A summer epiphany: With tech toys, less is more

I returned home in early August from three glorious weeks of vacation to be greeted by a wiggling, love-deprived golden retriever and 657 unread e-mails. Our golden warranted immediate attention. For a change, I let the e-mails wait.

I'm determined to turn a page in life, to permanently shed at least some of technology's growing, and anxiety- producing, hold. It's not easy.

As we traveled through France, Germany, and Switzerland this summer, I limited TV viewing to 15 minutes of CNN-International during morning stretching. I breezed past hotel computers and Internet cafes without (OK, with barely) a glance. I treasured the airy feel of my empty left pocket, into which I'm usually diving mid-conversation or on crowded, curvy roads to dig out a ringing cellphone. And, over a cup of café au lait, typically at an outdoor bistro, I read one newspaper each morning from cover to cover.

At the end of each day, I felt no less ignorant (except about Boston Red Sox batting averages), and infinitely more relaxed.

This isn't the old Luddite routine; I'm writing this article on a computer, after all, and it will be e-mailed to an editor. But the close of summer seems a good time to remember that neither the world, nor our world, are as all- consumingly important as bosses, advertisers, and the all-news-and-blather-all-the-time cable networks would like us to believe.

My guess is they never were.

Yet the unrelieved sales pitch of US society has led us to accept - even embrace - the unquestioned importance of being available and informed all the time. It's nonsense. For the marketeers it's also profitable. What better way to sell networked family cellphone plans, laptops, palm pilots, faster connections, and bigger TVs, which someday soon will allow us to order up what we want when we want it, than to convince us that they - and we - are indispensable?

What better way to keep those TVs and computers and palm pilots tuned to the news (and ads) than to convince us, with breathless headlines and earnest, instantaneous experts-for-hire that we can't afford to check out and catch up later? Truth is, we can, and should. The world, and our professional lives, will wait, as I was reminded twice heading home.

First, we arrived at Paris' DeGaulle Airport to find a line snaking endlessly back from the American Airlines counter. It was, we learned, tied to President Bush's warning that terrorists might again try to take over a commercial flight. American had ordered passengers to arrive three hours early. We hadn't. But, like us, those who had stood, without moving, until 90 minutes before the scheduled departure when American began processing passengers. So much for staying tuned to news.

On Saturday morning, the day after we got home, I picked up the mail. There I discovered one of my faculty had resigned. The letter had been posted 10 days earlier. But had I learned about it then, I'd have been helpless to do much more than fret and stew until I got home. So much for staying tuned to work.

Unaware, and relaxed, on the flight home, I picked up an essay by a writer lamenting that it is the Europeans, not the Americans, who have learned to benefit from the fruits of technology, turning the resulting increase in productivity into shorter work hours and longer vacations. The streets of Paris, he noted, are alive with late-night, outdoor parties, no small wonder in a country where workers can get more than 30 days of vacation and the workweek is 35 hours.

Americans, meanwhile, are hunkered down, stretched to the limit, working longer hours, taking shorter vacation (an average of 10.2 days a year). We have allowed technology to control us, even in our homes, instead of using it to simplify our lives.

The more we work, the more we earn, the more we buy. In my neighborhood, it seems that as many houses are being torn down to make way for monster replacements as are being sold intact. All those SUVs on the road have lots to do with the $2 gasoline we're seeing.

I believe there's a relationship between the trophy-house, trophy-car mind-set and the rush for the latest and greatest technology. I'm convinced both are part of a misplaced search for meaning. Facing a gnawing personal and cultural emptiness, we're more readily seduced by the folks dedicated to filling our lives with stuff. But happiness doesn't come wrapped in bigger, better, or faster. It needs time and a little nurturing.

It's easy to muse, harder to change. I find myself sneaking back on the computer to check e-mail before work even in a year when I've taken a leave as administrator. I've got to try harder.

This morning broke beautiful, clear, and crisp with a hint of fall in the air. We took our breakfast, the dog (and his share of scrambled eggs), and the Sunday paper outside, and sat for two glorious hours. My cellphone never left my dresser. All that was missing was the café au lait.

Jerry Lanson is chair of the department of journalism at Emerson College in Boston.

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