The impossibility of a screen-free life
|January 4, 2012||Posted by Sophy Bot under Internet culture, The offline world|
When was the last time you went screen-free for a day? I’m not even talking about a whole week or a month here – just a single day. When was the last time you went screen-free for a whopping 24 hours? Spending any amount of time without a screen is getting harder and harder with each year that goes by. So how exactly did we get to this point?
In the beginning, things were slow and expensive. Modern kids will never know of the prolonged pings of a 14.4 modem, of waiting minutes (minutes!) for a single page to load on a painfully slow computer that probably cost over 3,000 dollars. (See if you have the patience to wait for Google to load on a 14.4 modem simulation – I didn’t.) Technology was expensive and even if you did have a computer in your home, the internet was just too slow to spend much time on. Every single page took endless minutes to load, until finally impatience got the best of you and you logged off in frustration. As technology got cheaper and the internet got faster – first on our home computers, then on our handheld devices – waiting for content ceased to be a factor. When everything is instantaneously accessible, there’s no time lapse to allow you to think of other things you could be doing – there’s just content, content, and more content.
In the beginning, there wasn’t much content. Computers were too expensive for most to afford and, even if you had one, you probably didn’t know the first thing about putting content online. It wasn’t until things got cheaper and faster that businesses and institutions went online en masse and the amount of available content started to explode. With more content came more reasons to stay online. We all know the feeling of opening a single Wikipedia entry, only to find ourselves hours later in the nether regions of the web, still clicking away, our original question long answered and forgotten.
In the beginning, you only consumed content – you did not create it. This is where things really branched out from the classic screen of the TV. With the interactive web, not only could you read something – you could leave a comment or write your own rebuttal. Not only could you watch something – you could shoot and upload something yourself. Not only could you consume – you could participate. And so could everybody else.
In the beginning, your social life was relegated to the real world. Sure, there were those among us who spent hours on early communities like Prodigy and AOL, but you weren’t likely to find many of your real-world friends on there. It wasn’t until the rise of the social networking-fueled web that the ability to create content joined the ability to connect with your friends and we all started creating content about our day-to-day lives. We could suddenly store and share our experiences, both past and present, giving us even more of a compelling reason to check into Facebook just one more time.
In the beginning, being online meant being at a desk. Once the laptop became popularized and the wireless internet grew along with it, the chain to our desk was broken and we were finally able to interact with the online world from the comfort of the couch or the dining room table. The rise of the smartphone enhanced that portability even further, allowing all bar bets to be settled immediately and providing an eternally connected lifeline to the online world of content and friendships. The current rise of the tablet is taking things a step even further, allowing us the computing power and larger screen of a traditional computer with the portability of a smartphone. Now, you can be online anywhere, at any time, with anybody.
In the beginning, the online world was more asynchronous – in other words, not everybody was online at the same time. Since being online meant being at a desk, it also meant that you weren’t logged in all of the time, and neither was anybody else. There wasn’t much need to check in more than once or twice a day – there probably wasn’t anything new to see there anyways. Now that we all carry the internet around wherever we go and add content on the fly, there’s constantly something new to check out. We’re logged in more and more of the time, making the online world more and more synchronized with the real world. Being offline means missing out on what’s going on with everybody else. Simply put, being offline means being out of the loop.
In the beginning, bananas did not have QR codes. Yep, last week I reached for a snack only to realize that there was a QR code advertising the new Alvin & The Chipmunks movie staring up at me from this otherwise completely organic product. Advertisers and other businesses have taken it for granted that we’re constantly in arm’s reach of a device. Even the most offline elements of our otherwise online world are now beckoning us back online, back into the connected world, back into the realm of interactivity. Once we get there, the speed and the content are all we need to sending us zipping away down the information superhighway.
And we wonder why it’s so hard to be screen-free.
The difficulty we now face is not how to log off entirely, which admittedly makes us miss out on a lot of what’s going on in the world, but how to integrate the omnipresent internet into our lives without losing touch with the world around us. Initiatives asking us to be screen-free for a week are missing the point. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever be screen-free again, at least not for any extended period of time. Rather than trying to ditch our screens altogether, we need to learn how to integrate the internet into our lives without letting it take over. Screw screen-free. We need to get screen-smart.
Photo credit: jasontoff