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The More Things Stay the Same

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I work in a business culture that just loves its meetings. And to a point, that can be a good thing: talking face-to-face has distinct advantages over long protracted e-mail chains or IMs in that you can actually be sure you’re engaging the person you’re trying to meet with. You can gauge their reaction, and they can gauge yours, right there, in the room, across the table

I’ve been in some great meetings in my life–meetings which either really solved issues or clearly pointed out the problem or a new direction–and I’ve been in meetings that should never been allowed to happen because the hour turned out to be completely wasted.

Then there’s the conference call, which should, in my opinion, be put out of its misery simply for being what it is: no one is engaged, everyone spends at least part of the call muted and probably not paying attention (God knows this is what I and everyone else in my group does), and more often than not, there are at least four occasions per hour that three or more people are trying to talk over each other. The conference call, while being a once novel approach to having a meeting where people did not need to travel to one location, has become almost a parody of itself because it is now so off-putting. Frankly, I hate them. But they’re much adored around my workplace, where people seem to want to be chained to their desks and phones. For me, my phone is a tool of my job, so escaping it occasionally is a welcome treat, even though I don’t like people enough to meet them in person. Maybe I hate conference calls so much because I find myself in at least one per week…Or maybe it’s just because I rarely come away from them with any clear sense of motivation or direction.

On a few occasions, I’ve been in conference calls that were valuable and productive. But most of them just devolve into torture–to the point where we should just force the detainees at Gitmo to have a six- to nine-person conference call with others there at least once per day. Eventually someone would crack and tell us exactly where Bin Laden is as long as they don’t have to ever review last meeting’s agenda and listen to someone eating lunch on the phone ever again. I’ve even had conference calls with people I’ve just woken up…Seriously. That’s a real gasser, let me tell you.

But there’s new technology out there, kids. Big, new, wonderful technology which allows us to improve on the…uh…Okay, not so much. But there’s promise there: video conferencing, which allows us to actually see the people we’re meeting with, while they’re still at home or in their cubicle, or at the coffee shop. This way, we can see them, and make sure they’re at least awake while the meeting is going on. Then there’s the ability to the display from a host computer in these video meetings so that we can all see the Powerpoint presentation on the host’s computer, or watch the notes as he’s typing them in…Or as the host was IMing with her friends about what they wanted to get for lunch once the meeting was over–psst! Stop sharing your desktop!!!

Video conferencing has promise, I’ll admit: you can stare down someone almost as effectively as you can across a table. But having placed a picture in front of a camera during a test meeting and not having anyone notice it was a static picture makes me wonder if the limitations are worth it. Though maybe if they can figure out how to let me video conference from home while I’m in a darkened room with my PJs on, I might show more enthusiasm for the format.

But today kind of took the cake–a two-hour conference call, which mostly featured review of things that have already been done because one person in the call hasn’t ever been informed about the previous actions taken in the project…Kids, this is what reports and agendas are for… And the worst part of the call was that three people were in the same room using a horrible speakerphone (honestly, one of the people in the room sounded like an adult from a Charlie Brown cartoon), and that one person in the call didn’t realize his phone was muted until the last 15 minutes of the meeting–do you not realize when no one is responding to you that we can’t hear you???

As I was working on dinner, I briefly had a thought: what would have happened if, say, the “Founding Fathers” had conference calls and video conferencing and “Live Meetings” as they were framing the Constitution? I’m sorry, Mr. Adams, I can’t understand you…Did you say “secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and posterior? Sorry, Mr. Jefferson, I had you on mute and was on another call, could you repeat that please? We’re making the colonies a what, now? Video conferencing would have screwed up a whole generation of painters: everyone would have been at home not wearing their powdered wigs and long coats. And how many little image windows could you get into one painting, anyway?

Okay, I might be exaggerating a little bit about how bad it is, but there’s got to be a point where the technology needs to be chucked because the alternative is better. I’m afraid that day is never going to come. In the meantime, I’ll prepare for my next conference call…

See you tomorrow.