GERARD HOWLIN: Mobile devices ensure we are never disconnected from work, even on holiday

You arrive at the Taj Mahal or the pyramids only to take selfies of yourself for Facebook, facing the camera but away from the wonders of the world, Gerard Howlin.

The question is not where to holiday, it is how. We are so connected, we are never away or off-line anywhere. Time, once a friend, has become an enemy. Now there is no Sabbath in the week and no week in the year when there is a real holiday. The tempo is constantly high and old rhythms of seasons, punctuated by holy days is gone. In a world where no corner, however, remote is beyond the reach of emails or apps, travel is formulaic, not adventure. The modern holiday is becoming exhausting because we are increasingly incapable of taking our ease. Wifi oozes fretfulness everywhere.

Obsessing about putting everything up into the ether means there is no downtime. Travelling on the information super highway means no byway is off the beaten track. The slavery of the modern workplace follows you on tour. Sending snap shots and messages into the void of social media does not capture the moment, it interrupts it. You arrive at the Taj Mahal or the pyramids only to take selfies of yourself for Facebook, facing the camera but away from the wonders of the world.

Experience is increasingly fussed over and self-curated, not enjoyed. It is not just that we are on show, we work frantically to put the show up online for all to see. It is not about a communal experience of interacting with others anymore, it is electronic graffiti that says ‘I was here’. But, of course, you could have been anywhere. The experience you went so far for is just a backdrop for the next post online. ‘I post online continuously, therefore I am. I respond to email while on holiday, therefore I am not forgotten, yet’.

The tyranny of email is ubiquitous. It allows a continuous, insidious control, not only from above, but by one colleague over another. Why talk when you can create a record of ‘I told you so’? Of course, it’s a record created by me, on my terms. The inward blizzard of email, is too much to deal with and in its density, is a swamp-like form of entrapment. The trap, of course, is complete if needs be, but nonetheless, it is a trap. Non-reply is taken as a negative confirmation. Obversely, non-reply by the empowered can be a tool of passive aggression, creating status anxiety among the ignored. It is electronic death by another means. Scope out your space and don’t deal with it, out of hours, and anxiety of a different sort creeps in. It’s Stockholm syndrome.

The gizmos of the office, pocket-sized and hand-held, are as indispensable as a child’s comfort blanket or essential cuddly toy. They are invested psychologically with powers of attachment that leave us deeply agitated when separated. If we are not connected, we are alone, and — maybe worse — disremembered. Modern technology is as enslaving as it is empowering in its always-on neediness.

The reverse autism of the computer generation is that silence is more disturbing than discordant noise. It began with the wireless; continued with the television; and exploded with IT. We all know houses where the radio is never off, or maybe the television too. It’s noise-pollution because silence cannot be borne. To be alone, outside the noise, would be shocking introspection. Silence and disconnection are the new dark.

The weekend before last, I was at a friend’s house along with a few others. A woman in the company was Irish, and home on holidays from a scenic part of England. There are glorious walks to be had in her surrounding countryside and people come out from London for the day. She noticed how they arrive at especially scenic spots, but there is no serenity, only selfies. There is no appreciation of experience for its own sake, no sharing together, only desperation to create instant memory. They fail in the objective of capturing experience, because like all which surpasses understanding, truth cannot be curated from facts.

In travel books such as Chaucer’s Tales the journey, usually shared, is part of the experience. Modern airports enable transport anywhere, but in the sense of real experience, do not allow for a journey anywhere. From the moment of arrival, all face forward in queues, punctuated by interrogation and examination until at the moment of take-off all face forward again, strapped into seats that make the interior of a John West tuna tin seem spacious. That is a curious thing about so much of modern mass travel, it is noticeable for how it succeeds in compressing people. Bolt upright, for hours, until landed and then, even before exiting the plane, the ping-ping of percolating electronic devices announce arrival back into the comfort zone of the electronic ether. You have been airlifted in an uncomfortable chair for thousands of miles but you have not got away. From your first inane electronic upload, you deprive your ‘friends’ and work colleagues of a seasonal opportunity to get away from you as well.

The café, once a place for conversation and communal conviviality is now habitually infested with a robotic species, alone in their own ether, and faced down into handheld devices. A place of leisure has become a work station. Communication is a fix more addictive than coffee. Trains and buses likewise are prison blocks for solitary confinement. Every passenger is immolated in his own electronic cell, aurally gagged with headphones and chained by astonishingly thin wires straggling from their ears into their clothing. As a lifelong bus passenger, I remember when Dublin buses were an astonishingly fertile breeding ground for conversation and gossip — especially the overheard variety.

One of the great tropes of insidious slander, which enabled the unspeakable or the unbelievable be repeated, was that ‘an unnamed man told me such and such on the bus’. The late Maeve Binchy raised all that into an art form. But buses now are full of people enveloped in private noise, curiously called communication, en route to offices — offices which they then astonishingly insist in bringing on holidays.

Mobile devices ensure we are never disconnected from work, even on holiday

When everything is programmed for us, or curated by us to be put into programmes of our making, there is no surprise and no delight. In modern travel, planetary loneliness has replaced a world that was our oyster. Recreation, in the meaning of re-creating is not a passive pursuit. There must be a sense of adventure in holiday that goes beyond inhaling incense in a day spa as an antidote to the stress of the email we will not disconnect from.

There is a general spiritual exhaustion that marks the end of any sense of magic in the world. The capacity for the automation of every human being through technology threatens our capacity to have fun and to be giddy.

We speak of sweatshops in the third-world with horror. But then we insist on travelling ourselves, equipped as first-world sweatshops, living in relative luxury, euphemistically in hammocks on the factory floor of the modern office, which now can be literally anywhere because we are always there.


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