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Jewish World Review June 29, 2001 / 8 Tamuz, 5761

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Do you really want to be an office? -- NEW YORK | The woman in the next seat on the airplane was complaining -- mildly -- about her husband, who was not present.

They had been married for more than 15 years, she said. He was quite successful. But she was finding that there was literally not a moment when he was not working.

The technology had made it possible. With the family's multiple cellular telephones, with his hand-held electronic business organizer, with his home computer linked to his office and to the outside world, it seemed to her that with his success had come something that felt like the opposite of success:

He was never off duty. He was never off the clock. There was no such thing as free time, or true family time.

I asked her: When she had fallen in love with him all those years ago, if she had somehow been able to look ahead to the year 2001 and see him the way he is now -- wired and connected to the world 24 hours a day -- would she have approved?

She thought for a second and then said:

"I would have hated it."

Not that she hates her husband; she said that she loves him. She just wants him back.

She probably ought to get in line. There is current series of advertisements promoting the products of a leading computer manufacturer and a leading software company. The slogan -- which appears over a photo of a human being -- is:

"I am my office."

That's the new ideal; that's what is being marketed as being worth striving for. "I am my office." An office, we are now told, is not four walls and a desk and a chair. That may have been your father's office, and your grandfather's office -- but if you accept that as your office, you're bound to lose. That is the message: You must turn yourself into an office with skin and blood and a heart and lungs; you -- if you are to survive, let alone prosper, in the business world -- must stop defining yourself as a person, and recognize that you are an office. Open 24 hours.

No wonder my seatmate lamented that she wanted her husband back. She had not seen the "I am my office" advertisements, but she didn't have to see one: She was married to one.

We go back to a sobering theory: If, when you first applied for a job, your prospective employer had said to you that you would be required to work day and night, weekends and holidays; if your prospective employer had told you that you had to carry office supplies with you everywhere you went at all times, at work, at home, on vacation; if your prospective employer had told you that you were expected to read and answer business-related mail late at night, from your home, and early in the morning, before you left the house for your work shift. ...

Well, you might have said no to the job. You might -- had the requirements been presented to you that bluntly -- have fled. You might have thought your prospective boss was out of his mind.

Yet all of those things have become part of what it means to make a living -- and it has been largely voluntary. No one demands that businesspeople live this way -- they do it because. ...

That's what I was talking with my seatmate about.

I asked her if she had ever heard the term "mutual assured destruction." I told her that it referred to nations that built themselves up with so many nuclear weapons that they reached the point at which, if a war were to start, each country would be certain to be wiped out.

She nodded. "That's why nations agree to get rid of their nuclear warheads," she said to me.

I asked her why her husband was on his phone and on his computer all the time, even when the workday was over.

"Because he knows that his competitors are," she said.

Exactly. So what would happen if American business agreed to arms reduction -- to getting rid of the cell phones, the Palm Pilots, the alphanumeric pagers? What if there was disarmament -- if everyone agreed to give themselves the chance to exhale, to relax when the business day ended, to do without the constant connection?

"I'd take that in a second," she said.

I excused myself and reached in front of her. I removed the in-flight telephone from its holder in the seatback. We were 5 miles in the air. I had to call my office.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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