While reading the New York Times this weekend, I could not help but notice that at least five different articles dealt with creating a kind of cultural, philosophical, or religious permission-giving for taking time away from electronic connectivity in everyday life. Is this a noteworthy constellation? Just an editorial accident? My sense is that it speaks to a gathering crest in U.S. culture regarding the felt limits of constant electronic connection: the need to check email, to have a cell phone handy, to get the latest update from one's various online social groups. Electronic connectivity seems, for most people, to take on a life of its own and crawl into as many available nooks and crannies of daily existence as possible.
The articles in question include this Bob Herbert column about flesh over screen; this Gary Shteyngart column about unlearning connectivity; Laurie Winer's review of William Powers' Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age; Ben Brantley's essay on the lack of ability and interest in cultivating reticent mystery in an age of Internet publicness and self-branding; and Judith Shulevitz's report on inventing new Sabbath practices that erect ritual firewalls against the seductions of the electronic habitus and that teach a different way to inhabit the week.
These writings reminded me that, like many others, I search constantly for a way to balance it all, and I find that I learn a lot when others tell me about their practices for situating electronic life in a wider existence. It helps me refine my own choices.
The Internet is now so important for life as a citizen, as well as for scholarly resources and personal relationships, it would seem now almost irresponsible to refuse being part of the electronic world if one has such a privilege. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that since I checked my first email in September 1988, the twenty-two years gone by have been an unending negotiation with the habits that electronic connectivity wants to install in my life, and my attempts to refuse or creatively use those habits.
Many of us in the relatively privileged classes find that we have to make decisions over and over about the shape of our days and weeks. I have quit the Internet once or twice, only to return a few months later; I have set all sorts of limits on my own email (and later web browsing, and still later blog-checking, and still still later blog-writing) time allotments; I have tried to err on the side of electronic disconnectivity regarding devices for as long as possible (no television for the last six years; no cell phone for many years, until I became a father and felt irresponsible without one; no IPod until a few weeks ago, when the benefits of having all my music in one place seemed too much to ignore). I have noticed the emergence of a distinct email culture in academic life, one that during the school year shifts ever closer to a 24/7 mode, in which messages are assumed to require immediate replies, and in which emails sent even one minute before classes or meetings are taken to be relevant material for the class or meeting. I don't wish not to live in these cultures; only to learn how to live in them.
Here are a few things that I have found that work for me: decelerating email activity over holidays and summers; taking most of August entirely away from email; stating on my course syllabi that email replies may take up to three "business" days and more urgent communication should happen by phone; aiming to check email once or twice a day for no more than 60-90 minutes total. I try to remind myself of the reasons for and practices of "slow communication," without becoming a drag unnecessarily on others' schedules. But if there are three words that characterize how I feel about all this, they are: work in progress. I think the constellation of Times articles is on to something.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
Cross-posted, using the Internet, to Rock and Theology