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Snippets for our lazy brains

We live in the age of the immediate turn-around. I’m not entirely sure that is a good thing, but there you are, that’s the way things are. E-mails crave instantaneous replies. To have them jamming up the inbox, hovering like angry gnats in the “unread” category, is, for most of us, somewhat unbearable. So we read, reply, forget and get on with the next e-mail.

When I started working, e-mails weren’t even on the horizon. Ok, I’m not that old, but as a junior accountant in the 1980’s it was still very much paper. And telex. Anyone remembers telex? As the youngest on the team, I was often sent off to the Swedish phone company’s central office to send and collect telexes. Long reams of paper that required translation from a Telex person somewhere. Like an expanded version of the telegram. And let me tell you, it was leading-edge technology back then, in the eighties…

A telex took like 24 hours back and forth. Someone sent it, someone had to collect it, someone had to read it, someone had to consider a concise but informative reply, someone had to trot back to the telex office and send it off to the other end, where someone had to collect it.

24 hours today is like considering paddling across the Atlantic – utterly ridiculous.

A year or so into my work life, and the telex was dead. Gone, buried, laughed at. The new hot thing was the fax, and the first one I ever saw was the size of a freezer. I recall standing beside the receptionist, utterly awestruck by the fact that the drawings presently appearing on the paper before us had been sent from Sydney, Australia less than five minutes ago. Boy, oh boy: the Brave New World was upon us, and soon we would all have our own little home fax so as to be able to scrawl things on paper and fax them across the globe. Well, that never happened, because hot on the heels of the fax came…taa-daa…the e-mail.

Despite faxes and telexes, business in the eighties was still mostly conducted through regular letters. You know, sheets of cream coloured paper beginning “Dear Sirs” and ending “Yours Sincerely” after which would follow a more or less illegible signature. Consider the letter-writing process:
Person A decides to send a letter to person B in which it is suggested their two companies discuss a common venture. Said and done, Person A calls in his secretary (and sadly, at the time Person A would in 99% of the cases be a man while the secretary would be a woman), dictates while she stenographs – a dying art in this day and age – and some hours later Ms Secretary presents Person A with a letter to sign.
The letter is sent off. Two, three, seven days later (depending on where it is going) the letter reaches Person B. Well, Person B’s secretary, if we’re going to be correct, who opens it and places it in Person B’s in-tray. Person B reads it sometime just before lunch.
“Hmm,” says Person B, rather intrigued by the proposal. Person B mulls it over for some days, and then he calls in his secretary. Some hours later, a responding letter is on its way to Person A.

It may be important to point out that Person A won’t have put his entire life on hold while waiting for the response. That would have been stupid. And when the letter finally arrives, close to three weeks after it was sent off, Person A doesn’t necessarily throw himself at it. You see, both Person A and Person B know that time is money, but they also know that using some of that time to THINK before surging ahead generally pays off. Now that may be a novel thought for some of today’s young action-oriented lions…

Even more miraculously, life actually worked back then. I know, quite inconceivable, that there was a life in an age in which the internet was ridiculed as a “fad” (a gaff the then Swedish Minister of Communication will never live down…).

So what’s my point, you may be wondering – unless it is to wax nostalgically about a past in which fountain pens and embossed paper still played a crucial role? Well, dear readers, I don’t miss the paper, or the pen. I’m a major fan of internet, and consider e-mail most efficient. BUT where did the thinking time go? When did we stop reflecting, looking at the bigger picture?

It is my belief that the speed in communications has resulted in knee-jerk decisions – often with a very short time perspective. In the world of business, this is further fuelled by the focus on quarterly results rather than on longevity of vision and strategy, but even in our private spheres, we tend to react rather than reflect. Plus, of course, we’ve all been tarred by the “immediate gratification” brush.

Patience is as virtue we no longer have – or appreciate. We become bored and restless, we want our news served in appropriate bite-size chunks. Yes, we want to be informed – but not too much. In essence, this means we end up knowing WHAT has happened, not WHY. And even worse, many of us don’t care about the why.

We’ve become headliners, and if the headline snags our attention we might read the introductory paragraph. Might. As a consequence, media is pandering to what we want, namely “snippets” of reality. Stories become truncated, and with the exception of a handful of high-brow, intellectual newspapers and magazines, media churns out endless pages with inconsequential information about inconsequential people and events. But hey, how can we protest? This is what we want, right?

Without reflection, we allow “someone else” to tell us what to think. Unless we exercise our brain cells, we abdicate the right to correct and complete information – “someone else” will decide what we need to know, will interpret the facts. From there, the step is very short to manipulation, to repressive government.

As a citizen in a democracy, it is my obligation to keep myself informed. It is my obligation to assess alternatives, to penetrate the important issues and demand answers – before making up my mind. It is, in brief, my responsibility to think. Doesn’t sound too onerous, does it?

Back in the heyday of fountain pens and paper, people did think. They had time to. In our world of info-inundation, we have a frightening tendency to go with the flow and take all at face value because our poor brains just can’t handle the constant bombardment. But as Descartes one said, “Cogito, ergo sum”. Unless we think, we don’t exist. Not really.

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