Employers can make rules about technology use in the workplace, but they cant tell employees whats in style. Thats a problem as personal technology continues to evolve—from what we have on our desks to what we carry to meetings to what we wear all day.
Science-fiction writers got there first. In March 1987, Analog magazine published Rob Chilsons short story "The Bureaucratic Brain"—referring to hardware, not wetware. The title device was a fictional "pocket brain." Chilsons story revolved around a government worker who had purchased one of these neurally coupled, wirelessly networked, automagically self-programming devices to enhance his off-hours talent as a saxophone player.
The workers supervisors, at his day job with the Internal Revenue Service, were pleased with the collateral benefits of his new toy. Linked with his nervous system via an antenna around his neck, the device gave him total recall of every piece of data crossing his desk. He did the work of five unaided employees.
Alarms went off, though, when this worker was charged with violating workplace privacy rules. He gave a cab driver the address of a drunken co-worker, part of a directory that hed effectively memorized, so that the lady could get home. Thats when the bosses realized how much knowledge was going home with this employee—and realized further that the agency had no effective rules for dealing with this new situation.
The employer didnt want to lose the benefit of the employees greater effectiveness at work; it couldnt confiscate his personal property, and the technology didnt make it cost-effective to segregate personal from work-related information. All in all, a prescient picture, considering that this story is almost old enough to vote.
I thought of this story when I read an Associated Press story about the return of technology products to high-fashion department stores. After years of being relegated to big-box retail chains like Best Buy, tech is coming back to the boutiques: "Fashion is no longer what I put on my body in terms of fabrics, but it is also what I put on my body in terms of technology," the story quoted Wendy Liebmann, president of New York-based marketing and retailing consultancy WSL Strategic Retail, as saying.
There are cameras, of course, in new cellular phones, whose product life cycle is already more akin to fashion items than communications equipment. There are digital audio recorders smaller than a cigarette case. I could keep mine in a pocket, making less of a bulge than my sunglasses, and e-mail the audio record of my entire business day in seconds.
There are tens of gigabytes of storage in every one of the 6 million iPods already sold. Who knows how many of them are under Christmas trees—or already hidden in jackets that have internal pockets, wiring harnesses and audio-device control switches sewn into the sleeves for access during recreation? And there are Bluetooth devices that communicate without even the visual clues of white-corded earbuds or other brand-loyalty statements.
Its not just the nerds who wear this stuff now. Its not just the Batman utility-belt look or the photojournalist-on-safari look. Its fashion. And its already hard enough to enforce a dress code, like schoolteachers of yore measuring hemline distances above knees. Its already expensive enough, and intrusive enough, to have armed guards conduct briefcase searches. When personal technology is integrated into clothing or jewelry, what can workplace data security staff measure or search?
Let me offer these rules for the rulemakers:
Rule No. 1: Get there first. Establish not just policies but the precedent that lets you have policies at all.
Rule No. 2: Make rules that make enough sense, and have enough regard for peoples comfort and convenience and desire to do their jobs well, that no one is proud to break them.
Rule No. 3: Know what youre talking about. If your rules dont work, in the context of changing technology, you have no credibility and therefore no authority.
These little electronic gems make great stocking stuffers. Dont let them turn into lumps of coal in your portfolio of data security practices.
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.