French workers have won the “right to disconnect.” Their employers can no longer demand that they stay tethered to their electronic devices and answer email after work hours.
This right to disconnect must be seen in the context of other European policies designed to protect the rights of the individual in the digital age: German companies like Volkswagen, for example, have introduced email moratoriums. There is also the “right to be forgotten,” established by the European Court of Justice a few years ago, which grants every European citizen the right to demand that search engines erase their online history. Most recently, a group of German intellectuals and policy-makers even drafted a European Digital Charter, a proposed Declaration of Digital Human Rights, that has garnered significant attention.
I was born and raised in Germany and have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 14 years, yet I’m still struck by the stark difference in the concepts of privacy and humanism in Europe and the U.S. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, when we say that in Europe one works to live, whereas in the U.S. one lives to work. In Europe, a responsible, balanced lifestyle—with generous vacations and shorter work weeks—trumps responsiveness; in the U.S., it is a well-known fact (and one that Americans might be quietly proud of) that most workers don’t even use all of their paid vacation days, presumably out of fear that they might have a competitive disadvantage versus their eager colleagues, or be viewed as slackers unwilling to make work their first priority.
While the phenomenon of digital overload is universally acknowledged, the responses to it differ greatly. Not surprisingly, in Europe solutions tend to be more protectionist and policy-driven, while in the U.S., a whole market of literature and coaching offerings have emerged that seek to empower individuals to develop a more mindful relationship to technology, accepting digital distraction as integral to today’s human condition. What is viewed as a transgression in Europe is treated as a managerial task and commercial opportunity in the U.S.
Can the right to disconnect ever be a universal human right—and should it?
After the news from France broke, some commentators sarcastically opined that in the grand scheme of things, and with an eye on the not-too-distant future, the digitally-emancipated French workers will eventually be replaced by robots who will do their tasks much more efficiently—and with no concern over being constantly connected. For humans to earn the right to be disconnected, they seemed to say, is simply a precursor of humans’ ultimate fate—to be switched off completely. The “right to disconnect” might be a Pyrrhic victory.
It is of course easy to dismiss the new French law and other European efforts as hopelessly nostalgic. But it is also worth dissecting the true meaning of the term. Nostalgia comes from the Greek “nostos algos” and means an “aching to return.” It describes a longing for something profound, something essential that we have seem to forgotten in our digital times. This essential quality is nothing less than our being human, and it includes our inherently human ability to be in the moment, to relate to other people with passion and compassion, and feel intimacy.
However, it has become daunting to overcome what Alain de Botton calls “the constant challenge of modern relationships: how to prove more interesting than the other's smartphone.” Andrew Sullivan, in a remarkable essay in New York magazine last fall (“I Used to Be a Human Being”) bemoans a “new epidemic of distraction” as “our civilization’s specific weakness” and an acute “threat to our souls.”
His reflections support the French (and broader European) effort to protect what is left of our human agency and to reclaim our autonomy. Given that social isolation and loneliness are among the most concerning diseases of our time, and threaten to erode the very fabric of our societies, presence is an urgent task, one that goes beyond simply enhancing our individual well-being—it is a broader, social responsibility.
And yet it is complicated. Connection is such a critical human need that if we don’t get it from humans, our digital surrogates fill in for us. Even work communication is better than no communication, because nothing is a more terrifying than being alone with our thoughts.
On The Conan O’Brien Show, comedian Louis C.K. once said:
“You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away. Underneath in your life there’s that thing…that forever empty…that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone…That’s why we text and drive…because we don’t want to be alone for a second.”
Indeed, a recent study found that participants would rather receive mild electric shocks than to be alone with themselves—at least, it appears, the shocks made them feel something.
This brings us to the heart of the matter. While research regularly states an alarming worldwide disenchantment with work, a lack of purpose and meaning, and widespread disengagement, it is still so much better than the alternative—no work and too much time on our hands that we have to fill ourselves.
As always, the Europeans are more used to staring into the abyss, as the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard once observed: “Instead of committing suicide, we go to work.”