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Technology is awesome, and it has done wonders for many of us. It has brought many people closer together. It has enabled us to become much more informed (better, I’m not so sure) and much more productive. But it can be a bear too. For example, now with mobile telephony, you have the ability to be contacted and to contact almost anyone at any point in your day, and in almost any location. Wireless internet access has brought e-mail and social networking further away from a single desktop computer and basically with you anywhere you go. I find that partaking in many of these things does help me learn more, prepare for my classes better, and communicate with people that I need or want to communicate with. For example, dozens of terrific economists and policymakers have blogs now that I read regularly to not only stay up on the news and current economic research, but to get live commentary and debate that I would not otherwise get if I just read the journals and papers on a weekly or monthly basis. I literally peruse two to three dozen of these each day, along with several newspapers and journals and other sources. This is great.

Except that I really sort of hate it. Now, my actions reveal that I do not really hate it, and this is not to mistake my post for saying that people are irrational, but rather, I’d like to think out loud about what sorts of things one might do to still get the massive benefits these new technologies bring to us, yet at the same time bring some measure of sanity to our lives.

I very much am attracted to the Jewish tradition of respecting the Sabbath (for example, by eschewing these technologies completely from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday). Indeed, I naturally end up doing that on many days when I plan hikes with the kids or spend the day otherwise occupied with them. Why don’t I take the permanent step of engaging in a tech sabbath every weekend (in fact, I want to make it ALL weekend, not just a few hours)? One reason is a behavioral problem on my part, another is, I think, a legitimate economic problem.

When you “go off the grid” even if for only a short while, not only would you be turning off the information and interaction spigots for those things that are distractions (the good part) but you are also turning them off for things which are “more important” (that is an utterly unscientific concept). The economic problem I have is that if I go off-grid for a couple of days each week, that really does not reduce the amount of material I need to read, the amount of people I need to respond to, or the amount of information that I feel like I need to absorb to do my job well. So if I don’t “keep up” from Friday through Sunday, my Monday is going to be miserable. It is going to be miserable mostly because “catching up” will take away tons of time I need to take to get classes prepped, letters written, research done, etc. I normally do not do a lot of that on a Saturday or Sunday (to the extent that my regular reading would not be construed as part of these exercises).

So, for me, going off grid is problematic because it only minimally reduces how much technology and information I expect to deal with in a particular week, and this is largely due to the fact that there is no collective effort by people to go off grid. This is perhaps why my favorite day of the year is Thanksgiving. It is the only day where most people are largely off-grid, or if they are “on-grid” they are only loosely connected, or are doing things that I feel much better about not engaging with. Not so for most other days of the year. I don’t have any good solutions to this – I certainly would not support any collective action to make people go off grid for one day or two days each week, even though I am fairly certain such a commitment would improve my happiness a great deal.

Could I just commit to going off grid, and then NOT spend any time catching up on newspapers, audio lectures, blogs, journals, etc. for the days I am off-grid? Could I simply not respond to any e-mails that I get while I am off-grid? Could I simply not respond to any phone messages or text messages that I get while I am off-grid? Could I not respond to the questions of my students during this time?

I suppose I could but I do not have it in me to do it. And to be honest, this is a source of probably the most unhappiness I get in my life. And believe me, I am not a compulsive e-mail checker, or news reader. I typically set aside an hour in the morning and an hour at night to do these things (they often turn into much longer affairs, especially when my classes heat up).  So part of making oneself happy in the tech age is being able to develop self-control and commitment mechanisms that will allow you to get off the grid. But the other kind of self control is to come up with meaningful ways to ration your scarce time and attention once you get back on-grid. And it is this latter part that I fail out – it is because very few people are off-grid when I am, and I imagine many people out there have this problem.

I think I can convince myself not to catch up on the blogs and news and the like, because over the course of the subsequent time back on grid, I am almost positive that I will “learn” what I missed by staying current with the discussions. The harder problem is with the cell-phone, and the many dozens of e-mails I get every day (there are days when they run into the hundreds, many “requiring” considerable responses). I have a physical analog problem as well with my office hours. I tend to meet students for 6 to 7 hours per week, but even then, that is not enough time for the advising, teaching and other desires of the students. I tend to put my hours up against a time when I have to leave for class, so that I cannot possibly extend them. But if I offered 10 hours, I am sure they’d fill up too.  In a future post we’ll openly think about the challenges this poses, and why this, too, is another source of anxiety.

So, how might I better commit myself to a technological sabbath each week. I know that successfully doing so would make me enormously happier, far happier than an additional $50,000 of income would make me. It’s not as simple as setting up auto-replies to my cell-phone and e-mail each weekend, and then tying my hands on “reading the old stuff?” Is it?

3 Responses to “Technological Sabbath”

  1. Harry says:

    When I was on the road all the time, it was before the Internet. Unless I was in a big city or airport, the WSJ was unavailable. There were five-pound mobile phones used infrequently on the golf course by obstretians on call. I did stay in touch, piling up charges on my calling card, sometimes in a phone booth.

    When Friday came, I would hop into my rented car and be out of reach of anyone, unless I wanted to talk to them.

    My Sabbath would last at least until Sunday afternoon when I would leave for the airport, and sometimes as long as 8AM, when I called the office to confirm where I was.

    Such luxury is not possible today.

    There were many times I wished I was able to call home to say I was going to be late, stuck on a runway in a plane unequipped with one of those Airfones. But I did not have to answer e-mail either.

  2. Rod says:

    It used to be that the difference between a camp and a home is that the camp, which might even be fancier than the home, did not have a telephone. Hope this post does not take up too much of your time.

  3. […] well come from Black Friday sort of things. And I am sure he is able to articulate something like this – I truly would be better off if the entire internet were banned on Saturdays. On the tax […]

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