Dodging the cutting edge of technology

The culture writers who use solemn words to describe what they call the fall of civilization often blame technology for a decline in leisure time.

It’s a double-edged sword. Technology, or rather the application of it, pays most of the bills around here, so I’d be a hypocrite to suggest that the use of all this gee-whiz stuff is bad for you.

And I like being able to sit on a hotel patio, sipping coffee, enjoying the crisp, cool air and reading all the news from back home on my laptop, which is connected to the high-speed wireless network that now exists in so many hotels, coffee shops and the like.

Technology allowed me to give up a traditional “office” a long time ago. Today, my office is wherever I happen to be. I can edit this publication from a cabin in the woods, using a laptop and a wireless modem, or from the deck of a cruise ship. I can fix a problem with a client’s web site in a jetliner at 33,000 feet or edit and send a memo from a rest stop in Kansas.

When someone calls the “office” phone listed on my business card, the call can – and often is – routed automatically to my wireless phone. The caller can think I’m sitting in a high-rise in Arlington, Virginia, when I’m actually hunting deer in Southern Missouri.

Yet taking your office with you wherever you go also means you never, ever, get “away from the office.” When someone sends me an email, it means getting a tingling sensation on my hip, not from any racy porn message but because it goes instantly to a Blackberry pager that is clipped to my belt and vibrates each time a message is received. The pager is two-way, which means I respond to the email just as quickly.

My wife never met an outlet mall she could pass on the road, which means I spend a lot of time in food courts, waiting for her to drain our checking accounts. So I spend the time answering email or using a laptop or wireless modem to work on various Internet-related projects.

I justify all this by saying it is a productive use of my time.

“It may be productive, but it sure isn’t healthy,” says behavioral psychologist Beverly Argus. “Your brain needs down time. It needs to get away from the stresses of the world and the job.”

Dr. Argus works executives suffering from burnout and stress from too many hours on the job and too little time relaxing.

“People used to go on vacation to get away from work and the stress of everyday life,” she says. “Now they just take the same work and stress with them. The vacation is only a change of location, not a change in the very stresses that created the need for a vacation.”

Check into any hotel today and you will most likely find an Ethernet computer connection in your room, a television with all the 24-hour-news channels and a flyer promoting the hotel’s “business center” where you can access computers, copiers, fax machines, etc.

Even if I don’t forward my business phone to my cell phone, it still rings 20 or so times a day with calls from people who have that number. Even if I tell folks I’m on vacation, the calls still come.

“In today’s business environment, all issues take on an immediacy they don’t often need,” says Dr. Argus. “Problems must be resolved now, even when they can wait until the decision maker gets back. We’re in a fast-food, ship-it-overnight, do-it-now mentality that too often assigns false importance to mundane tasks.”

The simple answer, of course, would be to leave the laptop, the wireless phone and the email pager at home but we can’t do that in today’s highly competitive, global economy. Clients expect 24/7 service, rapid response to problems and immediate access to answers and solutions.

So is there a middle ground? I wish the hell I knew. I seldom go anywhere without a Blackberry and a PocketPC with an integrated mobile phone clipped to my belt, along with another portable phone (which doubles as a high-speed wireless modem) and a laptop in a shoulder bag.

Why? Because I hate being out of touch, even on vacation. It’s like driving through a remote area of the country and not being able to get any news on the car radio (which is why we’ve ordered satellite radio modules for our car radios).

Yes, technology is a double-edge sword. You can use it to cut through the jungle or it can turn on you and slice you to bits.