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Virtual Addiction

Today’s Wall Street Journal “Cubicle Culture” column by Jared Sandberg is entitled

    Workaholics Use Fibs, Subterfuge to Stay Connected on Vacation

In it, Sandberg addresses a fundamental dilemma of our modern-day life: how is it possible to control rather than be controlled by the very technology that makes our lives possible?

Here’s his excellent piece:
________________________

    You never would have guessed Jodi Burack was vacationing last week in South Carolina.

    When she received an e-mail from me last Friday asking if she was doing work during her time off, she responded within 10 minutes.

    “Well, there was an outage of service,” she pecked back on her BlackBerry. “I was nuts calling my office too much.”

    But then the service was finally restored, and she was barraged with more than 200 e-mails.

    “My husband was playing golf. Did not catch me but we are with friends and they grabbed the pager away,” she typed.

    The attitude of family and friends forces Mrs. Burack to do what any self-respecting nonrelaxer must do: deceive, beguile and swindle.

    Last March in Hawaii, for example, her husband expressed shock that she hadn’t brought her BlackBerry.

    But “I had it,” she admits. “I was hiding it.” She used it when everyone else was asleep, and if they weren’t, she would sneak into the bathroom or the closet. The closet? “Oh, yeah, that’s nothing,” she says.

    Some people just can’t take a real break from work.

    Harboring an abiding certitude that something tragic will happen when they aren’t looking – including possibly to them – they spend great sums and drive great distances dowsing for a few bars of cellular signal or BlackBerry link.

    Loved ones, though, rarely understand that the very possibility of missing something big at the office is more tragic than spending hard-earned money to effectively set up a satellite office beachside.

    That forces the helplessly connected to abandon all semblance of dignity just to get their fix. It’s another sign of how much work can contaminate leisure.

    Workaholism is nothing new, particularly in a nation founded by people who distrusted idleness.

    “Everybody who’s observed American culture, beginning with de Tocqueville, has said that Americans are uneasy with leisure,” says Geoffrey Godbey, a professor of leisure studies at Pennsylvania State University.

    The difference is that now people have a way to calm themselves when a vacation is packed with too much fun: “New technologies make it easier [to channel] those impulses,” the professor says.

    In June, Bryson Koehler, a director of Internet services at a hotel company, went with his extended family to Hilton Head, S.C., where he discovered that only in one corner of his parents’ bathroom would his BlackBerry and wireless laptop connection work.

    So he camped out in the loo, even after his mother, unaware he was sitting there in the dark one evening, began to undress for bed. “Whoa, Mom. Wait, I’m back here,” he shouted.

    When his family went biking on island trails, Mr. Koehler surreptitiously planted his laptop, cellphone and BlackBerry in the bicycle trailer carrying his 9-month-old son, leaving them with their power on to collect messages during the ride.

    It worked until his wife caught him. “She accused me of giving the baby cancer because I had the cellphone under him,” Mr. Koehler recalls.

    The persistence of his connectedness “gets on my wife’s every last nerve,” Mr. Koehler concedes.

    As a result, she’ll “accidentally” unplug his BlackBerry from its charger, “accidentally” switch it from ring to vibrate, or just hide the thing.

    Her newest tactic is to book cruise vacations, where Internet access is exorbitantly expensive.

    A vast ocean didn’t stop Juliette Anthony, a legislative consultant for a solar energy company in California, who went on a cruise in February with a friend.

    She fibbed to her friend, who worried she didn’t know how to relax. “I’d say, ‘I’m going to the gym’ or ‘I’m going to get a massage,’ ” she says.

    Instead, she would be in the ship’s bar, drinking ginger ales and racking up Internet-access charges.

    For his transgressions, Jeffrey Cohen, a sales director at insurance information provider Advisen, gets the “evil stare” from his wife, as well as such comments as, “Oh, nice of you to join us,” he says.

    If he needs a pen or paper and asks for it, no one will fetch it for him.

    At the same time, his twins mock him in unison, pretending they’re typing on a handheld.

    Workaholic Henry Franceschini took his first vacation in four years last Easter, but the 48-year-old sales manager soon discovered there wasn’t much cellular service in Destin, Fla.

    So he spent a lot of his time driving in search of a signal.

    Altogether, Mr. Franceschini probably spent as much as four hours each day working.

    He’d tell his family he was using the Internet to find a great restaurant for dinner but would answer e-mail instead.

    He’d say he was going to the bathroom but call the office.

    He’d say he was going to the grocery store but phone work instead.

    Because he’s tired, he vows to reform, sort of.

    “I won’t take the laptop but I will take the cellphone,” he says.

    He plans to use his 371,000 frequent-flyer miles to go anywhere in the world, so long as it isn’t to the Caribbean.

    “There’s no cellphone coverage” there, he exaggerates.

    There’s another solution: try to persuade family members you don’t have any choice about working.

    Failing that, you should just hope your kids turn into normal teenagers. “When they’re teenagers, you’re invisible anyway,” says Jeff Porter, a Dallas attorney.

____________________

Some people call it “BlackBerry crack,” so powerful is the impulse to stay connected at all times with the device.

The company, which in 2001 was headed for bankruptcy and extinction, was saved by a kind of “perfect storm” called 9/11.

The only communication system that worked throughout that day in New York City was the BlackBerry.

Instantly, its fortunes reversed.

Aided by the absolute dependence on the device of legislators and their staffs in Washington, D.C., the company did a full 180° and is now roaring along, aided by huge government contracts to extend the system everywhere.

So it’s not going to go away.

The question then becomes – at least, it would seem to me – how to conclude that the kind of compulsive use described above in Sandberg’s column if anything other than full-blown addictive behavior, and that people as dependent on being connected at all times to their BlackBerrys or similar devices are anything other than addicts, in the most classical sense of the word.

What constitutes addiction?

Well, let’s start with me, shall we?

Let’s have a look at bookofjoe during the first weeks in August, through last Thursday, August 19, when I shut it down.

I was spending the bulk of my waking hours either writing and creating posts for bookofjoe, or reading to find material for the blog.

I’d advance posted nearly 10 days worth of posts – over 80 of them at the time I shut things down.

I’d stopped shaving.

I’d stopped running.

I’d stopped going to the grocery store except about once every two weeks, when I’d eaten every microwave burrito and can of soup I had, and couldn’t take a third night in a row of Domino’s pizza.

I couldn’t even get through the five morning papers – the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, and Charlottesville Daily Progress – before I got restless and had to head for the computer to get to work on bookofjoe.

I’d stopped watching sports on TV, for the most part, one of the things I most love.

I’d pretty much stopped watching movies, because I really preferred to be connected to bookofjoe.

I’d stopped leaving my house except to go out to get the mail.

I often didn’t eat a thing all day, because I really didn’t want to waste the time when I could be working on bookofjoe.

When I had to get up to take a pee, I was extremely annoyed to have to step away from the computer.

When I had to refill my water bottle, I was likewise irritated.

I told my friends I was afraid of flying since 9/11 to explain away why I no longer came to visit.

I don’t know about you, but my behavior as outlined above – and there’s a million more similar things I could add – seems eerily akin to the lab rats who got cocaine every time they pressed a lever, and died of exhaustion and starvation because they couldn’t stop pressing the lever.

Can I work on this blog without being addicted to it?

Can a drug addict use a little crack and not want more?

To the latter question, you’d say, “No way.”

To the former, I think it fair to say, I don’t know, but we’re going to find out together, aren’t we?

Because I don’t think where I was going was a healthy place.

Now, there’s one more thing.

Last Thursday, August 19, when I pulled the plug on bookofjoe version 1.0 – ooh, I like that; I think I’m gonna keep referring to it as such – 22,000 people visited and there were over 100,000 page views.

The traffic curve for the past few months has been nearly asymptotic: the line is nearly vertical.

That’s the kind of thing that feeds an addiction.

I expect bookofjoe version 2.0 – what you’re reading, in day two of its existence (hey, if you see any stem cell equivalents, by all means, take ‘em – but I digress) – to be much less popular.

Why?

For one thing, it’s now G-rated.

Anything I write will be suitable for

posting at Disney World.

Why?

Because I say so.

I expect to lose at least 95% of my previous reader base because of my new rating.

So that would take us from 22,000 down to around 1,100 or so visitors a day.

That’s OK.

If it’s 11 visitors a day, that’s OK too.

There’s gonna be lots of other changes as well.

But you’ll have to be one of those 11 people to see ‘em.

About bookofjoe

  • Eric Olsen

    I think you made all of the right decisions, including coming back on a substantially altered basis. A site based upon what you shared here would be excellent in and of itself. Take care of yourself.

  • http://www.thebeautifullull.com Tom Johnson

    I often wonder if the internet hasn’t made life worse for people, in general. Sure, it’s a great resource, but being connected all the time can be a real problem because there’s always one more thing to look at and do, one more price to check, one more new thing to discover. I always find that once I get on the computer I spend far too much time glued to it doing, essentially, totally meaningless things. Do I really need to spend all that time reading the Fark forums, for instance?

    I took a blogging break a while back, too, killed off my old site and decided I’d get back into it when I felt like I actually missed it. Like Eric says above, post what you care about, who cares about hits or popularity? The upside of this is that I loosened up my rules – my writing is much more free-style, I don’t labor over it as much, and I’ve found that I actually enjoy reviewing music again, something I’d gotten really sick of. I just had to set some new, smarter rules and really abide by them. Number one was post when I want to, not when I felt I should (like everyday to make sure I had fresh content.) Number two was post what I want, not what I think people want to read. Who cares, really? It’s my damned site and it’s my reading. If I’m not having fun with it, why would anyone else be? In the end, I’m happier, in general, and I spend less time online than I did before. Of course, my hits have taken a slugging, but that’s okay. Quality, not quantity.

  • Eric Olsen

    very pertinent and wise Tom – I think ultimatley what we each have to do is set priorities.

    It’s also easy to forget what a new medium the Internet is – people went pretty apeshit when TV came along as well – I think it will become just another tool over time as people get used to it and come to take it for granted (like everything else)