Several years back, I was in a seminar at the International Pool & Spa Expo when the instructor asked everyone who had an e-mail address to raise a hand.
Way back then – it was in the late 1980s or perhaps even the early ’90s – using the Internet for communication was a brand-new concept to most people and there were only a few people in the room who lifted an arm. I wasn’t one of them, and at that point I had no idea that e-mail and Web sites would ever become such an integral part of my life.
At that time, in fact, I didn’t think I’d ever need an e-mail address. After all, I was a pool guy: My business was going well, my company enjoyed a good reputation and I was comfortable in managing our communications needs with phones, the Post Office and express-delivery services. But what a turnaround: As is true for almost everyone in business nowadays, I’ve become almost entirely dependent on today’s technology to the point that when my Internet service goes down – no matter how temporarily – it’s like someone has turned out the lights and hidden everything I need just to torment me.
Not only do I communicate by e-mail to the tune of more than 100 per day (beyond deleting an additional few hundred bits of junk mail), I keep my calendar and schedule on my personal data assistant (another invaluable piece of modern technology). In addition, my PDA has a docking station so that everything on it automatically backs up to my computer, securing all of my phone numbers and appointments. I’m wired in – and loving it!
And all of this helps me with my clients as well. I routinely refer prospects to my Web site and do much of my design work on a CAD program that generates documents anyone can receive and read – no muss, no fuss. I’m not as sophisticated with any of these technologies as are some people I know, but I’ve reached a viable comfort level with all of these systems and I can’t imagine turning back the clock to the days when none of us seemed to know what was just around the corner.
Despite the fact that it all seems so inevitable today, I still run into people who are reluctant to climb aboard and adopt this great set of tools. Some are too stubborn, others are too intimidated – and many are simply so wedded to old ways of doing things that they’ve managed somehow to ignore the rapid evolution of communication, management and design technologies.
This line of thought, by the way, came to me while watching “There Will Be Blood.” If you haven’t seen that film, which won the Best Picture Oscar last year, it’s about an oilman who toils in rocks and dirt to find black gold in turn-of-the-19th-century southern California and parleys his hardscrabble efforts into an empire. The film had a tremendous air of realism about it, and I could sense the difficulty of the lives the key characters led to a point where I wondered how on earth people could ever have lived that way.
Of course, people actually living in those times had no basis for comparison to anything different or better. They lived in a day and age that saw the advent of electrical utilities, refrigeration, public water systems and the internal combustion engine, and I would imagine that their heads spun as much with the leaps forward they witnessed as ours have by the advances of the Communication Age.
Thinking about life before the Internet is actually a bit painful at this point, at least from the standpoint of managing daily business and personal communications. In fact, when you stop to think about it, the way we did things was actually quite primitive, relatively speaking, and I find it hard sometimes to imagine how we ever managed to get things done.
Consider, for example, a function as basic as moving documents from one place to another: It’s been completely revolutionized, and processes of generating plans and proposals and copying and shipping them has gone from something that could take several days or even weeks to being almost instantaneous.
E-mail has been a particular blessing. With it, we’re able to maintain multiple threads of communication with different people, respond more quickly and spend far less time on the telephone. Indeed, it has so expanded our capabilities that it’s almost silly to compare productivity in pre-Internet days to what can be accomplished now.
The upshot of all this is that certain types of businesses have dramatically expanded their reach; the pace of our working lives has increased manifold times; and the cost of doing business has been substantially reduced. In the old days, I would submit information about our company to prospective clients in the form of 60-page presentation packages that included all sorts of written information and color photos, carefully bundled and shipped by the best available means. I didn’t think about what I was doing: It came naturally and was simply what had to be done – and looking back, I can’t help thinking that we tied quite a bit of money up in wooing clients.
Nowadays, by contrast, I just refer would-be clients to my Web site, where they can absorb all of that same kind of information at the touch of a few buttons and a little patience with a mouse – then we follow up with each other via e-mail. What cost real dollars and took a considerable amount of time not long ago now happens in seconds at minimal cost – and the base of my business has grown to the point where I can work anywhere in the world.
NOW WE KNOW
I know I’m preaching to the saved when it comes to most of you who are reading this column. Indeed, for many of you, the power of the Internet and other forms of modern communications technology is already so woven into your daily lives that you might be wondering why I’m even bothering to bring this up.
Aside from the fact that it’s interesting to step back occasionally and think about the way technology influences and changes our lives, I also find it beneficial to consider not just the opportunities that come with this sort of change, but also the downsides that sneak in at the same time.
Indeed, I wish at times that I could get completely away from what I see as the negatives of the Communication Age. As I see it, for instance, there’s no real substitute for direct human interaction, either on the phone or in person. As a result, I am pained when I see people become so insulated by technology that they use it in preference to more direct and intimate forms of communication.
I am pained by this because I see ours as a business in which we provide highly personalized products that can have a transforming influence on our clients’ daily lives if we get things right. As I see it, to reach that level of familiarity, you need to forge relationships and get to know clients and their families as people. No matter how efficient e-mail may be, using it as your sole communications medium robs what you do of the human touch.
It’s all about balance, and I find myself almost daily thinking about the ways I maintain contact with my clients and when it’s more important for me to pick up the phone than it is to save a few minutes and pennies by dashing off an e-mail.
Then there’s the whole expectations game that comes with e-mails – something that not only gets out of whack from time to time but that can also be a source of real aggravation. I, for one, do not like Instant Messaging: I consider the pop-ups such an intrusion on my workday that I would never, ever consider sending one.
And what I really don’t like is that when I receive an Instant Message, there seems to be a demand for an instant response. As any of you know if you’ve read my columns for a while, I’m big on prompt responses to phone calls and I’ve extended that to e-mails as well. But so far, I haven’t been willing to extend that same sense of duty to Instant Messages and, for now at least, can’t see that I ever will.
And believe me, I’ve run into people who actually get annoyed if I don’t drop what I’m doing and hop right on a response. I contend that just because Instant Messaging (or its often-intrusive cousin, Text Messaging on cellular phones) affords us the ability to reply in the moment, that doesn’t mean we need to feel obliged to do so, nor should we expect such promptness from others. I also have the feeling that if I give in, I will soon find myself buried in Instant Messages and Text Messages – so much so that I’m content to train people who want to contact me that they need to be patient.
Beyond that, the Internet in general can be a nasty place. There’s lots of objectionable content, and I hate dealing with spam from all those generous folks in West Africa who want to send me piles of money if only I’ll provide a bank account number. There are times when I wish the Internet would just go away and leave me alone. It’s a sort of love/hate relationship, but on balance I’ve come to terms with it and see the Internet as having great value.
WEAVING THE WEB
What’s exciting to me despite the downsides and will probably hold my interest for many years to come is the way people are increasingly using the Internet to form communities defined by common interests and goals.
Younger people especially seem to have tuned into these possibilities, but even those of us of advancing years can get involved and take advantage of pools of information, chat rooms, blogs and bulletin boards that seem to be forming all around us. In just the past year or two, for example, the Genesis 3 Web site has seen a dramatic increase in use by professionals who are networking, debating various topics and generally sharing useful information.
I also see that WaterShapes is jumping into the mix in a passionate way, having completely revamped watershapes.com with a number of new features, including one I know I’ll find particularly valuable – that is, full electronic access to every issue of the magazine from its premiere nearly ten years ago. It’s a wonderful and vast resource that should be up and running this fall and I encourage all of you to check it out.
The great thing about these communities, beyond the information they carry and the resources they offer, is the fact that you can opt in or out and proceed at your own pace. They can be as grand or overwhelming as you want them to be, or you can check in as you wish to see what’s up.
Bottom line: The genie is completely out of the bottle when it comes to communication, and we’re clearly never going back to the days of pagers, fax machines and messenger services. And every time I turn around, it seems another one of my contacts who is more completely wired in than I am will tell me about some new wrinkle that may not make a lick of sense to me now, but seems as though it will inevitably be a big part of my life before much time passes.
These are exciting times, and I want to make certain I’m making the most of what’s available and that I’m using new technologies in ways that are sensible, considerate and effective. It may already be a cliché, but the Internet truly has made the world a smaller place, and I’m glad to be here to take advantage of that future.
I’m also glad I’m not drilling for oil in Bakersfield and shedding blood, sweat and tears to complete with Daniel Plainview. I may dislike Instant Messaging, but I’m far happier living now than I would have been 100 years ago!
Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected]