will make us wealthier, wiser, and happier, or if we're all going to be tripping over our own fire hydrant.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver;http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or gordon.oliver@columbian.com.