It is almost a given – very nearly trite and obvious – to say that the pace of modern society has increased. As society moves faster, and as we as individuals are deluged with more information at a greater rate of absorption, stress levels increase and the demands on us as human beings also increase. What few people stop to consider, however, is that the body and the mind become accustomed to stress just as a muscle grows stronger in response to being worked out. Just as it is possible to over-train a muscle, it is possible to over-stress your body and mind. Our technology makes this more possible than ever, and raises important issues concerning our mental and physical health in the context of modern society.
To date, I have resisted all attempts by my employer’s IT department to synchronize my work e-mail with my Blackberry. This is because I do not relish the thought of having my always-carried personal wireless phone and PDA, which is already synchronized to my appointment calendar, buzzing and beeping and jangling away every single time I get carbon-copied on yet another thread of back-and-forth discussion about a work issue. I can check my work e-mail through my device’s browser if I wish; I do not want work following me everywhere I go, without cessation. For many people, including many executives (but not limited to this group), this is not an option, and already, work follows these people everywhere they go.
When I was a boy, my father was the assistant manager of a factory – a job that entailed quite a bit of responsibility. Whenever an alarm went off, an accident occurred, or some other incident took place that was considered out of the ordinary, the phone would ring and my father would be required to drive to work to correct these bothersome, mundane, usually benign conditions. It was clear to me, even as a young boy, that he resented the constant interruptions. Because of this, whenever we took vacations or when we went away for the weekend, we always went camping. The simplest reason for my father’s sudden interest in camping was that work couldn’t reach him. Pagers were not common then, and the only phone at the campground was a payphone in the recreational hall. When my father went camping, he was assured some peace. He could relax knowing that, at least for a couple of days, work was not his problem and he could focus on something else.
Even when I am on vacation, the temptation to check my work e-mail from home is often quite strong. I tell myself that I wish only to make sure I don’t get surprised Monday morning by some fresh emergency or some new fire that requires immediate quenching. The reality is, however, that where once going home meant one was forced to leave work behind, it now means nothing of the sort. I can work from home, from a Starbucks, or from anywhere in the continental United States and beyond, if I so choose. All I need is an Internet connection and, thanks to advances in wireless technology, I could conceivably work from my laptop on battery power while sitting on a small island of rock in the middle of a river in an isolated state park. Technology is the handmaiden of convenience … and the mother of obligation.
Being able to stay so connected, and at times being forced to be connected, means that information comes at us quickly and we are required to respond quickly. But the other side of this rapidly spinning coin is that we begin to expect the same responsiveness of others. Where once, early in the days of e-mail, we did not expect others necessarily to check their accounts every day, we now become impatient if we don’t get a same-day response … or even a response within the same hour. How many times have you caught yourself repeatedly hitting the “refresh” or “send/receive” keys, hoping for a response in your e-mail or on a Web browser, moments after submitting your own?
I pulled into the drive-through of a “Tim Horton’s” the other day, ordered coffee and then waved my PayPass-equipped bank card at the electronic receiver. Nothing happened. When someone finally came to the window, I was forced to pay with actual cash, because the machine wasn’t working. Then I sat and waited … and waited … and waited. It was only a few minutes, but it felt like hours, as the employees sorted out an apparent shortage of cup covers. I realized that I was angry – and for what? Because it took a few hundred seconds to get coffee? Well, that was exactly it. I had become accustomed to almost immediate gratification, and when the coffee wasn’t at the window within the minute I ordered it, I became irate. My expectations had changed. The pace I expected was different.
We live in a remarkable time. Our technological innovations are increasing exponentially. What we can do with computers, with computer networks and with the network of networks that is the Internet and the related telecommunications infrastructure surrounding, supporting and permeating it has never been more incredible. There are virtually no limits to what we can accomplish – and that means there are no limits to what we can come to expect.
We must be very careful, therefore, that we don’t allow our humanity to be swallowed whole by this increasing pace in lifestyle. When our expectations become unreasonable, we are frustrated and angry. When those unreasonable expectations are met, we become enabled. Encouraging someone to demand too much of themselves, and making it possible for them to do so, is a formula for disaster. Our technology may, in fact, ultimately drive us into early graves. If it does, we will have no one to blame but ourselves … if we can stop checking our e-mails long enough to consider the consequences.