Fifteen years ago, as email was migrating onto cell phones and electronic interruptions were becoming a fact of life, I began a campaign for what I called Tech Sabbath: an updating of Torah law for the net era, through which we could all reclaim one-seventh of our time for technology-free experiences.
Now that we’re living even more deeply entrenched in a digital culture, however, such a binary approach to human time may just make things worse. It turns “on” time into a nightmare of availability, and “off” time into an equally horrifying stretch of disconnection. Plus, an arbitrarily selected technology-free day doesn’t do much to change the way we work with technology the rest of the time. Like a factory worker’s weekend, it just gives you time to rest before going back for more pain.
I’m coming to believe that the way out is not out at all, but through. The best approach to contending with the onslaught of technology is not to try to turn it off, but to know how to program it. Instead of conforming our human minds and bodies to our technologies, we learn instead how to make them conform to our human agenda.
This is the way I thought it was going to go from the beginning. When I first encountered the net in the late 1980s, I assumed it would be the ultimate provider of slack. Thanks to the combined power of networks and computing power, we would all be able to get off the time-is-money industrial age clock, avoid the life-as-career fates of yuppie scum, and work from home, in our underwear, and in our own time.
Unlike industrial age communications technologies, like the telephone, email didn’t have to be answered in real-time. We could get to it at the end of the day, and then take as long as we wanted to craft our answers. Hell, I sounded smarter in email than I did in real life because I had all the time in the world to respond. Imagine that: people sounded more intelligent online than off. It’s because we understood how to exploit the a-synchronous bias of the medium.
But something happened on the way from that counterculture vision to Wired magazine. Instead of building a decentralized, peer-to-peer network of people working from home and exchanging value directly, we ended up turning the net into the salvation of the dying industrial age. Although corporate colonialism was over, there was still one last place for the market to expand: human time. And so our attention became the new commodity. The devices that could have taken us off the clock were strapped to our bodies where they can ping us every time someone updates, tweets, or messages us—putting us into a state of perpetual emergency interruption that used to be endured only by 911 operators and air traffic controllers. I call it “present shock.” We used to get emergency messages only when grandma was dying. Now we receive the equivalent urgent ping or bubble when some stranger has completed a level on a social networking game.
We get “phantom vibration syndrome” where we think our phones our buzzing on our thighs even though our pockets are empty; we struggle to multi-task, even though every study tells us this only diminishes our productivity and the depth of our thought.
Who wants us online all the time, anyway?
What we’re really contending with here has less to do with technology than the people and companies who are programming our technologies. Their agenda is not to make our lives better, but to keep us online and engaged with or through one of their apps or platforms. Offline time is wasted time. Even if you’re not paying a red cent, you’re still producing a data trail which, as we now know, is gold to both corporate researchers and national security consulting firms.
The only approach worthy of such a real-time, always-on assault on our senses and cognition is one that is just as real-time, and just as always-on. It’s not a matter of turning off your phone entirely, but rather programming it to ring only for the two or three people in your family for whom you would willingly interrupt your sleep or play. If grandma is dying, then you turn the phone on—open all the informational spigots.
But this state of constant availability is the default setting on pretty much every device we buy, network we join, or app we install. To accept those defaults as the price of using a technology is the truly wrong choice. It’s like using a TV with the volume set permanently to 10, and choosing “no TV” day as a way to preserve your hearing. It’s not all or nothing.
Instead, get inside your technology and make the kinds of choices that only a human being can about how it fits into your life. And if it doesn’t grant you access to the settings you need to make it work for you, then dump it. Because otherwise, you’re working for it.