Postcards From the Data-Smog Edge
There's an old adage that says you know a trend is real when someone's profiting from it. As I sit here and think about this month's coverage of the information explosion, I realize there's a corollary: you know a trend is real when it changes, in some profound and fundamental way, not how we spend our money but how we spend our time.
So are we really being overwhelmed by the exponential growth in the amount of information we have to deal with? Consider this E-mail message I recently received from Bo Burlingham, Inc. 's editor at large, upon his return from a "vacation" in France:
Lucky for me, data smog is not a problem in Sancerre. There are only two things happening there, wine and goat cheese, and nothing much has changed about either one in the past few hundred years.
Another thing that hasn't changed is the pace of life. Our day would typically begin at 7 in the morning, when the church bells tolled in the square. They serve as a sort of communal alarm clock. You can hear them all over town. (Which isn't saying much. The hill that Sancerre sits on is barely big enough to hold all 1,500 of its residents. From one end of town to the other is about a 10-minute walk--if you're in a hurry, that is. But most people aren't.)
So I'd get up with bells. It would still be dark outside as I'd put on my sweat suit and go into the kitchen to fix myself a bowl of hot cocoa. We were staying in an 18th-century house owned by some friends of ours. It has a library with huge windows, where I'd sit and sip my cocoa and watch the sky grow light over the medieval tower at the top of the hill.
Back home, I usually run in the morning, but in Sancerre I'd go out at about 3:30 in the afternoon. Most of the time I'd take a route that wound around the hill, giving me a panoramic view of the vineyards that stretch in neat, tailored rows as far as the eye can see. On other days I'd head out to a nearby chÈvrerie. When the goats saw me coming, they'd run over to the fence and jog along after me. It's the weirdest thing you've ever seen.
Aperitifs and hors d'oeuvres began at 5:30. Our friend Pascal would come by at 6:30 to take us to visit another cave of the region and sample the wine. We'd have dinner at about 8, after which we'd either head for the CafÉ des Arts or go hang out at the Bar des Arcandiers. ( Arcandier is a local term for someone who always has a lot to do but is never too busy to pass up another drink at the bar.) We'd get to bed around midnight.
And what, you might ask, did I do the rest of the time? Believe it or not, I worked. Yes, I spent this wonderful vacation, one of only two we take a year, in the throes of creation. Every day I wrote up a storm. The irony is that I'd considered bagging the trip because I wanted to finish the book I've been doing with Jack Stack for the past year. Then Lisa said, "Where are you going to get more work done--here or in Sancerre?" Boy, was she right. You know me, George, taking a week to crank out a 1,400-word column. There I was doing the equivalent in less than a day.
And yet I certainly felt as though I was on vacation. Funny, isn't it? A vacation used to be an opportunity to get away from work. Now, for me at least, a vacation is an opportunity to get away from the things that keep me from doing the work I enjoy most. I'm talking about two office phones, a home phone, a cell phone, three voice-mail boxes, two E-mail addresses, a home fax, an office fax, and a personal digital assistant--each of which I acquired thinking it was going to make my work life easier and more efficient. Instead it turns out that I have to get away from them to get anything done.
And the news! Who needs all that news? At home we get three newspapers and a dozen magazines, and then there's National Public Radio, CNN, the network newscasts, and on and on. In Sancerre we bought the International Herald Tribune six days a week, which told us more than we needed to know about what was going on back home and did it in fewer than 30 pages an issue. In case there was a real crisis, we listened to the BBC World News on the shortwave radio a couple of times a day.
Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that places still exist where you can escape from the data deluge, and there's no telling what you can accomplish when you find them. In fact, I got more work done in the past two weeks than I have since...well, since last summer, when we went to Maine for two weeks, to a tiny coastal village we like almost as much as Sancerre, and lived in a lovely cottage on the ocean, which also had a telephone that nobody had the number to. I wonder if we'll ever go back to having an old-fashioned vacation.