I remembered the first time I ever logged onto the internet. I had been putting off the inevitable for far too long, somewhat fearful of this unknown world. The very name itself, “World Wide Web”, seemed so overwhelming, not to mention the thought of anything that has to do with “surfing.” I had always considered myself to be fairly “computer literate”, able to master the detailed intricacies (or rather the very basics) of a spreadsheet and word processing program. But the internet seemed different, more complex; thus, I kept hoping it would turn out to be just a passing fad, much like the fax machine and cellular phone. Computer guru friends of mine proclaimed this latest technology the absolute wave of the future, the most important innovation since the automobile. With each passing day, people constantly asked for my e-mail address until I found myself missing out on this newest mode of communication. Rather than fearing the internet, I began to fear not learning how to use it. Business was passing me by, or so I was told. After the endless maze of logon instructions, which included that frightening input of my top secret credit card number, I was finally greeted with those most exciting words of internet users worldwide, “You’ve Got Mail.”
To this day, I still get a thrill each time my computer utters these magical words. This feeling surpasses the ones I get from the blinking light on my telephone answer machine, and even the countless “out of area” messages on my caller ID panel. I can hardly wait to click the button to learn about the special on encyclopedias via CD ROM or chuckle through the latest joke or Top 10 list of the day. I can’t even imagine how I ever managed to make it through life without “chatting” with a few 13 year olds about the newest craze in rap videos, or ordering a transcript of last night’s version of “Nightline.” The internet has undoubtedly changed my life. Most importantly, through the advent of e-mail, I may not ever have to carry on an actual conversation with a live person again.
The internet has most definitely altered the way we all conduct business, as well, unfortunately not always for the better. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that the incredible amount of information and other resources we now have at our instant access should be of tremendous benefit to our business lives. Research that would have required days to compile at a library can now be achieved in a matter of minutes; transmitted data that would have previously taken forever to reach its desired destination is now received almost instantaneously. The business implications for our increasingly global economy are truly unlimited. HOWEVER, we must never lose sight that the internet, and even the computer in general, are mere tools of our trades and should never replace other more personal methods of communications. Slowly, but surely, we are becoming a generation of “speechless communication.”
Meetings and other forms of one on one interaction have been replaced by cellular phones, conference calls, and pagers. Detailed business proposals and presentations that, at one time, required that certain personal touch to “make the sale” or “close the deal” are now simply informally faxed between parties with written comments made in the margin. E-mailing has become the latest form of “speechless communication” as any two “yahoos” with computers from anywhere in the world can transact important business dealings without ever even talking. Surveys indicated that many people’s greatest fear is that of public speaking. The internet has certainly helped them to eliminate that dilemma.
And what about our future generation? Students today move around a computer screen in effortless fashion. Penmanship is no longer a problem as assignments are all prepared via the computer. For that matter, spelling and grammar are a breeze, as spell and grammar checks make most corrections (beware: they are not perfect*) before the teachers even see them. English/communication skills may soon suffer similar fates as mathematics did just a few short years ago, when calculators eliminated the need to learn to multiply or compute present value by hand. For the kids’ benefit, perhaps computers and calculators should soon be allowed into the SAT testing rooms. They are, after all, our business leaders of the future.
THE BASICS OF COMMUNICATING
My point is (finally), it may be time to get back to basics. The computer is a wonderful tool; the internet is a tremendous resource, but they are not substitutes for interpersonal communication. The AOL crisis of a few months back should have given all subscribers a rude awakening, and perhaps even served as a blessing in disguise. Many a business deal was undoubtedly killed (or at least put on hold) because that all important e-mail could not be sent. Businesspeople actually found that they had to pick up the phone and place a personal call to explain the details in almost as succinct a manner as their computer could. Company meetings were once again held in conference rooms as opposed to on-line. Kids even had to go outside to play in their neighborhoods if they wanted to “chat” with their friends.
Fear of public speaking led to business by phone. Fear of the phone led to business by fax. Answer machines and the internet are eliminating the need to ever talk to anyone again. In reality, a little personal interaction will always be the most effective mode of business communication. A computer simply can’t ask for the order or overcome a list of objections. The internet is definitely changing the way we interact but it can never replace the nod of acknowledgement from a co-worker in a staff meeting, or the applause from the group of attendees following a conference speech, or the firm handshake from a business partner to seal a deal. And each of these thrills surpasses the feeling I get from learning that “I have mail.”