“The Mill,” a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, is only three stanzas long, but it packs a punch. In the first stanza a wife recalls that her husband stood at the door before he left for work and said the words, “There are no millers anymore.”In the second stanza, when the husband has failed to return home at the end of the day, the wife either imagines that he has hung himself or actually goes down to the mill and finds him hanging. In the third stanza, she either imagines drowning herself in response to his hanging, or she actually does drown herself.
It’s up to the reader to decide whether the double suicides are intended to be actual or imaginary, but I don’t think that is really the point of the poem. Since “The Mill” was written in 1920, when many occupations were becoming obsolete because the Industrial Revolution was in full swing—generating machinery to replace every sort of manpower—we can assume the miller knows he is about to lose his job, to be replaced by a machine. Not only will he lose his income, but he will lose his identity.
The change that has occurred in the last decade or so, because of the IT Revolution (which some call the new Industrial Revolution) is as (or more) significant than the change brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Many people have lost their jobs, and with them, their identities. Imagine how many times in the last decade someone somewhere leaving for a final day at work must have mumbled, “There are no photo lab technicians anymore.” Or, “There are no typesetters anymore.”
Besides the jobs that have disappeared, there are many more on their way out:goodbye newspaper journalists;goodbye official book reviewers; good bye production workers replaced by robotics; goodbye book store owners, yellow page salespersons, travel agents, telephone operators….
But the loss of various occupations is only one component of the change we are seeing this time around. The other is the impact of the relationship we are having with the products of the IT Revolution, with our computers and smart phones and tablets. In addition to losing our career identities, we are restructuring what it means to be “us” as a society.
We can now receive information all the time: we are information receptacles.We are global. We can find out what is happening today in Delhi even before we know what is happening in the next room. Our sense of community is often more dependent on our FaceBook friends (many of whom we may not even know) than on our neighbors or any affiliations we might have with local clubs or leisure-time organizations.
I would no sooner recommend that we throw out our IT devices and go back to the way things were than anyone living in the ‘20s would rid their home of electricity. But let’s face it: we have entered The Age of Distraction. I know for a fact—because I am as much a victim of my devices as anyone—that I now have chinks in the tunnel of my tunnel vision. I used to congratulate myself on being able to really concentrate.
So, when I am working on something important to me or important to a client, why don’t I shut down my devices, or put them in another room where I can’t hear the dings and bings and whistles and bells calling out to me? Why don’t I attempt to restore my former level of concentration? Do I really think something so important that it cannot wait might be mixed in with the cute doggie videos, stills of what “friends” ate for breakfast, reposts of the some politician’s faux pas I already saw twice on CNN, emails from newsletters I signed up for, lost interest in and never got around to unsubscribing?
I am no psychologist but I suspect the changes brought about by the IT Revolution will influence our human evolution markedly. For one, I notice we are getting really good at multitasking. The younger we are, the better we are apt to be at doing two or three or four things at once.
Two teenage girls sitting in front of me in the movie theater the other day managed (seemingly) to enjoy the show (The Big Short) while texting, checking and responding to emails, using the flashlights on their smart phones to check their legs for stray hairs (or contusion scabs?), and, at least twice, taking selfies of themselves together. Maybe they only got the gist of the movie, but maybe getting the gist is enough. Maybe living in an IT world is about essence. Who am I to judge?
I remember in the old days, when my landline phone was connected to an outlet in the wall by a long curly cord. Often I would stretch the cord as far as it would go, trying to get to the window or the sink or the dust ball lying half hidden under the sofa, because long conversations, such as we all had back then, sometimes got boring and I yearned to do something else at the same time, to be more “productive.”
I yearned to multitask, but technology impeded my efforts. Now that I do multitask, I yearn for boredom. I miss it. Back in the old days if I had some time “to kill” between activity A and activity B, I would plop down in an armchair, resentful at first of the gap stretching ahead, but then before long kind of go into a dream. A day dream! Sometimes those day dreams were nonsense. Other times they were nonsense that became insights, ideas I might want to stick into books, ideas to improve my life! Quiet time equals creativity; that’s my mantra.As we learned in the Who’s Pinball Wizard, cutting down on distractions illuminates the path to success.
Obviously there is a fine line between enjoying the benefits of living in an IT world and succumbing to IT. The girls in the movie theater were surely overdoing it. While I wanted to smack their heads together during the movie, afterwards I realized that these girls grew up in the IT world; they’ve never experienced life without IT. They are like the fish who ask each other, “What the hell is water?” in David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech. But then we all swim in our own lakes, don’t we? We are all victims, to large extent, of the times we live in.
I’ve put together a list of actions I am currently undertaking to ensure I don’t drown in the sea of IT. Some of these actions may sound like no-brainers, but as I have caught myself on occasion doing the very thing they are meant to offset, I feel compelled to include them. If you agree with me that sometimes enough is enough is enough, maybe you will add your own bright ideas to the list.
- Never check your email messages right after you awaken. Dreams bring visions, prophetic communications, and, sometimes, visits from people from back in high school. Give yourself at least a half hour to drift in the vestiges of your dream state before you go into IT action.
- Never take your electronic devices into the bathroom with the intention of checking messages. (I think it’s okay to read stories on electronic devices in the bathroom, because that would be the equivalent of bringing a newspaper or magazine in there with you.)
- Try going on increasingly more distant errands without carrying your smart phone. (So far I’ve mastered the grocery store, at .5 mile, and the bank, at 1.5 miles.) Don’t use “What if I get a flat tire?” as an excuse, because you’ll probably beclose enough to walk home for quite awhile.
- Don’t take your phone out in public places, especially restaurants, especially when you are with a friend. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but it seems downright rude to be checking messages when a human,in all his/her glory,is sitting right across the table from you—unless of course he/she is checking messages too.
- Wear a watch when you go out so you won’t be tempted to check the time on your phone, which could easily result in glancing at the “push” notifications on the screen, which could wind up engaging you at a time (like when you’re driving) when you shouldn’t be otherwise engaged.
- Never ever read (or write) messages when you’re driving. Ever.
- Mute all your devices when you are working or engaged in projects that have meaning for you. You will be surprised at how fast your brain power comes back.
- Take vacations to places where there is no IT service.
- Read books.
- Fall in love.
- Learn to swim.