Last week, I ended my month-long technology fast: no e-mail, no cellphone, no voice mail. Don't worry, I won't be smug. No extolling the virtues of face-to-face interaction over the vastly inferior, mediated one you're having right now. No sermons on the Zen-like rewards of the media cleanse (such as the ones we've become accustomed to hearing from those who have just had their colons irrigated).
Don't get me wrong: I'd love to make these self-satisfied assertions, but it wouldn't be right. First, I cheated. Second, it wasn't even my idea.
In June, on a flight from Toronto to Vancouver, the person in front of me decided to take a nap. Since we were both enjoying the decadent luxuries of Air Canada economy, his reclining chair instantly crunched my laptop monitor, felling the machine for good. The next day, barely recovered from the loss, I was politely asked to return the borrowed cellphone I had been abusing for, oh, about seven months.
As a freelancer, it was obviously time once again to spend all my earnings on new technologies to allow me to earn an income—the only question was when. Since I was planning to spend much of the summer slacking off, I decided to turn my abrupt demotion in the information economy into an experiment in nouveau Luddism.
The plan was simple: For one month spent far from home, I would relearn the lost art of living off-line. Naturally, this would lead to a host of benefits: I would think more deeply, relax more fully, connect with others more profoundly. Vast quantities of difficult literature would doubtless be consumed, and thick journals would be crammed with single-spaced insights.
Trouble began three weeks before my scheduled departure, when I told my colleagues of the plan. "Yes, yes," one magazine editor said. "No problem."
"So how can I reach you?" she asked a few days later. "In case of emergency?"
Not being a surgeon or a drug dealer, I had trouble imagining what sort of emergency could crop up in the career of an overextended freelance journalist who had completed all of her assignments.
"You can't," I replied firmly. "There's no phone."
"I can send you an e-mail, right—if absolutely necessary?"
"My laptop's dead."
"Okay, then I'll leave you a voice-mail message. You will be checking voice mail, right?"
The editor's tone was becoming increasingly frantic and I found myself doubting the entire scheme. Perhaps it was my professional responsibility, in these high-powered times, to spend half of my holiday in the dank Internet cafes of foreign cities, or battling Byzantine local phone-card systems.
I crumbled immediately: "Yes, I'll be checking voice mail."
And I did. Tentatively the first few days, then religiously. By the end of Week One, marathon phone conversations were being conducted from radio pay phones on ferries. Next, 26-page faxes were being handed over by disapproving proprietors of quaint bed and breakfasts. By Week Two, I was receiving e-mails on a friend's computer. By Week Three—never mind the gory details—there was a laptop back in my life, much lighter and speedier than its predecessor. And a cellphone, too.
Maybe you've noticed a loved one displaying similarly crack-addled behaviour on a holiday. It all starts with a refusal to change one's voice-mail greeting, or to get one of those automatic e-mail reply programs for e-mail.
Once these early concessions have been made, the full complement of addictive symptoms rapidly set in. Excusing yourself from family gatherings to slink into a back room and check voice mail; sheepishly getting out of bed before the sun to struggle with inadequate Internet connections; twitching uncontrollably when the cell (that time bomb packed for more of those "emergencies") dips out of range.
I know, I know: Sprawling summer holidays? Top-of-the-line tech toys? Travel far and wide? Cry you a river, right? The addicts I'm describing are hardly oppressed; they are part of an lucky tier of workers that the business press has heralded, variously, as the Brand Called You, Free Agent Nation and Me Inc. These are the expanding battalions of freelancers who decide for themselves when to work and where.
Free from bosses and offices, the new free agents supposedly conduct business from Nepalese mountain tops, from Adirondack chairs on windswept beaches, from wrought-iron benches in Italian piazzas.
But there is a flip side to the office without walls, the twin dreams of techno-freedom and free agency. Freelancers may not have bosses, but they frequently have dozens of employers, none of whom know when their free agents last had a day off, and all of whom demand uninterrupted communication.
Yes, that communication can take place from pretty much anywhere on Earth, but at a cost not yet understood. Often, when we liberate ourselves from the shackles of the physical office, we bring with us the spirit of the office wherever we go, hauling the ethos if not the reality of florescent lighting and stale coffee to glorious mountain tops, oceans, parks and piazzas.
This virtual pollution, it turns out, is the true face of the office without walls.
This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail.