How Big Is Your Silhouette?

I’m returning from the Canadian Centre for Court Technology conference with a mix of problems, questions, solutions, and vague ideas swirling around in my head. I’d like to pluck one of my wilder notions out of this brain brew and offer it up here for discussion and a reality check.

As is the case whenever people get together to talk about technology, there’s a good deal of nervous and plaintive discussion about its unwelcome aspects — the way it intrudes work into formerly private time, the way it gooses the already speedy nature of our lives. There’s nothing here that’s unique to those who work in law, nor is the problem new: the BlackBerry has been called the CrackBerry for some time now. 

And in some respects, the answer to these problems is simple: turn off the phone; don’t check your emails every five minutes; refuse to go online to finish that memo. . . . 

Even if we had the resolve to do all this, we would have to face the irritation or worse of our colleagues, trained as they have been — as we have been — to expect that you’ll take their calls, respond in mere moments to their emails and exhibit the willingness to work at any hour of the day or night even on weekends. I’m as guilty as the next person of demanding and feeding this climate of 24/7 “uptime.”

Assume for the moment, though, that you do have the resolve to do something to check technology’s intrusions, that you’ve had enough of the blurring of boundaries between work and private life that it increasingly enables. How might technology itself help you firm up your boundaries and relieve you of some of the worry about everyone else’s expectations of you? 

It occurs to me that we ought to be able to craft an unavailability picture, a “silhouette,” if you like, of our private life, the “blacked out” portion of our days and weeks when we are simply not prepared to be responsive to demands from work. This is a sophisticated version of the “away from my desk” reply you’ll get to some of your emails from time to time. Ah, you think: she’s in an all day meeting, poor thing; she’ll get my email in the morning, along with every other email she’s received today, so I’d better lower my expectations of when I’m likely to hear back from her. It’s a sophisticated version of that holiday you take twice a year, when your automated reply tells me that although there are internet cafes in the Dordogne, you fear you may not be able to find one as often as you like, etc. etc. 

In my “silhouette” notion, you would decide when you would be open for business, what sort of business you’d entertain when, and publish this routine calendar of availability in such a way that anyone seeking to email you or otherwise use technology to get in touch with you could know exactly what to expect by way of response. (There’d be an app fo that.) Moreover, you’d be able to set a “message lag time,” too, so that, if you wished, you could make it clear that you do not respond to emails within ‘x’ number of hours or days (effectively re-instituting for those who chose it, the valuable snail mail postal delay). Of course, you might have different “silhouettes” for different groups of people in your life. But — and this is the important point — a potential correspondent or contact would be able to tell at a glance what your communication policy was. Indeed, I’d have it become in effect an aspect of your contact information, whether cell number or email.

For those who experienced difficulties abiding by their own policies, we might go a step further and allow them to set up a controlling silhouette (“domina-tricks”?), one that simply imposed the chosen technological downtimes and delays willy-nilly, subject only to alteration after a two day delay, for instance. 

Of course, I float this idea with the full knowledge that those of us who read Slaw likely exist in a economic world where the fear is that a failure to respond early and always will mean the loss of money or the approval of someone with power over money. To the extent that such a fear is well-founded and the consequence unacceptable, your personal silhouette might be small or, indeed, non-existent. (Even here, this “vampire’s shadow” would be useful information for potential contacts, I suppose.) But those who truly “have no life” are relatively few, and the rest of us might find it useful to manage and mark off our private time in a clear and impersonal way.

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