Recently musician Anais Mitchell asked this question on Twitter: if you were a kid or a teenager before mobile phones became common, what was it like growing up without them? And what do you miss about those times?
The answers were, to say the least, interesting.
Some respondents found themselves pining for the days when phones weren’t always a direct connection to an individual. Landline phones connected households, offices, shops, restaurants and government departments. Some office workers had direct lines, but more often they had extensions, which meant that you had to get past an operator or an IVR system to talk to them. If you called their home phone, you might have to get past whatever family member picked up the phone first.
You also had to hope the person was even there. Reaching someone by phone depended on knowing their likely location at the time – and thus which phone number to use. And then of course you had to hope that the person was even willing to come to the phone and talk to you. (Some of you may remember this phrase: “Tell them I’m not here!”)
Indeed, the most common response to the question of what people miss about pre-mobile times is this: the freedom to be unavailable.
Before mobile, it was normal for people not to pick up when the phone rang. You’d leave a message and call back later, or ask them to call you. Today, many people consider it rude if you take 30 minutes to respond to a text message – especially when they see the blue ticks that lets them know you read it.
So it’s fair to say that expectations of 24/7 availability and instant responses do create unnecessary stress in our lives.
Interestingly, some people responded that all the anxiety over 24/7 availability was pointless hand-wringing because, after all, we always have the power to turn our phones off and make ourselves unavailable outside of working hours, or whenever we want. You just need the willpower to turn the damn thing off.
In reality it’s not quite that simple.
Always on = always available
For one thing, it’s not strictly speaking about the mobile. Long before cell phones went mainstream, businesses have been leveraging the latest communications technologies to boost efficiency, which has in turn changed expectations in terms of how much you can accomplish in your allotted work time, and how fast you can accomplish it.
Bill Watterson, the artist behind the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, pointed this out over 30 years ago, when “mobile phones” were still attached to cars.
Another problem with the “just switch your phone off” argument is that most people use the same device for business and personal use. One way or another, we are always on (and the social media platforms that dominate our online experience are designed to keep us that way). If we’re always on, we’re always available.
You also have to factor in workplace expectations. If your boss expects or demands 24/7 availability, you might risk losing your job – especially in these days where more people work from home because of COVID-19. True, some companies have been good about managing employee expectations and setting clear boundaries between work and personal time. But some haven’t, so it’s not an option for everyone.
It’s certainly not an option for people for whom phones are the only internet connection they have. For better or worse, we live in a society where broadband access is so necessary that the UN has designated it a human right, and declared the digital divide a serious problem in which the hundreds of millions of people who still don’t have access to the internet are disempowered and excluded as a result. Being connected reportedly has helped (and continues to help) millions of people get through the worst of the pandemic.
So simply disconnecting isn’t that simple after all.
That said, the right to be connected also implies the right to voluntarily disconnect from time to time, whether that means taking a digital detox holiday or just not taking business calls/texts after dinnertime. I do think we need to rethink our attitudes towards availability and reset the boundaries between online and offline. We need the space to disconnect when we choose, if only for a little while. That takes willpower, but it also takes support from our friends, families and colleagues to understand and respect the value of downtime – and that it’s not the end of the world if we don’t get an immediate response to that text.
Like we used to say in the Dark Ages: Leave a message. I’ll call you back.