Life Inside A Screen — Part 1

Remember when life was in 3-D?

We talked to people and had to watch body language. Reading happened on a page held between your fingers. Eyesight required this thing called depth perception, because most of what we looked at wasn’t projected from a flat surface.

I remember that time. In fact, that was my childhood. But I’m alarmed, at 32, to realize how much of my adult life happens on a screen.

This is the first of a two-part series in which I examine the frightening amount of screen time that modern life would have us commit to, and puzzle out how young professionals like myself might regain a sense of balance. How do we use the online world in positive ways without accidentally uploading our brains to it? How do we navigate a working world that is increasingly online but avoid becoming obese with sandpapery, red, staring eyes?

To help define the problem and wrap our heads around how pervasive screen time is to our way of life, let’s peer into a day in my own routine.

In the morning I wake and shower, then check the forecast to dress appropriately. Weather and news are online, so we long ago stopped paying for the newspaper, making my smart phone the best source of weather info. After breakfast, I need to check my phone and work e-mail. It’s not uncommon for students and colleagues to text or e-mail with questions very shortly before they need the answer, and ignoring messages often means I leave someone in the lurch. (I will later feed this monstrous cycle by procrastinating my own questions until a last-minute e-mail).

I drive to work. When I enter my classroom, I open the computer because we’re supposed to do attendance in the online learning environment. I pull up the power point or document for my lecture. Because today’s students expect the classroom to be both interactive and entertaining, I frequently incorporate videos or send them to web sites. While they do a class activity, I check our schedule and syllabus to make sure I’m on track—which requires the computer, because we are encouraged to make these class documents available on the online learning space.

After class, I have more time-sensitive e-mails waiting. My colleagues and I almost never call each other when we have a question. Texting and e-mail are so convenient, and allow so much flexibility in when and how you answer, that calling or dropping in has actually begun to feel slightly demanding and abrupt, almost an unnecessary invasion of someone else’s privacy.

As I lesson plan, I create documents and homework assignments on the computer since much of that is expected to be made available online. One of my major roles is to advise students who write for student-led publications, and their work is uploaded to the web for me to respond to. It’s much easier and faster to critique it on Google docs than it is to print everything out, slaughtering trees in the process and preventing them from seeing my feedback before the next class period. Students don’t work with paper much, anyway. Even their note taking happens on a laptop.

When I’m not teaching, I produce promotional material for my institution. Fast turnaround times mean we must rely on the speed of the internet to get relevant information. In addition, much promotional work takes place online through social media and e-newsletters.

When I’m not working, my own social media accounts have sucked me in. I have several close friends in all different areas of the country, and it’s both a comfort and a sadness to keep up with them via Facebook. Facebook and texting are also the two mediums through which my friends make plans, and if I don’t check these things frequently, I either miss news of a social gathering or discover that, in the absence of my input, it has been scheduled for a day and time I can’t go.

As the afternoon wraps up, I send more e-mails that I secretly hope my coworkers will drop everything to answer. I might get my one-and-only actual phone call—from my husband. We know each other well enough that it’s not awkward to demand a verbal exchange by calling.

I drive back home. We start dinner. About half of our recipes are online—it’s hard to find a cookbook that has more than a few recipes we both like, whereas you can find endless recipes on the web—so often, I set the computer on the countertop next to me while I work.

My husband and I both love to watch television while we eat, a habit we picked up from our families long ago when we used antennas to tune in the five (six if you’re lucky) local stations of the 1990s. As adults, we now hook the compy up to the TV and head to Youtube. We stopped paying for cable because you can get better variety if you use online programs like Netflix, plus you don’t have to wait for them to play at a certain day or time. The video stores in our large town have all closed because they can’t compete, so we can’t even go outside and stand in a store aisle while we debate what we want to watch.

After dinner, our thoughts inevitably turn to hobbies. My husband records, mixes, and creates videos for music covers. He has his own Youtube channel, which is one of the best ways for talented musicians with a different day job to get their work out there. I run a blog, because this is also true for writers who have other day jobs. The internet is the new showcase for creativity, unless you’re one of the under-one-percent who happens to get a record or book deal (at which time you’re expected to market yourself online through every social media channel available).

And, great irony of ironies, even when I’m writing something that requires no access to the internet at all—working on a short story or the script for my graphic novel—I have to use the computer. Why? Because I’ve done creative writing on the computer since age 10, and the creative side of my brain has grown accustomed to quick typing, easy deleting, and the general habit of staring at a word document rather than a piece of paper. I have been told this is a bad thing, that everyone writes better first drafts if they do it longhand, but I cannot get longhand creativity to work for me. Anything you’ve ever read from me was started and finished on the computer. On the rare occasions when I do write something longhand, I look at it, hate it, scrap the whole thing, and write an entirely new first draft electronically.

In fact, in my creative life, the only respite I get from looking at a screen is when I’m actually producing the physical artwork of my graphic novel—but even those will get uploaded to the computer, because guess what is the fastest-growing medium where talented comic-makers with a different day job can get their stuff to a mass audience?

Speaking of day jobs, did I mention my husband works as a computer programmer?

Even the odds and ends of figuring out everyday life have gone online. Everyone is expected to keep up with their banking over the internet. That’s how we pay most of our bills. If you want a certain book, you will have much greater luck ordering it from Amazon than going to that endangered species known as the bookstore. Every business has a web site. Any information can be had anywhere, and it’s so much easier than picking up the phone, or having to go to a specialty store and ask a customer service representative about your home repair/lawn care/automotive/cleaning/cooking/sewing/kayaking question.

If we want to go out on the weekend, we end up using the internet or text to arrange plans with friends. Even learning about local events is difficult offline, because everyone advertises events through Meetup.com nowadays.

And finally, at the very end of the day—to my great embarrassment—I have to put myself to sleep with Youtube videos.

I know. I know. I expect my Most Pathetic Loser trophy in the mail any day now. What self-respecting child of the ‘80s and ‘90s goes to sleep with a screen on? We were raised to huddle under the covers in the pitch dark all alone listening for noises, as God intended!

Doctors argue up and down that the type of light emanated from computers hinders us from falling and staying asleep. But I spent the first 29 years of my life unable to fall asleep quickly, and since we started this bedtime video habit about three years ago, I conk out immediately most of the time. (If any of these doctors would like to come study me, they’re welcome, as long as money is involved).

By the way, I know these doctors say that about the computer light because I looked it up on the internet.

If you’re thinking my life consists of an ungodly amount of screen time, you’re right. I know it full well. I feel it in my moods, which are likely to plummet if I don’t fit in some 3D-life time each day. I go back and forth with myself, though, about how to change all this. Suggest to my workplace that we commit professional suicide by not using the internet so much? Stop keeping up with friends who move away? Build a time machine and tell my younger self not to get into the writing profession, because that’s all going online? Face the discomfort of calling people who wonder why I can’t text like a normal socially-awkward person?

In my next post, I’ll consider this question more seriously. What types of unnecessary screen time can concerned professionals like myself cut? Do you have to sacrifice some convenience in order to unplug and be healthy? How can we begin to think about social interaction differently?

Tune in next time…on your screen, of course.

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