Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.

Active voice, passive tense

August 2014

I recently wrote an article about internet addiction. Not just internet gaming addiction, which is a recognised psychiatric disorder in the US and elsewhere, but addiction to the use of the internet, in all its forms. What I learned while researching that article made me stop and think about my own internet usage, which began over 20 years ago.

For the first five to ten years of that time, it felt like the exploration of an exciting new frontier. I was helping to document this amazing new communications phenomenon by writing for technology magazines, and also helping to build the network itself by creating websites. This continued at home, in fact I often had more powerful computers at home than I did in the offices I was working in.

In 1999 I got rid of my TV set forever because I couldn't stand the passive, addicted feeling I was getting from watching broadcast programmes. Computers, by contrast, were much more interactive, more demanding (as a programmer and writer) and more absorbing, in a good way. I felt alive and awake while using them, whether I was working or gaming.

But recently I've noticed the same passivity, the same feeling of addicted lethargy, when using computers. It's not the machine itself that's at fault, though, because I still get creative pleasure from writing and programming.

No, it's the internet. It's quite possible for me to waste two or three hours in an evening just clicking from one site to another, reading articles that might seem interesting at the time but are inevitably forgotten by morning. It's becoming a mild form of addiction, just like the heroin-style hook of TV.

So, just like 1999, I'm having a clear-out. I've removed all internet access from the house. I still have a connection in the home office (i.e. shed) because I need that for some types of work, but home is now free of wi-fi signals, LAN cables, 3G/4G modems and routers.

Partly inspired by the story that employees at Daimler can now set up an out-of-office email option to automatically delete all incoming mail while they're on holiday, I'm also working to reduce the amount of connectivity I have while travelling. It used to be my dream to be able to check email while out of the office, but that dream has become a time-consuming and wasteful reality. There's very little that can't wait until the evening or the next morning, and if it's really so important I'd expect a phone call. Emails are, by their very nature, not that urgent.

The difference has been dramatic and immediate. I'm reading far more than I did before, writing more in the evenings (on one or more of those old-school monochrome writing devices I've mentioned previously), and I feel more alert and creative. It's like coming off a sedative.

I have no doubt that the internet is useful and helpful, in fact it's necessary for me to do my job. But it's also important to be able to switch off at the end of the day and return to the real world, to firmly shut the door on the clamouring of a billion other minds.

I was at my most prolific and creative before I had instant, 24-hour access to the rest of the planet. Removing the distraction of constant communication will hopefully help me get back to that state again.

Alex Cruickshank has been a professional writer since 1994 and will not be answering emails today.

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