digital rhetoric

hell is other people (on screens)

There’s a NY Times article by Nellie Bowles doing the rounds with the titular observation that “Human Contact is Now a Luxury Good.” It focuses on both old and young: the senior citizen with a virtual pet companion; the kids taught by apps on tablets and laptops. And it notes that the wealthy eschew screens in favor of human contact. As Bowles writes, “Humans are more expensive, and rich people are willing and able to pay for them. Conspicuous human interaction ā€” living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email ā€” has become a status symbol.” Meanwhile, “Any place that can fit a screen in (classrooms, hospitals, airports, restaurants) can cut costs. And any activity that can happen on a screen becomes cheaper. The texture of life, the tactile experience, is becoming smooth glass.”

So I was thinking about my own screen life. There’s one major portion that is work-related. Most of the things I read are on the screen (some web, many pdfs, and e-books too). I write in word processors. I do some other media composing. And, of course, there’s some email. I’d safely say 80% of my work time is on a screen of some sort. Let’s conservatively call that 35 hours per week. On the entertainment/non-work side, there’s cable TV; Netflix, Amazon, etc.; a little video gaming. I read some news and some blogs. And then there’s social media, where I spend about 40-50 minutes per day if iOS screen time is any judge (and this is really a phone thing for me). The crappy invasive thing about that is that it probably happens in 5-minute intervals throughout the day. Still if you add the work and the non-work, I’m sure you’d get 8-10 hours a day on a screen. I wouldn’t extrapolate much from my own experience except to note that it surely informs my perspective.

So one thing I’d say regarding smartphone usage is that most of the time I’m picking up my phone to distract me from something on my laptop. So either way, it’s screen time, right? I could zip over to FB or Gmail on my browser but I pick up the phone instead. Or I might pick up my phone during a TV commercial: same thing. For me, the worries of screen usage aren’t about watching YouTube or surfing or what not while on a commute, waiting for your flight to board, or whatever, instead of reading a magazine or a paperback. And they certainly aren’t about having access to good information when you need it: a weather forecast, driving directions, where a movie is playing, a good price for something you want to buy, etc.

There are two major problems with screens. The first, which I’m only going to mention today, is the way our interactions are recorded, analyzed, monetized, and used to manipulate us. When it comes down to it, the only reason any corporation wants to keep you engaged is to suck more value out of your interactions. Right now, not interacting is about the only response, but that comes at a price too.

The second is more subjective and has to do with the affective experience/cost of screen time. I think it has to come down to making a realistic assessment of your engagement. E.g., when you go on FB, how do you feel after? If you think there’s something you’re doing on FB that makes your feeling worse as a result of your engagement worth it, I want you to know, with all sincerity, that you’re wrong. It’s not worth it. The only thing that’s happening on FB is that shareholders are making money. If you’re enjoying yourself then I’d say go for it. Otherwise, I’d suggest you have a serious think. The same with other social media. BTW, I’d suggest the same thing about any other website, but I’m guessing you don’t visit other website that make you unhappy.

And why should you? Are you performing some kind of digital penance?

Sadly this concern filters into the obligations of work screen time as well. Well, maybe “obligations” is the wrong word. I don’t need to pay attention to listservs or professional social media, whether it’s within my university or from my discipline. Furthermore, there is, in my view, an unnecessary proliferation of scholarly work. This is a difficult thing to parse. I’m not suggesting that my colleagues shouldn’t publish if they have an intrinsic purpose for doing so. Nor am I suggesting that people should stop doing research. But at the same time, we should be able to recognize the capitalist impulse for “productivity” at work in the growing rate of publication.

I don’t have clear answer to this, but I am left wondering what we are doing. I don’t blame people for publishing stuff! You’ve got to get tenure. I’m working on a second book so I can get promoted. I am effectively paid to publish stuff. I’m just not sure if it’s doing anyone any good or if its just contributing to the problems of screen time.

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