Thursday, August 24, 2017

Staring at Screens

I've got a bone to pick with the people who keep making disparaging comments about "this younger generation that's always staring at screens."

I stare at screens a lot. I stare at screens at work, and then I come home and stare at my computer, and in between I'm staring at my phone a lot. I am indeed probably more tied in with Internet-based interaction than most people, especially most people my age. I'm aware of that.

What I think most people don't acknowledge is I'm creating various forms of media online, and some of the time I spend staring at screens is associated with creating and sharing those creations, as well as following up on the feedback and interaction I get as a result. It's not like I'm killing time or playing games.

And if I was, that's not really your business to judge either.

That said, "she's on the computer" or "she's on her phone again" is an oversimplified assessment of what's going on. I might look to you like I'm "on my phone" or "playing on the computer," but I could be composing something, talking to a friend, replying to a blog comment, giving someone advice, adjusting a website, uploading a comic or blog, working on an art project, writing a new piece, responding to an e-mail, doing research, reading for pleasure, checking the news, or seeing what's going on with my friends. People who do not use these tools for some or most of these activities tend to oversimplify so they can package it up and judge it.

And here's another thing. People who do not communicate or create using these tools tend to devalue them. They sneer at digital art saying it's not a real form of art, or that it isn't as authentic because there's nothing you can hold, or suggest it's cheating because there's this perception that you're relying on a utility to provide shortcuts instead of requiring you to learn actual art techniques. I would like to see someone who is not artistic use a digital art program to make something, that's for sure. It isn't a shortcut. And at least for me, it's not easier at first. What about the benefits? Once you have the tools (the program and the drawing apparatus), it costs nothing. I can make as many comics as I want and never have to buy paper or refill my expensive markers. It's also very portable. I took my small, old drawing tablet to the hospital over the weekend to sit with my mom, and I didn't have to have with me all my different inking pens and markers or paper. I can't run out. All I needed was my computer and the tablet.

I can read books on my computer. I was reading a book on my phone yesterday. If I go on a trip I can bring multiple books with me and take up no space in my suitcase, and I don't have to buy a newspaper to find out what's going on in the world. No one is suggesting that digital media must entirely replace print media, and many people still buy physical copies of their favorite media.

But you Millennials don't even go outside anymore, I keep hearing Baby Boomers say, despite that a) their generation certainly still watches television and b) I keep getting mistaken for a Millennial despite being Generation X because of what I believe and how I use the Internet.

Yes, Boomers, I do go outside. I also use the technology you were too busy hating to learn to use it for my creative passions. 

But you Internet-addicted kids are ruining your eyes and your posture and getting Carpal Tunnel Syndrome because you can't tear yourselves away from your screens for a second.

Actually healthy habits minimize risk. I cannot pretend to know for sure whether I'm overdoing it on screen time and setting myself up for eye strain and other problems, but so far as a very active computer user since 1996, I have no known eye problems and have never experienced any health problems that I can trace to computer use. I learned good typing posture in my high school typing class and have consistently used it, believe it or not--if you ever watch me when I type, I do so sitting straight up with my wrists lifted like a pianist. It's just a habit.

The same as you shouldn't hand down doom and gloom to an athlete just because it's possible they will get injured due to accident, poor habits, or bad luck, you shouldn't barge in with unresearched opinions about how risky their computer habits are. Especially since you are probably assuming they have unhealthy habits without even asking them. These folks would be super unlikely to say to a sports enthusiast "well people get hurt doing sports all the time, so you're going to be sorry."

But nobody talks to anybody anymore. You're just absorbed in your own little world because you're attached to your phone.

Yes, look on the bus and you'll see most of the passengers absorbed in something on their phone.

Same in an airport. Same in a waiting room. Same at a gathering during a lull.

This is not a new thing, though. The phones themselves are relatively new. But people have always been in search of non-disruptive, private entertainment in public places. Some of these people who criticize the phone behavior of Millennials act like before phones arrived and Destroyed Everything, people all Knew Their Neighbors and Made Friends on Public Transportation.

Go back twenty years. A lot of newspapers and Walkman players in those airports and waiting rooms. A lot of people absorbed in private universes.

I'm sure the generation before them had something judgmental to say about it, too.

But believe me, the kind of person who talks to strangers on a bus, in a waiting room, in an airport . . . they're still doing it. Most of us don't. Most of us never did.

It's similar with this fictional complaint about selfie culture. That Millennials must be obsessed with themselves and think they're very important because they're always showing the Internet pictures of themselves and their food, like anyone cares.

But humans have always been obsessed with themselves. We took family pictures and school portraits. Before photography, people only had the option to fix their images in artists' renditions, and they sure as hell did it. We do this to mark who we are and where we are and what we are doing so we can share it to others in different places and times. We have ALWAYS done this, though the medium is different and there may be more of it now because it is so easy. And in a culture that increasingly incorporates members of one's social circle who may live far away, physical reminders of our existence make the distance more tolerable. Not just so we can see each other, but so we can insert everyday existence into long-distance life. 

There's nothing momentous or documentation-worthy about meeting you for coffee and seeing your face, but I do get to see your face. When you're far away, I can't. If you send me a picture where you're having coffee somewhere and somewhen else, I feel more like I'm in your life. People who sneer at technology and "selfie culture" tend to claim these everyday portraits of our lives are based on obsession or need for attention, and that they're cluttering up the information stream with banal details, apparently do not understand that human existence tends to be interactive and personalized. Of course I don't need to see what my sister made for dinner. But if I see that tofu dish on her Instagram, I feel I've shared a bit of her everyday existence that I would have shared if I was near her, but don't get to because she is not nearby.

We reassure each other through these unimportant actions that we are casually, comfortably in each other's lives. That we haven't vanished--that we're alive and well--that we still like the same things or are evolving toward different things. Maybe details we wouldn't have thought to mention in a letter or telephone conversation will come up in an everyday view of someone's social media. Oh, you got a haircut! Wow, your baby is smiling now. Did you get a new doggie? I like those shoes, where did you get them? You went to a knitting event--how interesting, do you have any thoughts on where I can learn?

No, these items are not world-shaking news.

Why should they have to be?

Why is regular communication with people far away from me, or people I've never met in person, automatically assumed by so many to be inauthentic or superficial?

You don't do it, and you don't understand it, so you have to pass judgment, concluding that Everything Was Better In Your Day. Didn't you hate it when people said that to you when you were younger? Do you find yourself thinking that in your case it objectively IS true that things were better in your day? Do you understand that every generation is different and you're allowed to not like or not participate in some aspect of it--but that this does not require you to shame them or judge them?

You didn't ask me what I'm staring at on the screen. You leaped right to the part where you get to assume it is unimportant or banal, and you judged me for it. Furthermore, every time someone offers a justification you actually accept for staring at a screen, you simply excuse it That One Time instead of modifying your overall understanding of how people engage with the world nowadays, because I guess it's more comfortable to believe nothing of importance or interest is happening in places you can't or don't access.

There are certainly Internet-based behaviors younger people engage in that are irresponsible or not particularly productive. Let's face it, you had your own version of these. It's not all pure and good, because nothing is. And I'm sure some of them unfairly and ignorantly judge your life, interests, and preferences--this is not just a clear-cut case of the older generations being snotty to the younger ones. But I'm not here to defend or explain any of that. I am writing about this phenomenon because I'm consistently getting judged by people older than me (sometimes through abstractions about Internet Users and People Who Use Hashtags, but sometimes explicitly by someone I know). It isn't necessary to share your opinion about what I must be doing and how low its value probably is, because I know way more than you do about what I was doing and why it's important. You're clearly not sharing a message I'm going to be receptive to or one that will provide a needed wake-up call or a life-improving piece of advice. You're just . . . judging. Sneering. Concluding we must be egocentric youths who are incapable of having a worthwhile conversation, wrapped up in our tiny worlds of Snapchat and photo filters.

The world is much, much bigger than you probably ever knew. Most members of a younger generation will be quite willing to shed some light on their behaviors if you are authentically interested and can ask your questions without condescension.We're impressed and interested when you didn't grow up with this technology but want to know how it can help you. Talk to a person, I say, as you complain that no one talks to each other anymore without trying to talk to anyone. Ask a Millennial.

And no, you do not have to learn to use Twitter before they'll talk to you.


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