Thursday, October 15, 2015

In Defense of Screen Time

This artist's work is going viral lately. It's people staring at phones with said phones photoshopped out and they look sort of blank and vacant and creepy and everyone's passing it around saying how terrible it all is.
But here's the thing. This morning I read an article from prominent astrophysicist (and geek icon) Phil Plait about a recent scientific discovery and en-biggened my brain. I looked at some great art and felt emotions about it. I talked to my best friend about one of our favorite TV shows and how beautifully developed the characters are and how great it is that she can watch said show with her young children. I received several well-wishes from friends telling me they care that I'm under the weather and to get better soon. I also talked to my mother about a poetry reading she attended the night before.

You know how I did all that? With my smartphone.

The show my friend and I watched was streamed over Hulu and was an absolutely vital resource for my husband and I when my father in law had a recent health scare. Moreover, while he was recovering from surgery, asleep in the hospital bed and I was sitting there beside him at two o'clock in the morning, you know what I did? I watched episodes of Star Trek: Voyager and I was immediately wrapped in the familiar warmth and comfort that art and entertainment and stories have always given to humanity when they needed it. I streamed it through my phone.

Was my face likely vacant and creepy in that weird almost darkness of the late night ICU?
Did I give a shit?

I'm an introvert on the spectrum. When I spend long periods of time around other humans--even humans I love--I need serious time to rebuild my bubble. I have panic attacks in over-full rooms. I spend approximately 15% of my time in real-life conversations trying to discern whether I'm making too much or too little eye-contact. I spend maybe 20% of my time trying to figure out whether I'm monopolizing the conversation and should back down. Am I being too loud? Too much? Have I been going on about Star Trek for too long? In high school I was a mess. I wanted love and support and friendship so desperately I felt like I was constantly coming apart at the seams yet I had a hard time connecting to people in person. Ultimately I took to the internet and found that love and friendship on old timey, geek-themed chat rooms. My experiences in cyberspace enabled me to be more confident about my in-person exchanges but I never let go of my preferred method of communication.

When I talk with my BFFs on gchat, I don't worry about whether or not I'm being too loud and I can take as much time as I need to say what's fighting through a million layers of weird to get out.

When I finish an art project, I can snap a photo of it with my phone then immediately post it online where people I know in person and online can talk back to me about it.

When I feel sick and terrible on my anniversary my mom, three thousand miles away, can send me a picture of a cat in a cowboy hat and tell me to get better and maybe it's not in person and maybe it's not chicken soup and maybe if a photographer snapped my picture then cut out the phone and cast everything in gray scale I would look, sitting here in my pajamas, like a rather depressing figure. Would the photographer snap the instant that I smiled or would he snap the moment I relaxed? Would he be able to capture the way that small, immaterial action made me feel? Would he be able to capture the relationships I foster with people via invisible, intangible signals?

I mean, I get it. We like to think that when people are engaged they *look* engaged but really it just depends. When we lose ourselves inside a world of information we might look a little odd to the casual observer.

But who really cares? What I look at on my phone or my tablet or my laptop isn't any of your business and neither is how I look. You're celebrated if you join in the criticism of our culture for "always staring at a screen" but you'd be considered ignorant and brutish if you gave someone the business for "always having their nose in a book."

Maybe before we all fly off the handle and take to Facebook (via our smartphones) about how sad it is that we stare at screens all day we should consider the context. And, if you're really that concerned about me, why don't you engage and ask me what I'm reading--via email or text, of course.

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