On Healing 10/4/2004: Lost in a techno trance

For 10 years now, you have been hearing Dan Gottlieb write about compassion, insight and reflection. Not today. I’ve had it! Kindness doesn’t cut it, so I will try the more direct approach: “Wake up, people. You have drifted into some kind of bizarre, machine-dependent self-important trance.”

Here’s the deal. I am sick of going to restaurants and sitting alone while my companion is learning that her cousin from Cleveland just discovered a hemorrhoid. Or that someone’s 35-year-old daughter is struggling to get a baby-sitter so she can go out that night.

Now there’s something we have forgotten – the meaning of a real emergency. I recently called the marketing director of a hospital. Her machine said: “I can’t come to the phone now – but if it’s an emergency, you can call me at….” Could someone tell me what a marketing emergency really consists of? If you are a surgeon and nick an artery, that’s an emergency. Hemorrhoids? Baby-sitters? Marketing? Not emergencies.

And I have a special message to my friends who keep sending me copies of e-mails about how precious life is and how we need to spend time enjoying nature – spend time actually enjoying nature rather than reading about it, and STOP SENDING ME E-MAILS.

Speaking of computers, I think there is a special place in hell for people who invented instant messaging. When I am on my computer, I am usually working and would rather be somewhere else. So when I am sitting there writing a column or lecture, and I have a precious moment when my mind is focused, someone will inevitably pop up on my screen and say: “Whaddya doin?”

I’ve been troubled by the use of technology for a couple of years. But when I recently had dinner with a friend, I realized everything was getting out of control. After he sat down, he removed from his belt a cell phone, a pager and a BlackBerry. I thought we were having dinner, and all of a sudden I felt like I was in a conference room!

But here’s what pushed me over the edge: Last week when I pulled in for gasoline, the attendant approached me while he was on a cell phone. I said to the person I was talking to: “That’s it, everything is out of control and I have to write about this. No one is talking to anyone anymore.” Then I fell silent.

The person I was talking to was on my cell phone.

Jung said that which we hate is part of us. I am not angry at you (well, I am), but I am angry at me. Because I have become one of them. I check my e-mails before my first cup of coffee, and if my mind wanders for a millisecond (which happens about every four seconds), I’ve checked my e-mails again or my voice mail. Many things conspire to turn that millisecond of distraction into 45 minutes. So work that used to take me one hour to complete now takes double that time.

And now, my daughter has introduced me to the world of wireless. This is really cool. So now I can sit out on my back deck and work on my computer. But it is on my back deck where I love reading books and looking at the birds. But now I answer e-mails. And sadly, I answer those e-mails on my deck because – well, I don’t know why. Like most of us, I have fallen into the trance that tells us if we return calls in the car, we will be free when we get home. Or if we get to our e-mails now, then we can relax. Never works, but you already knew that.

I usually conclude my column with some helpful hints about what can be done to resolve the problem I’ve just talked about. Not today. No, no advice. For me, I have to decide whether to visit my therapist or reboot my brain. But for now, I think I’ll rent the Matrix trilogy again.

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