Secular Sabbath revisited

February 20th, 2011
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When Michelle Obama recently underscored the fact that the First Daughters are not on Facebook it revealed what I think is an under-reported fact – that many people are struggling to find appropriate boundaries for the technology in our lives. My own views on the subject are probably best described as quasi-Luddite.

I guess I hit the technology wall during my sojourn in Ottawa, where the ubiquitous “Crackberry” ruled the day. There is an unspoken techno-machismo there, not unlike the feats of medical interns I imagine, to see who can send the latest e-mail in the wee hours and be the first to pick one up before the crack of dawn. It added another layer of artificial urgency to a world already awash in it.

I quickly made a pact with myself to – oh horror! – turn the machine off in the evenings, and not read my e-mails again until I got into the office; at a decently early 6:45 AM I should add. In case of a real emergency, I could be reached by phone. The fact I was called after hours less than a half dozen times over 19 months gives you an idea of the number of real emergencies that actually required immediate attention.

I made it a point of honour to not be ruled by all the ersatz emergencies that arose in between. Blame it on my age. The younger crew seemed to have no such revulsion to being constantly wired. Checking e-mails during meetings was ubiquitous and ascribed to “multi-tasking“, which I put down to mere lack of attention span (you know who you are!) and discipline. My personal low point was during a mid-morning pitstop, hearing the familiar click-click-click of the Blackberry keyboard from the stall adjacent. Maybe most of us could agree on the appropriateness of that kind of multi-tasking…?

We all have our limits. Around the same time I was struggling with this, our Deputy Minister made some waves by suggesting limits to Blackberry use in our department. His argument was around quality of life, the old work-life-balance thing. And he had a point. Not so long ago I recall a senior manager at a company I worked for who only checked his voicemail twice a day. He had a pleasant greeting that said: “Hi this is Bob XXX, I check my voicemail at 10:30 AM and 2:30 PM. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can”. At the time I thought this was pretty quirky, in retrospect, it sounds more like common sense.

During my Blackberry travails I concluded one problem was that, unlike telephone use, we had no any etiquette around e-mail. Many of us will recall our parents drilling into us “You don’t call anyone before 9 AM (on weekends 10 AM) or after 9 PM – and not at mealtimes!” This was just good manners. Ironically, it lives on in the general annoyance with tele-marketers.

E-mails are more subtle and sinister. Sending one is technically not as intrusive as a phone call, but the implicit expectation of a reply is just that.

Ironically, there seems to a self-correcting aspect to this. Once one breaks the circle of electronic immediacy- the natural rhythm of quickly exchanged messages – by answering e-mails really late, more frenetic correspondents tend to fall away. It’s like self-identifying yourself as a Luddite, expecting to be shunned. On the other hand, I have noticed in the working world that the number of e-mails drops precipitously as the day wears on, and late-day notes are rarely answered same day. So maybe there’s a collective will imposing itself on e-mail use, just not a formal one.

To many readers, particularly younger ones, this probably all just sounds like grey-haired griping. Fair enough. I’m probably just the younger equivalent of a historian of my acquaintance, who despite being “only” in his seventies still writes on his typewriter and has no e-mail. In a way, this blog is a reflection of that – infrequent, longer essays rather than short, immediate blasts; and no expletive-laden comments section.

But, just to show that I’m not the only one seeking electronic sanity, I’ll remind readers of the proposal for people to take “Secular Sabbaths“. This idea was touted by self-proclaimed “techno-addict” Mark Bittman in a NY Times article. It discussed the curative powers of tuning out and turning off all our gadgets for at least a day a week to reconnect to “things real rather than virtual”.

What a concept. So if you have a yen for zen of the real, non-electronic variety, you may not be alone. Who knows, there may be a real, electronically silent majority out there.

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By John Weissenberger