Afraid to turn off your laptop?

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“Imagine what it’s like not to be distracted by any technology for 25 hours,” my cousin, Guy, told me, talking about how he keeps Shabbos. “No email, no phone calls, no television. No intrusions, no distractions.”

Though Guy and I did Barmitzvah lessons together, we have taken very different paths in our religious beliefs and he returned from a few years in Israel much more observant than I.

But, as I wrestle with the way technology has infiltrated my life and taken parts of it over, his truism about escaping it for a day a week really hit home. Even though we can turn our cellphones and laptops off, we don’t … in case we miss an important phone call or email message.

I am sure, after 2000 years of the current civilisation (5000 according to the Jewish calendar) and millions of years of evolution, no-one expected us to be here — slaves to our inboxes.

There’s no doubt technology is getting more pervasive and more intrusive. Like most modern professionals, I have a very poor work-life balance. Because it’s easier to work wherever or whenever you want, that’s what you do. But it doesn’t always translate into working less. Quite the contrary, I work more and more, and the challenge now is how to stop working and have a life.

For a long time I have diligently not worked on Saturdays, often turning my laptop off for the entire day. Unlike my cousin, I do watch television and, during the 11-month season, I watch a lot of rugby.

Invariably I end up doing some minor work on a Sunday and many whole weekends pass during which I don’t touch my computer at all. Except to just, maybe, check my mail once a day … you know what I mean?

A close friend of mine is convinced that most technology is a bad thing because it takes us out of the here and now, away from the reality of being alive. I see it most poignantly with young children watching television. They look like automatons out of The Matrix. Do I look like that when I’m watching CSI or Heroes?

I have recently started taking what I call brain food days — when I step away from my computer and turn off my phone and read the non- fiction I haven’t been getting to. It’s usually a Sunday and I soak up the opportunity to have some time for myself that somehow I never seem to get anymore.

All of this has been on my mind for the last few months as I have tried more diligently to find some work-life balance (next up: more workouts at the gym) but especially so last week after speaking at Dion Chang’s remarkable Flux Trends Review conference.

He asked me to talk about the advances of technology and how they will change the world as we know it. I’ve met teenagers who don’t know what bunny ears or dial-up are, who use new technologies like my generation uses email or DVDs.

For the most part, I think this is good for business and good for us, but not if we let it take over our lives. Technology makes you stupid, studies have recently shown. Whereas we used to remember phone numbers we now rely on our cellphones to retain our loved ones’ numbers.

Chang noticed what I did in the breaks when people rushed out to check their messages, something he aptly calls “checking in with the master”.

Echoing what my friend thinks of our obsession with technology, Chang finished the first day of the conference with what he called slow thoughts, highlighting how we are experiencing a “slow and steady lobotomy”.

“We don’t live in the 21st century,” he said. “We survive it.”

It’s time to take that back, and to have some control and discipline over how we use technology — or literally the machines will have taken over.

This article first appeared in The Times in September 2007

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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