One of the few public power sockets available to the hordes of tourists who visit Battery Park in Lower Manhattan is located in a Starbucks, in the frame of the plate glass windows that front the coffee shop. The plug is near the floor, behind the counters where customers nurse expensive cups of coffee and enjoy the view of the park, the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. To get at the socket, the power-hungry have to crawl under the metal framework that supports the counter, and then contort themselves unnaturally to get their power cord into the socket, and then risk the feet, knees and hot coffee of all the patrons who are so busy admiring the view that they don't notice the poor stranger crouched beneath the counter.

At just about any given time of the day, you'll find someone who's willing to crawl under that counter for a charge, which is as good a reminder as any of the lengths we sometimes need to go to to realize the amazing benefits of our fantastic new technologies. If our smartphones or laptops are out of power -- or if the Internet is down, or the server is on the fritz, or if we can't find WiFi -- most of us find ourselves at a standstill, with no way to accomplish any kind of work.

Computer-driven or -dependent technology has become as essential to the workplace as coffee and electric light, with the major difference that the systems that deliver coffee and electric light are at least a century old and, beyond paying for them every month, there's not much you need to do to make sure that they function. You don't need to be involved in the infrastructure. And in a pinch, coffee and light are easy to come by at a nearby Starbucks, while the software and hardware you need to accomplish your work are not.

These technologies, after all, are still relatively new, and in their early phases all technologies require more effort from their users. (Think of the cranks on Model Ts, or the time your grandfather spent fiddling with the antenna to tune in a TV station.) It's easy to forget that both the pervasiveness and the fairly early stage of development of these technologies mean that we all -- as individuals and employees - need to be much more involved in them than we are with, say the telephone system, or the water supply. We cannot afford to hope that someone else will take care of it. Besides all the annoying tasks that go along with keeping your smartphone and tablet running all day, there are some larger responsibilities that we all need to shoulder:

  • We must keep up with change.We don'tneed to pay attention to the changes being made to the national electric grid to pay our power bill, but we do need to know what's changing to buy the right computing device, or to figure out whether to go with on-premise or cloud-based software, for instance.
  • We have to learn.Most hardware and software does more than we think it does -- but not necessarily obviously or intuitively.We can all get more out of it if we spend a few minutes with the manual, share discoveries with colleagues, and are willing to risk asking, "Does it do x?"
  • Security is everyone's responsibility.Once devices can read fingerprints (or scan retinas), we'll be able to relax about security. Until then, we really do need to create strong passwords, update our security patches, leave dodgy attachments unopened, and activate the remote-wipe feature on our smartphones and tablets.
  • So are backups. Even if someone else at your firm has set up your backup system, you need to make sure that all the data you need saved is in the place it gets backed up from.

In the future, more mature forms of hardware and software will lighten much of this burden. WiFi will be ubiquitous, our devices will charge up automatically, our applications and security measures will update themselves, and our hardware will be as intuitive to use as a touch-tone phone. Until then, though, we'll still need to crawl under the counter from time to time.

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