whatever happened to my palm?

whatever happened to my palm

ok, i’ll own up — this one’s a bit of a muse­um piece. my appro­pri­a­tion of the orange mobile strapline is look­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly creaky. it was a mag­a­zine fea­ture back in 2003, at which time i was besot­ted with my state of the art Palm Organ­is­er. this is pre-iphone,which has some, but not all of the palm’s func­tion­al­i­ty. old palm users like me often bemoan this about the sleek shiny daz­zly iphone. any­way, i feel that much of what i wrote then still holds: method­ism, the work eth­ic, tay­lorism, and the cor­po­rati­sa­tion of leisure-time.
if i were to re-write it, i’d prob­a­bly have to take account of net­books, the iphone of course, and the back-to-basics rise of the geeky mole­sk­ine note­book, togeth­er with the scar­i­ly ocd over­tones of  ‘get­ting things done’ (GTD to affi­ciona­dos) method with its qua­si-spir­i­tu­al rhetoric, and the dozen or so soft­ware appli­ca­tions it has spawned — such as ‘omni­fo­cus’, and ‘things’. i’d love your feedback

© ken edwards 2003

taylorism, filofax, and the electronic work ethic; a design for living?


those peo­ple you see on the bus on mon­day morn­ings, star­ing intent­ly at the screen of a shiny lit­tle met­al device about 3″ x 4″, some­times tap­ping at it’s sur­face, some­times just star­ing, always engrossed, nev­er look­ing up until they reach their stop. just what are they up to?

…when you try to take advan­tage of all its pos­si­bil­i­ties, you real­ize it’s still a work in progress, a lit­tle trip into the future. and that’s where some of us want to be.”

this is an asso­ci­at­ed press jour­nal­ist extolling the future promise of the per­son­al dig­i­tal assis­tant (pda). at the time of the launch of the now defunct apple ‘new­ton’ hand­held com­put­er, john scul­ley, ceo of apple com­put­ers coined this pre­ten­tious sci­ence-fic­tiony des­ig­na­tion, with its sug­ges­tion of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence; a com­bi­na­tion of cyber­net­ic jeeves, an uncom­plain­ing , dis­creet sec­re­tary, small enough to stuff in your pock­et. to call it ‘hand­held’ was stretch­ing a point, it was prob­a­bly the size of this machine which led to its fail­ure. although pow­er­ful, it unfor­tu­nate­ly had the dimen­sions of half a house­brick, and weighed lit­tle less. todays pdas with their brushed tita­ni­um cas­ings, and hi-res colour screens are much small­er, and much more gorgeous.


those of us old enough to remem­ber the ris­i­ble bbc sci-fi ser­i­al of the 70s, blake’s sev­en, may recall the epony­mous hero car­ry­ing around a bible-sized black box, to which he would speak enquiries, (pref­aced, appro­pri­ate­ly enough, with the salu­ta­tion; “box!”), elic­it­ing spo­ken replies. is that how these dig­i­tal road-war­riors of the elec­tron­ic fron­tier with their pdas imag­ine them­selves; wired-up star­ship troop­ers sit­ting in star­bucks over a gone-cold lat­te? or is it real­ly a mat­ter of con­ve­nience, time-sav­ing, and prac­ti­cal­i­ty?

pdas come with per­son­al organ­is­er soft­ware (cal­en­dar, address­book, and to-do list) pre-loaded. they can do word pro­cess­ing, spread­sheets, even e‑mail and net-surf­ing (with top-of-the-range mod­els) today’s pda can per­form pret­ty much any task that a desk­top, or note­book com­put­er can, only with added eye­strain. so the dig­i­tal road-war­riors are prob­a­bly doing what most of us do with com­put­ers. they fid­dle about. mov­ing files, enter­ing and re-enter­ing data, re-clas­si­fy­ing names in the address book. it may be the wave of the future, but it’s not exact­ly star wars. with­out addi­tion­al soft­ware, the hand­held pda has, until the lat­est mod­els, done lit­tle more than the filo­fax loose leaf organ­is­er did. it was a con­ve­nient place to store fre­quent­ly used infor­ma­tion; appoint­ments, tasks, address­es, the occa­sion­al note. the big dif­fer­ence between the pda and the filo­fax is vis­i­bil­i­ty. the palm pda slips nice­ly into a jack­et pock­et or purse. it weighs next to noth­ing. it dis­ap­pears. this is a far cry from the days when the filo­fax was king. bulging to burst with fran­tic scrawl­ing on every page, busi­ness cards spilling out all over the place, it looked like a methodist lay preacher’s bible, and was con­sult­ed reli­gious­ly to find a ‘win­dow’ for appoint­ments or pow­er lunch­es. such was the six-ring calf­skin binder’s poten­cy, it even had a hol­ly­wood film named after it: filo­faxed! remem­ber? a found filo­fax becomes the mag­ic key to a world of pow­er-dress­ing, sports cars, and sex.


about fif­teen years lat­er, and under style reha­bil­i­ta­tion law, it’s inevitable that a cel­e­bra­tion of the 80s should now be under­way. if one arte­fact had to be cho­sen to embody that decade; the filo­fax would be a pret­ty robust con­tender.

mar­garet thatch­er was tri­umphant­ly enthroned after the falk­lands war, reaganomics swept through the anglo-amer­i­can world. the big-bang explod­ed; down­siz­ing and pri­vati­sa­tion were new reli­gions. this was a new way to live after the flab­by lib­er­al val­ues of the 70s, and more impor­tant­ly, there was seri­ous mon­ey to be made. you had to look the part of course. along with pow­er dress­ing, and the return of sen­si­ble hair­cuts for men, the filo­fax was an essen­tial acces­so­ry and sig­ni­fi­er of the emer­gent val­ues of the 80s. the new aspi­ra­tional­ism empha­sised ‘pro­fes­sion­al­ism’ in con­tradis­tinc­tion to the casu­al, post-hip­py and post-punk, take-it-or-leave-it 70s. but just what was it about the filo­fax that made it fit to become the icon of the yup­pie lifestyle, rather than, for exam­ple, the porsche box­ter, or the armani suit?

the per­son­al organ­is­er didn’t just appear in the 1980s. it had been around for quite a while. the first ‘loose leaf of facts’ was designed by an amer­i­can engi­neer, j.c. park­er, in 1910. lat­er, nor­man & hill ltd. of lon­don pub­lished the ‘filo­fax’ time plan­ner ring book in 1921. the trade­mark ‘filo­fax’ was reg­is­tered in 1930. the mod­ern ver­sion emerged in 1976 when it was relaunched as the filo­fax com­pa­ny. today it is part of the lett’s group. in a recent press release, filo­fax claim that in the uk , despite appear­ances of a decline, more filo­fax­es are being sold than at any time in the company’s his­to­ry, includ­ing dur­ing the 80s. oth­er brands can also claim suc­cess. the amer­i­can franklin cov­ey group pro­duce their own range of organ­is­ers designed around the prin­ci­ples of the man­age­ment guru / self-help best-sell­er; ‘the 7 habits of high­ly effec­tive peo­ple’ , tied into their cor­po­rate train­ing cours­es and seminars.

the filo­fax was not exclu­sive­ly a phe­nom­e­non of the 1980s at all, but actu­al­ly (a small) part of the great expan­sion of indus­try which turned the usa into a lead­ing world pow­er in the first decades of the last cen­tu­ry. the filo­fax came along on the wave of pro­duc­tion line work­ing, ‘fordism’, and the cult of ‘sci­en­tif­ic man­age­ment’; with the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry obses­sion with order and organ­i­sa­tion. the prin­ci­ple archi­tect of sci­en­tif­ic man­age­ment was f. w. tay­lor. in the pref­ace to his influ­en­tial ‘prin­ci­ples of sci­en­tif­ic man­age­ment’, pub­lished in 1911, tay­lor states that ‘in the past, man has been the first; in the future, the sys­tem must be first’. it was in sys­tem that tay­lor saw the answer to the prob­lems of poor pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, wast­ed resources and time, poor labour-man­age­ment rela­tions. tay­lor saw the root caus­es of these prob­lems in work­place organ­i­sa­tion. he devel­oped a sys­tem of time and motion stud­ies, break­ing down work into a series of timed tasks. piece-work pay­ment could be deter­mined for each task, so that high­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty could be reward­ed, slack­ing penalised and elim­i­nat­ed. the phys­i­cal organ­i­sa­tion and design of the work­place could be incor­po­rat­ed into the sys­tem, to max­imise effi­cien­cy. the influ­ence of tay­lorism waned to some degree after wwii, but his ideas are still a cor­ner­stone of mod­ern man­age­ment the­o­ry .
tay­lorism is under­pinned by a more gen­er­alised chris­t­ian work eth­ic; the assump­tion that there is inher­ent virtue in labour and the cre­ation of wealth, and in this, the inter­ests of man­age­ment and labour are the same. sci­en­tif­ic ratio­nal­i­sa­tion will ben­e­fit both. the con­cept of a work eth­ic comes from max weber, the social the­o­rist, in 1904. while iden­ti­fy­ing the gen­e­sis of the work eth­ic in calvin­ism and the lat­er puri­tan move­ments, many of the exam­ples he cites are tak­en from the writ­ings of ben­jamin franklin, in whose lit­tle tract “on the means and man­ner of obtain­ing virtue” franklin had advo­cat­ed the keep­ing of a day­book, in order to mon­i­tor fail­ures and suc­cess­es in the pur­suit of virtue and the need for a pre­de­ter­mined sched­ule to lead the good life and make pro­duc­tive use of time to avoid idle­ness, of which he said; “the pre­cept of order requir­ing that every part of my busi­ness should have its allot­ted time, one page in my book contain’d the fol­low­ing scheme of employ­ment for the twen­ty four hours of a nat­ur­al day”. this includ­ed an hour for prayer, hours for work, and hours for reflec­tion on the days acheivements.franklin

all of which brings me neat­ly back to the filo­fax. franklin’s vir­tu­ous note­book is com­pelling­ly rem­i­nis­cent of our twen­ti­eth and twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry per­son­al organ­is­ers, where our tasks for the day are duly account­ed for, where our adher­ence to the virtues is record­ed, and future improve­ment sought. built upon the sobri­ety of a work eth­ic, and pep­pered with ‘sci­en­tif­ic’ organ­i­sa­tion­al the­o­ry, the per­son­al organ­is­er rep­re­sents a kind of vol­un­tary tay­lorism for the iman­age­ment pro­fes­sion­al. the osten­ta­tious dis­play of the filo­fax dur­ing the 1980s, seen in these terms, can be read­i­ly under­stood as the out­ward­ly vis­i­ble sign of adher­ence to this new world, when it was fash­ion­able to be con­ser­v­a­tive, (or even con­ser­v­a­tive), when it was even sexy to work in the city.

if the filo­fax was some­thing nev­er to be seen with­out, then its tech­no­log­i­cal suc­ces­sor, the pda, is some­thing its own­ers are rarely seen with. grow­ing ever more diminu­tive, the mea­sure­ments of the hand­held com­put­er have decreased in inverse pro­por­tion to their range of capa­bil­i­ties. the ear­ly elec­tron­ic organ­is­ers were lit­tle more than cal­cu­la­tors with cal­en­dars, the abil­i­ty to store tele­phone num­bers and a few lines of text. look­ing like a scaled down ver­sion of the ill-fat­ed apple ‘new­ton’ pda, and using a sim­i­lar sty­lus-based input method, the palm pilot was launched in 1996, which togeth­er with its near clone, the cheap­er (and chunki­er) hand­spring visor, had estab­lished the hand­held by the turn of this cen­tu­ry as some­thing more than just an expen­sive exec­u­tive toy.
palm became an inde­pen­dent con­cern this year fol­low­ing the acqui­si­tion of hand­spring. the lat­est mod­els, for exam­ple the tung­sten t3, in addi­tion to the basic filo­fax-like func­tions, offer sound record­ing capa­bil­i­ties, dig­i­tal cam­era add-ons, ‘blue­tooth’ wire­less con­nec­tiv­i­ty (for com­put­er syn­chro­ni­sa­tion, e‑mail, and inter­net brows­ing), mp3 music play­er capa­bil­i­ties, even video play­back, on a high res­o­lu­tion colour screen. the soon to be released treo 600 has an inte­grat­ed mobile ‘phone. what we are see­ing now is con­sid­er­able cross-over of func­tions among mobile elec­tron­ic devices, referred to in the indus­try, with near spir­i­tu­al fer­vour, as “con­ver­gence”. nokia, for exam­ple, pro­duce a num­ber of ‘com­mu­ni­ca­tor’ mod­els at the high end of their range, incor­po­rat­ing pdas. in addi­tion to stor­ing your entire music col­lec­tion, apple’s ipod is able to accom­mo­date address­es and tele­phone num­bers. mobile ‘phones incor­po­rat­ing dig­i­tal cam­eras are becom­ing commonplace

any­body remem­ber this?

in this bright new world of ubiq­ui­tous con­nec­tiv­i­ty just what are we being offered? the mar­ket­ing rhetoric is one of lib­er­a­tion; of tech­nol­o­gy mak­ing life sim­pler, more con­ve­nient, more excit­ing. how­ev­er, recent fig­ures have shown that we are far from lib­er­at­ed there isa new british dis­ease; over­work­ing. we already work up to 40% longer hours on aver­age than our euro­pean coun­ter­parts. the rest of us are tak­ing work home with us. new mobile tech­nol­o­gy gives us the abil­i­ty to blur or erase alto­geth­er the phys­i­cal and tem­po­ral bound­aries between work and pri­vate life. think about it. por­ing over spread­sheets on the 7.30 into water­loo, when you could be snooz­ing over a book­er nom­i­nee. read­ing your e‑mails or video-con­fer­enc­ing in a broad­band ‘wi-fi’ hot-spot, when all you real­ly want is a cup of cof­fee. rak­ing over the coals of this afternoon’s meet­ing on your mobile when you could be… car­ry­ing our offices around with us. the future’s bright, the future’s … more work?

and recently …


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