Tuesday, November 24, 2009



I don't like telephones. If I'm not expecting a call, I can't stand it when the phone rings. Basically, I don't like interruptions. I like focusing on things. I like dedicating my energy fully to a project and getting it done as well as I can. When some fool calls me about new cable service or a municipal election, it breaks my concentration. I don't like small talk, either. I don't like reporting what "I've been doing lately," "how things are going with me," "what I'm doing this weekend" or "how the job search is turning out." I would just rather read and write in peace.

Telephones used to terrorize me in law practice. My bosses expected me to be on the phone all the time: Call the client; call opposing counsel; call me; call your colleague; call the court; call the expert; call the printing service. All meaningless, vacuous, unstimulating calls. Either that or confrontations over the phone: "Give us the documents...no. Get this done now...no. I'm going to sanction you for this...go ahead; see if I care." Nasty, nasty shit.

Telephones allow people to attend to business without "actually being there." In many ways, this is advantageous. But when people try to do too much every day, they abuse the telephone. It gets ridiculous when you make and take 1000 calls a day trying to get everything accomplished from afar. I mean, how much can you really do over a phone line? Good old-fashioned face-to-face contact is a gravely underestimated commodity these days. I think excessive telephone use cheapens human exchange. And telephones cause unreal stress when abused. You can run away from a person. But you can't run from a person with a phone. In a word, telephones can take away your peace if you let them.

And I'm just talking about regular land lines. Cell phones made matters worse. As hard as it is to field phone calls from behind a desk, in the old days at least you could go home and escape the dreaded rings. Once you left the office, the phone could ring all it wanted; you couldn't hear it. As recently as the early 1990s, people had more peace in their lives because they didn't carry their phones with them everywhere they went. Now, everyone and their brother has a cell phone. You can't escape your phone now, even if you want to. Even you leave your house for a moment to buy a gallon of milk, someone can ring your cell phone. You are always on call. You must answer. How can you experience peace if you're worried about who might call you every minute?

American society is obsessed with contact. People don't want to be isolated from others even for an instant. They need to know what others are doing all the time. They need to reach them at any moment. While this might yield some "real-time" benefits, I argue that our society's obsession with constant communicative contact makes it more difficult to find peace than it was only 20 years ago. Some call me an "old soul" because I shut myself in a room for several hours every morning and pull the phone line out of the wall. But I just want some peace. I like the idea that I have time to myself each day when no one can reach me, even in an emergency. If something horrible happens, I'll find out about it when I'm ready. Yet in most cases, if someone calls me, it won't be an emergency. It will be a sales call or a pollster. Screw them. I don't want to hear it. Thank God for caller ID.

I understand that I am a mighty rare bird. I have always relished outdated communicative means. I write handwritten notes. I like meeting people in person. I like face-to-face conversations. I embrace technology to the extent that it makes my daily routine easier. But I do not dive headlong into real-time contact with everyone all the time. I joined Facebook mainly as a free forum for my writing and to learn about old friends. I've had a cell phone since 2000 because sometimes I need to let people know where I am. But I don't update my status every 20 seconds, nor do I make random calls to everyone in my contacts folder. No, I want peace.

I just can't understand why so many people want to know "what's going on with everyone" all the time. For example, I cannot ride the elevator in my apartment building without seeing some well-dressed woman on a mobile device furiously typing something. Strangely, it's always a woman, and always white. I see them on the weekends, early in the morning, at night, in the evening, you name it. What are they writing about? Why? To whom? It can't just be about work: You don't write work emails at 11 PM on Saturday, do you? I can't figure it out, but that's because I'm Balthazar Oesterhoudt, an antiquated man who likes reading, peace and quiet. Can someone tell me what these women are scribbling? What the hell is so important? Can't it wait until they get where they're going? Why couldn't they write the message before leaving the apartment? Why try to do four things at once? These questions perplex me; and they make me question my place in this linked-in society: Do I even belong in this century?

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a polemic called "Uncontemporary Observations." He dared to criticize beliefs and trends that most people in his day simply assumed to be valid. I continue that tradition. I do not like this linked-in society and I find it quite disturbing. I like privacy. More and more, our society willingly cedes its privacy in order to "let everyone else know what's going on with us all the time." Sadly, even professional success now depends on "how many people you know" and "how well you communicate with lots people in your 'network.'" That, in turn, engendered an entirely new--and distinctly American--concept in the English language: "NETWORKING."

I don't "network." I maintain human relationships with as many people as I can. I do not cultivate relationships that I know won't go anywhere. And I certainly do not calculate relationships in order to win petty career advancement. I don't like using people for selfish ends. Yet this is precisely what "networking" demands. I am not "successful" in the linked-in world because I do not like exploiting others for my own gain. I actually take pride in that. If I fail because I do not properly "network," I consider that a compliment.

But again, I am a mighty rare bird. I take my time when I speak, read and write. I don't stop reading something because it's over a sentence long. I relish life as it comes; I don't try to manipulate it according to a plan or expectation.

People who "network" don't have time for that. Every conversation must yield a tangible benefit; every contact must have a "purpose" that leads closer to a "goal." If you write something, it had better be short because these folks are in a hurry. There is never enough time for them. And that's why there is no peace in the linked-in society. You have peace when you have enough time each day to meaningfully pursue your own heart. If finding peace means turning off your cell phone for a few hours, I say do it.

Speak when you want to, not because you must. That will bring you some peace. Unplug yourself for a while. It is quite rewarding. Who knows: You might actually feel human again.


Anonymous said...

I'm with you, when I'm at home I like to have stretches of time with my ringer turned off.


MaxThrust said...

What is odd is the illusion of connection. Imagine someone in an apartment for 2 weeks, never leaving, having all their contact via computer and phone. Are they really getting connected? These electronic networks are merely a fiction of the imagination, almost dream-like. It's the illusion of companionship.

I feel more alone in crowded bar than I do at home.