x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Can you hear me now? I'm on holiday but I still want to talk

Pity the executives and professionals on vacation at the beach: they don't want to be in the office, but they're desperate for decent wireless connections so they can stay in touch.

For two weeks in July, Hollywood empties out. This happens twice a year - the town also evacuates during the weeks around Christmas and the New Year - and it's an eerie feeling if you're still stuck in LA, leaving voicemails on an unattended mobile phone or sending emails into nothingness.

Well, actually, when you send an e-mail to someone on holiday, you often get a rather smug and self-satisfied auto-response, usually something like: "I am on vacation for the next two weeks and unable to respond to e-mails. If this is an emergency, please contact my assistant." Translation: "Isn't it sad that you're still working while I'm on vacation? Aren't you now just totally depressed?"

For a certain kind of American - and I have to confess that I'm that kind - the summer is a time to gather with friends and family on small islands off the east coast. Right now, I'm on Nantucket - one of the islands, along with Martha's Vineyard, that floats off the shore of Massachusetts - surrounded by nieces and nephews and grandparents and assorted other relations.

We're surrounded by people, but we're not surrounded by cellular phone coverage or internet access, and for the high-powered bankers and lawyers who swarm the island in the summer, this is a very bitter pill to swallow. The beaches and pathways are dotted with temperamental financiers tapping furiously on useless BlackBerrys. All along Main Streetstressed out, uptight business dudes in ridiculously fashionable "casual" clothes bark into iPhone headsets - "Can you hear me now? What about now? Can you hear me now? What about now?" - and contort themselves into all sorts of shapes and positions, trying to capture the strongest signal.

It's an amazing sight. All over the island, people are dressed like they're on holiday - wild colours, pricey bathing costumes, logo-laden T-shirts and baseball caps. But everywhere they go, they freak out about the lack of connectivity. They don't want to be in the office. But they don't want to be out of the office, either. So they've chosen the next worst thing: they're on a beautiful island, next to a postcard beach, but their faces are locked onto the flickering bars on their smartphones. They're reaping none of the benefits of a holiday - relaxation, renewal, time with friends and family, scenic beauty - and none of the benefits of a workplace - telephone service and web connectivity.

All of them, I'm willing to bet, have left elaborate outgoing messages on their voicemail boxes. And surely all of them also have those annoying "out of the office" e-mail automated replies set up.

Still, there they all are, pounding away on their smartphones, trying to get better coverage, moving along the sidewalks, heads down as if in prayer, trying to get the e-mails and voicemails they've told everyone they're not going to get.

Today, for the record, my iPhone buzzed only twice with work-related e-mails. Both of them, of course, were marked "URGENT".My low-status, working writer's method of dealing with these kinds of messages is to ignore them. Most of the time, whatever it was that was so urgent is automatically downgraded during the day, so by the time I'm in the mood to respond, and in a place with plenty of cell coverage, whatever it was has solved itself.

Today, though, those two messages - one e-mail marked "URGENT!!" and one voicemail with a panicked, frantic recording - were actually, truly urgent. Hard to believe, I know. But when I heard the iPhone chime, and looked down to see a text - "Please call AJ at WB NOW!!" - I knew I was in trouble.

My producing partners and I have been trying for weeks to get a project off the ground, and as luck would have it, we needed to talk to the studio that minute, no delays allowed.

And so there I was, a man on vacation, in lime green shorts and a bright white polo shirt, racing to the top of a sand dune for better reception. I knew that was the place to run to; there were six or seven guys already up there, marching up and down and shouting and tapping out e-mails - and in a few moments I saw the bars on my iPhone line up, I placed the call and stood in the hot sun participating in that most uncivilised ritual of contemporary life: the conference call.

The six or seven of us paced the dunes like lost souls, caught in the dark limbo between vacation and work.