Not long ago, I read about a poll that asked people, “What technology do you hate yet cannot do without?”
The No. 1 answer was not computers but cell phones. Yes, those wonderfully convenient cell phones have become woefully burdensome. Before, you could go on vacation without worrying about being disturbed. With a cell phone, you can never really get away.
I heard about a religious service during which someone in the congregation received a call. The preacher stopped his sermon and said, “Unless that's Jesus calling, you'd better tell them to call back later.”
Cell phones ring everywhere. Now even the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass isn't out of bounds. How many people get a call during Mass and walk out to take the call?
Worse still, cell phones are becoming the technological version of the do-it-all Swiss Army Knife. Not only do the devices let you make and receive phone calls no matter where you are, but they can also provide you with Internet access, e-mail, a camera, games, stock quotes and weather reports. And who knows what features they'll build into them next.
For all its benefits, technology has added exponentially to the daily demands being made on many people's time. Many people are constantly “on call.”
I believe the immediate access is burning some people out. Sure, it's possible to enjoy yourself during summer vacation by turning off your cell phone and not bothering at all with computers. But in the back of your mind, there is always that “What if?” question. “What if I get an important phone call, voice mail or e-mail?”
My sister and her husband were on vacation down here in Florida. But they still had to check on their work e-mails and voice mails. Evidently, in today's workplace, if you don't check your messages by the time you get back to your job, a thousand messages could be waiting for you. I remember reading about the founder of a technology company who spent his vacations in a log cabin without electricity in order to get away from all forms of technology. I think he was on to something.
As psychologists and other mental-health therapists have been saying for some time now, it's easy for people to get into addictive behavior patterns with these new forms of go-anywhere communication. Wired people seem to feel that, since they can communicate 24/7, they should communicate 24/7. There's the strong sense that all messages have to be answered immediately or at the soonest-possible opportunity. Fail to respond and, within hours or a day, you will get a repeat message asking: “Did you get my message?” These follow-ups, of course, only add to your backlog.
Meanwhile most of us have begun to loathe voice mail. Some companies are now advertising that “You get to talk to a real, live human being” when you call their help line.
The Royal Mail Group in the United Kingdom (www.royalmailgroup.com) publishes a Business Seduction Guide to help combat communications anxiety. According to its research released this year, 1 in 4 workers can't bear to be away from their work desk for more than an hour for fear of missing important business communications. Worse, 13% couldn't tear themselves away from their desks for more than 15 minutes, so concerned were they about communiqués building up in their absence.
Now remember, we are talking about the English, who are known for not easily getting frazzled over such things. Imagine what happens to hard-charging Americans.
A third of respondents in the British study said the communications barrage negatively impacts their efficiency and productivity. Big offenders for unnecessary work disturbance included telephones (some 48% of respondents reported these interfere with their tasks at hand), face-to-face exchanges (16%) and cell phones (13%). Least intrusive: text messaging (3%), printed letters (2%) and handwritten letters (1%). This shows that the written word allows workers the space and time they need to receive and reply at their discretion — and to get on with more pressing priorities.
When it came to looking at what forms of communication require the quickest response time, phone calls (both land and mobile) ranked No. 1. This was followed by e-mail, with 31% of respondents feeling a reply was necessary within an hour.
Tim Rivett, Royal Mail's head of small business, said, “The research highlights how, in today's age of mass communication, people are constantly feeling swamped, much of it unnecessary.”
Unnecessary! There's wisdom in that word. For, if all this “over-communicating” is going on in the workplace, much of it over trivial matters, it's a good bet it's also happening at home. A way has to be found to separate the necessary from the unnecessary among the messages constantly coming at us from all directions. Certainly we can screen out most, if not all, the outside intrusions. That would free us to better communicate with the people with whom we share our homes — our own families.
And we would do well to make a concerted effort to protect our spiritual life, leaving us some time to pray, unwind — and, at the very least, attend holy Mass without interruption.
Brother John Raymond, co-founder of the Monks of Adoration, writes from Venice, Florida.