1. Archive

Overconnected and overworked

In this millennium year, many people will be looking for the story of the century. I've already found mine. It's actually the story of the next century, and it was carried on the wire services the other day from Israel. It read as follows: An Israeli man "was pulled over Monday after a policewoman nabbed him driving through the coastal town of Netanya with a mobile phone in each hand. Engrossed in his conversations, he was operating the steering wheel with his elbows, the daily Haaretz reported. The volunteer policewoman flagged him down when she saw his gray Mitsubishi meandering from side to side."

This Israeli motorist with a cell phone in both ears, driving with his elbows, gets my vote as the poster boy for the social disease of the next millennium _ overconnectedness. This is the real Y2K virus for developed countries. It is the anxiety that is going to be produced when telecommunications combines with the "Evernet" _ the technology that will soon allow people to get online from their watches, their cars, their toasters or their Walkmans _ so that everyone will be able to be connected all the time, everywhere.

This virus of overconnectedness is spreading daily, and it has no known cure. I was recently in a restaurant with my daughter and found myself seated between two families, both of whose fathers were speaking loudly into cell phones, as if they were in their offices. I wanted to scream: "Look, I'm on vacation. I'm trying to get away from my office. I don't want to be in your office. Turn off that phone!"

More and more I find myself reacting to people with cell phones the same way I react to people smoking cigars at the dinner table next to me _ violently. I call it Y2K rage.

I can't wait for the day when they have soundproof, glass-enclosed cell-phone sections in restaurants. "Cell phone or no cell phone?" the maitre d' will ask. I also can't wait for the day that Motorola comes out with a device that enables you to jam all the cell phones around you as easily as opening your garage door. Zap _ no more dial tone. So sorry.

It is not surprising that overconnectedness is the disease of the Internet age. Because as the Internet and globalization shrink both time and distance, it's great for business, but it's becoming socially claustrophobic. Time and distance provide buffers and breathing space in our lives, and when you eliminate both you eliminate some very important cushions.

A friend who works on Madison Avenue said to me that before cell phones and beepers, when someone called his office and he was out, his secretary would simply say, "Alan is out." Now when someone calls and the secretary says he's out, the next thing the caller says is, "Well, connect me to his cell phone or beep him." The presumption now is that he's always reachable _ that he's never out. Out is over. Now, you're always in. And when you're always in, you're always on. And when you're always on, you're just like a computer server. You can never stop and relax.

When was the last time you heard someone say, "Well, let me sleep on that"? Good luck. A Wall Street exec I know tells me he used to love going to Japan, working all day and then hitting the great Tokyo restaurants at night. But now he works all day, and just when he's about to go to bed in Tokyo, the faxes, beeper messages and cell-phone calls start coming in from New York. "I end up working a 19-hour day now," he says _ the full Tokyo day and the full New York day.

I visited my daughter's summer camp in the woods of Wisconsin a few weeks ago, and one of the campers asked me for my e-mail address. I gave it to him. A week later I was working on AOL and up comes a message from this kid at camp. I felt invaded.

What happens when we're always connected is that the boundary between work and play disappears. Yes, working moms and dads can now be home more. That's good. But what it often means is that the workday just becomes 19 hours. I have a friend in a high-stress government legal job. He told me he often came home early with his cell phone and tried to work at home to be with his teen-age daughter. Even though it meant that 20 minutes out of every two hours he was on his cell phone, he figured it was better than nothing. His daughter disagreed.

I'm with her. There's no such thing as "quality time" with your kids. There's only quantity time, and that's what overconnectedness threatens to destroy _ if we let it. So please, don't call me. I'll call you _ at the office.

+ Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist. +

New York Times News Service