AIRMAIL - HONG KONG DIARY - CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL PROFITEER:
WORLD KEEPS TURNING
Paul Simon, from A Hazy Shade of Winter, 1966
There was a time when boarding a plane for the long haul overseas signified a very dramatic closure of one door and opening of another, through which lay all manner of unknowns, no matter how meticulously the itinerary was planned or luggage packed. The whirlwind of trip prep was exhausting, with loose ends to tie and in absentia contingencies to form. This weary wanderer would almost look forward to a 15-hour US-to-Hong Kong flight as time to power down, clear the head, read a book or two.
Now, in the wee small hours of a flight, the plane hurtles through the black Arctic midnight with its cabin alit from laptops, tablets and other handheld devices flickering with spreadsheets, downloaded films, Outlook inboxes and the like. Airplane mode, indeed.
On arrival, today’s globetrotters all charge off the plane, ready for action with data uploaded, emails updated and devices instantly reconnecting them to home (provided they are still charged after nonstop in-flight use). Until, that is, they reach the hotel where they can skype loved ones and colleagues to hearts’ content in a blurry haze of 12-hour time difference and jet lag.
Dear reader, I am sure you will be shocked to learn that your Professor - while no stranger to these things - sniffs at skype, shrugs at spreadsheets and absolutely loathes the long distance call. And while I do now have a nook, I swear it’s only for long flights.
This is not the misplaced yearning of a cranky old profiteer, either – that is a separate issue for another time. As previously asserted in these pages, global trade as we know it today would not be possible without the advances in communications and transportation now taken as givens. In short, I would be out of business if I had to rely on tramp steamer for passage, airmail packet for purchase order delivery, or the telephone trunk line with its baleful echo and – egad - the fax machine for correspondence.
When I first arrived in Hong Kong, the better business hotels actually provided a fax machine in every room with a dedicated outside line and all the smeary ‘paper’ one could possibly unroll from the drum. Actual connection (and legibility) was spotty. Email service, if available at all, was in the hotel business center usually located in a sub-basement level between the sauna and the hair salon: talk about convenient! Multi-band smart phones were still just a glint in Mr. Jobs’s eyes, and heaven forfend the hapless traveler who succumbed to the temptation of the room phone‘s international dialing instructions beneath yellowed laminate.
Given the prohibitive costs of such calls and unreliability of other means of contact, there was a basic pre-trip expectation of being incommunicado for long stretches. Before one left the States, bills were paid and posted. Relevant insurance policies were updated. Long-winded voice mail greetings were recorded to update imminent status (extremely unavailable). Dire prophecies of looming business challenges were imparted to colleagues, and the promise of an eventual heroic return made to loved ones.
And après cela, le voyage.
And after that, relative radio silence. All manner of calamity could ensue in my absence – births and deaths recorded, weddings and funerals held, deals struck, clients lost, checks bounced - but I would remain….absent. The world kept turning, but news – even bad news – traveled slow, especially with a 12-hour time difference that turned the clock face topsy and day into night.
All this at a time when my trips to Hong Kong were typically of much greater duration than today, mainly due to a paucity of travel options inside China that made day-trip scheduling a nightmare. Local roads, hotels and restaurants were dreadful by western standards. And to enter China from Hong Kong was like descending into a deep well of silence, with virtually no access to links to the outside world.
Even high-volume Hong Kong, with its cacophony of blaring traffic, thunderous construction sites and sidewalk chatter, offered a cloak of silence borne of distance. And the traveler’s reaction to the silence could range from bravado to angst, apathy, curiosity and even homesickness – all part of that magical sense of being elsewhere.
Being out of range also imparted an anonymous property, a kind of invisibility. What veteran traveler hasn’t felt a tingle – whether of elation, anxiety, or expectancy – from strolling down a crowded street with the knowledge that, at that moment, there was not another soul on earth who knew one’s exact whereabouts?
Yes, something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day, particularly so with life on the road.
There was another, unexpected, gain - a gift, really: the gift of focus. Yes, the world kept turning, and events on the home front continued to play out in spite (or because) of one’s absence, but that was miles and time zones away. With the inability to intervene or interact with those events, there remained only the task at hand: pursuit of the trip’s purpose.
Of course, in time Hong Kong hotels caught on to that crazy email fad and finally began to offer broadband for a fee. And a kindly Hong Kong supplier arranged a local-service mobile phone for my use around town. China lagged at first but soon caught up with a vengeance, although email disruptions and virus threats are still everyday occurrences.
And then a funny thing happened.
Seemingly overnight, tech advances conspired to contract the distance from home, trivialize the 12-hour time difference and make possible ‘real-time’ business correspondence and personal conversation for the global traveler. As global trade heated up, so did wireless networks expand to become cheaper and thus more accessible, which made the phone call home more commonplace.
Business travelers soon thought nothing of ringing the home office during a meeting in China or even connecting to home front servers to share data obtained at that very meeting. The trunk line echo receded into the depths of history.
Next, social media spilled its way out of the dorm room and into the world of the business traveler to form a new virtual tether. After-hours could be spent not merely on work emails but Facebook updates, twitter posts and the like. And why not do a bit of online banking or e-trading before that skype session with loved ones?
Whew. How can they miss you if you won’t go away?
Oh sure, there were some holdouts, old hands kindred to your Professor who still preferred drinks and dinner in the lobby lounge to room service and what effectively became an 18-hour day before the laptop lid finally closed for the night. C’mon, people: Focus! Pay attention to that vodka and lime in front of you - make sure you choose wisely from that buffet table! Does a simple wish for some peace and quiet amid the electronic clamor make us curmudgeons? Does the urge to live fully in the essential elsewhere of our surroundings at the moment – to be there now – make us Luddite? Does the Pope fly coach? No, no and no. I think.
But the world keeps turning. The cultural and professional benefits are undeniable, and as vast and immeasurable as the worldwide web itself. Consider the simple fact of reading this article, wherever you, dear reader, may be at this moment. Or the complex set of events that brought about the creation of this august publication on whose virtual shoulders this hoary head rests.
In the business arena, we are now so accustomed to ‘instant-on’ that we routinely grouse about response times to emails sent to recipients 8,000-miles and 12-hours away. Coin flips determine who will get the 7-am vs. 7-pm phone meeting time (disclosure: Professor is not a morning person), but trust that the global conference call will go on; neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of hangover will stay those couriers from the skype completion of their appointed rounds.
These advances in communication and connection have had an undeniably positive effect on efficiency. The proliferation of multinational corporations is a direct result. Business systems can operate on the same platforms, regardless of language, culture, or currency differences with much less lost in translation. Individual productivity has soared, little wonder in a work environment where someone is available somewhere at all times.
Yes, this global profiteer has succumbed (somewhat) to the new grind, and has certainly profited from the advances. Besides, if it’s Zen quietude I crave I head for the nearest shopping mall. And I do concede a certain comfort in hearing the voices of loved ones from afar and seeing their spazzy skyped-up images on laptop screens.
But as the great world spins and distances continue to shrink, so do the magical elements of travel that drew so many of us to the road for so long: discovery, wonder, awe and the sacred sensation of elsewhere.
Then again, I never did like those tramp steamers.
Paul Simon, from A Hazy Shade of Winter, 1966