Living This Wired Life

"Get a life." We've all said those three words, and many of us have heard them directed at us. But what does that deceptively simple phrase actually mean? The standard implication is that the person being told to get a life should spend less time working, generally on a beloved Mac, and more time on "life," whatever that is. Most of the time, "life" seems to encompass any activity other than one that produces income or revolves around the people, places, or tasks related to producing income.

A quick example: Jason Snell, my estimable editor, often goes home from a long day of publishing Macworld.com to sit down at his Mac and write, edit, and produce teevee.org, a Web site devoted to television criticism, something that has brought forth sputtering confusion from his relatives and non-computer friends. "Why would anyone do at home exactly what you do at work?" They just don't understand. We've all said that too.

In fact, I'd argue that almost no one understands. What we have here is a basic lack of understanding as to what constitutes "life," a disconnect that is ingrained deeply into all of us. It's just the way the world works, right? You get up in the morning, go to a job, work all day with a break for lunch and maybe shorter breaks for coffee in the morning and afternoon, and then go home in the evening, at which point life really starts. It's how our parents, and before them our grandfathers and great-grandfathers lived, so it must be the way the world works, right? Perhaps it was for them, but no longer.

Today it's easier to view life as encompassing everything you do. Trying to separate work from other activities as our forebears did is at best depressing, given that most adults probably spend 90 percent of their time working, or on unavoidable activities like sleeping, eating, or performing related tasks such as commuting, grocery shopping, or meal preparation. Broken down that way, it sounds overly repetitive and stultifying, doesn't it?

The Industrial Revolution is likely at fault here, since its rigidity and assimilation of people into an increasingly mechanized society continues to underlie so much of our modern life. So much of what we take for granted, such as precisely timed school class periods and the concept of working at a specific location, are remnants of the Industrial Revolution. But it wasn't always that way, and in fact, in some areas, it still isn't.

Despite my high-tech career, I grew up on a small family farm in upstate New York. As a kid, I worked on the farm, planting and weeding the garden, taking care of the animals, and helping bale the hay that was our primary source of farm income. Farm work doesn't have schedules so much as required patterns -- the cows need to be milked at roughly the same time every morning and evening, for example.

Harbor no illusions about farm life -- the work is hard, and I hated a lot of it. But as I've looked back on that phase of my life, I realized it was highly integrated -- there was not separation of life into work and everything else. A hot summer day might mean cutting hay to dry, leaving the tractor and haybine in the next field to be cut, going for a swim in the pond on the walk home, and picking some corn for dinner. Picking 25 pounds of blueberries to freeze for the winter's blueberry pancakes might take a morning of intense work, but you could also eat yourself silly on them and have fun pelting your little sister with the unripe berries.

Now the gloves I wear protect my hands from carpal tunnel rather than baler twine, and I mark my seasons by Macworld Expos rather than the turning of the leaves. But my upbringing gave me more than just the skills necessary to plant and harvest crops and raise farm animals. It gave me a sense, lurking below the surface until recently, that my work life as a writer and thinker not only can be but should be integrated with the rest of what I do. It's all a continuum, and one which should be enjoyed to the utmost. Although working in the computer industry pays a hell of a lot better than farming, the two are similar in providing many more options for integrating work with the rest of life than the more industrial professions.

That then will be the focus of future installments of this column -- the integration of technology and life, with an emphasis on the world of the Macintosh. I'm writing for those of us who earn our daily bread working with Macs and the Internet and who are so often accused of not having a life. I can spend my day working on my Power Mac G4, reading and writing email, researching articles, testing software, and generally doing all of those things that are required of me as a freelance thinker and publisher of the electronic newsletter TidBITS. But just because I spend my day on the computer doesn't mean I can't switch to researching investments in the evening, listen to music played through our kitchen-based PowerBook, or even troubleshoot a close friend's recalcitrant iMac. Nor does it mean I don't enjoy other activities, just that my balance leans more toward the Mac and the Internet than most people's.

So, if you're like me and want to integrate your technological interests more coherently with the myriad of activities that comprise life, browse back here each month. I plan to look at topics such as changing my main music appliance from traditional stereo equipment to a Mac, monitoring my environment via computer, the pros and cons of shopping for groceries online, the difficulty of evangelizing technical advances in the house to your entire family, the increasingly fuzzy boundaries between using film and digital cameras, and the appropriate introduction of technology to toddlers. Join me then, and we'll explore these and other ways that an integrated approach to technology can improve and inform our lives without throwing us out of balance.

ADAM C. ENGST has been publishing the TidBITS e-mail newsletter for ten years.

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