Does your “Out of Offce” reply say you’ll have “limited access to emails”? Dream on
My favourite literary form of the summer of 2016 is the automatic email ‘out-of-office’ message. When future scholars of literature reflect on the way that we wrote in this tumultuous, steaming-hot summer, what will they focus on? Perhaps it will be the way these utilitarian missives shifted towards a particular kind of magical thinking. ‘I’m away’, these out-of-office messages say, dropping into my inbox one after another, ‘And I have limited access to email’.
Limited access wasn’t always our collective ambition. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Wi-Fi was but a dream for the masses, I recall a television commercial that often aired during my father’s favourite basketball games. A tropical beach, a sleeves-rolled-up business executive kicking back with a clunky, black-box laptop. This was the exciting future of work: Going somewhere beautiful, but still being able to show everyone how important you were by bringing your 30-pound (13.6kg) ThinkPad, kicking back with a couple of spreadsheets and a pina colada.
Now, a generation later, with unprecedented portability, connection, we feel the urge to note our limitations, or the ones that we’d like to envision that we have. We are world-weary: With staring at screens, yes. But also with anticipation of how important we’ll feel when we look at our inbox after two, three hours away, note the stack of communiques at which we will sigh, with which we’ll reluctantly cope.
This is progress: The demonstration of status not through our ability to work wherever we go, but our inability to work. Our distance. Our ability to divide between the mundanity of day-to-day life and the sublimity of vacation. Our genuine and admirable devotion to personal time and space.
Or at least our desire to have that devotion: Our understanding that it is something to aim for. A wish. ‘Limited access to email’, we write, wilfully overlooking the existence of smartphones, playacting as if every hotel in the world doesn’t place the Wi-Fi password in our sweaty palms along with our room key cards. We are aloof, too good to feel a thrill at the buzzing notification that our high school friend has posted a 20-year-old photo of the time that we all went to a water park. This is magical thinking because everyone knows that with rare exceptions we are perfectly able to access our email whenever we feel like it.
And we always want to, pretty much: When we announce via Twitter that we have too many emails, that we’re tired of them all, it’s because we want people to know of the demands on our time: Our significance to other people, even when most of the other people are the Bed Bath and Beyond 20 per cent off coupon.
‘Limited access to email’ means ‘I’m at my mum’s condo in Miami, but I could be in a treehouse in the Galapagos’. It means: ‘I did not just look at my ex-boyfriend’s Instagram while eating cured meat for breakfast with my new, possibly less good-looking boyfriend’. It’s dignity, it’s distinction, it’s self-control.
It’s ‘I have limited access to email but you, the person reading this email, have plenty of access to email, you have access to this very email that is telling you that I do not have access to email’, But it’s also: ‘I have limited access to email and you have plenty of access to email, a wealth of access, a surfeit. But you know that I’m reading this, in case it’s important. Just in case. Just in case.’
Courtesy: Jean Hannah Edelstein is a writer who lives in New York City.