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Oscar Wilde once famously said, Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life. Wilde, who died in 1900, may have been right, but todays question of whether Life imitates technology more than technology imitates Life is an even greater puzzle.

Do you think that Oscar Wilde would have understood if he heard us using words (which he undoubtedly thought he already knew) like packet, virtual, card, bit, file, bus, net, reboot, port, bios, cache, chip, storage, monitor, virus or Trojan horse when discussing that love-hate object, the personal computer, our new best friend? And would he have understood if a person said that his hard drive was full, meaning he couldnt retrieve something because his brain was cluttered with other data?

When Paul Baran, an electrical engineer working for the Rand Corp., began working in the 1960s on a long-distance digital communications network which would survive a nuclear attack, he consulted with Warren McCulloch, a psychiatrist at MITs Research Laboratory of Electronics. Their discussion centered around the human brain, and how it sometimes recovers lost functions by bypassing an injured region. The brain does not rely on a single set of dedicated cells for a specific function, and Baran thought a distributed communications network with redundant and decentralized nodes, a forerunner of the Internet, could be designed to function the same way.

In order to transmit messages, data would be broken up into coded blocks or packets which could then be routed separately through several intelligent nodes to be ultimately rejoined at their destination. Instead of wasting bandwidth by tying up dedicated telephone lines, this system capitalized on a packets ability to be sent in bursts along more than one route when line capacity was conveniently available. And if a particular node malfunctioned, the packet would simply be rerouted around it. Thats basically the way the Internet works today, a fine example of technology imitating Life. But more about Life imitating technology:

It seems that we human beings have also become so oriented to communicating in packets, snippets and bits of information, that we can hardly sit still for old-fashioned dialogue. Meetings are even more of a bore than they used to be. We become impatient if a subordinate or fellow employee takes too long to explain her position or idea.

We find ourselves doing other things if a television show starts to drag. We cant stand to sit through old movies with the long, silent shots and beautiful scenery which used to be standard fare. We must have action, and plenty of it, in short, powerful and sometimes mind-boggling bursts. Thats the way we live now: Life imitating technology.

As managers and executives, we recognize that many of the old leisurely ways may not apply anymore. Packet talk is in, and intricately constructed, time-consuming presentations are out. Information arrives in fragments from all directions. We send out and receive messages in short bursts. There isnt time for the old days.

Too bad, but as Walter Cronkite would say, thats the way it is.

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