On a recent road trip that jangled my biological clock, I found myself wide awake in a hotel room at 1 a.m., much too alert to easily fall asleep. Perched on pillows with my smartphone in hand, I decided to send a few business emails while my body calmed down for the night.
I didn’t expect my messages to be answered anytime soon. They involved nothing greatly important, no urgent deadline. And after all, who else would be online in the wee hours of the morning?
As it turned out, about half of the dozen emails I’d sent prompted a reply before I shut off the lamp and closed my eyes.
I didn’t know whether to be glad or sad. What did it say about me that I’d greeted insomnia not as a condition to be soothed, but a chance to catch up on work? And what about the people in my professional circle who were still tending their inboxes between midnight and dawn, their fingers perpetually tapping a keyboard through some digital dogshift?
My friends and loved ones would probably rank me among the least likely victims of technology addiction. I was a latecomer to smartphones, am a moderate user of Twitter and only rarely interrupt a meal or conversation to look at a screen.
But in his new book, “Changing the Subject,” Sven Birkerts makes the point that our web of technological connectedness has a way of claiming more and more of our attention, in ways so subtle that we rarely understand its full implications.
“I am increasingly haunted — I suspect many of us are — by a sense of being inadequate to the world around me,” Birkerts writes. “I often worry about the extent of my immersion. I keep telling myself that if only I could purge myself of competing thoughts and awarenesses and pay more attention to what is directly in front of me, I would be more alive. Technology has interposed a finely woven scrim of signals and distractions between me and my physically immediate reality. That many of these distractions are invisible only makes them more insidious, harder to navigate.”
I’m not as skeptical of new technology as Birkerts is. But he argues that the question of choice regarding how much we want to be connected in this brave new world might soon be beside the point.
Universal access — the idea that we should be able to reach anyone, anytime — “is fast becoming an expectation,” he tells readers, “and it is changing our social behavior accordingly — if you want to count you have to be connected.”
Birkerts’ words greet me from a book on my lap as I sit near the tree in the receding tide of another Christmas. The momentary quiet gives me the hope, however illusory, that the new year will bring more such moments — respites unclaimed by any laptop or smartphone, what Birkerts calls “the salvaging of the inner life.”
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.