In my vast and gluttonous childhood consumption of all things science fiction-related -- be it comic books, movies, TV shows or novels, there was a common, recurring theme across which I periodically stumbled, which was that of an advanced society developing its technology to such astonishing levels of efficiency that a person's every physical need was instantly met through the machinery of civilization, thus eventually snuffing out the last glowing embers of human initiative and achievement.
Examples are many, but one that immediately comes to mind is a mid-1980s "Superman" story in which the last days of the doomed planet Krypton were revisited (Sounds dorky, I know, but bear with me here -- there's a point to all this).
Kryptonian scientific achievement was such that every force of nature had been conquered and harnessed, leaving no aspect of the planet's climate and weather to chance or beyond their technological control. Medical and nutritional science was such that they lived indefinitely without aging or hunger, and therefore with no use for agriculture, medical care or sexual reproduction.
Communication technology was such that only matters of the gravest importance necessitated anyone coming into the actual physical presence of another person.
With no need for contact with the world outside or with each other, the end result was the eradication of an entire race of people, crushed under the weight of its own sterility long before the planet itself exploded.
"Art imitates life and life imitates art," they say.
When it first hit the magazine stands in the form of a brightly colored, 75-cent specimen of 1980s pop-culture, this cautionary tale likely seemed far-fetched and irrelevant (but still a great read for pre-adolescent uberdorks like me, nonetheless).
Twenty years and an Internet Revolution later, though, its pertinence might be a little more apparent.
It might still seem far off now, but with each new technological breakthrough -- from online grocery shopping to webcam-assisted chatting, it seems we inch closer and closer to that Krypton-esque isolation within our own gilded electronic cages, and the eventual suffocation of the human spirit.
Jay Ellison, executive vice president and chief operating officer of U.S. Cellular, could already see it happening.
"The more and more technology gets out there, the more there's a question of human interaction," he said.
Ellison didn't say if he's ever read a "Superman" comic (it probably didn't seem relevant at the time of the interview), and so he might not have the same parallels in mind, but he's been disturbed nonetheless in recent years by the electronically induced isolation he's seen befall the 7,800 employees under his charge.
"This issue's been bothering me for a while," he said, explaining that on a typical day, he'd get at least 300 e-mails -- many of which he didn't even bother to open since he couldn't keep up with them all anyway.
Also, Ellison said employee surveys indicated that he wasn't the only one drowning in a virtual ocean of mail.
"One of the biggest issues they brought up was the inundation of e-mail," he said.
It was commonplace, Ellison said, for many employees to stay in their offices or cubicles for the entirety of the workday. If they weren't there because of their own exclusive reliance on e-mail to communicate, they were shackled there by the obscene volume of messages they received from those who did.
Eventually, Ellison had his fill.
"No e-mails on Friday," he decreed.
As the head of the operations group of the Chicago-based U.S. Cellular, Ellison's policy affected 85 percent of the cell phone giant's workforce.
He initially laid down this law on a trial basis a couple of years ago to see if it would work and what kind of a response he'd get.
The rule was that e-mails were forbidden on Fridays unless they were "absolutely necessary."
Some departments had to send out reports on sales results and other such day-to-day business, Ellison said, so those kinds of e-mails were acceptable.
Exceptions were also made, he said, for "critical issues in which e-mail was the best way to get the message out there."
For all else, though -- "If you can get it done in person or over the telephone, do it," he said.
"Some people thought I was crazy," said Ellison.
At first, he said, about half of the feedback he got was skeptical, if not downright negative.
"They said people would just queue up their e-mails and then shoot them all out at 12:01am on Saturday," he said.
Once the practice was in place, though, Ellison said his skeptics were won over.
"Everybody loved it," he said.
"They told me, 'Jay, you're insane,' but now they're the biggest advocates of this," he recounted.
The benefits spoke for themselves, Ellison explained.
"Our associates loved it -- it didn't have them tethered to a computer and they actually got out of their office and spoke with people face-to-face," he said.
Ellison said he doesn't have any way to quantify improvements in production resulting from his policy, but said he has observed an elevation in morale within the company and better relationships between U.S. Cellular "associates."
Naturally, the policy was enacted on a permanent basis, and the benefits are still being felt as the dark days of e-mail imposed solitude are now only a memory at U.S. Cellular.
Along with the improvements in intra-office relations, Ellison said the "No E-Mail Friday"-policy has led to a general decrease in e-mail traffic during the other four workdays.
"People have been able to discipline themselves for the rest of the week," he said. "If they can get it done by getting out of their office and speaking to someone face-to-face, or by doing it over the phone, they prefer to do that, now."
His 300-average messages a day have been reduced to around "150-ish" a day (not including Fridays, of course), he said.
When asked if he'd recommend other companies enact the same policy, Ellison said, "I don't think they'd find anything wrong with it, but I don't run any other companies than U.S. Cellular."
It's too bad they didn't have a Jay Ellison on Krypton . . .
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