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The Wired Life

Email is down.   I feel half-blind. 

This is a rare occurrence, which probably accounts for at least part of the reason it feels so frustrating.  In this increasingly wired world, I almost always have a highspeed connection at hand.  I was in a hotel awhile back and was having trouble getting it to work.  It took me awhile to remember that I could still dial-up.  It's been so long since I've even had to do that.  These days I feel put upon when a hotel doesn't have wireless.  Being tethered to an ethernet cable makes me feel unfairly restrained.

A few years ago, I went to New York for a weekend to see the Rothko retrospective.  We left on Friday, were coming back on Sunday, and I had a full schedule planned of music and museums.  There wasn't going to be time for so much as a peek at email, so I left the computer at home.  I walked through airport security and realized that the odd sensation I was feeling was due to not being able to remember the last time I'd boarded a plane without my laptop.  And it hasn't happened since.

Occasionally someone will cluck something disapproving to me about how this kind of behavior prevents one from "ever really getting away."  I wonder if they leave their cell phone behind when they travel.  Do they only vacation in places that have no televisions or radio? 

Conversely, some people find it odd, or even rude, that Lynn and I don't answer our home telephone.  Ever.  We use the answering machine to screen all of our calls.  Marian calls her mom several times a day, usually.  My mom calls on occasion.  When we hear their voices, we pick up.  Other than that, it's rare for a ringing telephone to be someone other than a solicitor or a wrong number.  Why should we feel compelled to interrupt whatever we're doing because the timing is convenient for someone else to choose that moment to try to bust into our home?

I prefer the control that email gives me.  When I'm travelling, it takes about an hour a day to keep up.  But I can choose what I respond to and when.  I like knowing that if I've been gone for several days, when I get back to the library there won't be any big surprises or a long list of things that I've got to tend to immediately because my absence has been holding other people up.  And I like being able to send notes to my mom about where I am and what I'm seeing.  I like knowing that wherever I am, I can join one of those rollicking conversations with the rest of the Pigs that crops up a few times a month.

When I first went to St. Louis, as the associate director of the library at the SLU Medical Center, there were three computers in the place.  There was an Apple IIe in the AV department that was used to generate a list of the videotapes in the collection.  There was another that nobody could think of a use for sitting under the circulation desk.  The director's secretary had an IBM XT that she used for correspondence.  One of my first tasks was to buy four computers that the reference librarians could use for doing online searches.  I spent six weeks getting bids and then writing up the justification for making such a purchase.  That was eighteen years ago.

When I try to remember what the day-to-day life was like, it feels claustrophobic.  There was an inflexibility to the workdays.  There was a sharp dividing line between worklife and homelife.  When I travelled, there was the nagging worry that there'd be some emergency at work that I wouldn't be able to deal with from a distance.

What email (and the rest of the wired life) gives me more than anything else is much more control over time and space.  That sharp distinction between worklife and homelife dissolved years ago.  I don't think I spend any more hours in a week focused on work stuff than somebody running a library like mine would've done thirty years ago, but I can spread those hours out now however I want.  Being able to spend a few hours on a Saturday morning, working just as I would in my office, except that I'm barefoot and in comfy clothes with music blasting, means that I can also take a Friday afternoon off, and go to a favorite cafe to sip a glass of wine and read a novel for a couple of hours.  It gives me a freedom that was, literally, unimaginable a few decades ago.

Most mornings, I come up to my study with a cup of coffee in my hand, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes.  I look at email first thing.  Maybe there'll be a message from Bruce -- he's just getting ready for lunch in London when I'm first getting up.  Maybe there'll be a comment on one of my blog entries that somebody put in late the night before.  Undoubtedly there'll be a bunch of spam that I have to clear out.  I spend a minute or two with it, doublecheck my calendar to start to get a sense of the shape of the day, then push aside the computer and pick up my fountain pen and journal.  I still start my day with paper and ink, but email plugs me into the wider world that I'm a part of.

Except for today.



I'm with you Scott--I obsessively check e-mail even in the slowest days of the year. It's hard to imagine even one day without it.

Even so, I do see the point of "getting away from it all" from time to time. For me, this means remembering that it's possible to turn a cell phone off!


I tend to turn my phone off (we went cell only a few years back) at bedtime when I'm with my immediate family--anything else can wait. The main computers stay on 24x7 at home, though I just as often jump onto the Web (e.g. www.beardedpigs.org) as email.

I find that a bit of security paranoia goes a long way to rein in my own obsessive email checking. I only check mail over a Web connection or directly through Tiger's Mail, when using wire. Though Mount Pleasant isn't exactly a sprawling wireless metropolis, the geeks in Chapel Hill really burned security risks into my synapses. Of course, ssh through WPA is about as safe as you're gonna get these days, so I can still obsess over my UNC-CH mail via pine (and if I cared enough, I suppose I could pipe Web connections through ssh when wireless)...

I'm turning the phone off all of next week, except for absolute emergencies--we'll be in Canada, and would pay through the nose for using our Alltel phones up there!


Wow! That must be nice to take Friday afternoons off and then work from home on the weekends. Does that sort of flexibility also apply to your librarians? If so, that would be a great place to work.

T Scott

It varies somewhat, depending on the position, but I've always encouraged maximum flexibility. Reference librarians, for example, may be committed to spending certain hours during the week at the desk, so they have to arrange their schedules around that. Of course, some people like the structure of a regular workday, but as long as people can accomplish what they need to, I don't particularly care where they're working from. Our Systems Development Librarian actually spends two weeks out of three in North Carolina, but we can always tell when she's in her "home office" via Yahoo Messenger. At the moment, I'm in a hotel in Boston catching up on email and approving the annual budgets, using YM to ask my finance person any last minute questions. This afternoon I'm going to a museum.


The line separating those who are workaholics and those who truly love their jobs is very fine, I suppose. The phrase "work-life balance" is common in the corporate world. It implies that work is not life, and life is not work. You use the terms "worklife" and "homelife." Is work part of life? I guess it is for some, but unfortunately not all.

T Scott

In my current life, I use "worklife" & "homelife" to loosely indicate when I'm focusing on things related to my professional activities as opposed to my other interests/responsibilities. But the separation is very fluid and permeable. (Where do the Bearded Pigs fit?). On the other hand, back in my factory days, the division between "worklife" and "homelife" was very sharp indeed.

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