The Problem with Screens

I’ve been having trouble updating Facebook and Twitter and this blog. I’ve even been having trouble answering email. No, it’s not a technical problem. It’s a me problem. I’m just so tired of looking at screens.

When did it start? To be perfectly honest, I think it started when I got an iPhone, several years ago now. I still remember my Blackberry with some fondness. It was the best, most fashionable device at the time. It didn’t do much, but it was easy to talk into and type on. I used it mainly to text. And then I got an iPhone. It was difficult to type on (what a pain, those little virtual keys you have to tap), and unpleasant to talk on (when you hold that rectangle up to your ear, anything on your face gets onto the screen — which in my case is foundation). What did I use it for? Primarily to check on social media and take photographs. I like taking photographs, and I even like posting them on Instagram, but I never get around to printing them. They exist only on my computer — on another screen. Other than that, I use my iPhone to Facetime with my daughter and shop on Etsy.

At some point, the ways to get in touch with me proliferated. There was email of course, and then text, and Facebook messenger, and Twitter direct messaging. I get at least a hundred emails every day — from students, the two programs in which I teach, people getting in touch because of my writing (which is my business, so all those emails are important too). And then of course all the random emails we get nowadays, although I try to unsubscribe and block. The problem is, I’m having a hard time keeping up with it all. My email is a triage center: which emails absolutely have to be answered? First priority: students. Second priority: anything relating to work. Third priority: anything relating to writing. By that point, there’s simply no time left, not if I want to get some sleep . . .

Of course, it could have been affected by the fact that at some point I began writing novels, which means a lot of time working on the computer. A lot of time staring at a screen. I try to deal with that by drafting as much as I can by hand. Anyway, a first draft goes much better for me if I write it by hand — it seems to flow better, and I know which word goes after the last one. That’s more difficult for me when staring at the computer. But of course the second draft is typed, and all subsequent drafts have to be revised onscreen. Still, I print out hard copies when I can. The process of switching from short stories to novels could have something to do with it.

But then, also, something happened last fall. Our politics changed, and with it the online world changed. Twitter, which used to be a fun, lighthearted, if rather silly place to be, became something else entirely. I’m not sure what, except that much of the time I spend there now feels wasted. And the Facebook algorithm changed again, I think. It’s still better than Twitter, but that’s not saying much. All in all, I’m not getting very much out of spending time on social media. There are still people I follow and want to keep up with — they are like little shining stars online, posting things that make me more hopeful, encourage me to keep working, show me the beauty of the world. But most of what I find online is either uninteresting or an advertisement. And the thing I’ve noticed is, nothing I see online seems to affect anything in the outside world, the real physical world. That goes on as though the online world didn’t exist. None of the Twitter outrage seems to affect anything. The real work, including the real political work, still seems to be done by boots on the ground.

I’m old enough (and I’m not particularly old!) that I still remember a world without screens, except the television set in a corner of the room. I remember getting my first computer in high school. I remember dot matrix printers and fax machines. Now we are living in the future, and honestly, I’m just tired of it. I have a sort of thirst for the real. On Tuesday, instead of sitting down in front of my computer screen and answering emails, I went out and ran errands. It was autumn, and leaves were falling, and cars were honking, and the sky was very blue. I went shopping, and did laundry, and watered the plants. Then I read a book. How did the online world go so quickly from being fun to an annoyance? Oh, there are things I like — being able to order music from Bandcamp, for instance. I have things available to me, like music from small indie bands, that I would not have had back when I was proudly recording cassette tapes. I even like streaming films and television shows on my phone.

But increasingly, I want to do things that are real. Increasingly, I am skeptical about the benefits of the online world, especially social media. I notice that my students are less and less likely to be on Facebook (they were never on Twitter). I’m going to keep using it — I’m going to keep posting things, because it’s part of my job as a writer (although I’ve come to think that having a “social media platform” is a waste of time). But I’m going to use it more deliberately, really thinking about what I’m getting from it, not allowing it to get overwhelming. And I’m going to prioritize what is real. Sewing. Drawing. The leaves turning red and yellow. Writing poetry in small books. Reading things written hundreds of years ago, by people who lived and loved and died. Feeling and hearing and smelling the world, which is magnificent. And I think it’s time I printed out those photographs . . .

(Yes, this is my sewing box. For real.)

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8 Responses to The Problem with Screens

  1. mapelba says:

    I’m glad I read this today. I feel some screen overload too. The other I bought an old electric typewriter–a gem of a find for $20. at a thrift shop! I love its weight and its sound. I’ve found a better place for my sewing machine. The more tactile things I do, the better my mood though I love many things about this online world–like access to the thoughts of other creative souls. Thanks for writing.

  2. Lovely post. The first chill of autumn has arrived in the Tampa Bay area, and I think I’ll go out for a walk today. Without the phone.

  3. Martin says:

    Even though I still maintain an email account, most of my more distant friends abandoned email for facebook and twitter some time ago, so I plugged into facebook in order to continue some electronic method of interfacing with them (never did twitter – I can’t get around the silliness of the name and the message brevity plus the fact that it enables the idiotpotus). But after awhile I found facebook to be more of a locale for inanity and advertisements than it was for communication and so, when it became apparent that Russian hackers were being allowed to use it to disrupt our political process, I disconnected therefrom. So now I’m back to email and the occasional handwritten note; which has encouraged emulation by a few of my distant friends – just like the good old days. By the way, my phone is a basic and pretty reliable flip-phone. Works like a charm.

  4. emily says:

    On my website, listed under my current interests is “avoiding screens,” which is quite the irony given my field. I quit social media and quite honestly, I don’t look back — occasionally, I’ll check Twitter but not for long. I understand you have a “brand/business/profession” to uphold and can’t just unplug. But it’s really a lot easier than you might think. You have the emails/numbers/addresses of the people who matter. And I don’t think humans are wired to keep up with more than a dozen connections anyways; you quickly learn who you actually care about. IMO, Facebook messes with the natural ebb and flow of relationship cycles and the hard truth that not all connections are meant to last. But what do I know.

    Btw, been meaning to swing by your office! Also, steaming films is way more healthy than frying them. 😛

    • Ha! I fixed it. Thanks for catching that “steaming”! And yes, come by my office sometime — I’ve been so swamped with work for basically the last two years (since the novel-writing started) that it’s hard for me to keep up with people, but it’s always nice to catch up! 🙂

  5. drmarycrowell says:

    Oh, gosh. I feel this! I saw the heading of your blog entry pop up in my inbox and promised myself I would wait until I could sit and enjoy it as opposed to just trying to tame that overly full email inbox. And today that moment came. 🙂

    I’ve been reading actual paper books more too. A few months ago I started volunteering at our local public library and have found myself looking forward to that two hours on Tuesday every week. It is so serene and ordered. And I get to shelve books and am reminded that they are available to me to read. So, I’ve been making good use of my library card.

    This sentence particularly resonated with me: “And the thing I’ve noticed is, nothing I see online seems to affect anything in the outside world, the real physical world.” I live in north Alabama, so I know few people here are seeing the outrage on Twitter or Facebook. The information many of the people get here is completely different based on their news site preferences and the accounts they follow on Twitter or Facebook. Most people are far more nuanced than what they post to their various social media feeds. I feel like if we want to make our world a more welcoming environment for all people, that will have to be done through talking face to face with others in one’s community. And in January I truly began to do that. And it has helped.

    I also resumed knitting and running, and i’ve enjoyed to have tactile (and textile!) interactions outside and inside my home. I’m holding my head up and smiling more again.

    Thank you for your post. It really helps to know that I am not alone in my weariness with screens.

    –Mary

  6. Robert Adam Gilmour says:

    I really hate twitter but it seems quite clear now that it is changing some things in the real world by making statements a lot more visible than they would have been otherwise. A lot of this activism used to be very niche but now it’s fairly mainstream and social media must have played a big part, it’s inevitable that people will behave a bit differently when they’re informed differently, even if it doesn’t change as much as we would like. Companies and people vulnerable to bad publicity sometimes change their behaviour and policies after enough retweets.
    This wave of sexual harassment stories is going beyond Hollywood and into politics and academia.

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