Away from my desk – what does that mean anymore

The other day I was wonder about what it means to be away from my desk these days. Voice mail greetings all over the world say, “I’m away from my desk right now…”. This used to mean that I was unavailable for contact, communication and collaboration. Now it means, “you can’t stop by my office to chat with me”.

My voice messages get routed to my email automatically as MP3 attachments. I have my cell phone with most of time and I have coverage almost everywhere. I have wireless internet access in almost all of my meetings both on campus and off. I am present on chat whenever I am on wireless. I have RSS feeds in my browser (Safari) that update every few minutes that tell me when things have changed on shared blogs or wikis. I post all most all of my documents and references (URLs mostly) on web accessible stores. I am as functionally present at home in my home office or in a conference in Denver as I am in my work office except that I cannot physically walk to an office or into a meeting.

I have my iSight and iChat. If someone is going to the meeting and they iChat and an iSight, I can attend via video and/or audio conference. If they don’t have an iSight and iChat, we can use Skype and I can attend by voice. Once, my boss Keith Hazelton, was in Japan when we needed him here in Madison, Wisconsin at a meeting. I took my laptop, iSight, a set of external speakers, and a projector to the meeting. Keith was in his hotel room with his iSight. He was virtually present for the 1/2 day session.

As I was thinking about this, I ran across Wade Roush’s [_Social Machines_]( article. This is the cover article for the August 2005 MIT Technology Review. Wade Roush argues that we are now in an era of pervasive computing. We are connected via cell phone and wireless networking in most places. We are always on and always pushing content out to the web, to our social groups, to our friends and families and to the world at large. It is a great article.

To me, the interesting and important change that has occurred recently is the easy ability for novice users to push information out to the world. In 1994, you had to know how to write HTML and you had to find a web server or set up an FTP site. Now, you can go to Blogger and create a free account and start typing. You can send photos straight from your cell phone to Textamerica or Flickr. You can video chat or do VoIP without any knowledge of how to get a dedicated ISDN line or how to set up a protocol gateway.

Take the easy push mechanism and add the social software of Technorati, and Flickr and you get a new and interesting social information fabric. To borrow a quote of a quote from Roush’s article: Jyri Engeström states, “…social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.” We have now made it very easy to push the objects to the web and to share them with our social groups. We now have interesting applications which build the social fabric around those objects. These two advances have moved computing off of the desktop and into the lifestyle at large.

The two advances of easy push technology and social software have made the statement “away from my desk” almost meaningless unless you want to drop by and see me. If you do, chat me first and I’ll tell you where I’m at.