Retrospective: culture and technology after 9/11

Ten years ago I was in Philadelphia, on a week’s visit to company offices there. A routine visit, about to become anything but. Before nine in the morning, I went down to briefly visit a friend in another group: the company’s Communications function. Naturally they kept a continuous eye on the news; and so I near enough saw the events in New York as they occurred. With colleagues in another office in Pittsburgh, we were anxious as news came in from there. And in a city itself iconic in American history, we were anxious for what might happen where we were.

Those events had consequences in business, and changes followed which the technology was just becoming able to support. Of course, top of the issues were the security implications for travelling staff. But it wasn’t just that.

The company was and still is multinational: managers with international and strategic responsibilities travelled as a matter of course. That September, the company’s most senior managers had to get involved with getting people home. There were a lot of staff out of place; and the numbers involved represented a significant and ongoing cost. Well, ITC support for remote collaboration was at a point where it could make much of that travel un-necessary. Travel decreased. And we discovered that we really didn’t need videoconferencing for most remote meetings: almost from then on, the normal method of working was by telephone conference, facilitated by good and increasingly well-structured shared databases. We had online asynchronous discussion, meeting and agenda management, and a culture where information shared beforehand didn’t need to be gone over in meetings. The technology got a kick forward, and the culture changed.

The other immediate learning was that the Internet lived up to its design specification. A big part of the transatlantic telecomms capability passed through the basement of the World Trade Center, apparently; and it was wiped out. Telephoning home was a real problem. But the Internet was designed to cope with major outage; it “anticipates damage and routes round it”. My email home may have gone three quarters of the way backwards round the world: but it got there.

Of course, security has influenced a whole lot of other technology considerations too. Today’s mobile phones (the technology barely existed ten years ago) have an “aeroplane mode” because designers need to avoid even the possibility of interference with increasingly wire-driven aircraft control systems. We have to take laptops out of our hand luggage at airport security – for as much longer as we still carry laptops, that is. People are aware of the potential of online community media (Facebook and so on) for coordinating both malign action and the public responses to it.

And – to spread this note away from technology – we have become more aware of each other in the global community. Donald Rumsfeld, in an early TV response to the disasters, asked “What have we done to make people hate us so much?” and my impression, then, was that it was a serious question. Of course, it rapidly became rhetorical with the implied answer “Nothing, of course.” But we do indeed need to understand where destructive actions like these come from. In the words of a much wiser man: “You can’t redeem what you don’t understand”. We need to listen and learn: from our colleagues, if we are fortunate to work with people from backgrounds not like our own. It’s too easy to create resentment unintentionally.

Technology, particularly today’s exploding social media environment, has the potential to bring people together. As tech people, we can be more aware of this than most. The insight is ours to share.

No links for this post. Purely a personal column. Being in the USA ten years ago was a moving experience and one I don’t regret; my thoughts today have been with many friends and colleagues with whom I was privileged to share the experience.

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