Look carefully at your old business cards; they tell the story of an increasingly digital world.
When I got new business cards through the years, I always kept one and flung it in the back of the “rummage drawer” of my desk. Recently I came across a bunch of my old cards among nameless keys, expired credit cards, children’s teeth, and 2004 Olympic tickets. Following on from the enormously successful History of the World in 100 Objects at the British Museum, I thought I’d tell a similar story, based on the business cards I have carried over my career.
Telex: the first digital connection
My very first business card included a telex number. Telex was actually a digital technology, but it never enjoyed widespread adoption because telex machines were expensive and could not be linked to any other system. You had to go to a special room featuring a big old machine to send a telex, and receiving one had a frisson of excitement, despite being printed on what looked like toilet roll. In my opinion, we discarded them too quickly in favour of the non-digital fax machine. Also, the phone number was just a switchboard, with no country code. (Of course, communications such as mobile, fax, and email lay in the future.)
The age of fax
My business cards chart the rise and fall of the fax machine. This technology was actually a regression from telex, as it converted what was usually digital data from a word processing system (common from the early 90s) to a raster image. This was then re-keyed by the recipient, and OCR was even sometimes applied to try to re-create the digital data. Sales orders and invoices were routinely sent this way, with the absurd situation of expensive computers trying to communicate by converting to a picture and back again. I was always anti-fax, but their legacy lives on as many crucial business documents are still converted to PDF, a process that removes their digital content and places them firmly back in the analog era.
We had the absurd situation of expensive computers trying to communicate by converting documents to a picture and then scanning them back again.
Direct dial, mobile, and international dialing
As an aside, we can see the improvement in telephony as the “switchboard” disappeared with the rise of direct dial in 1991 (telephone numbers for business used to be restricted to just a couple of lines). Also, the rise of mobile (1997) and the use of the + sign as international direct dialing became more common (1999).
Ah, email. It first appeared on my business cards in 1992, as I was Silicon Valley-based at the time, and in those innocent times my email was just email@example.com. Now, of course, email has transformed interpersonal communication, but just like fax before it, email is preventing true intercompany collaboration. In my experience, the vast majority of sales orders and invoices are sent as PDF attachments to email. So although the transmission may be digital, the information itself is still stuck in the analog age. PDFs cannot easily be processed by the receiving system, and no error-checking can be done, meaning that the recipient is responsible for sorting out errors to, say, an invoice and repairing or rejecting it.
Social media and the decline of the business card
We don’t typically see Skype, LinkedIn, or Twitter information on a business card, because the people who still use business cards don’t typically use them, and vice versa. My current business card may well be my last one.
So what’s next for the business card? If it exists at all, it needs to tell recipients how to communicate with your company digitally. As the business card starts to die out, it’s worth seeing how business networks are replacing the contact data with directories of certified businesses that can advertise their goods and services and what communication protocols are needed to reach them. That won’t be an email address or a fax number, but a network identifier which advertises what networks you am on, what your identity is, and what collaborations you can send or receive.
For more on the increasingly digital workplace, see DigiTalent: The New Frontier For HR.