The Post-Information Age13

Being Asynchronous

A face-to-face or telephone conversation is real time and synchronous. Telephone tag is a game played to find the opportunity to be synchronous. Ironically, this is often done for exchanges, which themselves require no synchrony whatsoever, and could just as well be handled by non-real-time message passing. Historically, asynchronous communication, like letter writing, has tended to be more formal and less off-the-cuff exchanges. This is changing with voice mail and answering machines.

I have met people who claim they cannot understand how they (and we all) lived without answering machines at home and voice mail at the office. The advantage is less about voice and more about off-line processing and time shifting. It is about leaving messages versus engaging somebody needlessly in on-line discussion. In fact, answering machines are designed slightly backward. They should not only activate when you are not there or don't want to be there, but they should always answer the telephone and give the caller the opportunity to simply leave a message.

One of the enormous attractions of e-mail is that it is not interruptive like a telephone. You can process it at your leisure, and for this reason you may reply to messages that would not stand a chance in hell of getting through the secretarial defenses of corporate, telephonic life.

E-mail is exploding in popularity because it is both an asynchronous and a computer-readable medium. The latter is particularly important, because interface agents will use those bits to prioritize and deliver messages differently. Who sent the message and what it is about could determine the order in which you see it--no different from the current secretarial screening that allows a call from your six-year-old daughter to go right through, while the CEO of the XYZ Corporation is put on hold. Even on a busy workday, personal e-mail messages might drift to the top of the heap.

Not nearly as much of our communications need to be contemporaneous or in real time. We are constantly interrupted or forced into being punctual for things that truly do not merit such immediacy or promptness. We are forced into regular rhythms, not because we finished eating at 8:59 p.m., but because the TV program is about to start in one minute. Our great-grandchildren will understand our going to the theater at a given hour to benefit from the collective presence of human actors, but they will not understand the synchronous experiencing of television signals in the privacy of our home--until they look at the bizarre economic model behind it.

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