Monday, April 12, 2010

Screen Junkies

After seeing my face in the mirror in the morning, the first thing I look at is my laptop screen. As the thermometer creeps along downloading twenty messages, anticipation of that one life altering set of words increases. Only to realize all I have received is junk. Then I visit the Times and BBC website for a cursory glance to catch up on the latest mass killing far from home, and then check my second email account. Then I look at my BlackBerry/iPhone to see if I missed that all important midnight call. I plug my ears with an iPod and am on my way to work. I enter the subway to join the seemingly growing population of headphone rigged fellow passengers, all staring at screens of different shapes and sizes, lost in a bubble of their own. Only programmed to jump off at their designated stop. At work I move onto my desktop and start my all important routine, banging away at my keyboard as if conducting a symphony. Fifteen minutes later I check my Facebook page to see if an old friend dropped by. Then launch my IM window to see if anyone urgently wants to communicate. Before I know it, its lunch time and I am sitting at a table all by myself chewing down a healthy salad staring at CNN on a giant flat screen announcing the next great gadget to hit the streets, the iPad. People have been lining up since the day before to get this new mobile teat. I get back to work to see if my Apple stock went up. At the end of the day at the gym I am walking alongside people trying to keep their cholesterol in check, while typing on their Blackberry. I wonder, are we really communicating when we are communicating all the time?

I cannot remember the last time I put pen to paper to communicate in the form of a letter. Except for signing an odd check or scribbling a note on a hallmark card, pens seem to lie on my desk gathering dust. With an impressive array of gadgets to choose from to communicate, the most popular still seems to be the email. "Electronic Mail" a process by which with a tap of a key one can transmit words at lightning speed through an invisible network of computers across the world. Thus reaching someone just a few feet away or few thousand miles away. I remember engaging in this act in the early nineties in college and thinking the skies had opened up and god was speaking to me. Today email, Facebook, Instant Messaging (IM), Skype, Twitter and a host of other inter-phases glue us to screens of different sizes keeping us in a seeming state of constant contact.

The thought of being in constant contact makes us feel we are part of a community, but are we really a part of a village? Is the world really shrinking or are we fooling our selves and buying into the marketing campaigns of an electronic age. Yes the technology is trans-formative, much like a telephone was in its day, but has it now reached a point where its just becoming redundant and cluttered? Social networking sites catering to every subculture the human race can think of, crop up every second in cyberspace, beckoning people to plug in. As a result for many, privacy has become a thing of the past. To be naked is to be real. There is a bubble for everyone. There is room for the pornographer and there is space for the pious. All you need is a screen to stare into and digits to tap away. In the age of the wikipedia the world is at your finger tips, literally. What you do with it and how much you rely on it defines who you are as an individual.

Japan, South Korea and the United States are some of the most wired nations in the world. Does that mean they are communicating better than other nations therefore are they more productive? Has this proliferation of technology into every seeming aspect of life improved the way we live? Was the age of the telephone and telegram really the dark age, sort of a pre-industrial beginning to an information age? It is hard to decisively say so. While data is moving faster and therefore things are getting done at a more rapid pace, we are piling up mountains of e-waste and people are still getting lost despite their GPS. Since we can get things done faster there is an illusion that we have all this time to devote to other activities to better our lives. But when you pay close attention, it seems like things have become more frenetic round the clock. The screens have created the "working from home" phenomenon which has no boundaries. It seems like we have become slaves to screens, developing an attention deficit when we are not plugged into one. Therefore you must have a screen in the taxi, in the bar, at the gym, in every room in the house, so one feels safe, and one with the world, therefore productive.

Technology defines a generation and shapes the next that is to come. It is upto the individual to decide the role technology plays in their life and the extent to which it shapes them. But more and more it seems that choice is becoming limited giving rise to a lifestyle that is pervasive. It is okay to interrupt a conversation if the cellphone rings. It is okay to have the TV running at all times, even when you are not home. It is okay for your children to stay glued to movie screens in the car and ignore the landscape outside. It is okay to be in your bubble even when you are surrounded by humanity. As we find more and more screens introduced into our reality, and everyone is "online" all the time, finding that "offline" moment becomes more of a struggle.

My daughter who is twelve, has been trying to persuade me to get her an "iPhone", "Apple laptop" and or her own "Facebook" page. The usual her friends have one so she must have one logic is put into play. She already has a cell phone where she receives a text message every other minute from friends she sees everyday. She also has her own email account. When I ask, why "Facebook", is it not enough to be able to call, email, chat and text anytime, her response "well with "Facebook" I can always stay in touch, I can put up photos, I can make new friends and stay in touch with the old etc." While I know I can only hold out for so long before my rationale will be labeled old fashioned, in the age of "sexting" and free access to porn my fears run deep. But then again this generation will be shaped differently, with screens over riding all authority and conventional forms of knowledge in the social networking temple of the internet.

In the Disney/Pixar animated film "WALL-E", the human race in exile from planet earth are portrayed as an obese disconnected lot, plugged into an illusion of reality created by the constant presence of a screen in front of them. While it is true that for most of humanity, this is a distant vision, as their "underdevelopment" shuts them out from the benefits of the information age. But for the "developed" world it seems like we are fast approaching this vision in subtle ways. If to live means to unplug, if to stop and smell the roses means to consciously disconnect, then the question we must all ask is where are the "screens" taking us? So when you trade the tactile weight of a book to that of an iPad, don't be sold by the wonders of it, but ask do I really need another "screen" in my life? It is what it is.