Digital Dystopia

Back in the ’90s, when I was the captain of my own cubicle in the depths of corporate America, it was mandatory that my away message on the telephone answering system announced my status and direction so as to avoid any confusion my business comrades might encounter. If memory serves, my standard message was a delaying tactic that assured many fun hours of telephone tag to flatten the productivity curve. It went something like:

You have reached the office of [me]. I’ve just stepped out on a special assignment but can be expected to return momentarily. Please leave a clear message stating your full name, date, time, call-back number, and the detailed purpose of this contact. I will immediately respond when I return. Your call is very important to me.

Sad to say I was often at my desk sipping coffee and ignoring the ringing phone when this announcement was triggered.

But sometimes I was concentrating deeply on solving sticky technical problems or analyzing tricky computer code and just the ringing of the phone was enough to throw my little gray cells into a cauldron of despair. Even in the nascent days of digital communication, the days when being constantly in touch meant wearing a pager and carrying a few dimes for the local pay-phone, being interrupted constantly was considered the biggest disrupter of office productivity since hot pants.

I read an article of the web (which I erased and cannot cite) that reminded me of this quaint habit. The article decried the need for constant availability and suggested an artifact of bygone days that might be revived to assuage the contamination caused by social media on our private lives and productivity. The examples suggested were from early online platforms like AOL but were essentially canned away messages: “I’m away from my desk,” “I walking my dog,” “I prefer not to.”

An article in The Guardian, The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world by Harriet Griffey reminds us that

It is difficult to imagine life before our personal and professional worlds were so dominated and “switched on” via smartphones and the other devices that make us accessible and, crucially, so easily distractible and interruptible every second of the day. This constant fragmentation of our time and concentration has become the new normal, to which we have adapted with ease, but there is a downside: more and more experts are telling us that these interruptions and distractions have eroded our ability to concentrate.

Which brings us to the horrifying dystopian novel by Dave Eggers, The Circle.

Imagine if technology was sufficiently advanced that it would be possible to share your every thought, your every observation, your every action with anyone else in the world .. wait, that should say .. with everyone else in the world. Now imagine that all those other people are also sharing their entire lives. And to close the circle, it is considered morally criminal—theft—to withhold sharing every part of your life with everyone else.

Make you nostalgic for beepers?

Add to this video presence the continuous monitoring of body functions, the constant tracking of the kids (actually, of everyone), the instantaneous scoring of our job functioning, our cooking abilities. our love-making prowess. We’ll get a score and there might even be tape at 11.

This all leads to a question I ask myself quite often: Is Progress Progress?

2 thoughts on “Digital Dystopia

  1. I try to resist this now I am retired. This is not progress, it interrupts thought, reading and writing. For me there are times when I look at my device, and times when I ignore it. It means things get done, and I get a sense of achievement.


  2. The irony of the detailed away message was that the answering system allowed a key-press to skip the announcement entirely, going straight to leave yet another message. How often was the follow-up message just as bloated and useless as the original, unheard, away message. Tag! You’re it!


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