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Op-Ed

A cure for 24/7 'communication'

Don't want to be addicted to email, Facebook, smartphones? Try selective availability.

September 29, 2011|By Jesse Kornbluth

"Only connect," E.M. Forster advised.

He had no idea.

I once worked for a company so wired that the boss told me, "The real test of a relationship is how quickly you can get out of bed after making love to check your email."

That was a decade ago. Now almost everyone I know is armed with an iPhone or a BlackBerry, and the better question is whether you'd interrupt sex to read a tweet or respond to a text message. My bet: Most would.

Indeed, as I watch people madly pecking on tiny keyboards or announcing their locations as if they're human GPS devices, there's really nothing people won't interrupt in order to connect with … well, just about anybody. I understand that we work long hours, process too much information, take in too much media; still, I'm amazed at the apparent loneliness that drives these incessant efforts to "communicate." Clearly, these are desperate times.

There's anecdotal evidence that 24/7 connection is as addictive as OxyContin. Some companies require employees to put their BlackBerrys in a box before they enter meeting rooms. In order to finish writing his last book without distraction, Jonathan Franzen not only removed the wireless card from his computer, but he also filled his Ethernet port with glue to terminate his Internet access completely. And at exam time in some New York private schools, students have changed their friends' Facebook passwords so they can't log on and procrastinate.

It is, I think, possible to cure this addiction to 24/7 "communication."

One is the draconian, Luddite way of Andy Rooney. "I'd rather have a mailman deliver junk mail to me," he famously announced on "60 Minutes," "than get an email." Rooney must have had an assistant. If he didn't, he'd know there's nothing more useful than email when you need to set up a meeting with a dozen people or find the cheapest plane fare. Like Rooney, refuseniks long for a return to black rotary phones and IBM Selectrics. Best to stay off their lawns.

I commend a gentler, saner "middle path," the way of "selective availability." It is, I believe, possible to check your email only every few hours, catch up with Facebook and Twitter once a day and enjoy dinner with friends without adding your iPhone and BlackBerry to the guest list. The trick: Use devices — just never the latest version.

My cellphone is 6 years old. It's thick as a brownie. The numbers are big enough for my 94-year-old mother to see. Can I access the Internet on it? Once upon a time I could, but I disabled it. Texting? I get text messages, but I don't know how to respond. And as for storing information on my cellphone, I do it the old-fashioned way: I've taped a list of my most frequently called numbers — my "five," in the parlance of the phone commercials — on the back.

Electronic calendar? I use a New Yorker diary. In my bookcase, 20 years of these blue-bound diaries provide, if not a sense of continuity, its illusion. Comforting, that.

Facebook? A real-world friend says you should never "friend" anyone you haven't had lunch with. He has standards. And slow days. I have 2,100 friends, but only because I accept as a "friend" anyone who asks. I actually "know" maybe 200 — and I don't see them for lunch, ever. So I'm in no danger of feeling the need to check in on the half-hour.

What about the iPad? The exception to all rules. I gave one to my wife for Christmas, never thinking I'd use it. Then I got curious about the game Angry Birds, and before I knew what had happened, it was dawn. As Angry Birds experts will understand, I am a better person for the experience; I have a new appreciation for counterintuitive strategies. But I no longer waste hours killing pigs.

It's easy to escape addiction to the iPad: Don't get a phone contract for it. Without one, the iPad is a second laptop. That is, in a limited universe: wireless homes and Starbucks.

I grant that there are disadvantages to the way of selective availability. When I'm lost, I have to call directory assistance and then the restaurant. I can't settle arguments with instant fact-checking. And I'm far from first in my crowd to see the Kardashians in lingerie.

On the plus side, I have time to think. "It's not the stress," a wise friend has said. "It's the interruptions." I have few. I can, during business hours, read a book. And then I can, later, get paid for thinking for thought leaders, who are so busy they don't have time to think.

Most of all, I can still respond to reality in real time. My wife and I recently trucked out to Brooklyn to see the Feelies, a band just coming off a 19-year sabbatical. They strolled onstage late, then took a break after just 20 minutes. It became … extended. My wife and I became … annoyed.

But we were the only ones who were agitated. Almost everyone else was fully engaged on their smartphones. These people knew that the music would start again, and they didn't care when. Texting, photographing, catching up on the Facebook "news" — they were more than adequately entertained.

Bitter and angry, we left. Which is not to say we were unhappy; there's something refreshingly human about surges of strong emotions. And, even more, it's increasingly satisfying to disconnect.

Jesse Kornbluth, a journalist in New York, was editorial director of America Online from 1997 to 2002 and now edits HeadButler.com.

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