Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Social Darwinist Fantasy

Unless I am mistaken, Ray Bradbury once said that fantasizing not only keeps the mind alive, however mind-deadening the "reality" setting may be, but also, by virtue of transcending a potentially pathological reality, promotes a healthier outlook on life. I cannot remember the setting in which he made this claim; but I can not think of a better review for James Thurber's impeccable short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." I would now propose the corollary that, when one encounters news that threatens to make one groan with grief, the best retaliation is an absurd fantasy with a decidedly cheerful disposition.

This strikes me as the best way to deal with the survey results just reported by Lance Whitney on his Digital Media blog for the CNET Blog Network:

E-mail addiction is causing people to engage in risky or inappropriate behavior, according to a study conducted by Osterman Research and commissioned by Neverfail. Released on Wednesday, the second annual "Mobile Messaging Study" surveyed employees at businesses to learn about their e-mail habits.

The study found that 95 percent of those questioned check their business e-mail outside of work, 78 percent while in the bathroom and 11 percent during "intimate moments." (The study did not detail what their partners were doing during those moments.) Those may be signs of addiction but not necessarily risky behavior. However, 76 percent of those surveyed admitted to driving while texting, a notoriously dangerous habit.

The need to constantly check work e-mail is a sign that many employees feel pressure to always be on the job, according to the report. And some seem to overdo it. Of those surveyed, 94 percent said they check their work e-mail at night, while 93 percent do so on the weekends. About 79 percent said they take work-related mobile devices with them on vacation, and more than 33 percent admitted that they hide from family and friends to check e-mail on vacation. Almost half said they've traveled up to 10 miles while on vacation just to check their messages.

"As e-mail has become integrated into mission-critical business processes, employees are feeling extraordinary pressure to be constantly available," Osterman Research President Michael Osterman said in a statement. "In fact, this year's study finds that employees rely so heavily on mobile e-mail availability that if service went down, even for an hour, 85 percent of respondents indicated that it would impact their business work flow."

E-mail addiction also causes people to check their messages at inappropriate times, noted the report. Of those questioned, 20 percent said they catch up on e-mail at weddings, 30 percent at graduations, and 15 percent at funerals.

More people also report receiving important information via e-mail. About 45 percent said they've received a job offer through e-mail, while 6 percent were told that they had lost their job this way. Of those surveyed, 70 percent said they found out about the birth of a family member through e-mail, while 35 percent learned of a family member's death through a message.

Finally, 10 percent of the people questioned said they've received a marriage proposal through e-mail, while 6 percent said they've gotten a request for a divorce or breakup this way. I just wonder if the people who said they check their messages during an "intimate moment" are the same ones getting divorce requests via e-mail.

Before the groans commence I think it is worth considering one of the comments to this piece, submitted by jaxstephens. It offers a nice blend of concision and precision:

I find many of these survey results difficult to swallow unless the sample was taken not from the general population but from highly educated, white-collar professionals who are comfortable with technology. In that case, duh.

Now, to be fair, Whitney included the information about the sample space (the first paragraph in the above excerpt). It is basically consistent with the supposition in the comment, and that is what got me to fantasizing. My fantasy hangs from the concept of social Darwinism, the idea that natural selection affects social as well as biological phenomena. This may be illustrated by the following reductio ad absurdum (and I do mean "absurdum") syllogism:

Marijuana makes you sterile. Therefore, potheads will not be able to reproduce. Thus, through natural selection, those who indulge in marijuana will ultimately be selected out of the population.

If we apply this syllogism to addiction to electronic mail, then there are a variety of factors that, by social Darwinist principles, should contribute to selecting addicts out of the population. The observation about "intimate moments" is one of them; but I think that the one about driving while texting carries even more weight. After all, driving while texting may lead to the individual never being able to experience an "intimate moment" at all, let alone worry about electronic mail while having one. Furthermore, if this behavior is basically a symptom of workplace pathology, then let the pathology run its course. It could well become as much of a scourge as the Black Death was, leaving behind a radically reduced population of those capable of dealing with the physical realities of the world they inhabit, rather than the virtuality of cyberspace.

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