Saturday, January 4, 2014

Screen Life: A Rambling Exposition

I think my brain might be hard-wired differently.

Differently from my parents' brains, certainly, because while I can zip around Facebook even after it undergoes its umpteenth upgrade, or learn how to use services like Dropbox with little more than my own intuition, my parents continue to pay their bills by writing out paper checks and store photos by slotting them into hard-bound albums.

But my brain is wired differently from this new generation, too--this generation of babies who can find the app they want on an iPhone before they can talk. This generation of teenagers who are turning Snapchat into the new method of "texting" when I can't even remember how to direct-message someone on Twitter. This group of people who go from their smart phones to their smart watches to their smart cars to their smart computers, all perfectly synchronized, and stylized, and plugged in.

These are the screen people. And I am not one of them.

Over the last few glorious weeks of winter vacation, I spent the majority of my time avoiding screens. Instead, I talked, ate, played cards, beat my parents at Boggle, and ran around my unforgivingly hill neighborhood. I baked cookies, went shopping, wrapped presents, visited friends, and talked some more. And let me tell you, it was awesome.

Okay, yes: I watched the Steelers play football and the Penguins play hockey and a movie or two here or there. Yes, I texted various friends on my (basic text-and-call) phone with regularity. Yes, I even checked Facebook and Pinterest and Gmail on my laptop. But the thing about these particular activities is that none of them took--at most--more than an hour or two of my time and attention. Moreover, I could be sitting, lying, or standing in any position I pleased while I engaged with these particular screens. What I did not do was I did not sit in an ergonomically incorrect chair for eight-hour intervals, squinting straight ahead into a fluorescent monitor, moving little more than my right wrist a few centimeters at a time.

Yet, that is my life--my real life. Every day, Monday through Friday, I sit down at a computer and, with the exception of a few trips to the bathroom and a lunch break, I move little more than my wrists, fingers, and eyeballs. Ordinarily, I don't think much of this; after all, it is my routine and has become how I make my living. However, after two-and-a-half weeks of screen-free life, eight straight hours in front of a computer screen did not feel good.

Of course, it seems awfully ironic to be complaining about spending too much time in front of screens when here I am, voluntarily sitting at my laptop in order to type up this post. But that is exactly my point: this is now how I--and many others my ages--spend our lives. Eighty percent of our time is spent in front of a computer or computer-like device, and the other twenty percent is filled with cooking, cleaning, eating, talking, and whatever else we happen to enjoy doing. Frankly, I'm shocked someone hasn't figured out how to insert some sort of screen into our sleeping time.

And I don't think we're any better for it.

Sure, we can do more things faster now. We can stay more easily and immediately connected to one another despite time and distance differences. We can access more information more quickly than ever before. We can produce more sounds and words and calculations and images faster, and store them more compactly, and access them from virtually anywhere.

But we also can't step away.

We're constantly charging our cell phones so we can text and photograph and browse the Internet and play games. We look at our computers more than we look at any natural thing on earth. And when we want to disengage from this constant stream of incoming information, what do we do? We turn on the television. We play a video game. We read a book on our e-reader.

As a result, we sit for longer and longer stretches of time, usually in some sort of convoluted, slouched-down or hunched-over position. Our unblinking eyes dry out. Our hips tighten. Our vocal chords wither away. Okay, our vocal chords might stay intact, but the rest of it pretty accurately describes how I felt when I went from a week-and-a-half of screen-free life back into my regular, electronics-overridden routine. I simply felt less healthy. And less happy.

Have I thought of a solution? No. Or not one I like better, in any case. I could go work as a grocery store checkout clerk or a farmer or a grade school teacher or an abstract painter. But all of those professions come with their own problems. And honestly, the faster technology advances, the less escape there will be for any of us, regardless of our profession.

For now, the best I can do is resist the allure of the smartphone and stick to my paperback books. Maybe, in the meantime, someone else will find my solution for me.

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