Sometimes I’ll have up to four screens on at once. Generally it’s just two, but if I’m feeling especially rotten it can get higher. Often times it will go something like this: computer screen to play a videogame (and despite adventure/puzzle games being my favorite I’m probably wasting time throwing grenades at Nazi zombie robot dogs and feeling shitty about it because I generally tell people I don’t play games like this; in fact I’m not even enjoying it that much), iPhone with one earbud in to listen to a podcast (but actually unconsciously wishing for a text knowing I won’t answer it), TV on in the peripherals piping an episode of The Office I’ve seen at least six times (I sort of look up to/ identify with/ wish I looked like Jim because maybe women would like me more and I like having the slightest sensation that I’m not single and my girlfriend is as kind and pretty as Pam and maybe I’m not as lonely as I thought), and laptop on a stand next to the computer with Facebook just sitting there, staring at me, the site itself simmering at a high temperature, wanting to scald me with the images of friends doing fun things without me.
The strangest part? I do this to escape the feeling of loneliness. I connect to disconnect from myself.
Connection is something I value highly. But are there different types?
In Zadie Smith’s article “Generation Why?” on the film Social Network she finds herself at the uncomfortable junction of generations (which seems to happen whenever bold new type of technology reveals itself to be popular) ask whether the Facebook Generation has a different conception of personhood. She writes, “Perhaps Generation Facebook have built their virtual mansions in good faith, in order to house the People 2.0 they genuinely are.” Her question is full of implications that every generation demands of its offspring: are you serious? Are you really in there? How can you live life this way? I’m worried what you’ll turn into if you grow up. Do you have the capacity to be human like we do?
The answer to all of these should be obvious, and it’s not the questions that are really interesting. It’s more… why are you even asking. Considering I just got an iPhone and was chided by my best friend’s father for being behind the times, I think there’s less of a generation gap in terms of technology use, but there is one when it comes to what we might be losing to social technology. Maybe we’re ignoring what’s truly dangerous about technology’s affects. Not its ability to influence behavior like the video games causing violence in the 90’s scare, but social technologies ability to anesthetize more primal and necessary desires.
You see, when I’m watching four screens I’m often unknowingly refusing to address a problem in myself that will nonetheless be played out through my extremely divided attention. I want to be with other people and yet much of being an adult seems to require certain amounts of either being with others in strictly “professional” settings or being alone or both. This is celebrated. I don’t know why.
So to answer my own previously posed question: there’s one type of connection with many different flavors and intensities. It can be strong, joyful, fraught, confused, sexual, funny, any of these, but when I’m not longer with the person, physically, it takes a sharp turn. Instead my anxieties and desires fill in the gaps for me. Suddenly the way I saw you sitting with you legs tucked under you, leaning on one arm and looking both enchanted and enchanting; that’s gone, so the complexities and intricacies of interaction are lost and with it a certain amount of human social signals, a certain amount of felt warmth, that isn’t so much heat as it is the bones of spirit.
For me, solely texting or Facebooking or calling friends is colored with anxiety. I wonder if I’ll ever see them again, if they care about me all, if they’re actually doing okay or putting on that voice that says they’re doing okay. I worry if our friendships that end up in the digital realm can suffice, can sustain. The polite answer is yes, the honest answer: why am I trying to drown myself in connective media?
But please don’t take me for a Luddite. There’s some joy in the use of computers in all there vermiform shapes and sizes. What worries me more is the way in which adult life is not structured around connection, but rather, connection must be structured around adult life (adult life being understood crudely as work, pay bills, everyday ins and outs, responsibility). Maybe what previous generations are actually asking is can we take it, a life that is not built around connection? And maybe the right answer is no, not when its so easy to treat ourselves with a large dose of digital downtime. I might already be nostalgic for a time that never was, but I know if depression has only been increasing in the last fifty years, why not try something (that I will leave purposefully vague) that encourages community rather than a turn on, login, space out (‘til worktime).
In the mean time I might get a fifth screen. I hear the curved TV’s are on sale and I need to catch up on Kitchen Nightmares.