The Conference Call: A Reconsideration
by Abel Mutlilyne
In 1969, the first instance of an incomprehensible utterance on a conference call was recorded by a participant. Ricardo Naughtworthy, an engineering accountant at the Frod Motor Company, wrote this on a yellow legal pad, noting what was said by an unnamed executive in another town: "Pay attn. to 'reflective reconstitution of assured market cap. [sic] gyrations around next product rollout, vis-a-vis the necessary required calendrical factors and level-loads, timewise'" (Crank 235). This was, without doubt, not the first dive into useless jargon by the C-Suite class, nor, obviously, the last. But it did reveal an important aspect of the conference call, one often overlooked by those merely arranging or being subject to them: the necessity to fill time. This need, noted in Chester Bester’s "temporal gestalt" theory, can be seen in everything from huhs and ums in normative speech to entire lifestyles pursued by the rich and retired. Bester contends that "no vacuum is more abhorrent than the vacuum of empty time" (92), and that "all human being is really human doing" (104).
Arising from his aggressive research into the studies of Fortune 500 companies, brain scans, and the selective application of time-altering hallucinogens, research into the temporal gestalt theory (TGT) founded by Bester has discovered the "need for a brain to fill the empty space" even if it's with empty speech, empty activity, empty gestures (Putter, et al. 1147). No place is this more prominent than in the conference call.
Absent gesticulation, body language, eye contact, or even a shared scene (a window to look out of, for example, or the mise en scene created by the physical space which all participants occupy), silence in a conference call quickly becomes intolerable. Internal questions fill the participants with uncertainty: Who will talk next? What more needs to be said? Did I remember to feed the cat? But these are really symptoms of a deeper ill: silence on a conference call brings up the fundamental terror of existential angst: Why am I at this meeting? What is work for? Why am I even "at" at all? "What we discovered in the brain scans," Monty Putter notes in his widely watched and incessantly linked-to FREDTalk, "is that after about two seconds of 'empty time,' the brain just starts spewing incomprehensible garbage. The language centers just open up like a sick colon." Dreamlike, out comes an associative linguistic stream, much like the "word salad" common to psychotic states, the lyrics of Beck, and presidential declarations.
Rather than being time-wasting and meaningless, however, statements such as "rudimentary data rendition would indicate an amelioration of policy views, based on α-regressed algorithmic returns" are the brain's way of staying alive in the mind-killing vacuum of unfilled corporate time. Oddly, or perhaps inevitably, these utterances are often viewed by others in the meeting or on the call not as a cerebral cri de coeur but as innovative or even visionary thinking. Thus "immediate amortization of decommissioned contractualized payroll assets" creates not quizzical looks but forms an entire corporate strategy for the coming fiscal year, leaving mid-level managers and front-line workers scrambling to figure out what, exactly, all of that means.
Functionally, there is little difference between these TGT utterances and the Freudian interpretation of a fever dream. As the brain reacts to insults such as the body’s attempt to fight off an infection or to the impossibility of "no space/no time" (Bester 235), a dialectic is created between the sane/filled mind, which seeks always to create meaning, and the insane/meaningless situation in which it finds itself. This dialectic creates an interpretive dance, moving rapidly inward to fill the space, and spewing rapidly outward with, well, just something—anything, really. This something/anything is open to further interpretation; as "unheimlich" as they are, and as Freud would have them be, we interpret them as special because of their very exoticism in comparison with the normal flow of everyday thought. And we view those who utter them as smart, special, visionary because of the seeming ease with which these utterances are produced—their origins in simple mental survival notwithstanding.
The conference call, then, rather than being the place great ideas go to die or an utter and complete waste of time, rather than being the place "in-the-box" thinking is reinforced by constant reminders that we need more "out-of-the-box" thinking, is the very crucible of the avant-garde—even if its products are useless, if not damaging, in the actual world.
A disturbing corollary to TGT is that the meditative practices so often promoted as a corrective to the sturm und drang of corporate life might actually be causing brain damage. By starving the brain of its temporal-vacuum-produced linguistic dump, meditation might also starve mental processes of their necessary flow: "The brain wants to be productive," says Putter in his FREDTalk, "and not allowing that productivity runs counter to our values of efficiency, disruption, and innovation." The solution, he contends, is "an immediate cessation of all onsite yoga classes and corporate support of meditative techniques" and the expansion of the conference call into "up to 50% of the working day" for those executives and managers trusted with decision-making responsibilities.
While one might reasonably expect pushback against these recommendations from the managerial and front-line workforce, a recent study from Krackal and Paup indicate that "nearly 20% of all work time is now taken up with meetings themselves" and another 15% with meeting preparation, follow-up emails, and meeting scheduling logistics. Since the workforce is, effectively, almost already there, the implications of TGT and Putter’s suggestions, rather than being radical, would require only minor tweaking to our current schedules to achieve.
For the sake of innovation, this seems like a small step to take.
Bester, Chester. Temporal Gestalt and Existential Angst. Purewater UP, 2000.
Crank, Stanley. "The Conference Call: a History of Pointless Blather." Journal of Meaningless Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, 2003, pp. 217-50.
Krackal, Elvin, and Kelly Paup. "Work/Space: Meeting Time vs. 'Work' Time, a Study in Futurity." Corporate Time Management, vol. 50, no. 3, 2018, doi:18.9797/ctm.2018.00053.
Putter, Montague. “Why Conference Calls Are Good for You.” FREDTalks: Ideas Worth Shredding, Sept. 2017, https://fredtalks.com/monty_putter_why_conference_calls_are_good_for_you. Accessed 10 Aug, 2018.
Putter, Montague, et al. “Temporal Gestalt Theory, the Neurological Evidence in a Controlled, Psychotropic Trial.” Modern Brain, vol. 75, no. 4, 2016, pp. 1142-53.