Dear Loved Ones:
As most of you know, I don’t carry a mobile device. The cell phone that my wife uses, and I periodically share, has no texting or internet. We aren’t on Facebook. We don’t tweet although we do email and use the internet daily. Most days I bike, run, or bus to work as we only have one car. We don’t have cable. We still have an answering machine that moved one of my friends to leave a message indicating “that the 80’s called, and they want their answering machine back.” Many of you undoubtedly think I (we by association) are stuck in the past, or are losing it all together. You have a valid argument.
But before I am willing to completely cede to your claims, I hereby submit my treatise of why I (we) choose to remain in the dark ages of communication and technology. Most you who know me well will cite my frugality, difficulty accepting change, and apathy (in learning new technology) as my primary reasons for not keeping up with the rest of the world. You are partially correct. But there are some other reasons, and that is what I hope to explain here. In no random order, here is my main list of excuses about why you still have to call me on a landline.
I desperately need my clarity of mind, ability to regulate frustration, and sustain attention. As a father of six young kids, a husband of one extraordinary woman, and a pediatric psychologist, there is nothing more important to my life, and that of my family, than my ability to think as clearly as possible and sustain attention when needed. Especially when I see diapers disintegrating on the floor while trying to answer a math question. Like everyone, it isn’t about reaching 100% capacity, but more about just trying to run on the most mental cylinders I can. With all the distractions already present, the buzzes, tunes, rings, and dings that signify incoming calls and information would be too much. It would scatter me like our family dinners, and even if I could appear as if I am focused on the task at-hand, I just don’t think I have the brainpower to really be. Research suggests humans are generally poor multi-taskers, especially when they think they do it well; add me to that list. In a day that already has eons of demands, I worry that my efficiency would tank, and my ability to meet my most important requests would follow right behind.
Silence is one of my most valuable commodities. One of the best things about riding a bike to and from work is the silence. The roadways may be active, but the only voice or tune is the one ringing up in my head. The quiet trip into work is a great way to collect my thoughts for the upcoming day; my ride home is a great way to de-stress, as I prepare for the noisiest moment of all—when the front door opens. A year ago, I gave a presentation to a local group of youth ministers. Their director recalled the day he received his cell phone and pager at work for the first time, and then mourned the reality that people could (and did) contact him on his way home from work when he used to quietly process his day. Although many people use their transit time (often against safety guidelines) to catch up on calls, I really do need it to catch up on my life, which seems to be sprinting in front of me.
Mobile devices and Facebook would make me a worse communicator, and thereby a worse friend. Okay, now I hear some of you clicking off this onto C-SPAN. But let me clarify first. Yes, you would have more ways of getting messages to me. But I am convinced (and believe that I am not the only one) that my ability to respond, and respond meaningfully to them would seriously suffer. I know there are times I fail to adequately respond to a phone message or email, or at all. But give me many other ways that I can be reached, and my response rate (and quality) would really drop off. Part of me knows I would enjoy being more aware of more that is going on, but I just don’t have the time or neurons to manage everything. And when I do talk to you, I actually want to have some real time, and capacity, to focus on our conversation and not be distracted by other things (except for one of my kids falling off a chair, of course). No doubt it would be fun to get a random text once in a while about the latest Bear’s trade. But when one random text leads to twenty, and emails on my mobile device are too long or simply forgotten, never to be returned, I think my response rate would start looking like that of the grocery surveys that I receive in the mail.
I am wary of the “psychological distance X amount of information received” ratio, and what it would do to my day. I am sure others have noticed an emerging principle in the world of communication and technology. The further removed a communication gets from a direct, face-to-face interaction, the more contacts you are likely to receive. Every day, people rarely show up at our front door, with the exception of an invited guest, salesman, or other random stop-in. We get a few phone calls a day. We get a decent amount of emails per week. Teenage girls average roughly 4,000 texts sent and received every month. I don’t think some adults are far behind. Weekly social networking feeds are often loaded with tens of thousands of new pieces of info. Said another way, the less directly people have to communicate, the more likely they will send through information.
A few months back, I was talking to a cousin, who is a coach. In his early days of coaching, he recalled a conversation with a mentor about how to handle parents who were angry about various matters. His mentor’s advice was simple. If you get an email from an angry parent, always respond by clearly validating their concerns, and then asking them if they would like to schedule a face-to-face meeting to discuss their frustrations. Most will opt not to do so, unless the concern is really serious. A similar idea seems to apply with all of us. If it is really important, critical, or interesting, we will take a more direct route to let our friends and family know, although since my sister now announces she is pregnant on Facebook (love you Laura), I probably am the last to find out many things already. But the easier it gets to send a message through, the worse I get at managing it all.
The insidious role of distractions worries me. In some ways, I really love distractions, especially when things are very busy. I could easily watch Seinfeld reruns every night. I know there is a daily sporting event that could capture my attention. I don’t always mute the ding on my email at work depending on the day. There are times I don’t mind my attention being diverted briefly, even if the ding signifies more work or nothing important at all. But as I feel pulled by many different worldly demands and curiosities, there is a stronger pull that keeps gnawing at me that cautions against letting these distractions take over.
Recently, I came across a CS Lewis quote that eloquently describes what I have been feeling. It reads (and by the way, for those who don’t know the book The Screwtape Letters, the “Enemy” is God):
The Christians describe the Enemy as one ‘without whom Nothing is strong’. And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.
I worry that if I am not careful, the gratification of my curiosities and distractions will pull me away from a more important, meaningful call.
I really want to preserve my off-line life, where I find my greatest joy. Almost every week, or even more, it seems that something which was once completed or communicated off-line or by direct human interaction, is now going to an online, electronic source. Health care is morphing itself into a digital production. Schools are doing more and more through the internet and on-screen. Automation is taking over in so many ways, whether in banking, shopping, or dating. And although it carries potential benefits, the reality is that each day, we are investing a little more time (and mental energy) in learning the ways of technology, and less the ways of people. I can’t help but feel that we are being asked to conform to technology instead of technology conforming to us, or at least the ways we truly feel called to live.
Recently, a trainer came by to teach me the initial steps of learning to use Dragon Naturally Speaking, which translates what I say into a word processing program. I know some people who use it and really like it. But in being able to utilize this program, my trainer stressed that I would have to spend a decent block of time “teaching” it how to understand the way I speak, and go through steps to correct it when I was misinterpreted. If I didn’t, my “dragon” could actually get dumber over time, and then it would be rendered of little use. As he was telling me this, I admit that I was feeling distracted by one looming question: “What would I have to give up to find the time?” If I knew that this would be the last training request for a while, I probably would have felt more agreeable. But, I am not naïve that this would be the case, as the technological world has taught me that the next training is right around the corner. Safe to say, it would have come from one of two main places: either from time spent with my family and others (you) dear to me, or time spent in quiet contemplation, reading, writing, running, or sleeping. Something about this didn’t seem right.
So my dear friends and family, my “dragon” lies asleep. I am not sure if I will actually ever teach him new skills. But I really look forward to hearing from you soon, and spending joyous time together. In the meantime, feel free to stop by or give me a call on the landline. You can even leave a message on our antique answering machine if you want.