Our frenetic electronic life

We need zones free of beckoning devices for the sake of family and culture

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At the entrance to the library of my university, a sign warns: "Turn off your cellphones or put them on silent ring." Some blessed coffee shops display a cellphone in a red circle with a line through it, indicating that the buzzards are barred. Many performances in concert halls and theaters (in the United States) regularly start with a warning to turn off pagers.

Next, we need laptop-free beaches. More is at issue than elementary civility, allowing others to have a quiet or cultural moment, or be able to read on a flight. The advances in communications technology force us all to decide when we are "on" versus "off."

Once upon a time, life had a built-in rhythm to it: Most offices, factories, and shops were closed at night, weekends, and holidays. There were times set aside for life away from work and commerce. True, even in those dying days, we could take stuffed briefcases home and clients to the club or golf course - but these were the exceptions to the rule.

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The Internet has no such rhythm. One can trade stocks, barter, shop, and call up office files day and night, seven days a week. It knows no Sabbath, Christmas, Yom Kippur, or Ramadan. The most recent "advances" - hand-held e-mail pagers; calls to airplanes - just eat into whatever free zones are left.

In the brave new world, we all face the dilemma Mrs. Blair presented Tony with recently: We must now make deliberate decisions about the amount of time we are to set aside in which we shall cut out business, leave work behind, and focus on our children, spouses, culture, and the spiritual sides of our inner beings.

Take, for example, family dinners. They no longer just happen; they have to be scheduled, and carefully cued in on our busy Palm Pilot.

Europeans - unlike many Americans - still have fairly robust holidays and vacations. But as they, too, increasingly enter cyberspace, they should look west to their American brethren, to see what is around the corner: the frenetic life of day (and night) traders. The home PC that is on at all times and flashes when new messages zip in at any time. The pagers and cellphones that buzz when parents finally have their kids' ears or simply take a stroll in the park.

People can no longer rely on the natural rhythm of time off dedicated to pursuits other than "making it."

From now on, increasingly, if one is to balance trade and labor with dedications to other pursuits, one must work at it. One must fashion Internet-free zones.

Such an endeavor runs into one difficulty: It requires committee meetings. I don't mean this literally, but this isn't a decision individuals can readily make on their own. If your boss or partner calls for urgent meetings at 8 p.m. or during weekends - if not face to face, on a conference circuit or listserve - you might be hardput to bow out.

If you hold an important position in pork bellies or silver, and the Tokyo market caves in, it might be difficult for you to ignore the flashing stock ticker and pulsating market display on your screen.

And if your office promised delivery "just on time" the next morning, or you are involved with an IPO, merger, or buyback, you may be unable to avoid an all-nighter (again), all too common on Wall Street and in American law offices.

In short, we need to sit down with our families and decide on which days we shall do all we can to dine together, shutting off all the beckoning devices - even the TV - and which holidays and vacations are going to be as sacrosanct as one can make them.

This is, of course, the easy part.

How to ensure that the new work and commerce culture continues to thrive, but also defines impenetrable zones for other pursuits, is a challenge we are just beginning to face.

The future of our families, communities, culture, civility, and sanity will all be much affected by these decisions.

*Amitai Etzioni, founder of the Communitarian Network, a group arguing for the balance of community responsibility with individual rights, is University Professor at George Washington University. His latest book is 'The Limits of Privacy' (Basic Books).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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