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November 15, 2005

Geldof: Technology makes us less productive

Steve Rosenbush

Bob Geldof, the musician and activist, thinks technology is making people less productive. The BBC reported today that Geldof, the former leader of the Boomtown Rats and the organizer of the Live8 benefit, has spoken out against email. The story says:

"Live8 organiser Sir Bob Geldof has revealed his contempt for emails, blaming them for tying up people's time and stopping genuine action.
Sir Bob told a conference in London that emails "give a feeling of action, which is a mistake".
He told delegates that what workers achieve each day will be linked to the number of emails they ignore.
He explained that the "doing part" of a job is proportionate to the amount of emails you do not answer.

Geldof, who received an honorary knighthood in 1986 for organizing the Band Aid concerts to fight hunger in Africa, has earned the right to be a curmudgeon. And he's certainly not the first person to feel overwhelmed by new technologies that could be improved upon in ways too numerous to mention.

His remarks are unfortunate, nonetheless. For one, they ignore reality. Email is a primary means of communications, and it's pointless to bemoan that fact. But the real issue is that email and Internet usage in general tend to make people more productive. Productivity growth is a crucial part of raising living standards around the world. Developing regions such as Africa need more technology, not less. While Geldof's frustration with technology is understandable, his time would be better spent urging people to improve technology, not ignore it.

05:34 PM


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"While Geldof's frustration with technology is understandable, his time would be better spent urging people to improve technology, not ignore it."

Surely time is better spent encouraging people to improve how they manage their use of email.Your remark that email is a primary means of communication provides a timely reminder of something George Bernard-Shaw "The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been achieved." How true, especially in relation to email - evanescent mail?

Posted by: D Cunningham at November 16, 2005 06:38 AM

I do think that Geldolf is onto something though, email and other broadcasting technologies give the illusion that we are no longer even "talking about doing" but "talking about talking" Email allows for greater "data dissemination" but it does not necessarily increase the amount of knowledge or information being consumed.

Posted by: Charles Wu at November 16, 2005 01:58 PM

Thanks for your comments. But I still don't understand why email creates more of an "illusion" of accomplishment than talking on the phone, staring out the window, or gossiping in the corridor. People always have devised ways to procrastinate, havent' they? I got into trouble when I was in third grade because I brought a book, My Side of the Mountain, to school, and put my head under the desk and read it all day long. Sure, people use the Internet to goof off. But do they spend more time goofing off than they did before? Seems they also spend more time at home working when they're supposed to be goofing off.

In what sense are we accomplishing less actual work? What isn't getting done now that was getting done before? Just what are these great new voids? I don't get it.

Posted by: Steve Rosenbush at November 16, 2005 02:29 PM


The final years of the last century saw e-mail hailed as the revolutionary new business tool which, at the press of a button, would enable the sharing of information across not just offices but countries. However, speed without clarity accelerates the rate at which we become confused rather than the rate at which we become better informed

In all organisations, particularly geographically dispersed ones, e-mail is undoubtedly a very useful tool that gives us the potential to share information quickly, easily and cost-effectively with colleagues across the globe. However transmission, coupled with almost simultaneous receipt, places a critical constraint on communication: it must be both concise and targeted if it is to be effective.

The content of some e-mails suggests that authors have forgotten that "Language is the dress of thought" and are sadly attempting to match the speed of composition with the speed of transmission. Moreover, in the UK we should consider ourselves very fortunate that English, in its various guises, appears to be the adopted language of both e-mails and the Internet. That said style as well as language is important for email exchanges. Before the advent of e-mail, business letters followed certain conventions that seem out of place today and leave authors uncertain about the level of formality or "Netiquette" to use with their colleagues in cyberspace. This is all the more perplexing when writing e-mails which cross international boundaries.

Perhaps the process of communication would be that bit easier if we could tinker with email software by adding a few thought provoking dialogue boxes here and there. For example, the overworked "Reply To All" button could prompt you each time it's pressed with a dialogue box (complete with a Clint Eastwood hologram) asking "Are you sure Punk"? Recipients, already drowning under the daily tidal wave of e-mails, will not welcome exciting news about someone's "OK with me" reply to an All Staff Memo. Further preventive measures could include the "Send" function greeting users with a graphic of a missile launch pad and little message saying "Fire this Tomahawk missile or abort mission until blood pressure has returned to normal." The possibilities for similar modifications are endless.

As authors of e-mails, we can all do more to prevent our fellow cybernauts from feeling e-nough is enough. Indeed, we can make our messages more effective by reminding ourselves that the toolbar says "compose", rather than "compost" and adjust our content accordingly. Moreover, let us all remember that although visually anonymous, the people we are dealing with are just that – people, not PC terminals. Consequently, we should show them the same courtesy as if we would meet them each day.

One final note of caution … the spellchecker will check spelling but does not work like a magic spell. It cannot transmogrify incoherent, rambling text into clear, concise messages that are easy for recipients to understand, be they in our own office or in another business unit in which English is not the first language. As so-called native speakers we have a responsibility to be both clear in the use of our language, and understanding towards others when they use it.

Posted by: D Cunningham at November 17, 2005 03:28 AM

The illusion is that you are taking an "action" and it actually takes less time than talking on the phone. I have been on e-mail threads that I started the initial query, where it's got forwarded back to me for an answer. Email allows you to push things along without actually creating any value add. If an action takes little time it gets devalued, email contributes to two fallacies (and these are assertions, not by any means an argument): faster is better and more is better. Email allows faster and more, and people confuse that for better. Also, email shifts the majority of the work from the sender (I was going to say writer, but many emails are not written anymore as just copied, pasted and forwarded) to the reader. In the past the balance of effort was more equitable. That's what I mean the illusion of action.

Posted by: Charles Wu at November 17, 2005 01:41 PM

While email technology may theoretically allow one to be more productive (whatever that really means), the reality is that the majority of people are so horrendously disorganized that they actually wind up LOSING time.

I've seen far too many people who never empty their in-boxes, who can't find anything (blissfully unaware of applications that allow you to search all email in a blink) or who haven't adjusted the options in their email client to help them work better. All the technology in the world is of little value if you don't know how to use it effectively!

Learning to better use technology applies not only to email but to all user facing applications and systems.

Few people organize their PC's for better productivity & maintenance. Few regularly defragment their hard disks, set up multiple disk partitions, know that you will get better performance from two hard disks rather than one large disk (put the paging and temp files on the one that doesn't hold the system files), have a defined folder structure or backup their systems. Most people who run Outlook don't know that you have to manually compact the PST file when you are not running under Exchange (been this way since Outlook '97). Few people know how what RSS is or how it can save them an immense amount of time.

I've watched too many people who claim to live and breath technology cluelessly stumble around PC's, CRM systems, email, etc., etc., wasting so much of their precious time. It's so disappointing. When I try to help them, most just don't seem to have the intellectual capability to grasp the concept that good organization will cost some upfront time but will reward them on the back end. Learning to be productive is too much trouble for them (or they aren't capable of learning).

And there is no reason to expect this will change until (IF) computers and applications are reduced to the level of a TV (on/off, raise/lower the volume, switch channels).

Posted by: Jojo at November 24, 2005 02:14 AM

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