For better or worse, always connected almost anywhere

Dec. 15, 2013 @ 11:23 PM

What a wonderful and worrisome world we live in.
It was midday Tuesday, and my wife, Pat, and I were sitting in a pre-op cubicle at Duke Ambulatory Surgical Center. Well, I was sitting. She was lying on a hospital gurney, awaiting relatively non-threatening but painful heel surgery.
She was, moments away from the anesthesiologist’s arrival, pecking out replies to important business emails on her Blackberry. I was busily keyboarding on my phone.  The anesthesiologist had to gently prod us that it was time for the main event.
It wasn’t so long ago a trip to the hospital was a trip into a cocoon of silence. No phones, no work-related contact, no outside stimulus. You were, for better or for worse, cut off.
Not that such isolation was complete. Some 30 years ago, the wife of a colleague – both great sailing buddies – went into the maternity ward to give birth.  A few hours later, she was attending an important staff meeting. Granted, she was an executive at the hospital where she gave birth, but it was still a remarkable re-immersion.
It matters not these days whether you and your work are in the same place. The Internet and technology have erased virtually all boundaries.
I dutifully exited Tuesday to the waiting area – and found, bless you, Duke Med, an alcove, half-encircled by tall windows, with a couple of tables and nearby electrical outlets. Bring out the iPod, the iPad, the laptop, and I was fully immersed in work and isolated from the sounds around me.
This has not been an unusual setup in recent days. In the past few weeks, I’ve done my civic obligation on jury duty and waited as caregiver through another medical procedure.
At the new Durham County Courthouse the Wi-Fi connection is excellent, the work areas more than adequate. At my first medical waiting area, the Wi-Fi was easily accessible and getting serious work done was a breeze.
None of this is a surprise in a community where not just the trendy coffee shops but the DYI laundry operations (Laundromats, if you will, except that’s a specific brand name) advertise “Free Wi-Fi” to be competitive.  It does underscore how we have come to expect – and to be expected – to be on line, on call and available 24/7. And to always be able to shop on-line, for that matter.
Much can be said affirmatively about this.  We can be diverted from our work – jury duty, spousal care-giving – and still respond to colleagues’ questions or customer inquiries. But there is an expectation we will read – and respond – anytime, because we can.
Overall, I think it is a plus, an improvement from the days when I, as a young reporter, might pull of the highway to find a pay phone every couple of hours to see if the city editor had questions about the stories I filed before leaving for a couple days off.
I’m glad – especially when civic or spousal duty calls – to still be engaged, to minimize the guilt about what coworkers will have to take on. (My colleagues did indeed pick up a great deal during my absence last week, for which I am enormously grateful.)
Every now and then, though, I think I must channel a legion of workers in the modern workplace when I’m nostalgic for those days when you were out of touch until you wandered back into the office to pick up the stack of “while you were out” notes.
But time moves on. Didn’t Plato worry that the advent of writing had eroded our ability to remember complicated stories?
Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.