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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2005

Living the Rat Race in a High Tech Culture

Wendy Robbins

No Time: Stress and the Crisis of Modern Life

Heather Menzies. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005; 208 pp; ISBN: 1-55365-045-X, paper $24.95 CA.
Whatever happened to the leisure society? How did the new communications technologies turn from time-saver into time sink? Such questions worried communications expert Heather (Whose Brave New World?) Menzies into writing her latest book on society, technology and the effects of global digital networks. With their 24/7 octopus embrace and rising tide of expectations for quick turnaround times, e-mail and the Internet are, perhaps, less blessing than curse, she suggests.

The image of individual human beings crushed by the machinery of modern life is not new - think of Charlie Chaplin's little clown. But it seems ever more pernicious, jolting us with a mega "future shock" that exceeds our limits of adaptability, as Alvin Toffler predicted back in 1970. With their space-time compressions, today's technologies (cell phones, Blackberries, laptops, global positioning systems) track us everywhere - factory, university, car, truck, home. Consequently, both individuals and institutions, Menzies argues, are suffering from massive attention deficit disorder and disequilibrium. "I forget things between the parking lot and the office," one of her frazzled colleagues at Carleton University laments. Sound familiar?

The connection between illness (especially depression) and the new technologies - at least overdosing on them or having no control over them - is a subject that has been probed before, but Menzies documents it concretely in her own life and in a cross-section of Canadian society. There are revealing interviews with the driver of a container truck so over-scheduled he barely brakes for bad weather, nurses who are rewarded more for charting their patients than spending time with them, and academics who are no longer merely absent-minded, but in burnout. The author, a self-confessed workaholic, struggles with chronic fatigue and existential disconnect. Her diagnosis of our society? Stressed out, anesthetized, mesmerized by symbols and cut off from the reality on the ground. Both meaning and accountability are jettisoned in this tsunami of technological "progress."

She takes us inside the tainted-water tragedy of Walkerton, where two unsung women are the first to trust, not the authorities' fudged statistics, but citizens' bodily evidence; to the chain-link fence erected in Quebec City in 2001 to seal off world leaders from the people; and behind the headlines of the death, while in the fragmented care of social workers, of baby Jordan Heikamp.

This is a provocative and dark description of contemporary Canadian society, but it is not unrelievedly bleak. Menzies practises what she preaches about taking time to smell the roses. The nightmarish narrative is studded with lyrical interludes about the joys, for example, of running your hands over the rough texture of a familiar earthenware bowl. Her lesson, simply put? Stop, look and listen.

With its emphasis on feeling, empathy and nature, and its call to renew the humanity of a world that is "too much with us," the message is resolutely romantic. If Ursula Franklin is Canada's Hannah Arendt (as Menzies claims) in her steadfast concern about tyranny, then Heather Menzies is our Susan Sontag, in her holistic analysis of the debilitating (e)motion sickness of contemporary life.

Certainly many people, from computer geeks to journalist bloggers to feminist activists, who have tempered the new technologies to their own ends and created empowering connections, will find more to celebrate than to condemn in information technology. But whether or not you fully agree with No Time, you will find yourself stimulated by its summaries of research by mainly Canadian experts and touched by stories in our own vernacular. Nota bene: if you have "no time" to read the book, you prove the thesis right.

Wendy Robbins, CAUT's 2004-2005 visiting scholar, is a professor of English and women's studies at the University of New Brunswick. She is a cofounder of the bilingual Canadian feminist listserv PAR-L, which recently celebrated its 10th year of online activism. Her inboxes are chronically over quota.