Goodbye Workdays

In 1543 two Portuguese adventurers carrying primitive rifles arrived in Japan aboard a Chinese cargo ship. The weapon was new to the Japanese, but they knew a good thing when they saw it.

In 1543 two Portuguese adventurers carrying primitive rifles arrived in Japan aboard a Chinese cargo ship. The weapon was new to the Japanese, but they knew a good thing when they saw it.

They began manufacturing firearms almost immediately and within 40 years had more and better guns than any other country. After a few decades, however, guns disappeared from Japan entirely. Why? The insularity and xenophobia of the day undoubtedly played a role, but it was Japan’s numerous and powerful warrior class – the samurai – that was behind the extinction. They didn’t care for change; they wanted to keep their swords.

There are a good number of people – your scribe included – who might be considered the samurai of the 21st century: technological holdouts who believe that a ’90s-era no-camera, no-MP3, no-nothing mobile is just fine. But we are a shrinking army.

Of the two billion cellphones sold last year, 125 million were smartphones – that is, web-enabled amalgams of telephone and computer. The smartphone market is expected to quadruple in the next three years, according to RBC Capital Markets, led by three industry giants: Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM-T), maker of the BlackBerry, (and, with 41 per cent market share, king of the castle); Apple Inc. (AAPL-Q), maker of the iPhone (which grabbed a 28 per cent U.S. market share in its first six months of existence and is set for a summertime Canadian release); and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT-Q), which in May boldly announced that 40 per cent of the world’s smartphones will run on a Windows Mobile platform by 2012.

The smartphone’s impact will be felt in many quarters, but it is the workplace where we’re seeing the most profound changes. Where once the phrase “a nine-to-five job” meant something, today it’s an obvious anachronism: we can, and do, check email, take calls and schedule meetings in the café, on the bus or at home – long before nine, and well after five. Weekends too. The smartphone allows us to do just about any workday task away from an actual office.

Which raises the fundamental question: what is a workday? Is it simply the amount of work you do in a day? Or is it a broader experience that circumscribes not only the work but also the interactions – the Monday-morning laments, the pull-aside meetings, the politics and prattle – that occur in a physical workspace? It is this second idea – of work as scripted encounter – that devices such as the BlackBerry fundamentally challenge. If that workplace script existed because your attendance was compulsory, now, as technology plows forward, it’s becoming unnecessary.

To find the roots of this change we must look back thousands of years. According to anthropologist Jared Diamond, technology’s watershed moment occurred when human beings stopped hunting and gathering and instead settled around farms. The reason? We were relieved of the burden of portability. Technology could accumulate, refine and improve only when our devices – our pottery, looms and printing presses – didn’t need to be carried to the next camp. We began living in clusters around our technologies because they were simply too big to move. But that serpent of portability is today swallowing its tail: a BlackBerry, the lifeline device of most businesspeople, fits in a pocket.

While this new freedom is unburdening to some of us, to others it’s an unwelcome advance into our personal lives – an important preserve from our work lives. “For some people, having a BlackBerry is, like, ‘We own you. You are our person, 24 hours, seven days a week,’ ” complained Public Service Alliance of Canada executive Ed Cashman in a recent Globe and Mail article on work-life balance. The ways in which technology changes the workplace are upsetting – especially for regimented armies such as the public service – because they’re difficult to predict.

In imperial Japan, warfare was a ritual of power, class and dress, and the samurai took pride in standing in the open, making speeches and fighting gracefully. But such pomp could be deadly in the face of an armed neighbour or peasant soldier blasting away unceremoniously with a rifle. In 1853, more than 200 years after abandoning guns, the Japanese resumed their manufacture. They realized the advantage they had given away. In our own workplace pageants of power and class, the smartphone user presents the same frightening test to us samurai: that of an unknown, but ultimately inevitable, future.