Three-Inch Screens

March on Media:
Part I in an Ongoing Series on the Place of Technology in Our Lives

A few months ago, at a family get-together that took some pains to arrange, I looked around our assembled group and saw just about every single relation staring at the small, glowing screen of a smartphone. They hardly noticed one another, let alone my staring; their attention was held captive by a series of three-inch squares in shifting shades. That family picture has stayed with me since then, although I never snapped it with a digital camera. No electronic copy of it sits anywhere on my laptop or Ipad or Blackberry or e-mail inbox. I simply see it in my mind’s eye and it still saddens me.

I suppose in technical terms, I would be known as a “laggard”, or alternatively, “late adopter.” Informally, I would be known as a “Luddite”. Recently I was mocked for having a flip phone. My seasoned IBM computer has an antenna that I pull up and down, as though I were a Ham operator trying to catch the particular right band of radio waves. My music collection continues to consist primarily of CDs and a few cassette mixed tapes. For years, I was happy conducting what I dubbed my quarterly Facebook review, though sometimes it occurred more on a semiannual basis. Google Calendar has yet to replace my trusty Filofax. So I can’t really blame the IT department for starting to twitch the moment I walk through the door.

It’s a pretty safe bet that I will not be adding another G to my mobile network anytime soon. Most of my technology is probably from a generation or two past, which seems fitting, since I’ve lately taken to thinking a lot about the march of generations – human ones, specifically. This I’ve attributed to my imminent college reunion, set in a landmark year, when I will once more be co-officiating our class memorial service with an Episcopalian priest, a kindly fellow I used to see regularly at lunch in the dining hall. Together we will help commemorate the lives of our deceased classmates, a group that predictably, lamentably, inexorably gets larger year by year.

One of these deceased classmates was my college roommate both sophomore and junior year. What I remember as our giddiest moment took place at the bulky university-issue desk in her bedroom one warm afternoon. She had just bought a Macintosh from the college computing center, a tiny pale block with a pixilated gray screen. When it was turned on, a smiley face suddenly appears as if on an Etch-a-Sketch screen. And then the computer talked! It said, simply, “Hello.” We were thrilled by that. We turned the computer on and off again and again to capture the complete audiovisual effect. We called our other two roommates in and all laughed together as time and again, the smiley face came into pixilated gray tones and the Macintosh told us, “Hello.” I even remember waving back at it in the excitement. When my third roommate declared it “amazing”, each of us enthusiastically agreed.

What did that distant incident augur to the four of us? I’ve wondered about that a great deal. I think it signaled how bright and promising the future would be for us, how it would greet us in all gladness. In large part, it did, even if my roommate died far too young. She took her Macintosh with her to law school and went on to make a difference. I followed in her footsteps and got a Macintosh Powerbook 100, which broke right near the end of my own graduate program. I’m embarrassed to admit that I cried when I learned the computer could not be fixed. I actually cried for days, then lugged its defunct shell with me for several months, across state lines, no less, enacting some modern-day Homeric. I had not been adequately prepared for how abruptly an era might end.

Before I launch full-bore into my well-rehearsed Grumpy Old Man routine and rail against the pace of progress, I fully admit that I’m not really speaking about all we’ve gained, the advantages and conveniences and amusements and efficiencies and life-saving technologies that continue to emerge and develop out of our considerable human ingenuity. Those I admire tremendously. Here I’m speaking on the side of grief, too long silent, in honor of what we’ve lost in the shuffle of planned obsolescence and endless WiFi spots and all our disposable goods, a certain quality of company we used to keep, which seems to have been significantly compromised. Recalcitrants such as myself — the laggards, Luddites, late adopters — are trying to remember something.

At a recent dinner out with my dear friend and senior-year college roommate, I could not help but notice her holding her BlackBerry in her lap, surreptitiously checking it every couple of minutes. Each time she did, a flickering light shone in her eyes. “Look, just put the CrackBerry on the table,” I finally told her, “right here, out in the open, where we can all see it. Why bother pretending?” I asked. “We’re not blind.”

Only we are quite blind, at times, blind as bats, with far worse hearing than they, and an unfortunate disinclination to listen to one another. Scientists now refer to a prevalent contemporary phenomenon known as “attentional blindness”. This means that we see what we direct our attention toward and almost nothing else, not on a moment to moment basis, at least. Both psychological schools of thought and our various spiritual traditions recognize the importance of the human gaze. “Then we will see face to face…” sacred scipture tells us. Not today, though. Today we only have eyes for – for what, exactly? Three-inch screens?

What we repeatedly behold, we grow to love. That ought to give us all cause for pause. I know of a pair engaged to be married who far preferred text-message exchanges to actual conversations, especially when they were in the same room together. I cannot act as if there were not a hugely problematic development. With the onslaught of technology has come a deluge of media that threatens to drown out intimacy itself. Some experiences need to be un-media-ted to be truly authentic.

But suggest that to people and they will get as edgy as addicts, jumpy if there is not a handheld in easy arm’s reach. ‘Are you kidding? I love my Android/BlackBerry/Iphone! Without this, I’d be lost.’ My point is that we are equally lost with all these things in our possession, but now we are far too distracted to recognize the jeopardy we face. We appear to be not nearly as smart as our phones. Rather, we seem enlisted in a mass delusion of relatedness and now harbor a perniciously false sense on being in touch with one another. Swiping a touch screen is not the real work of connection.

It is precisely when we cannot look into one another’s faces and meet the gaze of another set of eyes that we are lost, both individually and collectively. In my teaching, preaching, and counseling, I always tell people that they ought to assiduously avoid loving things that cannot love them back. Because the dulcet tones of Siri are not whispering sweet nothings; they’re performing algorithms. It’s important for us to run our own set of independent calculations. Minutes, hours, days, weeks in the absence of genuine human encounter? Months? What — years? I don’t even know how to gauge that degree of emotional deprivation. I won’t try. So please – I am pleading with you — do not attempt this on your own.

© 2012

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