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The Disconnect Revolution

I wonder whether Robert Ludlum ever wrote a book with that title? Anyway, I was reading an article describing the digital/technical changes which have occurred over the last ten years. While I agree that there have been some very beneficial advances, each new item which adopts popular usage will have a significant effect on society. I am yet to hear this being discussed in any depth in the popular media apart from glib statements such as ďwe can now work from home more easilyĒ

But the important thing which is being ignored, is the question, ďIs this a good thing?Ē
The answer to this has to be sometimes. I will begin by giving a couple of stories before actually launching into anything resembling direction.

In Australia, we are entitled to 4 weeks of holidays each year. This is OUR time. This is NOT time the employer has as reduced hours time. And no company should be in a position where any given individual is indispensable. Once upon a time, in a city far, far away, I did my vacation work in a smelter. While I was there, one of the other vac work studentsí managers wanted to take a weekís holiday. She was informed by her boss that that was fine, as long as they were able to reach her by mobile phone at all times.

Situation 2: Presented for your consideration: Your friendsí wedding. You have taken a week off to help with the celebrations, where you are the groomsman. You have a late and fairly heavy night. The next morning you are awoken at 8:30AM because someone at work had a minor question to ask.

Situation 3: One of the students I tutored a couple of years ago was working 3 jobs. The 3rd job was to pay for her mobile phone. For this story, Iím sure everyone knows at least a couple of people who have found themselves in financial difficulty because the phone is always accessible.

One problem with mobile phones is that the same rules which apply to a telephone donít apply to a mobile. A few years ago, people had telephones in their houses. If they were home, they could contact other people who were either at home or at work. And the people were happy. If you needed to get in touch with someone, you could. But, because the phone is always on, you would only call at socially acceptable times (note that this is a flexible time) unless it was an absolute emergency.

And then, along came the mobile phone. At first, it was relatively expensive, and was primarily used as a business tool. But then, it began to come down in price, and could be purchased and operated for relatively affordable amounts. And this was the beginning of the end. From the moment it began to be affordable, it went from being a status symbol to a necessity.

I will digress briefly to comment that I do agree with Michael Mooreís contention in Bowling for Columbine that the problem isnít guns. The problem is the fear campaign being waged by a sensationalist media that the streets arenít safe. That there is a paedophile/murderer/lawyer around every corner. That a parent can only relax if a child has a mobile phone, so that they can contact them whenever they want. But if television was a poor babysitter, a mobile phone is an even worse guardian. It doesnít keep an eye on your children. The flip side, however is that a child now has a toy with which they can rack up a large debt very quickly. There is a reason why people under 18 are not allowed access to credit. Iíve met more than a few people over 18 who should not have access to credit, either.

While I have previously owned a mobile phone, and my wife does currently, and I will concede that, if used correctly, a mobile phone is useful, a cost-benefit analysis would not lead to the market coverage that they have (Australia has a population of 20 million. Over the last 2 years, 10 million camera phones were purchased. There are almost as many phones in use as there are people). If money was no object, I would probably own one as well. But then, if money was no object, Iíd get myself a helicopter and licence. And hire someone to do the experiments for me (yes, I am still in the lab. I have, at least, got some results today.) Both of which are not really financially justifiable.

Alright, so far we have a mobile phone risks parental and financial irresponsibility. Can we do better?

Well, from the first two stories, it shows that there is now a societal expectation that you are always available. Always contactable. Always in communication. Is this healthy?

The biggest change to society that has been that time is now flexible. Letís say I had made an appointment to meet somebody for lunch at 12:30. Letís say that they are running late for whatever reason and will get there at 1:30. 10 years ago, they have tried hard to get there as quickly as possible, got there at 1:20 and were considered rude. Now, they realise that they are going to be late, call at 12:25 (note, before 12:30) and tell you, ďOh, Iíll be there at 1:30. See you then.Ē Even worse is if they text it, because then you have to pay to reply. They then get there at 1:35, and they consider themselves 5 minutes late because they rescheduled for 1:30. Never mind that you have been sitting waiting for them for an hour. "Oh? But I called and told you"

I have been asked how I survive without a mobile phone. I use the caveman argument: Let me give a brief timeline of human existence. Somewhere of order a million years ago humans evolved from the wombat (thatís why there are still times when a man eats roots and leaves) Ė you can insert whichever origin of the species theory you like. It doesnít change the argument much. Somewhere of order a hundred thousand years ago, a spoken language evolved. Somewhere of order ten thousand years ago, written language and alphabets were devised. Somewhere of order one thousand years ago, the printing press was invented. Somewhere of order one hundred years ago, the telephone was invented. Somewhere of order ten years ago, the mobile phone was invented. I can survive perfectly well without a mobile phone, or even a phone in general, as I would have had to have done a few hundred years ago.

More importantly, even in modern day society, we can survive perfectly well without a mobile phone. If you want to contact me and I am not at my phone, I have an answering machine, I have email, I have a postal address.

I do appreciate that the first two are modern conveniences too, but, through other societal changes, we have a much more mobile society. My father may have been a wandering Aramean, but his lifeís wanderings would be a weekend drive now. Even if you would have to contend with Israeli drivers and the traffic system a German designed there. And worse in the area. But because we have a more mobile society, we have close family and friends in far off lands, and, as such, it is reasonable that communication methods adapt to reflect this.

The problem is that there is now an expectation that you are always available. This has led to people leaving communication and plans to the last minute. More than once, I have heard plans consisting of:
What pub will we go to?
I donít know. Iíll give you a call on Saturday night

We then get the phone call at 10PM on Saturday:
Whatís up?
I donít really feel like going out tonight.

By which point it is too late to make new plans with anyone except the other people who have been similarly inconvenienced.

It has been said that the only plans people will make now is their wedding. Everything else is negotiable. Subject to change at any time.

So what is the solution?

The Disconnect Revolution.

The Disconnect Revolution starts here. I invite everyone to join me (not that I can always manage, either, particularly as I am in the thesis-writing stage), because ultimately, this is a bloodless societal change to counteract a bloodless societal change, and will only work if people agree.

Disconnect your business self from your non-business self. Only deal with work email during work hours. Have your work phone turned off outside work hours. I will make an exception for people who are ďon call,Ē but these people should have a phone which is only used for emergencies. Or even better, a pager (remember them?). Leave work at work. If you do have to bring work home with you, find time where you are not doing it.

Even more importantly, donít ask others to work outside work hours unless it is essential. This may only come about if you donít work during non-work hours. And yes, I do appreciate the irony of me writing this in the lab at what is now 6PM on a Sunday, having been in here since 8AM. The main reason I do this is so that I can spend more time at home in Melbourne and less time in Brisbane so that I can spend more time with Rebecca.

Next, at home, find a time when the mobile phone is off, and always turn the phone off before you go to bed. Spend some time when you are off-line. When anyone who wants to communicate has to do it face-to-face or wait. Disconnect from remote communications.

Next, make plans and stick to them. Disconnect from all the excuses that modern society has granted. Donít leave people with uncertainty. If you are going to see them, let them know. If you are not, also let them know. If you are not sure, be honest. ďLook, Friday is going to be a killer of a day. I donít know whether I will feel like doing xyuÖĒ Give them the choice of whether they want to wait on your mood. Be punctual (yes, there are circumstances where fashionably late is acceptable, but this doesnít apply to a one-on-one meeting). Be honest. If you canít manage something, let people know. In advance. At a time when they can alter their activities to fit in with the revised plans.

Oh, and if you are driving, do not dial. Do not use the phone except with a hands-free kit, and definitely do not write or read text messages. While weíre at it, do not read or write books while driving, either.

It is time to reclaim our lives from the grip of the portable device of satan. It is time to say ďNo! This is my timeĒ

And when your phone contract is up for renewal, think about it before choosing to funnel more money into it. On second thoughts, I have telco shares. Phone all you like. Enter all those stupid television competitions with 1900 numbers or pay-per-SMS numbers. Have SMS conversations where you say over the course of 50 messages what you could have said in 20 seconds. Text people with ďPlease call me back.Ē

Just donít complain when you have a phone bill you canít afford. Donít complain when you are hit by a car while you are on the phone. Donít complain when you get cancer. Donít complain when people turn up late for meetings or stand you up. You know what the cause is. Human irresponsibility.

Donít blame the phone. Phones donít destroy society. People destroy society

Comment by Alex Lubansky, 11/7/2005

Gee I'm a stand-up philosopher sometimes.


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