The eternal conference call

What goes around comes around, if always a little faster.

Remember when we first started using email, back in the foggy depths of the twentieth century? The great thing about email, everyone said and everyone believed, was that it was an asynchronous communications medium. (Yes, that’s how we used to talk.) Email cured the perceived shortcomings of telephone calls, which dominated our work lives. The ring of your phone would butt into whatever you happened to be doing at that moment, and you had no choice but to answer the damn thing (it might be your boss or your client, after all), and then you had no choice but to respond immediately to whatever the person on the another end was saying or asking. The telephone was realtime and it was synchronous, and those were bad things. One of the major roles of the traditional secretary was to add a buffer to the endless stream of phone calls: paying someone to screen your calls was a kludgy way to make a synchronous medium act sort of like an asynchronous one.

When voicemail entered the scene, people cheered at first, but it actually only made matters worse. The phone became an even more demanding medium. The voicemail light was always blinking, and when you listened to a voicemail, you felt compelled to respond immediately. There was a reason we called it “voicemail hell.”

And don’t even get me started about conference calls.

Email delivered us from the telephone’s realtime stream. Suddenly, we controlled, individually, our main communications medium, rather than vice versa. We could choose when to read our email, and, more important, we could choose when to respond – and whom to respond to. The buffer was built into the technology. Even taking just a few minutes to think about a message often led to a more thoughtful response than an immediate, halfbaked phone reply. After email took hold in offices, you always had a few doofus laggards who continued to rely on the phone and voicemail. They were widely despised: synchronous dinosaurs lumbering through the pleasant pastures of asynchronous Internet communication.

But email also did something else, the consequences of which we didn’t fully foresee. It dramatically reduced the transaction costs of personal communication. You had to think at least a little bit before placing a phone call, not just because it might cost you a few cents but because you knew you were going to interrupt the other person. Is this really necessary, or can it wait? Email removed that calculation from the equation. Everything was worth an email. (As direct marketers and spammers also soon discovered.) And there was the wonderful CC field and the even more wonderful Reply All button. Broadcasting, cumbersome with the phone, became easy with email.

Goodbye voicemail hell. Welcome to email hell.

Turns out, we were mistaken about email all along. Asynchrony was never actually a good thing. It was simply an artifact of a paucity of bandwidth. Or so we’re told today, as the realtime stream – texts, tweets, Facebook updates – o’erbrims its banks, and out on the horizon rises the all-consuming Wave. In “Wave New World,” an article in the current edition of Time, Lev Grossman writes:

Keep in mind that until the mid-1990s, when e-mail went mainstream, the network environment was very different. Bandwidth was a scarce resource. You had your poky modem and liked it. Which is why e-mail was created in the image of the paper-postal system: tiny squirts of electronic text. But now we’re rolling in bandwidth … And yet we’re still passing one another little electronic notes. Google Wave rips up that paradigm and embraces the power of the networked, collaborative, postpaper world.

Jessica Vascellaro makes a similar point in heralding “the end of the email era” in today’s Wall Street Journal:

We all still use email, of course. But email was better suited to the way we used to use the Internet—logging off and on, checking our messages in bursts. Now, we are always connected, whether we are sitting at a desk or on a mobile phone. The always-on connection, in turn, has created a host of new ways to communicate that are much faster than email, and more fun. Why wait for a response to an email when you get a quicker answer over instant messaging? [Email] seems boring compared to services like Google Wave.

The flaw of synchronous communication has been repackaged as the boon of realtime communication. Asynchrony, once our friend, is now our enemy. The transaction costs of interpersonal communication have fallen below zero: It costs more to leave the stream than to stay in it. The approaching Wave promises us the best of both worlds: the realtime immediacy of the phone call with the easy broadcasting capacity of email. Which is also, as we’ll no doubt come to discover, the worst of both worlds. Welcome to the conference call that never ends. Welcome to Wave hell.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.

13 thoughts on “The eternal conference call

  1. Steven Chabot

    While I always get a kick out of your hyperbole, but I have a hard time distinguishing when you are using it a positive sense or for irony.

    While pundits during the supposed time of “email hell” were praising asynchrony over synchrony, actual people were using whatever medium suited them best. Sometimes I send an email to someone knowing they are at their desk and will respond in real time. And we’ve all had the experience of calling someone’s phone because we know they will be away because we don’t actually want to talk. We use the synchronous medium to be asynchronous, and vice versa, and every possibility in between.

    The problem with hyperbole, used by those pundits who see Google Wave as the end of email, is that reality is much more nuanced and multifaceted than that. Email is not going to die, it fills an essential need in the ways we communicate. The business memo is not an invention of the Internet. But people will continue to telephone, hell even continue to send physical documents. And as pundits proclaim a messianic paradise or an apocalyptic nightmare of communication, the actual existing and working humans in the room will keep communicating successfully as they always have.

  2. John Koetsier

    Ouch, this is going to hurt.

    Funny thing is, what’s a social technology without the social? I was lucky enough to get an original Google Wave invite, and I dutifully nominated 7 or 8 other people for invites … and then waited while they did not get invited and could not join me. A couple weeks later only one or two of them have received invites. The social part of the social technology is definitely lagging.

    It’s the conference call that never starts!

  3. Bertil

    I like your point, but the a/synchrnous is quite simple: with e-mail, one could finally send a message while you were shopping and not miss you, simply have to wait half an hour—as someone victim of an abnormally high correlation between my showers & phone calls to me, that was a huge relieve. It took couple a minute or so, so you couldn’t conveniently us it to chat, but the hint that both could merge was here. With twitter and Wave, the reply time margin is expanding again, but on the other end. You keep your ability to wat for as long as you want, but you can do it instantly. The progress goes both ways, and the new uses can appear to be moving in opposite directions—but these are just new ways to do things.

  4. Linuxguru1968

    Email was even more asynchronous back in the UUCP days! People forget that before the Internet, Unix machines were networked by modems using this virually forgotten protocol and email could bounce around for hours and even languish for days on a machine waiting to dial up to the next node!

  5. Tom Lord


    The real problem is blackboards and chalk. You can leave a message on one for someone to put up later or, if you’re both there, you can use the same technology to interact in real time.

    Anyway, the current wave client doesn’t much matter to wave’s importance. That’s just one application.


  6. Linuxguru1968

    Tom Lord:

    Blackboards/Chalk not very reliable. How about smoke signals – low bandwidth but using AES encryption pretty good over short ranges and VERY asynchronous!

  7. syaa8690

    Hahaha. The conference call that never ends indeed. I’l borrow that line, thank you very much. But personally, when talking about intrusion of privacy or the freedom to choose when and where to respond, the line has been crossed a long time ago, by a gadget called the mobile phone.

  8. bhicks11

    Some of us obsessive compulsives have a hard time controlling the “always on” nature of social media and prefer and email. I feel so rude if I don’t immediately respond!

  9. thatstephen

    The thing that has always annoyed me is management by email. It has seeped into the command and decision-making processes of modern organisations. We all know that if you receive an email from your boss asking you to do something you do it, if you get an email from someone you think that your boss thinks is important asking you to do something you probably do it. The asynchronous nature of email has disabled the rhetorical responses possible on the phone or in face-to-face communnication, making the command unchallenged.

    Through this asychrounous and private form of communication, decision making, consensus and responsibility have fractured.

    Whatever happened to the good old fashioned meeting, where the sychronous communication called discussion led to decisions which those in the meeting were expected to act on. There is no mention in the Google Wave API specification of people coming to agreement, just waves of blips.

    Software development which has lived for longer than most endeavours under the burden of management by email has leapt with enthusiasm on the good old-fashioned meeting in the form of Agile project management with its stand-up meetings and short, fixed-length project stages. Sometimes Agile looks to me like the response to managment by email.

    Although it might be fun for communication, I am not looking looking forward to management by Wave.

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