Just because we can…should we?

So while I was at work yesterday, I made a call to someone and when the voicemail picked up, it said “the Google customer you have reached is not available, please leave a message…”, which surprised me a bit, because I guess I hadn’t called anyone with Google Voice yet, but no big deal. I left the message and got on with my day.

The person later emailed me back with a response, which was fine, but when I saw the full text display (well, 80% accurate, anyway) of my voice message in the body of that email, along with a link to go and listen to it on the Google Voice site, I experienced a full-body knee-jerk reaction of fear and displeasure. Since then, I’ve largely convinced myself this reaction is the irrational (and unsurprising) response of a someone who doesn’t even own a cell phone*.

Mostly convinced, anyway.

See, I had called this person regarding a series of miscommunications with others, and though the message itself was perfectly fine, I found myself immediately concerned on multiple levels.

  1. The Google Voice site that the email text was linked to required no log-in to access
  2. The text conversion was moderately good, but without a full knowledge of the topic, some sections would be incomprehensible, and potentially mis-interpreted without the audio
  3. The simple fact of this being an automatic process

Okay, so let’s walk through these and expose my irrational insecurities:

  1. So what? I did a couple quick tests and there seemed to be no way to ‘search’ for voicemails, so it’s not like it was posted on someone’s web site or blog. (Except it would be that easy to do just that; no permission asked/given.)
  2. The voice recognition is getting better all the time, probably soon reach 95% (for Americans speaking English, anyway — I wonder what the recognition rates are for other dialects, nationalities and languages — particularly inflection based ones, like Chinese, etc. — or individuals who talk fast, mumble, etc?), so the margin for mis-interpretation will drop accordingly, and Google uses gray-scaled text to indicate more or less accuracy (What if I’m colorblind or have a visual impairment?). Besides, there’s a link to the full audio, remember? (Okay, but see prev. note.)
  3. Please. If I leave a voice mail on any ‘traditional’ phone, the recipient can easily forward it. (But specifically only to other recipients within that voice mail system.) This is just making it easier to share information. (And here’s my real issue, I guess: Just because we can, does that mean we should?)

So what do you think? Am I a raving Luddite or might this actually go under the heading “Just because you’re paranoid…” ?

I think the latter, but that’s probably an over-simplification. I do appreciate the value of technology (I’m an IT professional, as well as an indie author who is trying to sell digital books online, for crying out loud), but I also harbor a healthy fear of its abuse (intentional) and misuse (unintentional). This seems like one of those misuse areas, mainly through an apparent lack of consideration as to how it could be abused.

On the other hand, as a Business Communications instructor, I see this experience as a way of driving home to my students the importance of positive or neutral messages in all communications. Our society is growing more and more connected technologically (messaging, FB, smart phones, tablets, integrated and aware vehicles that may override our driving habits if deemed ‘necessary’, etc.); this is a simple fact, particularly in the modern business world. As employees and employers, we must be aware that every single thing we say, write, type or do can be recorded, retransmitted and manipulated.

Therefore, we must be even more deliberate and thoughtful in each communication we engage in. This can be seen as an undue business burden (You mean I have to revise every business email I write before I send it out? YES.), but, in truth, isn’t this something we should be paying attention to anyway? Positive client relationships are critical to any business’ success (until you get too big to fail, of course), and this cannot be achieved without positive co-worker relationships, which are governed by the same influences.

However, I am genuinely doubtful that this technological connection is actually yielding a better experience for anyone involved. I don’t want a retailer to be nice to me because she or he is scared of saying something seemingly innocuous that might possibly, potentially offend and which, if a customer should take offense, will certainly later be used against him or her as cause for reprimand (or worse). Further, because of the growth of cloud computing and the ‘endless’ nature of the Internet, these interactions will potentially remain tied to an individual’s work record and ultimately be accessible by other potential employers**.

In my experience, this kind of thing doesn’t make a person more likely to be pleasant; rather, she or he becomes equally anxious and withdrawn and this rubs off on the customer, resulting in the very thing this kind of increased technological connectedness is supposedly helping us avoid: mutual alienation.

I believe this goes double for co-worker relations, for what I hope are obvious reasons, but when it comes to personal relationships, I admit to being deeply perplexed, though this is certainly a ‘virtue’ of my age.

For me, this kind of unasked-for permanence and the incredibly high potential for re-visibilty and re-use (and misuse/abuse) are significant concerns. As I said, though, I’m older, and these fears do not seem to have a bearing on the younger generations***, who (in an admitted oversimplification) generally seem to accept the ‘permanent mutability’ of their communications as normal, and even acceptable. For some, it’s actually considered a positive thing, under the old adage that ‘any publicity is good publicity’.

I fear this perception, however; not because I think ‘kids today…’ or whatever, but precisely because I remember my own youth, and I am extremely grateful there was none of this ‘innovative technology’; not because I didn’t do or say stupid things (which I certainly did), but because the technology was not a focus of my life from the beginning. I certainly spent (more than) my share of time in front of the Atari 400 (with the spill-proof keyboard!), Commodore 64, and Apple II, but I was in middle school before personal computers started showing up in people’s homes, high school before they really started to spread, college when Telnet flourished and out of school before the Internet really took hold.

Today, elementary schools have cell phone use policies for their students (that would be kids under the age of 10). Is this progress?

There are arguments to be made on both sides, of course, with the pro position I hear most being that the world is becoming more technological so keeping children away from technology at a young age may actually be doing them a disservice (like most anything: the younger the exposure, the faster the facility, the sooner the mastery), limiting their viability in the future workforce against peers who did use these tools and devices early on. Alternately, the con side often claims the early use of technology leads to an atrophying of social skills, the rise in obesity, etc..

I tend to lean toward the latter, obviously, but again, I work in IT, I blog****, and I teach online and hybrid courses, none of which would be likely if my father hadn’t recognized the future of technology and made sure we were exposed to it as soon as we could be. On the other hand, I had already been given a youth of bike riding and reading,  skinned knees and ball games, Erector sets and Matchbox cars, friendships made and broken and made anew, which, I believe, helped me balance the approach of technology.

Which brings me back to my original question: Just because we can, should we?

I don’t claim that there is necessarily one answer, but I suppose I’m most worried that we don’t seem to be at least asking the question.

Wow. All this over a stupid voicemail? You are a grumpy old man.

Well, um . . . yeah.


* Yes, it’s true; I work in IT and don’t own a cell phone. I also haven’t seen the movie Titanic, while we’re pointing out my failings as a member of Western Civilization.

** Okay, this last bit just came to me, but seriously, there has to be a clearinghouse out there somewhere that employers are starting to share this kind of info on. LinkedIn (and Facebook to a lesser extent) might be the start of this, but I’m talking on a much larger level and entirely invisible to the individuals in question themselves, much like law enforcement agencies presumably share information regarding criminals . . . which puts this whole idea into an interesting perspective. And by ‘interesting’, I clearly mean ‘terrifying’.

*** That’s the first time I used a plural for that word. I’m old.

**** With a questionable level of success, admittedly.

  1. I think you fall somewhere in between Luddite and slightly paranoid. It’s all about balance :) and as you know, balance is hard work.

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