Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Tune out and unplug for a while (Manistee News Advocate Aug. 06)

Technology is great, isn’t it? We can instantly communicate with people from all over the world via email or instant messenger, talk wirelessly via mobile phone with coverage almost everywhere, and receive documents over the fax machine or as email attachments. The Internet allows us to take our laptops wherever we can pick up a wireless signal, and any information we want can be obtained as quickly as we can type it into a search engine on the web.Technology has made us more efficient at home and at work, able to do more than previous generations were able to accomplish. Now that we are so efficient, we have more leisure time, work shorter hours, and can enjoy life more.What’s that you say? Oh, yeah...now that we’re more efficient, we actually do more work. But that doesn’t make any sense, does it?People seem to have become addicted to “staying in touch” with their jobs. Cell phones and laptops with virtual private network connections to work make it possible for workers to connect with their jobs anytime they want, and their employers can in turn contact them any time they need to, even when it intrudes on their outside-work lives. Now, one machine can do it all. Cell phones with e-mail and instant messenger capability combine all of the work contact possibilities into one easy package. But are we more efficient because of technology, or simply more tethered to work? A survey revealed that, on average, people check their mail about five times a day, and a quarter of them cannot go without it for more than three days at a stretch. More than 4,000 people across 20 U.S. cities participated in the survey, carried out by AOL in partnership with Opinion Research.Before the advent of email, how did we use this time? To actually interact with our families? Read a book? Exercise? The extent that email has robbed us of our leisure time is immeasurable.Cell phones are an even larger encroachment on our daily lives. A survey by BBDO worldwide found that 75 percent of cell phone owners had it turned on and within reach during their waking hours, 59 percent wouldn't think of lending their cell phone to a friend for a day, and 26 percent said it was more important to go home to retrieve a cell phone than a wallet. A study by Telephia, a mobile industry tracker, found that Americans averaged 13 hours a month -- with users ages 18 to 24 racking up close to 22 hours.That’s one whole day each month spent on a cell phone. I’d rather spend that time at the beach.So, all of the free time we were supposed to have because technology made us more efficient is actually being absorbed by the same technology we so lovingly embrace. It’s amazing anyone has time to watch a sunset or walk their dog. I guess you can engage in both of those activities while talking on a cell phone, though.It gets worse.Internet addiction specialists estimate that six percent to ten percent of the approximately 189 million Internet users in this country have a dependency that can be as destructive as alcoholism and drug addiction, and they are rushing to treat it. Not only are we using the Internet too much, now we can become clinically addicted to it.When electric typewriters and Xerox machines were introduced to the business world to help save time in the workplace, nobody became addicted to them. So why are we so absorbed with new technology these days?Because communication is the lifeblood of humanity. Exchanging ideas, words, pictures, music, feelings, and just about anything else fills a basic human need. We also seek to be connected to those we care about, and those things we care about -- like work. But are employers taking advantage of our need to connect?Is it fair to ask employees to be readily accessible to their employers 24/7? And why do employers feel that they can ask their workers to be available whenever they need them?The final result of this constant attachment to the workplace is that we’ve spawned a nation of work-aholics in America, whose identities are tied solely to their careers. "It's not about long hours," says Robinson, a psychotherapist in private practice in Asheville, N.C., and author of Chained To The Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and The Clinicians Who Treat Them. "It's about the inability to turn it off. It's a question of balance."The answer seems to be just that. Balance. Americans put in the longest hours among industrialized nations on the job, nearly 2000 hours per capita, and the annual working hours in the U.S. are steadily rising. We seem to be working too much, and relaxing less.So, when you go home tonight, unplug your cell phone, turn off your computer, and let your inbox fill up. Read a book, walk the dog, or play with the kids. Technology should be a tool, not an anchor.Cean Burgeson can be reached at: cburgeson@pioneergroup.net.

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