I managed to enjoy working from home for approximately one week. That’s how long it took me to memorize my daytime TV schedule: NBC for the Today Show (hour three being my favorite since it features Willy Geist) and Access Hollywood Live (Billy Bush is kinda creepy, amirite?), then over to ABC for The Chew (anything with Clinton Kelly is a-ok by me), then to CBS for The Talk (don’t ask), back to NBC for Steve Harvey and Ellen (those shows have way more in common than I thought), then it was time for news and primetime programming. Wake up the next day and start all over again.
I came to loathe this routine. I mean, I had enough work to keep me busy for several hours each day – and I did my job just fine – but it was a monotonous and lonely existence for a couple of months. I did my fair share of work at the library or in coffee shops, but you can only sip a cup of tea for so long, plus dragging around a laptop and power cord all the time got old. At this time I was working remotely for my last job in DC and although Gchat and G+ Hangouts made it easy to feel connected to distant colleagues, it just wasn’t the same.
I soon found myself staying online nearly all the time, whether I had work to do or not. I craved some sort of interaction from the “outside world” and I missed my DC friends. I felt more useful – not just as an employee, but as a person – when I had five chat windows open and texts firing back and forth. See! People want to talk to me! I’m still at the proverbial popular table! (Even though it was a table for one.) I mostly stopped reading my daily newspaper, breaking a habit I’d had for over a decade. Without a commute, it was easier just to settle down with a cup of coffee and Facebook status updates every morning. How terribly edifying.
Whatever was going on was not good. I was sleeping poorly, worrying about my current job and my still-nonexistent future job and generally getting way too much into my own head for even the smallest things, especially regarding electronic communications. Had my last instant message conveyed that I was joking or did I come off sounding like a jerk? Did that email convey the urgency of what I was requesting? Should I text this person to make sure they have everything they need for the meeting tomorrow? And on and on it went for nearly two months. I didn’t get terribly down about it, though, because I knew the situation was temporary. But still, by the time I returned to working at an office, I was more than ready to jump out of bed, get dressed in pants with a non-elastic waistband, and bid the kitties adieu for a day full of face-to-face interaction with real people.
I was thinking back over this (mercifully brief) time in my life the other day while listening to a podcast of Fresh Air from last year. At my last few jobs in DC I was fortunate enough to be able to walk to work and podcasts were something I’d found helped keep my mind sharp during all those hours of pounding the pavement. Still an avid pedestrian and podcast listener, I’ve enjoyed catching up on years’ worth of Terry Gross interviews, as I never really listened to this show before. The podcast that popped up the other day was an interview with Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together, which addresses the digital dependence that so many of us have formed in such a relatively short amount of time.
I highly recommend you listen to the interview – I haven’t picked up a copy of the book – or at least read the accompanying online article where Turkle shares among other insights the cultural shift from ’I have a feeling, I want to make a call’ to ‘I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.’ Whoa. That part hit home. How many times had I reached out digitally during my work at home days because I was bored or lonely or just found myself with my own thoughts for more than a few minutes? I want to have a feeling. Her statements also explain the seemingly endless parade of cryptic Facebook posts designed to elicit sympathy from one’s “friends.” And what else could explain Facebook’s decision to let users select their “feeling” from a drop-down menu of options, over 1/3 of which express negative emotions?
If Turkle’s interview doesn’t sufficiently make you reconsider our always-online-but-not-really-connected existence, then I offer as Exhibit B Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent New York Times op-ed “How Not to Be Alone.” Are you sensing a theme here? Foer presents the concept of “diminished substitutes” and explains how evolving technological advances in communication have actually served to make us ever more disconnected. Cancelling dinner is now accomplished with a single text message followed by the relief that we don’t have to see face-to-face the person whom we’re brushing off or letting down. Parents obsessively browse their emails from the sidelines instead of watching their kid’s soccer game. And on and on it goes. The problem is that “with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.” I want to have a feeling.
I’m not here to advocate that we revert to some antediluvian existence of fax machines and party lines, but I have been reflecting on my own need to feel connected, to feel feelings, and realizing that technology is neither a facilitator of nor a substitution for actual relationships, be they work, personal, or just casual acquaintances in my neighborhood. At my current jobs I convene no conference calls unless absolutely necessary. I make a conscientious effort to try to communicate via face-to-face conversations or telephone calls whenever possible, which is really tough because I partly work remotely for one of them. And I’m lucky enough to work with people who take seriously the notion that everybody deserves a break in their workday. Just yesterday three coworkers and I went out for tea, pausing to sit a few minutes in Daley Plaza. Those moments of sunshine and lighthearted conversation were probably some of the most enjoyable of my whole day.
As much as I love texting (and I love texting), I’ve come to the realization that it’s no substitution for authentic conversation. Most importantly I no longer stare at my phone or Gchat hoping to have a feeling. And if I find myself once again in the position of working from home at some point in the distant future, I’m confident that I’ll approach it in a different, more balanced way. Less Billy Bush and Steve Harvey, and more face time with clients and friends. Now that’s a good feeling.
I’m riding 200 miles in support of About Face Theatre and other amazing community organizations in this summer’s Ride For AIDS Chicago. If you’d like to donate, please visit my fundraising page. Thank you for your support!