The Things That Define Us (Words and Work)

Mark Your Calendar

When a friend says, “Mark your calendar for next Tuesday night, we’re all going out for drinks,” do you use a ballpoint pen, or a #2 pencil?   Not metaphorically (this isn’t a question about your friend’s reliability), but physically, how do you mark your calendar?

Chances are, neither ink nor graphite are used.  More likely, you soon find yourself staring at the One-Month-View on your Outlook, iCal, or Lotus Notes application, ready to click “New Appointment,” or simply “+.”    Then again, you may ask your friend to send you an invite, relieving you of the oh-so-tedious task of typing a new subject, day, and time.  Or possibly still, the request came in the form of an email, and your Gmail account instantly recognized “next Tuesday night” as an important social opportunity, highlighting it with a link that instantly populated your Gmail calendar. And, as an additional bonus, Google simultaneously suggested several nearby bars, just in case your friend’s initial plan becomes decidedly dreary.  

Had this been a work invitation, you may not have had chance to answer the request at all.  As scheduling has become a de facto part of the digital corporate culture, one’s daily agenda has virtually grown into a crowd-sourced decision.  Workers’ electronic calendars are often directly, and instantly, shared with their managers (for “convenience”), and co-workers throughout the company are able to see when their peers are available to meet.  As such, it has become assumed that meeting requests in vacant time slots will be accepted, often without any prior discussion of the recipient’s availability.  

But before we berate the big-brother path of digital cloud-based calendars, or cheer their liberating time-saving capabilities, we should briefly reflect on a life-changing technology that has only recently arrived (after 35 years in the making).  

First, the portable hardware…

The year was 1983, and People Magazine “Most Interesting” list included Joan Rivers and Michael Jackson.  The final episode of MASH aired to an audience of 125 Million viewers, and Casio launched their first “digital diary,” the PF-3000.  

Resembling a fancy, two-sided calculator, the PF-3000 wouldn’t change the way we kept our schedules, but it was one of the first digitial mobile devices that could hold addresses, telephone numbers, and memos in one place (provided you had the patience to enter the information).  However, within a decade, both Casio and Sharp Corporations had developed hardware that began to provide true calendars, and could synchronize with the user’s PC. Then, in 1992, Apple Computers launched the Newton with a stylus that could (sometimes) recognize handwriting.  

Palm Corporation then improved upon the handwriting technology with the first Palm Pilot in 1996 - moving away from the hopes of a handheld computer, and streamlining its features towards a traditional agenda.  But as familiar as the name is today, Palm Pilot sold less than one million units that year.  While it was more than a gimmick, it did not change the way we lived (traditional agenda businesses such as Franklin Covey, At-A-Glance, and Day-Timer continued to thrive throughout the 1990s).  

Palm, Casio, and later, Microsoft, continued their efforts to build the market by developing devices that could take on more and more tasks, and by 2006, Palm had reportedly sold 30 Million devices.  Inevitably, these PDA devices gradually combined with mobile phones, finally reducing the number of gadgets (or notebooks) the user needed to keep in her bag.

It would the Blackberry, however, that would first begin to change the landscape of scheduling, and work.

Research in Motion (RIM) released their first device in 1996 (essentially a 2-way pager), and the RIM 850 was released in 1999, with the integration of email and an on-board calendar.  The first official Blackberry phone was introduced four years later supporting push email, along with web browsing and other internet functions.  The familiar keyboard layout abandoned previous efforts at handwriting recognition, diminishing the separation between computer and handheld.  By 2007, Research in Motion claimed 10 million users worldwide, and the white-collar workplace was very mobile. However, it was not the number of Blackberry users that changed the landscape. Rather, it was the new image of the Blackberry user - the business professional who was always connected and always available - that began to shape the way we saw success. 

Devices in 2007 saw another important milestone – Apple’s introduction of the iPhone, and the initial democratization of the smart phone in America, with the original version selling 6.1 million units.  The following year, the Android operating system was released on the HTC dream, selling an additional 1 million units.  Of course, both operating systems have continued to gain customers, with Android operating system accounting for 81% of the global mobile OS market today.  

However, for our purposes, the tipping point has come only in the last five years.  Between 2011 and 2015, smart phone users in the United States has increased from 35% to 68%, crossing the 50% mark in 2012

Not coincidentally, the speed at which our phones can connect to the Internet has also been increasing.  Catching up with the new hardware, communications companies had to bring the wireless technology in line with the gadget's capabilities.  As carriers competed for clients, 3G wireless systems became the standard for anyone wishing to use smart phones.  While Verizon launched the first networks in 2002, it was only in 2013 that almost 50% of the US was truly 3G.  That work has continued to accelerate with 81% of the country covered by next generation LTE (4G).  

So today, the majority of America has a smart phone, and is on a network with enough power to do almost anything it wants.  And with every one of these smart phones pre-loaded with a calendar application, we now have our personal schedules at our fingertips 24-hours a day.  

But the difference isn’t just portability…

Most of us don’t think twice about sending a schedule invite to a friend or colleague.  We don’t consider if they will receive it on their phone or laptop, weather it’s an Android or a Windows system.  We simply type the subject, date, time and location, and hit “send,” like an email...  but it’s not just an email.  

Created in 1998, the iCalendar Transport-Independent Interopeability Protocol (iTIP, also known as simply iCalendar) was developed and authored by the Internet Engineering Taskforce.  While you have not likely heard of iTIP, you may be familiar with the associated “.ics” file extension showing up in an email.  What it means for us today is that, almost 20 years ago, a task force decided what information calendars could, and would, communicate across the Internet.  And while the parameters created may seem conventional or obvious, there are features that were entirely new to scheduling.

First and foremost, these files can be easily shared.   For the first time, our calendars can be directly infiltrated from the outside.  The time, date, subject, location (not to mention additional notes) of entries in our personal agendas could be proposed and entered by someone else.  Of course it is our choice to accept the entry (or not), but it is no longer in our own words.  

Next, the entries can be sent to multiple people simultaneously.  This means that we can instantly coordinate the calendars of a group – obviously a wonderful convenience.  However, it also means calendar entries now have a greater communal value – all recipients an see each other and understand who is invited to participate.

Understanding that these new outside influences, the authors also created a space for “BusyTime.”  This allows the calendar user to set ‘busy’ time periods in her schedule, preventing outside meetings.  This is intended as an automated luxury, but it can also allow for others to have a slight glimpse into our day without our knowledge (to be clear, the BusyTime function only shows blocked times – not details of our activities).  

On the other hand, the ability to safeguard hours of our day may be one of the largest assets of the protocol set nearly two decades ago.  As our time faces an ever-increasing onslaught of emailed questions and meeting requests, this feature allows us (if we choose to use it) to block time within our digital calendars so that we may step away from our digital lives.  This is increasingly important, considering...

All of these functions fundamentally change the way we relate to our calendars; they are now dynamic and social.  What was historically a personal tool is now a shared communal monitor.  

Perhaps the most differencing feature however, is simply how we enter the time. Prior to digital calendars, printed agendas were normally laid out by the hour with some space in-between for possible subdivisions.  But with the advent of the iCalendar entry, schedules can be divided into one-minute increments.  We are no longer constrained by the limited space on the printed page to designate and define our activities.  Now, our day is viewed in minute-to-minute detail rather than an hour-by-hour summary.  

For some of us, the question of our over-scheduled days may start to resemble that of the chicken-or-the-egg.  Does our modern agenda simply reflect the needs of our busy day?  Or, do we feel the need to fill every moment of our day, because our calendars allow it? 

The popular blog, lifehack.org, recently posted an article about this very point.  The author points out that our modern calendar is really a to-do list, with times attached.  He goes on to encourage entering any (and all) items we want to accomplish – from our work meetings, to dinner reservations, to even the time we want to put aside to finish reading that novel, or perhaps do an extra set of sit-ups.  The message being that if we don’t predetermine every moment of our and priorities, our days could be forever lost to poor time management.     

Of course, this “new" calendar is not responsible for our overfilled workdays or hectic after-school schedules.  After all, most of us have been using it for only a couple of years.  And, like many of today's cloud-based applications, it has the potential of providing us valuable information whenever, and wherever, we need it.  We are able to synchronize meeting times with co-workers, update locations for social events, and plan our personal workout schedule with remarkable ease.   

But, at the end of the day, the our time does not unfurl in a cloud, and will have undoubtedly drift in unplanned ways.  Traffic will make us late to our meeting, and clients will have last-minute demands and needs.  We may choose to happily spend and extra half-hour playing with our children, or perhaps, we will even take an extra five minutes to notice the newly blooming tulips on our walk to work. 

We do have the choice to decline that invitation for drinks next Tuesday, and leave our calendar blank for an hour.  Perhaps we’ll decide to go on a run, bake some cookies, or start a journal... just a paper notebook and a pen, or maybe a #2 pencil.