Saturday, October 8, 2016

In Praise of Staring At Screens

An observation: when I'm bored, I spend a lot of time staring at my phone, tablet, or other networked technology.

A related observation: when I have something meaningful to do, I ignore my technology.

I thought about this recently when someone close to me trotted out the old canard about how screen-staring drives wedges into polite society. Classic images of hundreds of people gazing, oracle-like, into their tiny networked do-funnies have become the iconic image of our age. I've read professional talking heads complain (mostly online, ironically enough) that such behavior propels isolation, social anxiety, job dissatisfaction, divorce, and worse.

Such claims have long bothered me, for multiple reasons. First, they mix correlation with causation. People on tech are dissatisfied, but are they dissatisfied because of their tech? Or are they on their tech because they're dissatisfied? Which introduces my main point: that I know which of those, for me, drives the other.

At work, when I get foisted onto menial, second-tier jobs, like sweeping floors, I have a hard time not checking social media on my phone every fifteen minutes. Jobs like sweeping, where even visible progress is transient, and I know I'll have to re-sweep the same floor tomorrow, leave me restless, with little to do with my brain, and a nagging desire for contact. Tasks where I have a measure of autonomy and benchmarks for accomplishment, like carpentry, don't make me want to check my phone.

And it isn't just at work. In my private life, if I spend Saturday among friends who lift me up, talking about shared interests, I feel no desire to check my phone. I discovered this when I spent one day this summer with a friend, and realized I hadn't even thought about my phone for six hours. Self-paced days spent writing, working with my hands, or even watching clouds at the park, leave my brain too peaceful to worry about my tech.

Saturdays spent trapped doing nothing, or something that bores me, have the opposite effect. Tedious activities, like scrubbing the toilet, or unpleasant activities, like going into Wal-Mart, have me reaching for my phone before I even intend to. When my family visits, time spent talking invigorates me. But they inevitably, at least once during each visit, want to hit the craft shop. I see everything I want there inside ten minutes, and spend the rest of the time thumbing listlessly at my phone.

The human brain, when presented with no reward, searches for future reward. We instinctively know this if we think about it: the hope of future reward is what makes gambling casinos such a profitable industry. It also fuels certain religious organizations, the ones that promise Heaven, eventually, to believers who don't make waves on Earth. Future rewards can be more powerful motivation than the present before our eyes.

Social media promise that, if we wait long enough, someone we like will say something meaningful. But ten years ago, we had to boot up our computers, at home or work, to access that promise. Now, thanks to mobile technology, that promise travels with us. We now, at all times, experience the nagging fear that someone, somewhere, is saying something interesting... without us.

Sometimes, we have motivation enough to ignore that nagging. Sometimes we don't. Which times are which probably has detectable patterns. Recall the images of phone-staring you've seen recently. If they resemble the ones I've seen, they've been taken on buses, in waiting rooms, and other places people sit silently in groups. Places that thwart the human desire for community.

I suggest people spend hours daily browsing their technology, not because they're morally weak, but because they're bored, and possibly lonely. Even today's "social" activities, noisy events in crowded spaces, leave eager, curious minds bereft. People want human contact, a positive reward, and they'll chase it, whether directly or online.

I realize I'm generalizing outward from my personal experience. I believe my experience is typical, but I have no proof of this. Perhaps I'm an outlier, and don't even realize it. But I truly think, if we consider our experiences, we've all felt the feeling I'm describing, at least occasionally.

If we think people spend too much time staring at their tech, scolding them won't do much good. We already know it hasn't yet, and probably won't start now. Instead, to keep people from getting lost in future expectations, it might help to ask: why do so many people see the present as something to escape?

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