Why screens are the best things that ever happened to us
The average American spends 10-11 hours a day looking at a screen (at least, that’s what Google tells me). Does that number fill you with horror or do you nod approvingly and say to yourself “those are hours well spent.” If it fills you with horror, then I have a few questions: Why? Has the quality of your life diminished in some noticeable way by spending most of your waking hours in front of a screen? You’ve gained all the entertainment and useful information in the world, and what have you lost?
A couple weeks ago I went to a showing of the film Screenagers. It wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t great, not exceptionally well-crafted or hard-hitting. That said, I’m very glad I went and that I stayed for the conversation that followed. What I found incredibly frustrating about the movie, as well as the conversation, was that most of the time the question being asked was “What are these screens doing to our kids’ brains?” I think this question is alright, it has it’s place, but it’s also incredibly one-sided and doesn’t really help us get at the issue.
First off: the brains part of the question. This film is filled with study after study showing that screens are damaging our kids’ brains—leading to addictive behavior, lowering attention spans, and weakening their ability to be empathetic towards others. The problem, it seems, is that screens are a giant, addictive distraction—that video games and social media are more exciting than homework—which means less focused study and poorer grades. And, in the process, it’s having an effect on our brains; our brains are being “rewired.” I agree with the brain argument—I assume that using all these screens must be having a powerful effect on our bodies in general, and definitely our brains—but I think it’s problematic. Focusing on the brain moves the issue outside our own experience. It’s a fine side-point, but it’s hard to get fired up and take action about something that you can’t know for yourself. And the effect of screens is something we can know for ourselves! In the end, our over-reliance on talking about the brain and what the experts have discovered about it, undermines our ability to come to a real, grounded understanding of what’s going on.
Secondly: the kids part. Whenever I hear adults talk about this topic, including in this film, it’s always focused on the “poor kids” (and usually has some version of the refrain—“when I was a kid I played outside…”). I find this infuriating to high heaven. Sure the kids have a problem, but let’s be real, we’ve got a problem. We are on screens 10-11 hours a day, not just the kids. And we should know better, because remember—we played outside when we were kids. And now we sit in restaurants, across from our loved ones, looking at our phones, or in airport food courts with our whole family, again, looking at our phones. What’s going on? How can we lack all self-reflection? And why, exactly, should kids listen to us? If we haven’t addressed this problem for ourselves then we have no real authority from which to speak. In that case, I hope the kids don’t listen to us, but look for real teachers who aren’t hypocrites.
Lastly: the “what are the screens doing” part. They’re not doing anything. We’re doing it to ourselves. We’ve made the machines. We’re using them. We could ask: Why?—What do they reflect in us that we’ve now taken out of ourselves and externalized into them? What parts of us want to be entertained, indulged, lulled to sleep? What parts of us would rather have the machine tell us the answer then figure it out for ourselves?
Truthfully, I’m glad we created all these screens. The title of this essay is not actually tongue-in-cheek: I think there’s something incredibly positive in their creation. And not because I now have all the world’s information in my pocket. I could do without that. But because they have a huge potential to wake us up.
Before saying more, I want to be clear about the damage I think we’re inflicting on ourselves through screens. I’d say that screens are the most devastating force on earth. There’s a whole generation of human beings whose childhood is being lost and whose adulthood will likely go the same way. And our adulthood is going that way—it’s being laid waste. Why? Because every beautiful or funny or profound experience you’ve ever had—smiling at a stranger or staying up late with a friend at summer camp—was your experience. It had the signature of your life. You are those experiences. And the whole world is richer because you’ve been in the world and lived those moments. Your story—consisting of all the momentary encounters that fill up your day, and especially those that are more immanent, where time slows down a little—weaves together with everyone else’s story and creates culture, history, the whole human world. Sad to say, those encounters don’t exist online. Virtual experiences (i.e when Charlie bit his brother’s finger) are not you; they’re not your story; they do not bear your signature. They’re generic experiences. When we grow old and look back on the tapestry of our life, it will look different than in generations past. It was once woven of our own experiences and dotted with those that were especially colorful and vibrant. Now that tapestry is in tatters. It barely holds together. It is covered in thin, colorless, mass-produced patches. Can you see yourself in it? Is it a true picture of you? Is it a true picture of what you came to do?
I’m glad we created all these screens because their constant presence begs the question—What is lost? What am I missing while I’m whiling away the hours in a thin, unreal land? Screens constantly remind us to ask ourselves this question. This is a great gift.
Maybe you feel nothing’s been lost? Life’s kind of boring, and computers and phones make it more entertaining. I agree. I look out at nature and for the most part I’m bored. Art? Also, pretty boring. People? Pretty boring, and also anxiety-inducing. This is true, and I’ve always been disappointed by it. I’ve always had the question hovering in the back of my mind—Why am I not more interested in the world? Why doesn’t it speak to me more? But now that question becomes far louder because of my smart phone. It’s no longer a vague discontent; it’s brought to a head. It becomes existential every time I have to make the choice—is now a good time to leave this world and visit the virtual world? Should I pay attention to the deer in the yard, my partner in the kitchen, my own rambling thoughts… or is now a good time to enter a semi-conscious state where I distractedly swipe from “page” to “page,” browsing through information and interacting with less-real versions of people I vaguely know?
So I try to tease out my experience of technology in order to make sense of it. I use screens throughout the day—what’s my experience of them? I’m not sure. I try to pull my experiences apart a little. I try to notice what’s being lost and what’s being gained. One example: being in a foreign city for a day or two and wandering around until I happen upon a street that I’ve already walked. Then the sensation: “Oh, I know this place…” There is a sense of “homeness.” I’ve worn a groove into the world through some repeated action. When I use GPS I don’t have that experience. I don’t try to hold onto a place, remember it, make it my own—I trust GPS to always guide me in the most efficient way possible. Another example: I can’t find a word while I’m writing. I grope around in my mind trying to remember it, it has a certain gesture, a certain hue. I say “that’s not quite it, it’s more like…” And then finally it falls into my consciousness. I just spent 5 minutes sitting at my desk squinting my eyes and fumbling around in some inner space. Was it a valuable experience? Or was it a throw-away moment? And should I just use the thesaurus next time? There’s no set-in-stone answer. I have to ask the question every time. What experiences will I choose to have? (For instance, I’ve already decided to use a thesaurus once or twice in the writing of this essay.)
So through technology we can look at our own experiences and decide what kind of experiences we want to have. The clearest example of this, for me, is when I go to an art museum. All these works of art—what are they for? When I started going to museums twenty years ago I wasn’t really sure. Some paintings looked cool, I liked them. Also, it was nice to become familiar with different artists, to be able recognize a Picasso and say something clever about it. Then came smart phones. Now everyone walks from painting to painting taking pictures of them. Why? So they can look at them later? No! They’re not interested enough to look at them right now. It must be so they can show them to other people and say “Look at this painting that I saw, isn’t it beautiful?” And really they’re saying: I’m alive! I’ve lived. And I’ve experienced great things.
This is why I’m incredibly grateful for all these screens. Twenty years ago I couldn’t really see my lackadaisical approach to art. I liked the paintings, that was it. Now I’m confronted every time I go to a museum. While everyone is snapping away on their smart phones, I have to ask myself “Why am I looking at these paintings?” And further, “Can I have an experience of this work of art? Can I draw close to it? Can I be moved?” Because, are we really here to just to sound clever and look cool? Or are we here to grow, to evolve? These questions becomes more clear, more direct because of the screen. And also other questions: “How do I cultivate interest? How do I draw close to the things of the world so they can speak? And why ‘evolve’ at all? What is there to become? Is there a meaning to my being here on this earth?”
Which brings up one last point about the Screenagers film: it claimed over and over that all these screens are causing greater feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression, at times leading to violence. I disagree. These feelings are symptoms of our unwillingness to ask the real questions of life. Even without screens, we’re not addressing these fundamental questions. We’re not openly wrestling with the question of meaning. It’s completely taboo in public discourse. But people cannot really live without meaning. And so people are drawn to the dying flames of dogmatic religions and the sputtering flames of nationalism. They find meaning in charismatic leaders, great causes, wicked enemies. This lack of meaning is the deeper epidemic of our lives. The screens can suck us in and numb us to it, or they can reflect our own worried, distracted faces looking back as us. How we use them, and what we decide to see, is our choice.