The Meaning Of Life Online

We need to seek a middle ground where we can use technology to deliver what it has promised: improved quality of life.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 2/1/2000; Judges’ Journal; American Bar Association

James Gleick’s new book, “Faster,” discusses how technology accelerates the pace of everything that we do. Information flows faster; news is everywhere; capitalism and democracy fuel invention. Products are sold to a wider audience, shipped everywhere–overnight, guaranteed. Debt and equity themselves have become products to be leveraged, bought, and sold. Companies, law firms, universities, and hospitals merge to achieve economies of scale. Superstars in the business and sports worlds hold out as free agents, selling their services to the highest bidder. And so it goes.

The practice of law is changing, too, perhaps more so than most other professions. The information-rich nature of the law made it ripe for automation. Why wait for the pocket parts to be published before updating a memo, when you can check WestLaw and LEXIS-NEXIS for the latest slip opinions? Why limit yourself to the 2 percent of U.S. district court opinions that West Publishing publishes, when you can have access to 100 percent? And why publish on paper at all, when briefs can be submitted electronically, opinions published electronically, and precedent researched electronically?

Yes, the practice of law is changing, with technology in general and the Internet in particular at the heart of the change. Ultimately, the decision about how to deal with a changing profession is a personal one. And each person makes this decision based on what is most important to the individual.

Those of us in the legal profession face similar challenges regarding the way we choose to react to technology. Will we embrace it completely, roll with the punches, or retire from the game? If we choose to embrace it completely, what are the risks? Technology has promised much; it’s supposed to help us do our jobs better, do them more quickly, and do them more efficiently. But it also allows everyone else to do things more quickly and efficiently, which often makes more work for us to do. I favor neither abstention from nor submission to technology. Instead, I think we need to seek a middle ground where we can use technology to deliver what it has promised: improved quality of life.

Choose Responsibly

“The Seven Habits of Successful People” by Stephen R. Covey teaches that “responsibility” is the ability to choose one’s own response. I will be the first to admit that I struggle daily with how the Internet affects my life. My experiences with the Internet during the last four or so years have been chronicled in the “nothing.but.net” columns that I write for the American Bar Association’s “Law Practice Management” magazine. I’ve been on the Internet since 1984, long before most people had ever heard of it, long before Newsweek declared 1995 “The Year of the Internet.”

Take e-mail, for example. At first, it was a novelty. A new way to make or renew connections with people both near and far. But the immediacy of e-mail also creates the expectation of an immediate response. I get hundreds of e-mail messages per day and have to use an elaborate set of filters to deal with it all. The unfortunate reality is that responses are not immediate, and sometimes they are nonexistent. For me, this medium changed from an exciting one to one I have to cope with. I use the Internet every day, it pays my bills, it provides challenges for both sides of my brain, it has replaced most of my other hobbies. I am online twelve or more hours per day. But as much as I love the Internet, I hate it.

In the balance of this article, I will discuss specific ways to improve your online – and offline – quality of life. I will focus specifically on how the Internet intersects with your personal life, and how it has intersected with mine. This means that I will avoid any discussion of how the Internet can help you do your job better. (The Internet’s impact on the law has been well documented elsewhere.) The question is can the Internet make your life better?

Improving Your Online and Offline Quality of Life

Accept Constant Change. Ah, the good old days. My first time was in 1972. It was not very crowded then; not too many businesses – or obtrusive advertising. The early visitors were mostly government and educational professionals. Proper etiquette was taken for granted. Everyone was polite and friendly. I knew many on a first-name basis. Those of us who were there early felt a sense of community.

During the next decade or so, things began to change–more commerce, more people, more traffic, and even some crime, although it never made the cover of Time. Those of us who were the old-timers began to resent the newcomers. They didn’t understand this great resource. Just wanted to exploit it. Inevitably, our sense of community vanished, and etiquette was tossed out the window. The Bush administration was a turning point, for obvious reasons. Sometimes I wish he had never discovered it.

Ah, yes, the good old days of the Internet–right? Wrong! I am speaking of the good old days of life in Maine, my home state and the place where I attended law school. The lesson to be learned about the changing state of both Maine and the Internet is that change is constant; we must learn to live with it.

When I was explaining to my law school colleagues how the Internet could be used to supplement the study and practice of law, one of my law school professors asked me how I felt about all the newbies on the Internet. I replied that, on the one hand, I was glad, because they afforded me the opportunity to explore a career in Internet publishing. But I also admitted that, on the other hand, I wanted to say, “Get the heck off of my Net!”

I miss the way the Internet used to be. But I’m an optimist. I believe that there is good to be found wherever you are. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder, and a little longer. I don’t visit Maine as much as I used to, and I don’t participate in Usenet or listserv discussions as much as I used to. These days are tomorrow’s good old days.

Seek Out Communities of Like-Minded People. Online communities, in many ways, are like community theatres. Only a few of the participants take center stage, and when they do, they tend to overact. The majority of the participants simply pay a flat fee to see and hear the action. Those in the spotlight often participate not for money but for the love of the it. The local theater, like the local Internet Service Provider, will break even or make a small profit from the active and passive participants; the sponsors who underwrite the whole affair (identified in banner ads that are visible when you are online) always make money. Actors, audience, venue, sponsors: these are the elements of both theater and Internet communities.

Customize Only What You Need. Technology devices should do their jobs with little or no customization. As much as I like technology, I generally prefer to customize it as little as possible. For example, I don’t use speed-dial, don’t program my cell phone, don’t code my fax number into the fax machine, and don’t customize my computer interface. (Okay, so I customize Windows a little bit to turn off certain annoying features, and I customize my Macintosh a little bit to allow my kids to login and play games.) I also keep a paper schedule (I’ve been using the same three-ring binder for nearly a decade) and keep a paper contact list (no batteries required). Until recently, I balanced my checkbook with pen, paper, and calculator. I still don’t carry an ATM card, but I did switch to online banking because it does, in fact, save time. My bill-paying time has been cut by one-third.

Recognize that Efficient Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Faster.

Technology – including telephones, fax machines, and computers – enables us to do routine tasks more efficiently. But because of the increased efficiency, our standards for what is an acceptable work product have also been raised.

With the dawn of the computer age, we no longer have to plan carefully how each and every word will appear on the printed page. As I write this article, there is not a pen within arm’s length. But now I can spell check, grammar check, count words, and double double word check. Technology may make it easier for me to create my first draft, but it also makes it easier for me to be a perfectionist.

And so we tend to spend more time with the technology, making the final product better. But have we saved any time in the process? Probably not. Computers were pitched to consumers as timesaving devices. Most analysts now agree that computers help us do the same work better, but not necessarily faster.

Filter Out Unwanted E-mail. E-mail overload is a major problem. Although I am frequently buried by e-mail, I would rather devise methods for coping with e-mail overload than return to paper and pen. I have several close friends with whom I would have lost touch but for e-mail. And when my kids go off to college, you can be sure I’ll be using videophones or whatever cool technology comes next to keep in touch.

Here are several tips for coping with vast amounts of incoming e-mail.

– Use an e-mail program such as Eudora (http://www.eudora.com/) that allows you to filter incoming and outgoing e-mail messages into various user-defined mailboxes.

– Use different e-mail addresses for personal and business e-mail. Most of my many e-mail addresses are simply e-mail aliases, i.e., addresses that forward e-mail to my “real” e-mail address. I have a dial-up e-mail account with a national Internet service provider. To get my e-mail, I dial in, connect to the mail server, and download my e-mail to my computer. There are many services that allow you to keep a permanent lifetime e-mail address, so that if you change servers, you can still use the same e-mail address. (The trick is never to give out your real e-mail address, because if you do and then decide to change Internet service providers, you will have defeated the purpose of having a permanent e-mail address.)

– Sign up for a free Web-based e-mail account as a backup. I use Yahoo Mail for this, but there are many other options. For the same reason, I maintain an account with JFax to receive faxes via e-mail at http://www.jfax.com.

– And most importantly, send periodic news about your children to your relatives to cut down on the number of e-mails that you get inquiring about the kids.

Remind Yourself About Important Things

How do you remember birthdays, anniversaries, and appointments? Do you use a paper schedule, date book, or one of those electronic organizers (also known as YACs – yet another computer)? I’m not terribly fond of YACs, but I do use the Internet daily for this purpose.

Consider using an Internet-based reminder service to e-mail you with important dates and holidays. The concept behind reminder services is simple. When you register your important dates, you’ll get reminders via e-mail, at periodic intervals before each important date. In exchange for this service, reminder services generally ask you to shop their advertiser Websites – a not unreasonable request, in my opinion.

Spend Time with Those You Love

Beyond researching, banking, buying, selling, and socializing, the Internet allows me to spend more time with my family. Every day, without apology, I leave work at a reasonable time (usually between 5:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.) so that I can spend time with my wife and three kids before the kids go to bed. We have dinner and play a few games; I get to give the kids a bath, and then I read them a couple of books before putting them to bed. Seeing your kids awake for a couple of hours every day–that’s quality of life. And about three nights per week, after the kids are asleep, I take out my laptop, connect to the Internet, and catch up on any urgent work matters. If I stayed two extra hours at work, I’d miss the time with my kids. Because of the Internet, I don’t.

This was truly the promise of technology–that it would save time so we’d have more time for the things that we enjoy doing. Dishwashers, lawnmowers, computers: the promise is the same. But the reality of improved qualify of life will never be reality unless you choose to make it so.

I have chosen to roll with the punches and to deal with technology, both the good and the bad. It’s a love-hate relationship, but it’s one I can live with. I’ve chosen to use the Internet to get information, do my banking, buy and sell stuff, and, most importantly, to save time for what really matters–for the love of the Net, for the love of life.

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