What Goes Around, Comes Around: A Historian’s Response to Unified Communications
By K. Daniel Armstrong
During my years of teaching 20th-century American history in college, I would inevitably encounter an information technology student who would come into my class and tout the wonders of the computer and how society could not survive without it. To his or her chagrin, I would offer the counter argument that everything we do with a computer we’ve done before. Modern technology has simply enabled us to perform certain tasks with greater speeds and over greater distances. I was always amazed at the anger my position engendered. The offended student would then provide numerous examples of technological prowess including the creation of complex algorithms, desktop publishing, email, etc. To which I would respond that mankind has been engaged in complex mathematics for thousands of years. Look at Egyptian society in the pre-Christian era. My favorite example was the Tom Hanks film “Apollo 13.” There is a scene after the mission altering explosion in which NASA scientists are sitting at their consoles using slide rules to calculate flight path trajectory, power consumption, etc. Many of my students had never even seen a slide rule. Of course, I added that the ancient Chinese invented “block printing” unto silk cloth before 220 AD instead of copying by hand. The technique was eventually mimicked by the Europeans (circa 1300 AD). Regarding the advent of email, I would remind my impetuous students that pre-colonial Native Americans and Australian Aborigines used smoke signals while various West African tribes used drums to communicate over long distances eliminating the need to travel. My message was simply that humans have done it all before. My IT students, believing they had discovered something new, unique and exciting, had instead found something faster. History does indeed repeat itself.
The next chapter of audiovisual / information technology evolution is the implementation of unified communications (typically referred to as UC). UC combines existing technologies (e.g., internet/intranet, teleconferencing/videoconferencing both room- and PC-based, email/chat, etc.) in a way that creates a “work at anytime from anywhere” solution for many businesses that operate across regions, countries and/or continents. The promise of UC is that companies will produce operational savings by working from home thus reducing costs related to transportation, real estate, etc. while providing employees with greater flexibility. The technology maybe new but the concept, in practice, is not. In fact, UC is poised to usher modern society into a re-emergent “cottage industry” business model and a redefinition of suburbia.
Between America’s colonial era and the early 19th-century, local economies supported small-scale cottage industries in which individuals produced goods in their homes while simultaneously supervising their farms and families. Typically in this model, the “factory” or business owner distributed raw materials door-to-door to be completed in the worker’s home. This type of industrialization came to be known as “outwork.” Finished items which included cloth, clothing, hats and shoes would be retrieved in the same manner and then sent off to market. By mid-century, the American economy had become more factory-centric and urban and the home no longer served as the hub of production.
In early 21st-century America, we are witnessing a return to a non-factory centric operational business model. Confronted with rising property and facilities costs and the advent of multi-functional and relatively inexpensive technology, large corporations are sending many of their employees home. In the same way that a business owner in 1812 delivered packages of raw materials to the farmstead, the modern company in 2012 delivers data packets in the form of email, files, collaboration tools, audio/video, etc. via a much faster horse and wagon – the company intranet. Such a trend has the potential to redefine the nature of work, the interaction of the family and the scheme of suburban life. In other words, if I can get to the internet then it doesn’t really matter where I live. I am no longer bound to my proximity of the factory. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology. I’m fascinated by it. I enjoy it. It has allowed us to do things faster and over vast distances. But don’t argue with me that it’s something new. We’ve done this all before.
K. Dan Armstrong
Dan Armstrong is the principal of Invictus Consulting which provides project management and process improvement services. Dan holds certifications in project management (PMP) and Six Sigma (CSSGB) as well as a Master of Arts in history. He has done project work for Fortune 250 companies such as AIG, eBay and Merck. Dan is a published historian and former instructor of American and European history at Delaware Valley College (Doylestown, PA). He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org