Singin’ Them Old Digital Blues, Redux
Life as an expat has many benefits. However, inherent in the working remotely - in some cases, very remotely - lifestyle is a dependence upon our digital resources. I have extolled the virtues of being able to connect with friends and colleagues around the world for both personal and business communications while sitting at home - wherever home may be - in my pajamas. You are not required to use full video capabilities in most exchanges; audio is sufficient.
However, for those of us who are barely computer literate, though, an inherent risk is a dependence upon technical assistance… and assistants. (Merely rebooting does indeed resolve many digital situations but what do you do when your only tool doesn’t solve the problem?) There are times when we must seek professional assistance and that exposes us to the hazards of miscommunication, coordination of multiple parties, rescheduling, ego soothing, division of labor, and unplanned expenses.
The following is a resurrection of an old article on this topic. It seems suitable to recall from the archives after a recent incident. However, before republishing it, I will begin with my journal entry describing the inciting incident.
But first, my usual plea for alms and spare change, and my weekly “will write for food” lament and alliteration. My sole source of income for this prodigious effort of publishing this drivel is your generous contributions to my Buy Me A Coffee page. Please consider taking a moment and helping out. If the contributions threaten to push me into a higher tax bracket, I will suspend the supplications until the next tax year.
My day began very badly. For no reason that I can identify or even suspect, my computer’s word processor stopped functioning. Every file was opened as read-only, meaning no input and no new files could be created. I worked for about an hour and solved the problem by signing up for the service. (I think I am on the free trial so I expect to be required to pay for what has been a free word processor program on my computer for many months. Not trying to save money; I will pay for the use but the mystery remains.)
As is often the case with disasters, there was a bit of enlightenment afterwards. This made me realize just how dependent upon my computer I have become. In case of a worse disaster, I think my files could have been recovered… but not by me, of course. It would have required a professional. Therefore, I resolve to begin immediately to do a weekly backup of all current work to an external hard drive as insurance.
However, the enlightenment comes from more than realizing my exposure to potential loss. There were two things that became apparent to me. In addition to the realization of how dependent I am upon a properly functioning computer (with all its accessories and apps) and internet access, I also became aware of what a preponderance of my time and tasks are all centered around the computer and sitting at my desk. Therefore, I also resolve to have a much better, healthier balance of my tasks between deskwork and any task away from my desk. That will reduce my dependence upon the computer and will also result in a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle.
Two hours later, I am finally operational but exhausted and stressed. This is when I need to calm myself, carefully prioritize my activities for the morning, both desk and away tasks, and get started. That seems to be the most productive and the most calming prescription for me: Plan your work then work your plan, alternating by approximately 30-minute segments the two lists.
Now, from the dusty archives…
Singin’ Them Old Digital Blues, Redux
Recently, a friend mentioned that she hadn’t responded to my Wechat messages because she was experimenting with living for the day without her smartphone. What a radical concept: deliberately cutting her connection to the rest of the world except for people and things she could physically touch! Her temporary lifestyle change got me to thinking…
This article is about our current digital lifestyle so it seems appropriate to begin with a couple of contrasts, a description of a very different lifestyle. Let me insert an excerpt from a recent blog article called Down At The Creek, in which I wrote of my old life – both in the non-expat sense and in the non-digital sense.
Sometime back in the 1960s or early ’70s, my grandfather arranged to have a bus brought down to the creek and placed on the very spot where the family had camped for years. Probably from far-off St. Louis, this bus, retired after years of metropolitan duty, was destined to spend its next decades in rustic, rusting splendor. This was a huge, square, steel-bodied city bus. A distant relative of the M-60 tank, it was well suited for its new role of providing shelter and storage space for the coming years. Weatherproof, easily locked and secured, with rows of windows providing ample visibility and ventilation, Grandpa’s bus was the ultimate fishing cabin.
My grandfather’s bus, permanently relocated to the banks of the Little Dry Fork back in Missouri, had no electricity, no running water, and no telephone. (Plus, remember that this was in the pre-computer, pre-cell phone era – back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.) What the bus did offer, however, was a remote location that was far from any other people and all traffic noise, in a beautiful, quiet natural setting. That old bus – musty, dusty, and the survivor of thousands of miles and urban passengers – has become my symbol of the good and simple and natural life.
Yes, I will be the first to admit that, except for brief visits, I would be very dissatisfied if I had to live permanently under those conditions today. But, as a symbol, it is wonderful. Like many symbols, it embodies only the good and positive aspects. No ticks and chiggers, no poison ivy, no thorns or mosquitoes or snakes are included in my tales of Grandpa’s bus.
I was reading a book recently, Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen. It was published in 1992, which means that it describes a period long before the smartphone, even before the cell phone and the personal computer were widely accepted as essential for modern life. The book was quite enjoyable but, every time the detective got into a mess, I expected him to reach for his phone or do some research on his computer, as we would today.
(For a fascinating bit of speculative fiction, catch the television series Sherlock on BBC in which Sherlock Holmes is catching criminals in modern-day London while using smartphones, computers, and contemporary laboratories.)
Another book, Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl, is about a true adventure which took place in 1947… again, before our digital era commenced. A group of six explorers built a wooden raft and made a drift voyage across the Pacific. On their raft, they would go for weeks with no contact with the outside world. Their sole electronic device onboard was a tiny, 6 watt, World War II-surplus radio transmitter and receiver.
This book has come to represent – for me, anyway – the simple, natural life. By the way, if you haven’t read Kon-Tiki, I highly recommend it as a great book to read as you are going to sleep. It is guaranteed to promote calm, peaceful dreams of tropical seas, tropical islands, tropical fruits and flowers, and maybe even tropical girls.
But, back to my modern, digital life…
I just took a quick inventory of the digital devices in our home today. I am almost embarrassed to report that, in addition to the universal kitchen and laundry electronic appliances, our family of three has – two smartphones plus a landline telephone – a big screen TV with remote control, a microwave oven, three room air conditioners with three remote controls, six – six! -tablet and laptop computers (not counting the smartphones) – and a cell phone watch for my six-year-old son to wear. When I make such a list, I am appalled. (But, being me, not very appalled; this is my choice.) In my defense for this electronic extravagance, I add that several of my computers are still functional but retired or are computers prepared in advance to replace my main computer in case of failure.
Frankly, I live very comfortably in my little digital domain. Although I frequently complain about the excess simulation that I am subjected to every day in our modern life, much of that is a digital self-inflicted wound. I don’t have to turn them on.
As I mentioned, a Chongqing friend said to me recently that she had experimented with going a day without her smartphone. It made me think about how much my digital devices have become central to virtually every activity of my day – except swimming, so far.
When I asked about her experiences, she wrote: Yes, I tried a day without a smartphone. And I felt really good. First, it reduces start up and slow down time. Switching from doing one thing to another would add up over time and distract your attention. Second, it improves focus. When you work longer on one task, flow is the state of mind, so the work becomes easy. When you are disrupted, it’s hard for you to restart it.
Randy: Will you continue to live without the smartphone? What is your reasoning?
She immediately replied: Absolutely not. I have learned a new skill. Live in peace with the smartphone.
Then I prepared lists of the positive and negative aspects of my smartphone lifestyle.
Concerning the negatives:
– Truthfully, when I deliberately turn off my smartphone, I very quickly develop some anxiety. (Having a young child in school where there might be some kind of emergency requiring me to be contacted is a serious concern, however remote the chances are of such an emergency.) Mostly though, I confess to FOMO, the Fear Of Missing Out. We wonder what is happening that we might not know of if we weren’t constantly available online. I read recently that the average smartphone user checks their phone 80 times a day for messages, notifications, email, and other input. I don’t think I’m quite at that level but I’m pretty bad.
– As I mentioned, my young son now has a cell phone watch that he is supposed to wear whenever he is outside of our home. I had great misgivings about strapping the phone on the wrist of a six-year-old boy. I thought he was very young to become attached to his digital devices like I am. However, I relented and I am glad now. Whenever young Chester dashes down the street and out of my sight, I can relax and remind myself that he can call me or I can call him at any time if there is a need.
– As soon as I turn off my smartphone, I begin to feel frustration with the limits I have imposed upon myself. Although it has only been in the last 10 or 12 years that we have had smartphones attaching us to the Internet and allowing the growing number of apps to access banking, communicating, shopping, and entertainment 24/7, we have become accustomed to the immediate gratification of virtually all our impulses. Not only do we expect our friends and family to be available at any time, we expect services to be available whenever and wherever we want them – even if an embarrassingly high percentage of our queries are “What shall we do about dinner?” or “Who was in that TV program?”
In conclusion, I find that I am mostly comfortable with my digital lifestyle and I hope I am properly grateful for the free, instant connections with people around the world. Without going into the mixed blessings of social media, it is indisputably a wonderful convenience to be able to contact important individuals in our life, regardless of time or time zone.
On the other hand…
Now, what about the negative aspects of life without my smartphone, which I often describe as a computer in my pocket? Sadly, the only benefit of a smartphone–free lifestyle I could imagine was that it would be more peaceful and simple. True, it would allow me to work without interruptions (except for wife, son, and city noise).
Yes, it might be less stressful and overfilled with stimulation but we have come to accept that a high level of “noise” is the price to pay for the conveniences. Raise your hand if you are looking forward to the implementation of 5G phone service so we can do things even faster. Maybe our AI assistants in the future will be able to filter our input for us, so we will be interrupted only by welcome or important disruptions.
So, I won’t be giving up my smartphone anytime soon – but I may find more occasions to be temporarily disengaged by my choice.
By the way, while I was using a dictation app on my smartphone to do a rough draft of this article, I only had three text messages and two emails. Call it a quiet morning.
And then, after trauma and hypertension, confusion and exhaustion, your newest digital problem is resolved; you are back in business. But the very next day, your website inexplicably goes offline. You feel like running off into the primitive night where the latest in high-tech devices was a sharpened stick. But, of course, you can’t. Too many people are depending upon you to honor your commitments. So, you wearily start over again.
If my reflections have aroused any sympathy in you, please consider taking a moment to visit my Buy Me A Coffee page and making a small contribution to help ease the pain of my hectic modern life, complete with domestic tranquility and happy proto-teenagers.