On The Wagon

What happens when one homebased entrepreneur spends a week in tech withdrawal? Trust us: You don't want to know.
From the January 1999 issue of Startups

Think technology is a simple little plug-in to the human work experience that can be added or removed with reckless abandon and no fallout? Yeah, right. Try cutting off your thumbs.

When my editor first called, this article seemed like a pretty straightforward assignment. Spend a week gradually removing technology from my home office. On Monday, I'd start with my cell phone and printer. Then on Tuesday, I'd ditch the fax machine and PC fax functions. By Wednesday, I'd lose access to e-mail, voice mail, caller ID, call waiting--and my telephone headset, just for good measure. Finally, on Thursday, the PC would feign the fritz--and everything would carry over into Friday.

The premise of the assignment was to discover--from the standpoints of business productivity and general psychology--how I'd handle being disconnected for five days from the technology that powers my home office.

I quickly learned the extent of my dependence on technology. My typical day begins with turning on my PC. With a hum in my ears and the monitor's glow on my face, this is my daily reveille. A message light blinking on my phone or e-mail in my in-box--these are the anchors of my day. Without them, how would I react? Focused and undeterred, or rudderless and adrift?

"When something goes wrong electronically, people get extremely upset because they rely so heavily on technology," says Gloria Donaldson, principal and corporate psychologist with Reed Organization, an Oak Park, Illinois, management consulting firm. "They're accustomed to responding quickly. If they can't do that, it causes a lot of stress and anxiety."

Donaldson characterized me as an "addict" when I said I had begged my editors to let me check my e-mail twice during the week-long assignment. This from a woman who confesses she "would just be paralyzed" without her cell phone.

It was disconcerting to sit in an office where capable hardware was sitting idle. Something about it didn't feel right. It was then that I realized how much of a test this assignment was going to be.


Jeffrey Zbar is a homebased journalist and author of Home Office Know-How (Upstart Publishing). Now that he's back in the technology saddle again, you can e-mail him at jeff@goinsoho.com

Monday

No printer or cell phone? Where's the challenge there? As a SOHOer in the digital age, I usually print documents about as often as I leave home for appointments. Actually, the first two days of this assignment should be a breeze, I told myself. I'm Digital Man. My information moves as zeroes and ones across copper wires, emerging in someone else's server in the same digital form.

Then at 8 a.m., as I'm headed out the door, it hits me. I need a copy of the agenda for an event I'm scheduled to cover in Miami today. Except as soon as I realize I want to print a document, I remember the HP 660C is off-limits. And it just so happens that the day calls for me to be on the road--and the cell phone is also out-of-bounds. In the celluloid exclamation of Homer Simpson, "Doh!"

Maybe this exercise will be a bit of a challenge after all, I thought. The sun had hardly risen on Monday, and I'd been hog-tied twice. But truth be told, the rest of the day was rather simple. But then along came . . .

Tuesday

OK, at first this was an intriguing little exercise in technology removal. But not having a fax machine can be downright burdensome. You don't see how much a part of your life it is until you don't have the privilege of using it. Heck, fax numbers are as requisite on business cards as phone numbers and e-mail addresses are. No sooner would I go to give my fax number to someone than I'd realize that I couldn't access it anyway. "Um," I told one person, "you can fax it, but I won't get to it until Friday. Can you e-mail it to me?"

Another caveat: My guidelines permitted me to receive a fax, just not read it. If I wanted to read a fax, I would have to have it sent to a fax machine other than my own. Thus, any faxes to my machine would lay in my in-basket awaiting my attention until week's end. After all, we were banning me--not my clients or contacts--from the technological advances of the late 20th century. I'm not looking to sabotage my business.

I could have run down the street and borrowed my associate Juli's fax machine. She is a senior director at a network marketing company and is home much of the day. But with the frequency of my inbound faxes, would she grab a pickax and dig up my telephone lines if I proved to be a fax hog? Ultimately, I decided not to bug her. Still, the option to use her fax machine was there and that helped to ease my mind.

As Tuesday rolled to a close, my thoughts turned toward Wednesday. Without communications tools beyond the basic phone, would I become isolated and detached? I work solo, and although I have my wife and kids close at hand, professional input and camaraderie are some of the things I savor. A dearth of e-mail or voice mail sounds about as savory as a cup of sawdust.

Wednesday

Now we were getting serious. No voice mail? No e-mail? No Web? For three days? If there was one day I was dreading in this assignment, it was today.

This is worse than an AOL crash. I can't use CompuServe, AOL or voice mail. Not even Caller ID Deluxe to screen incoming calls while I'm on the phone. A triple-witching crash. Egad. What dingbat in Business Development agreed to do this piece?

Losing access to the Web took me back to the days of begging people to fax or overnight info to me so I could meet a pressing deadline. Today, the Web makes the rich data stored in the libraries of the world open like King Tut's tomb. Just sit back and think for a moment . . . when was the last time you went hunting for information and found it online? Now remove your Web access. For three days. It's kind of like being on AOL after a multimillion-dollar ad campaign hits the airwaves--there are 10 gazillion people dialing in to 12 modems. For that reason alone, I've put in two ISP connections, just in case.

To those of us grown accustomed to "flash sessions," or quick log ons to send or receive e-mail--if only to send out a brief message or to see who's contacting us--losing e-mail access is a mental strain. I'd be reaching for the "alt-m-m" function so I could "send/retrieve" on CompuServe and I'd have to catch myself. This was getting frustrating. Should I ask my editors if they would allow me to include pay for mental-health-hazard duty on my invoice?

I guess the point here is that the Internet has become so woven into daily business functions that many people are ill-equipped to work without it. In the spring of 1995, Time magazine wowed America with a special issue called "Welcome to Cyberspace." Today, even the word "cyberspace" is passé.

"If you think back, you probably didn't use any of the above [technology] before 1990," says Donaldson, a woman who still doesn't have e-mail. "Very quickly, we've made a transformation to utter reliance."

The other "inconvenience" posed on Wednesday was the loss of ancillary telephone services. I spend upward of $50 a month on "basic" telephone services. I have BellSouth's voice mail, call waiting, caller ID and Caller ID Deluxe, which lets me see who's calling while I'm on the line. I was allowed to "tip off" callers on my voice-mail message, warning them I wouldn't be checking my messages until Friday afternoon. Sure, no technological meltdown is convenient, and in real life, I wouldn't be able to warn anyone. But this was a contrived experiment from the get-go, and our goal was not to scuttle my business--just my psyche.

What's worse, my Nortel two-line telephone with a built-in caller ID screen began to look like a Post-it note host. Scraps of the popular note pads covered my caller ID message screen and my message-indicator light. I quickly discovered that seeing I had a message waiting was like Chinese water torture, only psychologically more painful. Now, if I could have only masked the sound of the stutter tone telling me there were messages waiting . . .

To make matters worse, all the telephone hardware I had purchased to untether me was rendered useless. That trusty Sony two-line portable that enables me to wander about my home and surrounding grounds without fear of missing a call was off limits. No more conference calls from poolside or quick trips to the mailbox while still connected to the world outside by two invisible copper wires. That posed an annoyance.

So, too, did the calls made with a telephone receiver cradled between my shoulder and ear. My $100 ergonomic telephone headset--the one that had eliminated a kinked neck three years ago--was also tossed asunder for this assignment. (Trust me, I won't be suggesting an article on removing ergonomics and good office design features from home offices anytime soon. I'd end up spending my fee on chiropractor bills.)

Thursday

Another day, another blackout. This time, the trusted personal computer. That meant no QuickBooks to log checks received. (Ironically, none came.) No Corel Presentations to tweak my ads or collaterals. No Word 97 to ply my trade. Nada.

"Do you own a typewriter?" my editor asked, hoping I wouldn't be completely stymied.

"A what?" I mocked. That 1945 manual Remington typewriter that sits displayed on a shelf as testament to my professional pride was hardly a satisfactory replacement. Heck, I don't even know if it can type the letters "SOS."

What was rote on any other day was rendered useless today. My neurons were shooting duds as I tried to plan a course of action. Nothing was connecting. Although I had planned for this day for weeks, I sat at my desk for 20 minutes waiting for something to click. No e-mail to check. Voice mail in a jail of its own.

I didn't know what to do with myself. I don't take interview notes by hand. Everything's typed into the computer. Even the telephone numbers I would have dialed for working stories were locked in my (cold, dead) PC. In fact, that's always been my lament about using contact manager software like ACT! Boot up to retrieve one phone number? Hogwash.

In other words, although I knew I had plenty to do, I was like that rudderless ship.

But Thursday was also the day for me to learn the finer points of the repurposing of the human worker. The modern SOHOer is "multifunction" personified. We handle marketing, product development, client relations, bookkeeping and interaction with the home front. So I repurposed my learned efforts. I took to the phone and touched base with clients I hadn't called in months. I solicited new work. I pitched my book.

With those ancient tools called pen and paper, I jotted thank-you letters to friends and allies who've helped me along the way. Ah, writer's cramp. Now that's something I haven't felt in years. Donaldson suggests I frame some of the handwritten notes I wrote to friends.

Friday

Thursday and Friday were days wrought with the angst of discontent. But at least on Friday, I could see a pinhole of light at the end of the tunnel.

It began as another day of writing, talking and contemplating the home office without the hum and glow of technology. I had been quietly anticipating this day all week--the last day of the experiment--as a day to ponder life without technology.

Ultimately, I didn't really mind the separation. I planned all along to do chores around the office. I filed that "to be filed" stack. I cleaned out my dated folders from the filing cabinets. (The garbage collectors would curse me come Saturday.) This office has never been cleaner or more organized and my head never more clear.

Often when I'm traveling on business, I leave the laptop at home and take along a file labeled "to be read." Now, with no computers to compete for my attention, my thoughts lay undivided for the reading at hand. Until . . .

It was 2 p.m. Salvation at last! A stack of faxes, an in-box full of e-mail, a mailbox full of voice mail. It was as if I'd been traveling in the Amazon for a few days and come back to in-box chaos. I screened the 18 messages I had already scanned on Wednesday evening (I skipped Thursday altogether), and saw that another 16 had joined them.

Epilogue

I told dozens of people about this assignment. Two responses were typical. "Cheat" was the first. Use the technology, however sparingly or robustly, and just don't admit it. Well, I'm no Woodward or Bernstein, but I don't write for tabloids, either. I stuck to my promised MO.

The other comment from friends was--and I'm putting this kindly--"Are you nuts?" One friend, a telecommuting business development executive with an Internet content provider, said she'd rather lose an appendage than her ThinkPad. "If you [hadn't told me it was an assignment], I'd think you were nuts," she said.

Another friend, a midlevel manager with a large corporation, said he'd almost welcome the respite from the deluge of e-mail messages and voice mail that come his way each day. Productivity, he noted, would skyrocket as he spent less time corresponding with cohorts.

Technology, I came to realize, is as important to the homebased entrepreneur as it is to the corporate dweller. We are so inextricably linked to our hardware and software that to take them away would violate our Constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Dilbert would have a field day raging against our bosses, except our bosses are us.

But this much is true: Whether it's having a backup PC, regularly backing up content to protect against data crashes, using a voice-mail service to answer calls reliably, or reaching across the desk to grab a fax, technology is what empowers the home office. The fact that it can render us powerless if it becomes so itself is of little meaning. If that were to happen, the lesson learned is to become a more flexible and resourceful worker. And you can always give out Juli's fax number when you're in a pinch.

Disaster Plan

With technology hardly flawless and the dreaded Y2K computer bug looming, now's the time to prepare--mentally and physically--for the almost certain eventuality of a techno meltdown. Here are some ways to prepare for disaster:

  • Buy, use and frequently test surge suppressors and uninterrupted power supplies (UPSs). Ever had a "brown-out" erase unsaved data? It's unnerving beyond words. Plugging into a UPS provides a few precious minutes of power to allow you to save data in the event of a loss of electricity. Be sure to test it every few months by storing your data and then unplugging the UPS from the wall.
  • Get into the habit of backing up your data to a secondary storage system, such as a tape cartridge, a Jaz or Zip disk, or, for smaller files, a floppy disk. One crashed hard drive that's been backed up, and you'll be thrilled.
  • Still using an answering machine? Switch to a voice-mail system from your telephone company or a local vendor. No more lost messages--and they'll even take the message when you're on the phone or online. In the event of a fire, storm, blackout or other crisis, the system takes messages and allows users to retrieve them remotely.
  • Network with others in your neighborhood to see who has a fax machine or the same ISP in case your system goes down. This would even help if you ran out of fax paper and were expecting an important fax.
  • Make sure your operating program is Y2K compliant--that is, it won't crash when the mirrored ball falls in Times Square this December. Windows 98 computers and most Windows 95 systems pass the test.

Contact Source

Reed Organization, (708) 386-8653, fax: (708) 386-0607.

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