Seeking An Etiquette of Freedom In The Digital Storm

My local email server hit a major snag in updating its equipment this week. A small technical glitch cascaded into a multi-day outage of email service.  For me it was a nuisance, for sure, since I work from home and am tied to the same ethic of quick response that everyone else now expects and demands. For my server I'm sure it was an unmitigated disaster, and will cost them a lot of business. Our culture of time-acceleration is a ruthless overlord. Isn't it interesting how quickly this ethic of instantaneous response has colonized our hearts and minds. You would think the Titanic was going down for how much agitation this event has unleashed within our local community.

What gives? Was it really so long ago that three days between messages was considered a fast turnaround? Now three minutes is an unacceptable delay? Five seconds to download a document leaves our foot tapping impatiently. Who is really benefitting from this? My mindfulness-based stress reduction classes are filling up with working professionals who are simply shorting out at the ever-escalating demands and time constraints of their working lives. Moore's Law stipulated that the speed of our computer technologies would double every eighteen months, while halving in cost, and that march toward mach speed continues unabated. As I pointed out in an earlier post, our human nervous system is not similarly doubling in speed every eighteen months. And unlike our computer devices, which keep getting cheaper and more ubiquitous, the cost to our bodies and emotional well-being is steadily rising.

The poet Gary Snyder, now 82, was asked in a recent interview if he felt complete with the work he had done in the world. His answer: "I don't have time to think about that." In his case, this answer did not signify a lack of time, but a fullness of time, a level of engagement that is rooted in an eternal NOW, and in alignment with what his life is currently dishing up. Snyder went on to say, "Ultimately it's not success or failure in the human realm that matters, it's that you're at peace with what the work is and who the people are and what you're doing. . . A certain modesty is created by our recognition that we are impermanent and that we do not understand everything perfectly. Impermanence inspires us to do good work, to make things well. . . Etiquette is acknowledging impermanence and bringing dignity to everything in the process." (Inquiring Mind, Spring 2012). My experience these days is that few people are at peace with the work they are doing, or feel in control of their time. There is little dignity, and much stress, in feeling that we don't have time to do anything well.

This can sound like sour grapes, but that's not my intent. I'm  just allowing myself to feel the force of the gathering digital storm, and to wonder about its human implications? My primary sense of vocation circles around various efforts to keep the "long wave" of human experience alive in the midst of a "short wave" culture. Most of my work involves keeping that long wave of time off the endangered experience list.

Yet my world is changing too, and I don't want to set myself against unstoppable tides of change either. Gary Snyder's "etiquette of freedom" demands a fierce vigilance about where that threshold lies, between using our digital tools in the service of abiding human purposes, and being swept into their undertow of speed for its own sake. If three days off line is a disaster, as some of my friends have been suggesting, then we are forgeting to consult the long wave for its opinion on the matter.

I think I'll go for a walk now.