Theodora Goss

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.)