This week’s post is the first of a two-part essay. First, I’ll identify and examine the problem. Next week, I’ll do my best to offer the solution…
Did you hear about the “right to disconnect” law that went into effect earlier this year in France?
Essentially, it requires companies with more than fifty employees to establish certain hours – normally evenings and weekends – in which employees are discouraged from making phone calls and sending or responding to work e-mails. In other words, the law makes it much more acceptable for a person to “leave work at work.” Imagine that.
I don’t know if you are as stunned as I am that France passed this legislation. Honestly, I’m surprised its proponents were able to get enough people on board in the first place. At the heart of this new law is the sober recognition that unchecked pressure in our occupations can lead to a wide variety of health problems, including, according to one article, impaired sleep, depression, alcohol abuse, and heart disease. However, I have no doubt that when this legislation was proposed, many people feared potential negative effects – for one, placing limits on employee connectivity would reduce workplace productivity and efficiency. Maybe its the cynic in me, but I’m blown away that enough French lawmakers could agree that the value of a human person is not defined by the stuff he or she makes.
When I first learned about this law, I couldn’t help but wallow within my own cultural discontent. I continue to doubt the U.S. would pass similar legislation, and not simply because of complications due to bureaucratic rigmarole (which, over the last decade, has surpassed baseball as America’s greatest national pastime). I don’t know how popular the law’s passage was in France, but I think it is an exceedingly safe bet that quite a few U.S. politicians and lobbyists would be up-in-arms about it here; this, as they so often shout with fists held high, “is a free country.” Granted, what people actually mean when they use that line is, “This is a country steeped in opportunistic individualism, and therefore, by definition, any suggestion of a better way to do, well, anything, is immediately and forever suspect.”
Let’s face it, any law that even suggests limitations on our level of connectivity would certainly be met with adamant opposition. After all, look how convenient technology has made it to stay dialed in to our voicemails, e-mails, text messages, and social media profiles? We can literally carry all of that around in a single pants pocket. Even if they somehow miraculously reached a consensus on the benefits of such a law, can you see our government succeeding in the same way France’s did? For the sake of comparison, after the Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Pulse shootings, multiple congressional representatives sought to regulate background checks for the purchase of assault rifles – assault rifles! – and hardly made a dent. How do you think people would react to regulations on items we can’t even bring ourselves to set aside when we we’re using the toilet?
So, kudos to the French for acknowledging something most perpetually stressed-out people don’t like to think about. There but for the grace of God go us not.
But whether we choose to acknowledge the dangers of ceaseless productivity or not, we also know there are other perils just as significant as physical health, and workplace pressure is not the only phenomenon in which they surface. The technological advances of the past few decades have been extraordinary, even mind-boggling. They have increased to an incredible degree humanity’s ability to produce, and to produce more efficiently. At the same time, we are awaking to the truth that increased automation and connectivity does indeed come with a downside. And it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the negative effects birthed by these new advances, whether in our occupational spheres, our local communities, or even our most intimate relationships.
My wife and I often talk of what we percieve as a pervasive, willing bondage to connectivity and endless productivity. While we do not have a “right to disconnect” law in our country (yet?), there are other laws intended to protect basic human health in the workplace. Even so, due to our society’s incessant striving to do more and do it faster, these laws are not always enforced very… forcefully. For instance, it is not uncommon anymore for Leigh to come home both exhausted and ravenous after her twelve-hour hospital shift, and this is because she did not get so much as a lunch break during that entire amount of time. I used to get so indignant about this injustice; because I care so much for her, I would fume about the blatant squelching of her occupational rights. Didn’t the hospital ever worry that fatigued nurses who hardly even have the opportunity to sit down over the span of twelve hours, let alone get time to consume a single meal, might become a liability rather than an asset? However, after ten years with little change in the culture of hospital staffing, now we simply shrug our shoulders, shake our heads, and I do my very best to make sure dinner is ready and waiting when she staggers through the door.
The hard reality is that our jobs are perpetually frenetic, and one of the main reasons for this is our culture’s habitual obsession with productivity and efficiency. But instead of viewing this as a hazardous or unsafe reality, we’re encouraged to think of our stress-saturated jobs as “challenging,” “fast-paced,” or “highly rewarding.” Thus, staggering through the door like zombies and collapsing onto the living room sofa at the end of the day is now our norm. No wonder a once negative word like “bingeing” has become the popular and acceptable way to consume entertainment; it takes far less energy to just watch another episode of something than to go for a walk, or actually carry on a meaningful conversation with another person.
And that’s the other side of this cruel coin. Even if your drive to produce stays in the office parking lot, still the ever-expanding human appetite for connectivity is not satiated. The cravings for instant and perpetual stimulation follow us no matter where we go. We have become a people less and less comfortable with quiet and stillness, with morning commutes not infused by drive-time radio or Spotify playlists, with evenings not spent sitting in front of the electronically-enhanced binge boxes we still quaintly refer to as “TVs.” Quiet, meandering, agenda-less conversation is fast becoming a lost art.
Every time my family has the opportunity to eat out for dinner, my wife and I cannot help but subtly draw each other’s attentions to how many couples, families, or groups of friends are all staring down at smartphone screens rather than actually talking with the flesh-and-blood humans sitting mere inches away. It’s become a kind of game, like when you would play “Slugbug” on car rides. Except the pain you feel isn’t from your brother socking you in the shoulder, but rather a gradually swelling sense of melancholy at the state of the American social circle. Is this really the picture of our future? Is this the relational landscape my children will inherit?
It turns out that having our eyes glued to smartphone screens for hours on end, whether we’re checking e-mails, texting “friends,” or allowing our brain cells to gorge on YouTube videos, can be detrimental to both our mental and social health. We marvel at how cutting-edge technologies have ushered us into a brand new epic of human existence. And yet, hidden beneath every utopia is a dystopia. Yes, we can celebrate that humanity has become deeply connected across the entire globe. But we should also acknowledge that an increasing number of face-to-face relationships between family members and proximal friends are quietly suffering in the aftermath of such an extraordinary societal shift.
I realize the French law doesn’t address personal overuse of smartphones, or how many hours we wile away staring at Netflix and Facebook, or that our knee-jerk response when our children get rowdy is to shove an iPad in front of their faces. But all these issues orbit the same evolving nucleus of human behavior. How we interact with one another (or how much we neglect interacting with one another) is changing. Whether it’s the job pressures or a personal addiction to Twitter that’s causing this distancing, something needs to change. And soon!
Now, please understand the purpose of this essay is not to make you feel rotten for indulging technology. That would be highly duplicitous of me. I own a smartphone that I’m constantly stuffing full of frivolous apps. I’m entrenched in a half-dozen different television series on Netflix and HBONow (because, I mean, c’mon, it’s not like I’m going to just pass on the last two seasons of Game of Thrones). And I’m definitely aware that, at this very moment, I’m using an online word processing program on my laptop to write this post, all while iTunes ticks through song after song in an 80’s/90’s Rock playlist.
So, no, I’m not advocating we rid ourselves of technology – that we actually go “off the grid” like that family in the Domino’s commercials. I realize doing so would, among other things, mean the death of my blog and its humble little audience. After all, you’re also accessing this article on a smartphone, or a tablet, or a laptop (or, if you’re reading it sometime in the future, on the fully integrated nanobot sensory chip imbedded behind your left cornea, which we all know AmaGoogleSoft recommends as the most proficient of the implant’s locations).
But there is a distinct difference between indulging the benefits of our technological advances, and allowing these advances to infiltrate every aspect of human existence. Especially those moments that once provided us with stark, unbounded, freewheeling contact with others. Last week, after a three-year abstention, I decided to rejoin Facebook. I was tired of finding out secondhand, and months too late, about the significant events in so many people’s lives. However, if you were to tell me I had to choose between the 950 Facebook friends (yep, still there after three years) and a single, face-to-face friendship with another person, I would not hesitate to choose the flesh-and-blood friend. Wouldn’t you?
My intention with this essay was not merely to lament the harmful side-effects of our increasingly connected culture. But I do think it would be a very healthy choice for us to tred carefully through such societal advances. To not be so quick to trade human interactions for the artificial succor provided by our various devices and other online compulsions.
Even if setting aside or turning off our gadgets results in awkward silences or off-putting stillness, let’s not be so quick to flee the emptiness we have momentarily established. There is something hidden within it – something deep and eternally true. Someting that, if you are patient, will gradually begin to make itself known to you, and, in so doing, reveal a treasure that all the sleekest gadgets and fastest connection speeds in the world cannot replace.
But more on that next week…