Remember the Sabbath

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 December 1999

I saw a television advertisement the other day, in which a young executive conducts a business meeting over a cellular phone - while standing at a urinal. When it comes time to zip up, he cradles his cell-phone on his shoulder and goes on talking. But then the phone slips out from under his chin, and tumbles - splash - you guess where. The answer to this dilemma, according to the ad, is a new “hands-free” cellular phone service.

The real answer, of course, is not to bring one’s business into the bathroom.

But today, no place, and - more importantly - no time is sacred. In an internet-enhanced freemarket society, we are to be available to our business associates - through our mediating technologies - at any hour, day or night. We are “on call” 24/7, and consider ourselves to beating the game if we’ve programmed our cell phone to ring with a unique melody, so that we don’t reach into our coat pockets when someone else’s phone happens to ring in the same restaurant.

Thanks to the way that technology accelerates and exacerbates nearly every cultural and economic trend, an increasing number of people, including me, are coming to the conclusion that our time, and by inference our lives, are no longer our own. We work six-days or more, usually answering work-related email well into the night, and then use our nominal “day off” to go to the mall and shop - or, if we’re feeling particularly guilty, take our kids to a historic shopping center like New York’s SouthStreet Seaport or Boston’s Quincy Market instead. There, we buy products at a store with a name like “Ye Olde Kite Shop” instead of Toys-R-us, and rationalize that it’s an educational, family activity.

We live in an age when online marketers measure human attention in quantities called “eyeball hours.” Any moment spent thinking instead of spending, or laughing instead of working is an opportunity missed. And the more time we sacrifice to production and consumption, the less any alternative seems available to us.

My radical proposal to combat the contraction of personal time has been borrowed from the book of Exodus, and it’s called the Sabbath. What if we all decided that for one day each week, we would refrain from buying or selling anything. Maybe the ancients didn’t pick the number seven out of a hat. Perhaps they understood that human beings can only immerse themselves in commerce for six days at a stretch before losing touch with anything approaching a civic, social, or spiritual reality.

Sabbath is a way to reclaim one’s time and, as kiddie-television hero Mr. Rogers might tell us, celebrate that we are special, even sacred, just the way we are. We don’t need to do anything to justify our existence. Not answer the phone, not go online, and not pull out the Visa card. It doesn’t require that we retreat to the back woods, purchase generators, and live off the land - only that we find something to do with our friends or family that’s not about money.

No, the ball game and movies don’t count. Try playing ball in the park, or telling your own stories, instead. You might notice just how few public parks and community activities we have left.

If the Sabbath’s religious overtones offend your secular humanist sensibilities, then call it the “one-seventh rule.” Take back just one-seventh of your time.

I imagine it would throw America into a recession - as well as any other nation that has decided to adopt free market capitalism as its sole cultural imperative. It’s not as if we’ll get all that buying and selling done during the other six days. We already spend every waking minute doing that as it is. No, it would mean we would buy and sell one-seventh less stuff. And worse, once we get a taste of what that’s like, shopping and spending might even lose some of its appeal. I can’t imagine what that would do to the NASDAQ index. They’d call it a bloody revolution!

Is a whole day too much to ask? Okay, okay, then. Do it one step at a time. Just promise not to take the telephone into the bathroom.