Monday, April 20, 2015

Screen Control

Albert Einstein said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” I believe he was referencing the nuclear age, but I’d say it’s still relevant when it comes to the pervasive technology today.

I’m sick of screens. I say this as I stare at the screen that I spend the better part of my days with, and don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that I have this screen. I can’t imagine what it was to be a writer in the days of typewriters, or eegads, scrolls and quills. I consider this screen a necessary evil. 

The screens I am most tired of are the little ones, the ones attached to the hand of just about every living person in a lobby, waiting room, check-out line, park bench, walking path, and car. I’m waiting for the next health crisis to emerge called carpal neck syndrome or chronic far-sidedness from the act of constantly staring at these tiny screens.

I can be as guilty as the next as I sit waiting for my youngest son to finish practice that should have been over 15 minutes ago. When I try to resist the phone, I feel angsty. I look around the car for something to entertain me. I read the school papers littering the floor. I sort out the glove compartment. I pick through the nasty things crammed down in the far recesses of the center console. What did I do when I awaited my oldest son’s appearance from practices ten years ago?

I’ve tried bringing along a book, but some days my mind spins too fast to read and even though I said I wouldn’t, I still pull out the phone for a quick game of word scramble or sudoku. When I do nothing but sit and watch the parking lot, my fingers itch for a screen.

My children are worse. Not only do they wander through the house with a small screen in hand, but they also have ear buds in blasting out a soundtrack for their lives. I want to rip these devices from their hands, but I’m the one who gave them to them in the first place. At the time I imagined them to be a modern day Walkman, but they are so much more.

I’ve tried turning off their wifi, but these smart phones bypass that by racking up our data minutes. This is a battle I don’t want to have. It makes me weary. It makes me feel old.

But they (and the rest of us) are missing out on the details. We cast our glances around at our surroundings long enough to know there’s nothing else to be done except pull out our phones for entertainment. After all, we don’t want to be bored. Or catch someone’s eye and have to make conversation.

What will this lack of interest in our surroundings, and our inability to hear the noises of our day mean for the poets? The writers? The artists? When will they create? What will they draw on if they haven’t ever had the time and space to observe the swallows nesting in the light pole or the trash blowing across the alley or the exchange between the surly teen and his nervous father?

In the evening I say, “I’m too tired to read, let’s watch something,” and then we waste a good hour of our lives immobile, caught up in a world that is fast, polished, perfect. My kids binge-watch entire series of shows and emerge from the experience looking hungover and dazed. I lament the lost days but feel powerless to stop them.

We don’t buy cable, limit their access to computers, and yet there are so many other screens available to them. It makes a parent feel helpless. Outgunned. And I tell myself, “They’ll be gone soon, on their own. I won’t be able to control their screen time then, anyway.” Is this a cop out? It feels like one.

Watching my own little screen amps up my mind. Images flash by so quickly I feel frantic. Scrolling through Facebook I’m unnerved by the moving pictures – is this what it was like to pass the portraits in hallways at Hogwarts? When I lay down to go to sleep the images are still playing in my head, jumping from one thought to the next. The screen lights up my dreams unbidden.

Recently, my phone ate my calendar. I’m sure there’s an explanation, but it seems to be beyond me. My husband and I wasted a good hour barely arguing, as we wrestled with the tiny screen trying to make it cough up my calendar. We were able to recover bits and pieces of it, but it was random. Why were all the track practices still there, but now with a reminder alarm for each one? And the baseball schedule from last season appeared, too, superimposed on this year to completely confuse me, along with Facebook birthday notices and a vet appointment my cat, but nothing else? Maddening.

I was sick at the loss. When is the kids’ dentist appointment next month? What day is the blacksmith coming? What happened to the schedule for tennis matches, track meets, play rehearsal? AGH. The anger and frustration ate at me. This little screen made me feel stupid and helpless. I’m sure I could go to the genius bar, a good 30 minutes away and wait in line and have some uber hip gender-neutral person fix it with a few swipes of his (her?) finger before handing it back to me and saying, “Simple, see? It’s really intuitive.”

Instead, I bought a tiny baby blue faux leather calendar that even has a satin place marker. I carefully wrote in everything I knew. Then I looked through countless emails and schedules, and cruised the school district’s online calendar copying everything in neatly with a fine point pen. I tucked the little calendar under the band of my to-do book (the one I bought when my phone erased my to-do list) and smiled with satisfaction at how tidy the whole set up looked.

It’s been a week now, and I like my new system. There is great satisfaction in writing things down with a real pen and crossing them off with that same pen. I like flipping my calendar open and seeing my entire week spread across a 3x5 space. I’m not going back.

I’ve decided to let my phone be a phone, nothing more. I even bought several small spiral bound Sudoku books to keep in my purse, and chosen books to leave in each car. I’m sure it won’t be easy to wean myself from this tiny screen habit, but I’m determined.

Technology is a great thing. I have no interest in joining the Amish that live in our county. But I do want to claim back a small piece of my humanity by returning to paper and pen and time spent watching the world around me. I wish I’d done better by my kids, but as my 18-year-old prepares to leave the nest, it becomes ever more obvious that the only power I truly have over them is my example. It is much louder than any words or lecture, threats or ultimatums. It comes down to this - The only life we really control is our own.

I know this won’t be easy. The screen will be there beckoning. It’s such easy entertainment. And everybody’s doing it. Why be the backward person?

Despite what Einstein said, technology is not such a bad thing. It can’t strip our humanity from us unless we let it. I have the power to resist it. At least most days.

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