Rant: The always-on world needs to switch it off sometimes

Smart devices have given us a lot but you can have too much of a good thing

Sometimes the best way to understand what’s happening in this world (and perhaps others too) is to look about you and consider how different the scene might have been in the past. Take a train today or sit in a pub or a café and what would strike you today, compared to say 20 years ago?

The world today would look pretty bizarre to a visitor from 1995. Back then a smallish minority of people could be observed using laptops but the ubiquitous and incessant checking and pecking at electronic devices would make the modern world unrecognisable. When out of the office in those days we were often effectively unreachable, at least for hours at a stretch. Today we walk about armed with the world’s archive of music and literature, communicate almost permanently and are available to the world like serfs to a digital master of the universe.    

I remember the CEO of Research In Motion, when the BlackBerry first came to the UK. I asked him whether having an email-on-the-go device (how quaint) would not drive certain undesirable behaviours such as being constantly on call, no matter the time of day or family or social commitments. The gist of his answer was that the core audience was professionals in hardworking environments such as financial trading who would be unconcerned by such thoughts.

Another memory from that day was that Balsillie and his fellow executive spent much of their time during our meeting on their devices. I had never experienced this before in what even then must have been a span of several thousand interviews. Today it’s rare to hear a reprimand for using a device during meetings and I suppose people under 30 would not even remotely consider it a breach of etiquette nor politeness. Even an article I wrote on this topic for The Wall Street Journal back in 2003 seems sepia-toned and quaint today.

I’m not one of those people who think the always-on world is necessarily a negative change. Today’s electronic workers can often shuffle their time, making up for hours spent viewing school plays with evening bursts of productivity, for example, although it’s a fair bet that we work more hours than ever before thanks to the incessant nagging of a buzzing phone.

But I do think there will come a time when more of us will decide that enough is enough and it may be that we will see more places ban the use of devices in order to promote a more convivial and relaxed ambience. In legendary French House bar in Soho, London there has long stood a sign that reads: “In the interests of serious drinking and good conversation, please DON’T use your mobile phone in the French.” Patrons ignore this at their peril.

Similarly, several of the new breed of micro pubs that have sprung up in the UK over recent years often bar the use of devices. Theatres and opera houses have become increasingly stringent on their use too while trains here have ‘quiet carriages’ even if too few passengers pay attention to the bans on speaking by phone or listening to music.

Technology has given us many wonderful things that enrich life but more of us might be waking up to an old truism: you can have too much of a good thing.