Why Busy-Ness Is So Damaging

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Yves here. While the “busy-ness” trope is cute, it also has the effect of trivializing the problem it discusses.

We’re in the midst of major changes in our social order due to the information revolution, as significant as the ones that Karl Polanyi described in his classic The Great Transformation. It appears to be an unfortunate accident of history that this technology change really got going as neoliberal values became firmly entrenched, particularly in the work place. It isn’t just that meanie employers who have way too much bargaining power demand that their staff be on call 24/7. Many if not most Americans have internalized that this is a reasonable expectation.

It’s also become normal to prioritize interruptions. A properly-brought-up friend pointed out many many years ago that call waiting was rude, since the user would be discourteous to his counterpart in taking the call that was coming in. That old premise, that you paid attention to the person you are with, is now in tatters. How many of you leave your phones at home or turn them off when you meet someone for lunch or dinner?

So while the authors’ concerns are valid, regaining control over your time and the terms of your social interactions is likely to be an even more uphill battle than the authors intimate.

By Jackie Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and editor of the Journal of World-Systems Research and Joyce Dalsheim, a cultural anthropologist, who teaches in the Department of Global Studies at UNC-Charlotte  and is author of, Israel Has a Jewish Problem: Self-Determination as Self-Elimination (Oxford 2019).  Originally published at openDemocracy

There never seems to be enough time to accomplish all the things we must do. Life gets busier and busier. But what does all that busy-ness add to our lives?

Mainstream culture tells us that being busy is a virtue, so we want to be busy even if we complain about it. It means we’re productive and have purpose. Ideas like “time is money” and “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” have helped to define our culture. Both ideas work in concert with the global capitalist economy, which depends on keeping us busy in order to increase productivity, expand markets, and encourage hyper-consumption. Busy-ness also helps to keep us from questioning the assumptions and values that drive busy-ness itself.

Busy-ness is part of a broader set of structures that limit our choices and our ability to feel satisfied. What we call the “hegemony of busy-ness” refers two interrelated processes. First, busyness is a powerful cultural pressure. Second, and more importantly, this busy-ness perpetuates the social system that makes the rich richer and creates more and more economically vulnerable people. We are impelled to do more and to want to do more, but busy-ness limits our ability to improve our overall happiness, promote greater equity, or save our endangered planet.

Our global economic and political order fuels a state of constant activity, and busy-ness harms both individual and community well-being. There’s so much information thrown at us, we just don’t know where to start. Time poverty limits our ability to talk with neighbors and nurture communities. If time is money for some, it is also what gives meaning to our lives. Busy-ness disconnects us from our social habitats by preoccupying us with endless tasks and often meaningless information.

The upshot is that busy-ness undermines our physical and mental health as well as our ability to think and learn. Modern society has transformed homo sapiens into what former technology professional and Consciously Digital founder Anastasia Dedyukhina calls homo distractus -people who are continuously inundated with information and perpetually distracted.

A growing body of research shows that our increasingly online, multi-tasking world undermines our ability to concentrate and think deeply. With our eyes focused on the tiny screens we carry around, we become habituated to “skim reading,” and our attention spans have become limited to 40-60 characters. Although this benefits the companies that vie for our mental space, it weakens our capacities for engaged listening and empathy.

Screen time is also linked to rising rates of anxiety and depression. All of this bodes ill for the functioning of healthy democracies, constraining our ability to address the deep social divides and the urgent ecological crises of our times. We lose our ability to really listen to each other and to concentrate long enough to understand and analyze complex issues, leaving us unprepared to deal with the urgent problems we face.

The speed of digital communication, coupled with corporate-driven information delivery systems, has undermined democratic norms and practices in profound ways. Despite the internet’s capacity to democratize access to information, people are becoming increasingly segregated online as well as offline, making us easy targets for fake news. We’re being sorted out according to our likes, preferences, and ideological leanings.

Digital platforms need to keep us clicking to new content, and they care little whether or not this promotes healthy social interaction. The result is that we’re less in touch with people of different political persuasions and with diverse interests and experiences. Yet democracy requires people to share a sense of common purpose and commitment to dialogue and compromise. These are essential to addressing social conflicts and ensuring equity and justice for everyone.

Furthermore, the hegemony of busy-ness has starved the public sphere of its key ingredients: attentive citizens with a commitment to, and time for, engaging in common projects. The modern economy extracts attention and energy from the public sphere, reducing our capacity to hold political leaders accountable to publicly-defined priorities and norms.

What is it that urges us towards busy-ness? We see three main drivers of our frenzied state of activity: competitive labor markets, technology, and consumer culture. We’re overworked and overspent, according to economist Juliet Schor. And to compensate, we’re “amusing ourselves to death” – that is, sedating ourselves with electronic entertainment and consumer culture. Technology continuously speeds up and intensifies these trends.

We face ever-increasing pressures at work. Some of us struggle with un- or under-employment while others work multiple jobs, or work more and more hours. The fastest growing category of workers is the “precariat” – workers who lack job security and traditional benefits and who frequently work for far less than a living wage. Workplace vulnerability intensifies competition and the pressure to succeed, and this pressure affects people in both younger and older age brackets.

It starts with children even before they enter kindergarten. Parents feel pressure to use whatever advantages they have to ensure that their children have the cultural capital and test scores to succeed. And while younger generations see downward economic mobility, cuts in worker benefits and stagnant wages mean that today’s older workers must retire later with less secure and less generous benefits.

Is there a way out of this situation?

By accepting dominant narratives that prioritize wealth and turn time and other resources (including relationships) into avenues for accumulating more of it, we perpetuate a system that has generated unprecedented ecological and social crises. We are accomplices in our busy-ness, and we enable its ongoing extraction of social energies away from community well-being and toward the accumulation of things that end up in our landfills.

We need to name busyness as a social pathology. It’s time to challenge dominant narratives and create space for more people to be involved in meaningful conversations about how society is organized. To do this, we need to change our shared story about time. That means engaging in more critical conversations with more diverse groups of people about our uses of technology and the character of our communities and polities. Creating spaces where such conversations can take place requires deliberate actions on everyone’s part. Such conversations can occur in public places, book stores, coffee shops, or houses of worship. But first, creating such spaces and engaging with our neighbors requires our time.

At the individual level, getting out of our ideological silos requires that we slow down, unplug, and actually talk to folks who may not share our views. We need to be intentional about pausing and truly hearing the words of others while refraining from thinking about our next response. Conversations should not be social media spectacles: they are essential exercises for addressing conflicts and for building communities. Reclaiming our capacities for conversation and empathy is what will help us address today’s critical challenges.

But work must also happen in organizations and social movements to challenge the normalization of digital saturation and to help people remember lost or atrophied communication skills that help us talk with people who are different from us. Governments and schools can and should be important leaders in supporting initiatives to foster democratic dialogues and rebuilding more community-oriented values and cultural practices.

Slowing down helps us to see more. It helps us think, and thinking helps us to analyze the social, economic and political issues we face both locally and globally. Of course, thinking is also dangerous, primarily to those in positions of power. So it is no surprise that those at the top continue to encourage our busy-ness, endlessly inundating us with tasks, amusements, and soundbites that interfere with our ability to think deeply and act together for mutual benefit.

Thus, change requires work not just at the individual level but in politics, civil society and the economy. We need to create policies and practices to govern what is increasingly called the “attention economy.” For example, Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants, calls for a “human reclamation project” to restore control over our lives. In the US, Democratic Presidential hopeful Andrew Yang has proposed a federal Department of Attention Economy. And feminists have long called for a recognition of, and material support for, the care work that is needed to reproduce families and communities.

A more conscious allocation of our time would preserve more of this precious resource for the essential work of building a more equitable, sustainable, and democratic society, which is the foundation for all of our well-being.

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  1. John

    Busyness is seen as a form of suffering, a poison and an affliction of the human realm by my Buddhist teachers. That got figured out a long time ago. Ignorance is the main affliction that causes us to forget this wisdom. Ignorance can be fixed but it usually takes a while.

    1. Krystyn Walnetka

      Empty your mind of all thoughts.
      Let your heart be at peace.
      Watch the turmoil of beings,
      but contemplate their return.

      -Dao de Ching, Chapter 16

  2. Steve H.

    ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ – the comic version by Stuart McMillen is superb, but was removed by copyright request. Well worth searching up.

    A rule of thumb, secondary to Theo Compernolle in ‘Brain Chains’, is that for a work/study session of 20 minutes to an hour, each interruption becomes a denominator of productivity. So four interruptions in a twenty minute session results in about five minutes of productive activity.

  3. voteforno6

    People definitely get hooked on that screen time…just look at how people behave when they have to wait around for anything. Many will pull out their phones to do, what, I don’t know. Many people just don’t know how to be alone with their thoughts.

    1. Oh

      Pulling out the phone, checking e-mail or text avery few minutes is a sickness brought about by cell phones.

  4. Amfortas the hippie

    “At the individual level, getting out of our ideological silos requires that we slow down, unplug, and actually talk to folks who may not share our views. We need to be intentional about pausing and truly hearing the words of others while refraining from thinking about our next response. Conversations should not be social media spectacles: they are essential exercises for addressing conflicts and for building communities. Reclaiming our capacities for conversation and empathy is what will help us address today’s critical challenges.”

    i grew up as a weirdo genius kid in an intolerant, racist, knee-jerk east texas town filled with bullies and sharp clique-divisions(“band fags”, stoners, dweebs, were my ill-fitting intersectional cohort). add in rednecks with baseball bats and sheepshears(!) and my misfortune to have helped a girl whose dad was a Town Father(cops chasing–the book is forthcoming)…and I am an agoraphobe….my boys marvel at how i can stay on the farm for weeks,lol.
    and yet…Fieldwork!
    Most of this is simply eavesdropping on people wherever i go…only actually speaking to people when i’m stuck out somewhere and bored(and i talk when i’m nervous)
    wife’s cancer, and all that time spent hanging around the medical center in san antonio, has forced me out of my hard, spiny carapace….hence all the anthropological embeddedness in what i still consider the various hostile tribes.
    talking to people about more than surface inanities is hard(i find it easier with strangers, which was a surprise to me)…and it’s made harder, i think, by what this article points to….busy-ness…both the (perceived) necessary,and the habitual —as well as the little screens.
    another thing i’ve noticed is the initial resistance of folks—-obviously driven by fear of both Others, and of Opening Up about Serious Things.
    it’s kind of amazing to watch as people get past those barriers…due, perhaps, to some Openness/Sincerity Vibe i give off…i don’t know.
    Maybe it’s the Socratic Method(asking questions, rather than holding forth) that i’ve somehow internalised.
    regardless…the look of relief as the pent up gushes forth is remarkable….strangers admitting their bewilderment and precarity, their fear for their kids and themselves in the face of the overwhelming uncertainty, and the often insurmountable obstacles to the “Good Life”….and the inchoate, unthinking definition of that “Good Life”(Eudaimonia is almost wholly missing from our political discourse…and people know it, and hunger for such talk, even as they cannot articulate it, since the language is absent)
    I guess the point of this ramble is that , as stated, we need to engage with our fellow humans….without the preconceptions and partisan box-checking(blue and red)…and that takes accepting folks for who they are, and approaching them where they’re at.
    and that takes a measure of openness and vulnerability on our part…which is hard as hell, given all the chaos and ontological, teleological, epistomological and existential confusion of tongues we find ourselves in, today.
    it’s sad that this one on one revolution is so slow…because i don’t think we have that much time….and the Machine is an overwhelming counter to any such activity…but i believe in my heart of hearts that it’s the only way forward.
    humans are not the caricature presented by media and “social media”, and the various Reality Tunnels merge into one, given patient attention.

    1. divadab

      Way to do the work, man.

      I mean the real work. The kind that pays not in money but in karma.

      2nd James: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? 17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.”

      My favorite scripture, from James the brother of Jesus, it is said.

    2. shinola

      “talking to people about more than surface inanities is hard(i find it easier with strangers, which was a surprise to me)”

      I don’t think that situation is unusual. It is easier to express a (potentially) controversial opinion to people you may never, or rarely see again than it is to those close to you. Keeping peace in the family & all that…

    3. Hari Seldon

      When learned about Eudaimonia for the first time in my intro to ethics class in college (!?!?), the concept immediately spoke to me. Years later, I now cringe upon hearing about how we should attain “happiness.” Eudaimonia from the beginning always struck me as a much more coherent framing than that vulgar happiness that everyone is obsessed with.

        1. Cal2

          Nah, “human commodities.”

          Bought and sold, traded, exploited, replaced, thrown out, sucked dry, catalyzed.

          1. Conrad

            The shift from Personnel Departments to Human Resources happened decades ago in corporate speak. And resources are there to be exploited.

  5. Ian Perkins

    The article focuses a lot on the personal and social consequences of ‘busy-ness’ – Homo distractus, the attention economy, stress and depression, etc.
    Isn’t it also a major factor in environmental destruction and degradation?

  6. The Rev Kev

    The seeds of Busyness have been there for a very long time. Socially, if you are not seen to be constantly busy, you can be stigmatized for it. In Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, he talked about how when he was younger and trying to establish himself, he would constantly rush from place to place, even if he had nothing particular to do. The City Fathers, seeing him rush from place to place, were very impressed with him for this and regarded him highly which led to them giving him their business. Yeah, Ben Franklin suckered them all.
    With Busyness, I sometimes wonder if it is a binary choice – you can be busy efficiently or you can be busy effectively. Then again I sometimes think of Robert Heinlein’s story “The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail” and the lessons within-


  7. Summer

    Re: “We need to create policies and practices to govern what is increasingly called the “attention economy.”

    More importantly, space (for lack of a better word) needs to be created for rejecting it, not embracing it ir engratiating it more into lives with “policies.” That can be more legitimizing to heinous crap than realized.

  8. Mark

    I see this topic from multiple angles that I can’t easily reconcile.

    I’m somebody who generally shuns consumerism, “keeping up with the Joneses” and generally the principle that we should work 5 days a week for 2 days off and a few extra holidays. A handful of years ago I was working 15-20 hours a week at minimum wage and getting by and enjoying life without complaints. Having no dependent certainly makes that more possible. I was living cheaply and healthily.

    On the other hand idleness has been an enemy of mine. It is a cause and an effect of mental health difficulties for me. Being ‘productive’ and ‘busy’ does bring me satisfaction. Today was a 13hour day of work and work travel, but I am satisfied and happy about it all…

    This reminds me of some research that I read recently showing improved happiness from people who worked 1 or 2 days a week as opposed to zero. However this satisfaction dropped off drastically after 3 days of work.. (Paraphrasing the research, feel free to dig it up.)

    Balance is the name of the game.

    1. amfortas the hippie

      one of the things carved at Delphi was “meden agan”—“all things in moderation”
      i paint all those things (in greek!)in odd corners of the gardens and environs, so the boys(and their buddies) will ask about them
      and i can engage them in socratic discourse
      (i mean, since the school,etc won’t “

  9. freedomny

    The Busy-ness culture is promoted because the powers that be don’t want you to actually self-reflect. This culture also aims to keep you separate from other human beings and nature. It doesn’t want you to realize that we are all interconnected.

  10. Olga

    This is very true. With never-ending streams of the newest and latest information, there is hardly a time for people to analyse and synthesise. From the 19th century, we inherited War and Peace, Buddenbrooks, Balzac’s works, etc. Nothing comparable is produced today, and few are still reading the old works of wisdom. What a loss!

  11. eg

    In “Brave New World” Huxley has Mond explain that their society is explicitly arranged to prevent the masses from having any time to think.

    It’s a dystopia for a reason …

    1. notabanktoadie

      Makes one wonder then at the fanatical insistence by some for a Job Guarantee rather than a Citizen’s Dividend, Basic Income Guarantee, Universal Basic Income or some other option that does not involuntarily consume people’s time and energy – especially when combined with indifference or opposition to removing privileges for the banks, a major cause of the rat race and injustice to begin with.

    2. Savedbyirony

      Just been reading Orwell’s “Down and Out In Paris and London” and he explains the reason for the societal wasteful work of the masses in much the same terms.

  12. Susan the other`

    It is time for a change. I always felt forced into consumerism, like it was somebody else’s idea. I wonder what the average lifespan is for an ideology. This one has lasted a good century or so. Neoliberal consumerism. The rationalization that bringing material goods to people was beneficial. It was the apotheosis of the consumer, right? I think we’re pretty exhausted. Last nite on the BBC there was a program on brainstorming and multitasking together, in an open office setting – everyone coming up with all those great ideas. But nobody gets enough quiet time to actually think through anything. Just all frantic talking and planning. Could we be fortunate enough for all this nonsense to be over?

    1. Wukchumni

      We walked for 10 hours on Sunday in a trip i’ve done before in 3 hours, as we were unencumbered by outside sources roiling the conversation, which flowed in a steady stream of words & ideas brought forth. It seemed like we were only out 3 hours though, funny enough.

      Change is possible, but you have to work at it a little to get there.

        1. Wukchumni

          The best way to describe my earthquake experience, would be similar to the kids pony ride in front of a supermarket that costs a Quarter, only about half as much shaking though.

    2. jrs

      I’ve felt pushed into consumerism because capitalism allows few other joys, so it’s about ALL it actually leaves you, and it’s a shabby consolation prize at that.

      But you know F that consumerism too. I’ve embraced an austere life mostly. I don’t have much free time, I don’t have consumer goods, I don’t have security (at present anyway), etc.. So be it.

  13. Wukchumni

    Its important to sever connections that bind, in this day & age when one is supposed to try and keep up with all goings on in an online onslaught. The wilderness is a good place to unwind from technology incarceration.

    5 of us did a 50 mile loop backpack to the best hike to hot springs in California last summer in the midst of the wildfires, and even though visibility was through a heavy smoke curtain (we couldn’t see Mammoth mountain from the nearby ski lodge, that’s how bad it was) we were completely smitten by the amazing array @ Iva Bell, with the ‘King Tub’ (the top photo in the link) being our favorite, shaded-with a nearby campsite and an astounding down canyon view, it doesn’t get any better than this, we all agreed. We’ll soon be back.


  14. BigStupid

    Being busy works as an effective defense mechanism for people with a skewed sense of self-worth. In a culture that emphasizes material living it’s easy to grow up linking what we’ve accomplished to our value as an authentic human being. On the outside (economically) this is a manageable belief, but when it creeps into our ego/internal self-worth, it becomes a viciously destructive cycle.

    I was brought up believing that the only value I had was not as my own person but through what I accomplished. I ended up doing many things well because no one would see any value to me if I didn’t work hard: captain of the football team, captain of the debate team, top of my class, good job, nice house, car, etc. I fit in with multiple groups, always on the fringes. Had lots of ‘friends’ that I wouldn’t call when times were tough. (Tough times just meant that I wasn’t working hard enough to keep up the facade)

    A couple years ago I started to reject this value structure and crashed hard, but even then all I did was start more projects trying to keep busy (oddly I never had this problem in my view of others). I just shifted the focus to what I wanted to get done instead of what others would value. I thought I just had to put more work and I would be better – this was nothing more than a way to keep people away and stop anyone from getting to really know me. “Sorry, I can’t [insert ‘unproductive’ social activity here] with you guys this weekend, I’m [insert empty busywork here]”.

    This is something I’ve been doing unconsciously for as long as I can remember. Sadly, I have a lot of friends who I suspect have been doing the same thing. It’s an incredibly lonely life.

    Now, when I look at the people I still have in my life (thankfully) I’m not as close to anyone as I would like, family included. Worse still, I know that by doing this I’ve hurt people that I care about and who care(d) about me without even realizing it – I was just too busy. (Now I’m 99% sure this was the major factor in my divorce a few years ago)

    IMHO, decoupling the two ideas of self-worth and accomplishment needs to start as early as possible. I look at perpetual busy-ness as a warning sign now rather than a measure of anything tangible.

    Aside: This all started after I broke-up with a long term girlfriend (mutual – we were together for the wrong reasons). Took stock of what I valued in myself and the list was nothing but ‘stuff’, not one line about me as a person and when I realized that it hit me like a tonne of bricks. Trying to build a positive self-image after 30+ years of bullshit really sucks. At least now I know that it’s better to be rejected for who I am than be accepted by people who don’t know me at all but admire what I’ve done, believing this is the the hard part.

    1. anarcheopteryx

      Thanks for sharing, BigStupid. Wish I could get my father to realize this sooner rather than later. He both wants to retire and can’t bring himself to because his entire life has been working. He has even had some serious health scares lately but has barely slowed down. He has very few close friends, divorced and single. I’m sure he would come up with “things to do” upon retirement but I’m also worried his entire self-worth is hinged on “doing things” and “being productive”. And the busy-ness keeps you from having to think about troublesome things like the meaning of life and who you are as a person.

      Of course I recognize it in him because I’ve got a bit of it as well – lots of self-loathing comes around when I physically can’t be busy. Going to be a while unlearning that.

  15. polecat

    Yesterday, I went from idleness watching the avians flit to and fro as I sat in my patio chair, to extreme busyness, when I suddenly noticed ‘All those Ripe berries omg !!’ that exuded the siren call to be picked .. all five varieties. So I spent a good couple hours judiciously piking morsels of delectability, before rain would do its moldy handywork – then it was sliding right back into idleness, watching for a time in wonder of the determined purpose of hundreds of bees hanging from the front of their hive .. like sheets of living draperies !
    Now That’s Idleness !

  16. meadows

    I’m in my 60’s and enjoy my iphone. Yes when I’m waiting I whip it out. Hey, often to read NC in teeny text! I enjoy it and have always been a “scanner”, back to my youth when I was trapped in the basement of our college library (periodicals section) during the night shift, so when other students were partying I was making $1.85 an hour reading pre Civil War editions of Harpers… along with dozens of other mags and international newspapers. I was hooked on scanning. I learned a lot and still do by reading my phone but I easily put it down and turn it off when in the company of others.

    The folks reading their phones in a busy crosswalk, now that is frightening.

    I have enjoyed this information revolution but beware the downside of big changes… “May you live in interesting times..”

  17. JCC

    Nowadays the cell phone is the poster child for this busy-ness, I think.

    Years ago I worked as a field service engineer, often 10 to 12 hours a day, and one day I was told I needed one of these for work. My answer was, you buy it and I’ll carry it. Of course that didn’t happen. They refused to pay for it even though it was work related.

    I didn’t get one until 2006, a basic flip phone, and finally broke down and bought a “smart” one 2 years ago when batteries became scarce for the 11 year old one. I mis-place/loose the “smart” one on an almost daily basis and proud of it :-)

    I have co-workers ( we are all IT systems Admins) located physically less than a hundred yards away getting upset when I don’t reply to text messages. I just tell them I left my phone at home, try calling me on the company-supplied desk phone, or just walk over if it’s that important.

    It’s just another leash that I refuse to wear. Face to face relationships, at work and at home, are important and I try hard to not give that up. I’m busy enough without that choke-chain attached.

    This whole “Type A Personality” thing has gotten out of hand and has literally put old and close friends in the hospital for days, if not weeks. One friend ended up in a psyche ward, a VP at a Japanese-based mfg firm run by classic Type A Japanese style management people, after not being able to sleep for days at a time, constantly worried that he wasn’t “getting things done”. This is a guy that worked 5 years in a row on Christmas Day! He actually tried to quit the job a few times and was talked out of it, of course… on salary and working 60 to 70 hours a week for years on end, why wouldn’t they talk him out of it? (he recovered, quit the job, and is doing great now)

    And I won’t waste time writing about, after 50 years of close observation, some facts that a lot of this busy-ness has seemed to have dumbed down society in general when it comes to any kind of critical thinking and/or social skills. This article by Jackie Smith, and others here, have (and will, I’m sure) cover that quite well.

  18. Summer

    For the most part, it’s busy-ness with self. For all the busy-ness, everyone is in their own world of priorities. So it’s hardly satisfying because so often there is little cooperation, but more manipulation wrapped up in everyone’s “busy-ness” or “hustle.”

  19. Quentin

    The answering machine set the whole chain of sequences off that led to what we have today. No one can miss a call, says the telephone company which collects the cost of the call. If the machine didn’t ‘answer’, the telephone company would not gain money. Then there was the open answering machine so the recipient could control who was calling and decide whether to answer or not. Remember, number recognition did not exist until relatively recently. Now we are where we are. When someone answers a call on their home or cell phone in my presence I either ask them to be as short or possible or I walk away. Two people in a party of three are talking at a restaurant table, the third party butts in, neither of the other two would probably accept such rude behaviour without comment. If a cell phone rings, forget it, all bets are off: the caller usually takes preference.

  20. David in Santa Cruz

    “…cute trope.” I agree with Yves. All of this “Groovy Dalai Lama/Andrew Yang Attention Economy/Rainbow Sparkle Pony” talk makes no sense to me.

    In a global economy of nearly 8 billion human beings jostling to hoard and consume our planet’s limited natural resources, greed and lawlessness are being driven by the unprecedented change in our relationship to the material world. “Busyness” is but one response to this competitive death-spiral, not its cause.

  21. marieann

    The quote about the devil reminded me of my Grandmother. As children, when we visited she always had things for us to do, drawing,puzzles etc. one of her sayings….”the devil finds work for idle hands”
    I use that phrase myself when I’m waiting in lineups and working on my knitting projects, people always ask how I can find the time.Sometimes I get a strange look as if I am accusing them of filling their time with “devil’s work”

    I find that people like to brag about being busy “look how important I am I have so much to do”

    I tell folk that retirement is great, I just sit around eating bon-bons watching my stories…..and the government sends me money.

  22. Off The Street

    Street family meal rule: no phones at the table.

    After all, the only people in the universe that you need to talk with during that time are sitting there in front of you.

  23. aletheia33

    request for ideas:

    where i live, so far, people who carry generally respect other people who choose not to carry (cellphones). apparently there are enough of us holdouts around here to sustain that situation. no one yet has tried to talk me into buying one.

    a friend who lives elsewhere has brought hers to the table during meals when she has visited me and my partner.
    maybe two or three visits in the space of a year or so.
    these visits are the only opportunity she has to sit down with the two of us face to face,
    and she has repeatedly told us that they are very important to her.
    yet the phone is placed on the table next to the lunch or dinner plate.
    when it rings, it is checked, and may be answered.
    she has turned to it to call her boyfriend for an answer when a question has come up regarding a trivial fact in our conversation and proudly shared his answer with us.

    i find this behavior incomprehensible, incredibly disrespectful of one’s self and one’s loved ones (old and close friends in this case), heedless of the value of the rare moments of time devoted to same. it gives rise to a feeling of rejection and fury in me, which i have been careful not to express.

    i have not expressed it because the situation has me stumped. i have considered asking her to leave her phone in her car when she is here, or asking her not to bring it to the table and leave it in another room just during meals. but she’s not a teenager! she’s 60+! and when exactly do i raise the issue? before she arrives? the moment she arrives? as we are sitting down at the table together?

    i have even wondered if i would go so far as to tell her that if she’s not willing to do as i/we ask, she will not be welcome in our home. that seems extreme. yet the feelings i have about this are very strong.

    also, it feels like it would be basically confronting an addict with their addiction while they are actively using: utterly futile.

    perhaps i am simply too much of a wimp and need to just lay down the law.
    maybe cigarette smoking is a good model–that did become a social no-no over time.

    1. Acacia

      I’ve had to deal with this in various spheres of life, and while I don’t have any proven strategies, I’ve found that it can begin with a general discussion. If we wait until we are annoyed by somebody sinking into their cellphone at the dinner table, it’s probably not the best moment. Instead, raise it as a topic à propos of nothing in particular, and ask what others think, e.g.: how have cellphones changed our relationships with others? Our conviction that cellphones can be a toxic presence in social settings is supported by a fair mount of research (e.g., some links in this article, and I recall a few in The New Yorker about this too). Drawing on some of this research, I think it’s possible to make a case that certain patterns of cellphone use can have a negative/harmful effect on social time. Our friends may not agree, but the burden is then on them to find research that demonstrates otherwise :D

  24. anarcheopteryx

    The other side of this is that anyone who cannot or is not constantly busy (or can make themselves look like it) is looked down upon at best and demonized at worst. People who have disabilities that require resting a lot or who are rendered unable to “keep busy” due to restrictions in their environment are often just deemed not worthy of life. I have been told by friends who have difficulty leaving the house that they get stuck in a trap of – if they’re out and about doing things, they must not be sick any more, but if they aren’t out doing things people treat them like they’re worthless and might as well be dead.

    And then there’s the condescending “Oh, I wish I could just spend some time doing nothing.” [family blog self-censorship].

    Anyway, all the techno-fears are red herrings, it’s all about neo-liberal/Calvinist moralizing. There are plenty of people out there who bemoan the smartphone and still think that their “productivity” gives their life meaning.

  25. Roy G

    Excellent post, Yves, thank you!

    I am glad that more people are awakening to this plight, as it is critical to diagnosing our societal pathology. I have recently been following the work of Michael Sacasas, who writes on Technology, Culture and Ethics, and who puts out a fantastic newsletter, The Convivial Society, which is around this topic and alternatives we could invent for ourselves. I highly recommend his work to everyone here.


  26. Jeff W

    How many of you leave your phones at home or turn them off when you meet someone for lunch or dinner?

    I leave my mobile in the car or decline the call if I have it and I’m with someone. The person in your presence with whom you’re engaged in conversation has first claim on your attention, not the person who happens to “barge in” with a phone call.

    Aside from the issues of physical and mental health, thinking and learning, raised in the post, I’ve always had a real revulsion to the idea of being “on call” all the time for whoever wanted to reach me at any given moment. I’m simply not that important to get a hold of. Most people and most things can wait.

  27. Cal2

    Cell phone etiquette: If someone looks at their cell phone while I am talking to them, I whip out a short story paperback and pretend to read it while I continue talking to them. They get the idea real fast.
    If you dare risk it, just say to them “AM I BORING YOU?” if they look at their phone.

    1. aletheia33

      Cal2, thank you! great tactic.
      i suppose one could also simply get up from the table and leave,
      perhaps to make a phone call of one’s own.
      a long one.
      to a friend.
      from the next room.

      . . “oh, sorry, could you hold on a minute . . .
      my friend who is here having dinner with us
      says she’s done with her urgent phone call now.
      i’ll get back to you, OK? will you be around later?
      good, she won’t be here much longer i don’t think…”

      unfortunately i don’t think i could stay in role long enough to bring this one off…

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