Cell phones, cell modems, and pagers make communicating a breeze--until they become too much of a good thing

In our company, we may not have much to say to one another, but we certainly have the technology to say it with.

This year, in an attempt to extend our elaborate voice-mail, E-mail, Internet, intranet, videophone, and gossip systems, we made substantial new investments in remote-access technologies. We got those pagers that send and receive E-mail. We got cellular phones and cellular modems. We walk around outfitted with what looks like Batman's utility belt accessorized by Dick Tracy's two-way wrist radio.

Which brings me to what happens when we use all this stuff--or maybe it uses us. There we are, my colleague Susan and I, representing our company at an all-day meeting with a competitor, to discuss a strategic marketing alliance. These meetings are never easy because both sides know they've been working on the same new product but neither knows how far along the other company is. Our CEO explained the dynamic well: "As soon as the other guy senses you want the alliance, he'll know your project is stuck and realize he doesn't need it. So remember: Find out what you can about their project, don't give away too much about ours, and don't commit unless they are way ahead."

That's the dance. So now we're in their conference room, waiting for someone, and Susan's beeper goes off. She removes the pager from her belt and says, "Oh, it's an E-mail page." That means 125 characters go scrolling rapidly across the tiny LED screen as though it were the electronic billboard in Times Square: "RE: ACMEZAP MEETING. DISCUSS PROJECT GREEN IN GENERALITIES ONLY."

We have to replay the message numerous times, both of us squinting at the pager at arm's length. We are meeting with a team of five, and the fifth has just walked in. They are all watching us. We finish the page, which essentially tells us to give up our names and ranks and to try to hold back on disclosing our serial numbers.

So we introduce ourselves around the table; essentially that's all we can do for the rest of the day. Fortunately, I get two beeps from my cellular modem. I take out my personal digital assistant (PDA), attach it to the cellular modem, and start poking the fake keyboard with the mock pencil to open the software that will open the E-mail I just got.

Six people watch me read a reminder that spouses but not children are welcome at the company outing this year.

Susan's cell phone rings. She steps into the hall to take the call. I send the office manager a query about my last month's expenses, just to look busy.

I explain, "Let me see if I can call up the internal Web page and check the progress of our project." It's 9:45 a.m.; first lie of the day. Five people write down: "Their project has an internal Web page already." I try to guess from their faces whether they're impressed. My beeper rings. It is a numeric page with Susan's office extension. We send each other several of these every day so they will show up on the pager logs and feed speculation that we are having an affair. We aren't having an affair, but the speculation keeps us from being downsized.

But now my PDA beeps four times, indicating an urgent E-mail. It is from Susan, who is still out in the hall on the cellular phone. "Boss has new info, can't mention on insecure phone, will send on secure E-mail. Meanwhile, say nothing. I'll come back in and make up a story about my boyfriend having car problems."

I hit Return. Five people watch me typing, "I am supposed to be your boyfriend. Make up a different story."

I say, "Damn, they have to reboot the network. I won't be able to get that report until it comes back up."

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Why is the pager called a beeper when it buzzes? Why isn't the PDA called a beeper since it beeps like R2D2 on his third cappuccino? E-mail from Susan: "What kind of a different story?"

Five people watch me typing, "Say it was your mother calling. Her electricity went off, and she wanted to know if you could pull strings with your friends in the computer business to get it fixed."

I look around and everyone is exchanging serious looks. They either think Susan and I are very important players to be communicating so often with such expensive toys, or they realize we are mostly E-mailing each other from 10 feet apart and are wondering if we are having a virtual affair to try to keep our jobs.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Susan again? No, it's the boss, on E-mail: "Just a reminder to stress the 7-24 customer service we've built into Project Green." Huh? Is this the new info that was supposed to come by secure E-mail or old info coming by insecure E-mail? Buzz. Pager: "NO COMMIT ON CUSTOMER SERVICE RE: PROJECT GREEN PENDING MARCH FINANCIAL APPROVAL."

Same boss, opposing directions. Obviously, one message overrules the other, but which came last? Because one or both could have been automatically programmed, the time stamps are no help.

What's a puppet to do?

Ah, here's Susan. "Sorry about the delay," she says. "Funeral arrangements for my aunt." She gives me a significant look that I can't decipher. I can't figure out how to tell her about the contradictory instructions. I can't read from her expression whether she got other instructions altogether by pager, cellular phone, or laptop computer (via secure E-mail, which would have required a remote-network phone call). We look at each other. Five people from the other company look at us.

Susan finally says, "Why don't we begin with your presentation since we're having some network problems."

Their chief engineer tears off a piece of his pad, folds it, and passes it to their product chief. I poke a note on my PDA: "They pass paper notes. Part of corporate culture?"

I connect my laptop and check for secure E-mail. Nada. I send a secure E-mail to the boss, "Have contradictory messages on meeting. Attempting delay. What do I do next?" I consider the likelihood that the boss has locked herself out of secure E-mail by forgetting her password again. I send the same message via regular E-mail.

Bong. Their production chief responds to the sound by walking over to a terminal and reading an E-mail. He turns to us and says: "Oh dear. Our network is about to go down for maintenance. That really screws up our presentation. Can you check your network again?"

Susan and I cover the table with electronic devices and send emergency messages on all of them for guidance.

We get:

  • A reminder to me that I can take another antihistamine in 15 minutes.
  • An E-mail offer for Susan to make four figures a week in her spare time by multilevel marketing a long-distance telephone service.
  • A notice by pager that the stock market went up 2.4 points in the first hour.
  • An urgent E-mail explaining that the invitation to spouses but not children at the company outing includes committed domestic partners.
  • A flash message that the network will be down next Thursday from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. for software upgrades.
  • An E-mail to all asking if a single parent can bring a child as a committed domestic partner.
  • An E-mail stating, "If you forward this E-mail to five other people and put your name on the bottom of the list, then Tinkerbell will not die."
  • A flash message canceling the company outing.

And, yes! At last. A secure E-mail from the boss with the title "What to Do Next."

We have this great decryption system that opens secure E-mail on two passwords. The five people from the other company take another note as Susan types in the two passwords.

Susan reads the message and then turns the laptop screen toward me so I can read what we should do:

"You have 35 messages that will be over 60 days old next Sunday. If nothing is done, they will be deleted automatically. Please refer to the Tech Tips Bulletin Board for directions to print and/or archive and/or delete them."

Moe Meyerson is a manager at a rapidly growing company.