In Too Deep

by | Aug 27, 2009

It’s not often that I find something profound in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. But today I did.

…emailing at this frantic rate, is pleasing very few of us. It is encroaching on parts of our lives that should be separate or sacred, altering our minds and our ability to know our world, encouraging a further distancing from our bodies and our natures and our communities. We can change this; we have to change it. Of course email is good for many things; that has never been in dispute. But we need to learn to use it far more sparingly, with far less dependency, if we are to gain control of our lives.

In the past two decades, we have witnessed one of the greatest breakdowns of the barrier between our work and per­sonal lives since the notion of leisure time emerged in Victorian Britain as a result of the Industrial Age. It has put us under great physical and mental strain, altering our brain chemistry and daily needs. It has isolated us from the people with whom we live, siphoning us away from real-world places where we gather. It has encouraged flotillas of unnecessary jabbering, making it difficult to tell signal from noise. It has made it more difficult to read slowly and enjoy it, hastening the already declining rates of literacy. It has made it harder to listen and mean it, to be idle and not fidget.

This is not a sustainable way to live. This lifestyle of being constantly on causes emotional and physical burnout, work­place meltdowns, and unhappiness. How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen?

John Freeman, acting editor of Granta magazine fashioned his manifesto for slow communication from his forthcoming book, The Tyranny of E-Mail.

The passage above brings up a lot of things I’ve been dealing with for years. Electronic mail is but the tip of the iceberg. My professional identity is now tied (in part) to the Web, thanks to the success of Thus, I’m compelled to add content to the machine multiple times a day—an act which requires sifting through hundreds of Web pages and all the little bits therein fighting to be noticed. In short, I’m overexposed, and overexposure sadly is something I share with too many friends and colleagues.

Recently, I moderated an online debate between two old friends on the importance of Facebook. One friend argued for the social networking site while the other explained why he couldn’t be bothered. “Socializing on the Internet is not for me,” my reluctant friend said, noting what is for him: hiking Utah’s beautiful trails, riding his bike, reading books and writing books. This friend is a deep believer in slow communication. So much so he’s been traveling around the country this summer and intentionally choosing to leave his laptop at home (so he can enjoy his travels unencumbered). Email, he says, mostly upsets him, as it often comes, consciously or not, with a list of demands on his time.

I admire my friend’s clarity on this issue and his wise decision to allocate his time to physical world activities. Sometimes I think about closing the laptop, storing it on a shelf and forcing myself to rejoin the analog world of book stores, telephone calls and physical work. There’s probably a way to achieve the balance I need without taking drastic measures, but the fact remains I think about the cold turkey approach regularly, which tells me I need to change my habits, one way or another.