Maintaining healthy boundaries is a challenge for all of us these days, especially in the face of new technologies. As with conventional advertising, companies such as Facebook and Google have put a lot of money and research into engineering boundary failure. Mechanisms to capture our attention are ubiquitous and clever, aimed to penetrate our mental boundaries so that we behave in ways that generate profits for them, ways that may not be good for us. Tech companies queue sequences and time notifications to keep us mentally tethered to their sites and available to advertisers. This boundary-crushing engineering is so successful at creating a kind of internet addiction that many of its inventors—the man who devised the Facebook “like,” for instance—have taken dramatic steps to cut themselves and their families off. When a boundary-crushing designer builds walls around the people he loves, it’s time for the rest of us to consider similar protection.
In addition, as one-to-one communication becomes faster and easier, we feel increasingly tethered to that as well. I know people who would leave the house without their pants before they would leave the house without their smart phones; as a result we face the growing expectation that we will be available by phone, text, and email most of the time. As availability increases, expected response time decreases, and, in some professions, the impact has been dramatic. College professors, who used to meet students in weekly or semi-weekly office hours, must now answer emails right away or risk negative student evaluations.
In some circles, people expect text messages to be answered immediately unless the recipient is busy doing something that would make texting impossible, which unfortunately doesn’t include driving. The most recent revision of the notorious dating guide The Rules, which advocates playing hard-to-get for life, suggests waiting a leisurely fifteen minutes to return a text. That fifteen minutes seems a long time to anyone is evidence of a sea change, not just since the days of letter-writing but since the invention of the smart phone. Today’s electronic communication creates a persistent threat of boundary collapse in which someone else’s desire to connect can take precedence—or, at the very least, intrude upon—whatever our desire happens to be at the moment. Survivors of abuse have to be especially aware of this potential problem and take steps to mitigate it.
For us, technology has to be the front line of boundary control. We must use it to manage access to us, rather than letting it (and its users) manage us. We must make careful, conscious choices about how to use all electronic media, which may mean switching off automatic notifications or even switching off our phones some of the time. What each of us does will depend, to some degree, on our temperament, our history, and our circumstances. Parents, for obvious reasons, will have difficulty unplugging completely when their young child isn’t with them, but they certainly don’t need to know every time someone likes the child’s latest photo.
Fortunately, because people are becoming concerned about the amount of time we spend with digital media and about their constant hijacking of our attention, there’s no shortage of ideas, from blogs to Ted Talks, about how to use our devices more wisely. My concern is less with suggesting a specific regimen than with getting across the idea that we don’t owe anyone our attention right now just because they want it right now. If we feel we do, our boundaries need more work.