Sociology grad student Nathan Jurgenson recently spurred interesting debate with a post at The New Inquiry called "The IRL Fetish." As the title suggests, Jurgenson approaches the verve with which people celebrate disconnecting, unplugging, and going offline. The romanticization of being offline – of trading MP3s for vinyl, email for letter writing, and wearing a weekend tech sabbatical as a badge of honor (and later tweeting about it) – has been a recurring topic as the tools for digital communication have accelerated and become more widespread. The IRL Fetish puts a new perspective on things, though, and argues that there is no such thing as being either online or offline – the two are intrinsically intertwined. As The Verge wrote in their discussion of the piece:
…Offline interactions are precisely what drives the churn of information on networks like Facebook, and that the internet actually allows us to appreciate the real world in a way we would have taken for granted before. The next time you're hiking up a mountain, relieved to be free from the constant chiming of email notifications? You couldn't get that feeling without an email account.
These distinctions between online and offline, between between being plugged-in and being unplugged, have weighed on me somewhat as I prepared for vacation. Six months ago, I was introduced to three versions of being "out-of-office" at Undercurrent:
- You are out of the office, but still working – from home, a coffee shop, across an ocean, take your pick;
- You are out of the office/on vacation, but still "connected" – regularly checking and responding to emails;
- You are out of the office/on vacation, and completely off the grid.
Because we have no official vacation policy, we are encouraged to decide which version of out-of-office we want to be, and to plan accordingly – give enough notice, delegate responsibilities to teammates, notify clients, and set an appropriate auto-responder email.
Once upon a time, there were only two versions of being out-of-office – you were either working from home (or traveling to be with a client), or you were on vacation. And when you were on vacation, you were generally unreachable except via bat phone if something went seriously wrong. Being out-of-office and on vacation but still "online" is a more recent development – a hybrid option of these two states – and it is arguably the most tricky to navigate since the out-of-officer exists in a sort of limbo state, both actively thinking about work and not at the same time.
This limbo state can be experienced not only while on vacation, but during the weekend when days spent brunching with friends or visiting a museum will be punctuated by the buzz of an email (because someone will always be emailing on a Sunday). Having true "balance" of work and life these days is harder to achieve than ever, because more and more, "taking time off yet on email" seems to be the easiest mode to slip into – even if you are trying to enjoy option 3 and going "off the grid," you will still be thinking about how full your Inbox is getting.
In the end, these three tiers of being out-of-office are functionally practical and reflective of the contemporary realities of doing business. Several studies have explored technology's effects on the expectation of instant gratification, and managing those expectations is critical in preventing misunderstandings and generally keeping things moving while you're away.
But setting your own personal expectations and acting accordingly in turn could mean the difference between rerouting an email while sitting on a hill, and taking in the full experience of watching a foreign city buzz from a spectacular view over a long weekend. Sure, we will not psychologically be able to be truly "offline" anymore. But we, for the well-being of everyone here, enthusiastically encourage its analog – deleting the Inbox from your phone from time to time and making the decision to return later.