Do Not Disturb
June 14th, 2012

When I was a kid we didn’t answer the phone during supper.  It was a pretty strict rule that was only broken if an important call was expected.  Supper was a special time set aside for talking and spending time together without interruption.  As I think about that now I am struck with a big sense of nostalgia.  Can you imagine that a phone call to your landline was the only opportunity for supper to be interrupted?  That, for sure, is a bygone era.

Today our cell phones – on our persons almost all the time – buzz at us constantly.  And phone calls are the least of the distractions.  We are also notified of incoming e-mails, meeting reminders, text messages, Facebook updates, and Scrabble turns.  Sometimes it seems there’s no end to the electronic shoulder tapping we face each day.  And, not surprisingly, we’ve come to expect, want, and even need such constant input from our gadgets.  You would think that the cell phone companies would be laughing all the way to the bank – and for the most part I think they are – but earlier this week there was a tiny shift in that paradigm.  For the first time ever, a cell phone company conceded that less interaction with our mobile devices might be in order.

Amidst all of the buzz about the new MacBook Pro at its Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday, Apple announced a new feature to the iPhone: the Do Not Disturb setting.  Basically it allows all of the incoming data to be registered by your phone, but doesn’t announce their arrival to you.  So as you sit there at dinner, or in a movie theatre, or working a jigsaw puzzle on the floor with your kids your phone sits silently as though no one were trying to reach you at all.  Only when you pick the thing up and activate its touch screen will you see the calls, texts, and e-mails that you’ve missed.

As I’ve thought about this feature over the past couple of days a few themes have stuck in my mind.  For starters, I’m mightily impressed with Apple for being forthright about the role that cell phones play and for admitting that there is a point at which they detract rather than add value to our lives.  But I’ve also had some mixed emotions about it.

When you get right down to it, our cell phones have always had a Do Not Disturb setting: the power switch.  We’ve always had the opportunity to set boundaries for ourselves.  We’ve just never done a very good job of it.  And as our phones have evolved to become digital proxies for everything that happens in our lives our reluctance to separate ourselves from them has only grown.

Mobile phones aren’t the only electronic distraction rendering us largely devoid of self-control either.  The internet itself, while incalculably valuable in today’s world, is probably the most utilized time suck in the history of man.  I’m pretty confident that more hours have been wasted online than with any other single medium.  This theory is further solidified by the popularity of the internet-blocking compeer application called “Freedom.”  According to its website, “Freedom is the world-famous app that locks you away from the ‘net so you can be productive.  If the internet is distracting you from your work, Freedom might be the best 10 dollars you’ll ever spend.”

Apparently we are weak, weak, weak in the face of technology; so much so that we require new software programs and features to help us meter its presence in our lives.  We can’t just turn the phone off while we eat dinner, or close the web browser when we need to do actual work.  We can’t trust ourselves to exercise any kind of restraint and so we have turned to digital handcuffs to keep our focus where we want it to be.  And I’m not sure how that sits with me.

Is it better to admit our weaknesses and work around them?  Or should we be able to conquer them without artificial legs up?

I suppose I’m inclined to believe that admitting a weakness and taking steps to work around it is superior to denying that the battle exists and continuing to lose it.  Nevertheless, I think it’s worth exploring why we, as a culture, have come to rely so heavily on constant input, feedback, and stimulus from the digital world.  The reasons, of course, are myriad.  (We are expected to respond to work e-mail at all hours just because it can reach us at all hours.  We have come to rely on texting for short snippets of conversation.  We crave the affirmation afforded by likes and comments on Facebook status updates.)  But just because we can explain something doesn’t mean we can justify it.

In a perfect world perhaps we would be better able to exercise restraint in the face of temptation.  But as it is I guess I’m just glad we have the tools to take temptation off the table altogether.

One Response to “Do Not Disturb”

  1. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I was unaware of that feature (fascinating) – but then, I have a simply little Blackberry, and when it’s time to set it aside and say “enough,” I either turn it off, or turn it upside down, silence it, and that’s that.

    Some of this is – or becomes – habit. Not necessarily good habit. No one should be quite so accessible 24/7. After all, we aren’t ER doctors, are we, most of us?

    I think we all feel “needed” or somehow more important when we receive something on our devices – an email, a notification, a text, a whatever. Perhaps that “filling in” of time (and the void we used to fill with thought, with reading, with having a conversation) has also become habit. And not necessarily a good one.