It is entirely possible to spend an entire week talking to computers, or whatever records the messages that act as an impenetrable wall between you and communication with a human. My problem was trying to reach a human employee in a county courthouse to trace a seemingly lost file for a minor, but important, transaction. Various phones were answered, but by robotic voices and the one time, after at least a dozen calls, a human answered, I was put on hold for about 20 minutes. Unlike the old days when my wall-mounted kitchen phone had a cord that barely reached to the sink, now I could wander over to the refrigerator or kitchen cabinet while waiting for the human voice on the phone. It was only worrying that when or if someone would respond I would be too busy chewing to talk that prevented me from eating my way through these hold times. But I wonder: Is frustration at being put into cyberspace, instead of personal space when a problem needed to be solved, an overlooked cause of obesity?
A friend who works at a large US government agency complains incessantly at computer problems that no one is able or willing to fix. Another friend, a doctor, was visibly shaken when he could not understand the information given at a mandatory orientation on how to use the hospital’s new computerized record keeping system, and muttered about early retirement. An office mate goes into a high-stress mode about every 3 ½ days when a document he spent hours revising is nowhere to be found in the Cloud or Dropbox or wherever those files are stored. And an aunt moans constantly about having to navigate her way through online forms every time she wants to refill a prescription for her dog’s heartworm medication. The animal hospital’s pharmacy no longer takes refill orders by phone.
A recent talk by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, at an endowed lectureship at MIT, provided the not too shocking information that we spend on average over 60% of our time in cyberspace. Presumably only a small amount of this time is spent stressing over glitches in our cyber interactions. And given the intensity and severity of stress previous generations experienced in their jobs, family, and communities, stressing out over confrontations with recorded messages or errant computer programs seems frivolous.
And yet: not being able to talk to a human when a problem really needs to be solved, now. Not being able to get through to a physician’s office because the recorded message does not allow the patient to say, “It is not a crisis, but I have to talk to the doctor.” Not understanding the accent of the technician who is attempting, valiantly, to figure out why the cell phone is not responding and is simply not communicating. These, and other situations too numerous to count, impose a stress on our lives.
And what do many of us do when we are stressed? Eat, of course. To be fair, we often don’t eat when we are attempting to follow directions as to what to click to fix a computer problem, because our hands are busy (one on the phone and one on the mouse). And when our adrenaline is extremely high because we are not sure we will ever get a human on the phone or a technician to resolve a phone issue, we are not eating, because the our stress and agitation has taken away our appetite. But afterward, to calm ourselves when the problem is fixed, or to calm ourselves when the problem cannot be fixed, we eat. And we are not racing to the refrigerator to steam broccoli or rip open a container of fat-free cottage cheese. We eat the foods we always eat when we are stressed: sugary or salty high-fat carbohydrates like cookie or chips, ice cream or French fries.
If technology is causing our stress and overeating, might technology take it away? There are apps that monitor our stress levels by picking up changes in heart rate, and some other physiological measures of distress. However, then what? Wouldn’t we know we are stressed without the app telling us? There are apps that will keep track of our caloric intake, so if we are munching on peanuts while listening to the on-hold recorded music, we will know how much we are eating. But of course we have to do mindful munching; otherwise, how can we tell the app how many handfuls of peanuts we have thrown in our mouth?
But perhaps someone will/can develop apps that help us meditate when we are on hold to calm our breathing, to speak to us in reassuring tones when we cannot get through the. “Listen carefully because our menu choices may have changed…” message without grinding our teeth, to detect when we are opening a bag of cookies or the freezer to get at the ice cream and gently remind us that eating isn’t going to fix the computer. Another exercise-oriented app can suggest useful pacing techniques, and record the number of steps we are taking while waiting for a technician to come on the line. A third should tell us to stop hunching over the computer or tablet and to relax our neck and shoulders and remind us that even though we think having our computer crash, or never being able to though to a human on the telephone, is not the end of the world.
It only feels like it is.