It was stone dead that night in Foo Bar, the late-night hangout of Silicon Valley executives and programmers and journalists where I moonlight as relief bartender. My only customers that night were the three familiar technology journalists at the bar, all bent low over their smartphones. Larry was maxing out his bandwidth websurfing and googlemapping. Joe was tapping out a long e-mail. And Mo, she was just talking into her phone. Voicing, I guess you could call it. As they worked they were all knocking back drinks and scooping up peanuts.
Me, I was behind the bar reading about high-end Tequilas in Marketwatch with my seat on one barstool and my feet on another.
"Has anyone," Larry asked without taking his eyes off the tiny screen, "reflected on the irony that we are all busy precisely because the people we cover are not?"
"Sort of, yeah," Joe said. "Here's what I just wrote: 'A hint of the sad state of the economy,'" he read aloud from his screen, "'is how dead it is tonight in this industry bar'"
"which will remain unnamed," Mo cut in, a warning in her voice.
"Indeed," Larry agreed, "We don't want anyone else to know about this place, do we?" He looked sheepishly in my direction. "Er, no offense intended, Michael."
"None taken, Larry. It's not my bar." I refilled his glass. "But is there really such a slowdown in software development? Most people I talk to seem busy."
"It's a valid point," he said. "The economy, the industry may be slow, but most software developers I meet are keeping busy."
"They're working on open source projects with international teams," Mo broke in. "It's all international. This July the big GNOME conference takes place in Turkey. Speaking of which, I'd better take this call from Istanbul."
"Interestingly," Larry said, "Istanbul is the name of a desktop session recorder for GNOME and KDE." He sipped at his white wine. "You know, we do belong to one of those professions that prosper during challenging times."
"I gotcha," Joe agreed. "The undertaker, the preacher"
"and the journalist. By the way, despite Mo's somewhat retro behavior, I find myself using my mobile phone less and less as a telephone."
"I know what you mean," Joe said, "I love e-mail. I can't remember phone numbers but I can usually guess an e-mail address."
Larry nodded, and I noticed Mo glare at the two of them as she continued her call. "Most of my work-related conversations," Larry said, "require one of the conversants to go away and get more information at some point. Real-time voice calls don't allow for that. And calls rarely come at a time that's convenient for me, but that's not a problem with non-real-time media."
Joe signalled me for another cream soda. "You know what else? When I e-mail or text someone, they don't expect a lot of small talk. I can just get down to it. I can't do that in a phone call; I have to go through all the hi-how-are-yous, every single time."
"And of course there's a record with e-mail. You can go back and look at your e-mails, see who said what."
Mo finished her call and snapped her phone shut. Both men caught the look in her eyes and got quiet. I poured her another Scotch.
"I don't know about you two," she said after a healthy swallow of the Macallan, "but I'm a journalist."
Joe snorted, while Larry gave her a wry look. "And you love talking on the phone, I take it?"
"I love talking on the phone." She took another swallow. "It gives me the nuances. I can catch something in a tone of voice and it sends me on a new track. I can hit them with a quick unexpected question and their good manners force them to say more than they would if they took time to consider their answer.
Joe and Larry both tried to cut in, but she pressed on.
"And some of the people I talk to," she went on, "don't want a record of the conversation. You say it's inconvenient, but to me, that's an asset. I want to catch people unprepared, I want the conversation to happen on my terms."
"So you seem to be saying that e-mail and phone calls each have their place," I put in. They all nodded and the tension in the air seemed to drop a notch. "E-mail is great if you think of conversation as an exchange of information," I said, "and phone calls are better if you see conversation as a battle."
Larry and Joe laughed, but Mo gave me a wink. "Yeah. I can go along with that."