A Screen Saviour
During Ukraine`s Orange Revolution, student activists I spoke to told me that a favourite technique for springing their protesting friends from police cells was to post the phone number of the police station on the internet. Sympathisers would then call, jamming the switchboard.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Americans have fallen into the dangerous thrall of their wired - and wireless - electronic devices. On the pages of The New York Times, culture vultures have inveighed against e-mails being sent and received during performances at Carnegie Hall.
Lawmakers in Washington state last month proposed a bill that would make DWT (driving while texting) a crime. The Wall Street Journal has even published a solemn 12-step programme on how to give up your addiction. My favourite is the suggestion that you have a cocktail when you get home from the office, as a substitute for checking your emails.
Like all public sins in the US - remember Prohibition - electronic addiction has its own activists and non-governmental organisations determined to set the nation right.
In 10 days, Robert Kesten, the crusading director of the Center for Screen-time Awareness, will lead Turn-off Week 2007. He is hoping that at least 20m will voluntarily go dry, renouncing "televisions, electronic games and checking personal e-mails!".
As with so many of our fears, Kesten`s focus is on our children. Too much screen-time, his group warns, can make kids fat, anti-social and might even harm their brains.
All the parents I know share these worries and we all devise our own weird domestic rules: one friend used to allow her child to watch TV only while having her nails cut. My tortured daughters may only watch DVDs and videos (not live television) and - lucky girls! - much of their collection is in Ukrainian or Russian. Most of us are also ambivalent and inconsistent:
Barney DVDs have a "play program continuously" button for a reason.
But I sometimes wonder whether some of our electronic addiction anxiety isn`t just that old Luddite shock of the new, or that older parental bewilderment at the tastes and habits of our children.
After all, there was a time when reading - the virtuous alternative advocated by screen turners-off - was itself viewed as subject to misuse. Plato saw the written word as a pale substitute for live discussion.
In an echo of Kesten`s fear that virtual existence might edge out the real thing, Proust warned that "reading becomes dangerous when instead of waking us to the personal life of the spirit it tends to substitute itself for it". Jane Austen wrote a whole book - Northanger Abbey - about the distorting influence of reading and believing too many Gothic novels.
One of the things that can disturb us most is the way our electronic devices encourage us to mix up worlds, such as work and family, that recent decades have taught us to keep separate. But that might be one of their virtues. One Wall Street mother of three tells me e-mail is the only reason she can spend most weekends at home.
The college-going daughter of a corporate lawyer says her mother`s omni-present BlackBerry is an essential way of keeping in touch: "If she is on a conference call or in a meeting she can still reply. It is definitely the fastest way to reach her."
Worries about the digital divide notwithstanding, electronic communication often has the most revolutionary impact on people a long way from Wall Street. During Ukraine`s Orange Revolution. student activists I spoke to told me that a favourite technique for springing their protesting friends from police cells was to post the phone number of the police station on the internet. Sympathisers would then call, jamming the switchboard.
After a few hours, the beleaguered cops often just let the protesters go. NYT columnist Tom Friedman reported last week that a single cellphone has transformed the lives of a group of village women farmers in Kenya, who use it to check goat prices and so avoid being swindled.
Maybe the real problem isn`t our addiction to our screens - it could be that we haven`t been addicted long enough. Consider telephones: once upon a time, their imperious ring gave people instant access to our homes and offices. Now, thanks to caller ID and answering machines, we have become such effective call-screeners that the big irritation is not getting through.
Learning how to control our electronic devices is one of the goals of Turn-off Week. Doing so, Kesten promises, will improve our real relationships with the real people we love: one of the scary conclusions from studies of internet use at home is that it decreases the time we spend with family and friends. But even when it comes to something as tactile as human relationships, I suspect our screens have a more nuanced impact.
The authors of Send, a new book about e-mail etiquette (co-written by a friend), warn that it is essentially a flat medium and suggest strategies for managing its affectless tone. Paradoxically, though, it also turns out to be a great way to flirt - if you don`t do this yourself, just think Bridget Jones or You`ve Got Mail.
But make sure your cyber-seductions are above board. As a diverse crew ranging from Harry Stonecipher, formerly of Boeing, to Julie Roehm and Sean Womack, formerly of Wal-Mart, has discovered, electronic love is more easily searched than the real thing. I wonder if that will turn out to be electronic addiction`s biggest downside of all.
By Chrystia Freeland, Financial Times
London, United Kingdom, Saturday, April 14 2007
Chrystia Freeland is the FT`s US managing editor
This news was monitored by the Action Ukraine Monitoring Service for the Action Ukraine Report (AUR), Morgan Williams, SigmaBleyzer, Editor.