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My e-mail was making me sick. No, I'm not paranoid that it was emitting cancer-causing electricity. But whenever I opened my in-box, I noticed a creeping resentment. I had come to hate e-mail, for all the reasons anyone does. It interrupts and overwhelms. It causes stress. It distracts the brain and encourages the fracturing of attention. Because it's devoid of verbal tone and facial expression, it leads to miscommunication, confusion, and hurt feelings. All for the sake of making our lives "easier."
I started thinking about the problem a few months ago, when I was burned out from a year of overwork at the theater company I run. By chance, I found myself with a copy of Carl Honoré's In Praise of Slowness, a brilliant criticism of the culture of speed. Honoré is a proponent of the Slow movement, which encourages a deceleration of everything from cooking to business management, driving to talking styles—based on the belief that speed can produce disconnection from daily life. And every time I read the word speed, I couldn't help substituting e-mail.
Of course, I might never have read his book at all if I hadn't been kindly put on mandatory vacation by everyone in my life. One of my theater partners said, "Why don't you take four weeks? You can't get anything done over the holidays, anyway." Though I burst out laughing, I conceded, kind of: I took three days. And after they passed, I took another. And another. I put up an outgoing message on my e-mail saying I'd be away for an entire week. Then total irrationality struck. I couldn't take vacation for the rest of my life, but I began fantasizing about what would happen if I gave up e-mail for good.
In the end, I decided on a 30-day e-mail detox. No e-mail, in or out, for one month. Anyone can do a month, right?
A week before I go off e-mail, the reactions from friends and coworkers range from nausea to abject envy and awe. There are those who revel in their "crackberry" addiction and dread the looming disconnection, and those who long to walk on their own without their iron lung. Everyone wants to explain why they could never do what I'm about to.
I create a chirpy bounce-back message that people will receive if they e-mail me, and offer my cell phone number as an olive branch.
At a staff meeting, I announce that I will be unreachable by e-mail for 30 days! I enthusiastically outline the plan and the motivation behind it! I am met with dead silence. The staff are neither enthralled nor inspired. They are wondering how this is going to affect them. Oh, dear. I hadn't thought of the impact on these lovely, generous, already overextended people. Now everyone hates me. I am The One Whom No One Can Reach.
Two days to go. There are a million ways to cheat at the abstinence game, and I'm flirting with every one of them. Each time, the idea seems reasonable enough (I'll just look to make sure I'm not missing a great work opportunity! I'll switch to text messaging!), until I voice the thought aloud and am met with looks of pity mixed with disgust.
I dream that my girlfriends kick me out of their clubhouse.
Going through my final e-mails, I feel a nervous tingling, imagining myself slipping down the slope of out-of-the-loop-ness. I have pictured this process, imagining the quiet solitude of recovery. The time freed up, the interaction on a human plane. But panic takes over as the click of my mouse sends the final Dear John message out across my world.