In times of stress like this, we often try to be thankful for the little things. I’d like to point out how grateful we should be for a really big thing that’s hiding in plain sight: technology. When we think about technology these days, we tend to cast it as a villain. But mostly, we don’t think about it; we take it for granted. It just works.
So think about that: it just works.
This has come into focus now that so many of us are working from home. I have the luxury of not having to adjust much. I’m an independent consultant; I’ve worked from home for years; I spend a lot of time on Zoom.
But for most people, it’s quite an adjustment, and it has happened very suddenly. Offices emptied out rapidly, in some cases in a matter of hours. A friend of mine at one of the Big Five was told to pack up everything she needed, because after she left the building, she wasn’t going to get back in.
Now when I’m in meetings with her I see her living room. Because we’re in publishing, it’s no surprise that the backdrop I see in almost every virtual meeting involves a bookcase. And you know what? In my world there hasn’t been a single person who couldn’t join a meeting they needed to be in. It just works.
It wasn’t long ago that this was impossible. But now it has become so commonplace that we don’t even think about it. We have technology to thank for this—and the standards that underpin it.
I’m not talking about technology companies. Feel free to despise them (though what would we do without Apple and Google?). I’m talking about the technology that enables them to do what they do—the technologies that they all share.
Typically, those technologies are nonproprietary, free, and interoperable. Even the most closed, proprietary systems are based on open, nonproprietary technologies, which in turn are based on standards. That’s why they just work.
Did you know that there’s a technology called WebRTC? Neither did I, until recently. It enables real-time communication between browsers and apps. It just works in all browsers. Why? Because it was developed collaboratively by Apple, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Opera—which are competitors—and it’s being standardized by the World Wide Web Consortium and the Internet Engineering Task Force, two important global standards organizations. Most of today’s technology is built on open, free standards.
Do you need to know about WebRTC? Nope. It just works. Things like WebRTC are being developed all the time, behind the scenes. We benefit from them without ever knowing they exist.
I don’t mean to imply that having to work from home is a good thing. And those of us in publishing are among the lucky ones whose work can be done from home. But while the lack of in-person contact is certainly a hardship—we are all desperate for things to get back to normal—there are actually some benefits.
In the past, the Book Industry Study Group held almost all of its meetings in person. It could do that because a large majority of its members were in New York City, where BISG has long been based. Then it started providing more call-in access for people like me. (I’m based in Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Guess what happened? The New Yorkers started to call in. It was so much easier than having to schlep down to the BISG offices and possibly kill a whole afternoon. Now most BISG meetings are online (though of course the in-person ones are important, and will be back!).
This can even make the meetings better, as one of my daughters, who works for a big nonprofit, pointed out. In the past, she has had to call in (via Zoom) to many meetings, but she often found it difficult to get a word in, because the folks on-site would dominate the conversation. Now everybody has to call in, and the meetings are much more democratic. Is she looking forward to not having to work from home every day? You bet. But maybe that meeting culture has been improved a bit.
I’ll leave you with another bright spot in these dark days—a note of joy, actually. A group of classical musicians banded together to create the Socially Distant Orchestra. Each one of them plays alone from home to perform the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. They join in one by one until the music swells to a joyful climax.
Google it. If that doesn’t bring joy to your heart, nothing will. It just works.
Bill Kasdorf is principal at Kasdorf & Associates, a consultancy focusing on accessibility, information architecture, and editorial and production workflows. He is a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.