When screens are the only way out,
which way is out?
Image taken by Project 2051
A recent New York Times piece concluded a long-standing debate: screens won, digital detox can see itself out for now. During the coronavirus pandemic crisis, this much became evident. Take a moment to think of your daily routine – if you haven’t already done so. It’s from one screen to another, I bet, like pretty much every other person living in confinement. But I believe containing such an issue merely to a “screen-time debate” doesn’t do it enough justice. If every screen is a spiralling rabbit hole, how easily and frequently do we jump from one hole to another? If we leave small traces of our visit down each hole, how can we retrieve said pieces? Is it even necessary to do so nowadays? Do we use each screen in a different manner? If so, is it because they afford so or because we need them to behave diversely? Have we decentralised ourselves? And, ultimately, if screens are the only way out of this Black Mirror version of the Groundhog Day, which way is “truly” out?
Too many unsettling questions. This article began by asking a simple yet perplexing question, that also serves as its title. Truth is, there isn’t a definite answer. Let’s check some data first, contextualise our discussion, as an academic would say. As expected, screen-time figures have gone through the roof these last two months. Content streaming services have seen their numbers grow substantially; same goes for newspaper and digital media readership (though the revenues are not following suit, but that’s a different story). Heck, if you’ve enabled weekly screen-time reports on your mobile devices, I’m sure you’ve already noticed that much. But, what does this mean for us, as human beings and citizens?
Vilém Flusser, a Czech-born philosopher, wrote a book in 1985 called “Into the Universe of Technical Images.” His opus has aged rather well, mainly due to his insightful study of the burgeoning importance of “technical images,” as well as of our – strangely enough – fingertips. Flusser’s central argument was that technical images have the power to create utopian versions of our world and reconfigure entertainment, relationships, as well as traditional notions like the economy or, even, life and death. Those who develop these technical images may be aware of the power their images wield but in many cases they lose track, unable to control them or predict how they will be used. Mobile screens, TV screens, PCs or laptops, all these artefacts reproduce technical images. We are offered content through a myriad of ways, non-stop and seamlessly. Imagine the shadowy projections on Plato’s Cave connected to a tireless factory of image production (or, simply, the Internet).
Now, I’m not arguing that we are passive content consumers; that is somewhat obsolete. However, as citizens, we ought to be conscientious about the realities offered by content creators, be them news media or streaming giants. Since lived reality is constructed, it can be quite easy to lose thyself in a labyrinth of manufactured realities. Especially during a period where we are diving from one screen to another. And this could further disorientate our already dispersed attention and exacerbate our sense of not being in control. We are building a wall of screens, each screen serving a different purpose. When viewed from distance, it’s a flickering mosaic. For the first time in a long time, we are faced with the bleak realisation that we are not in control. We cannot do anything to stop Covid-19 until a vaccine is discovered and made publicly available. Therefore, we are locking ourselves in our houses to protect our society at large. We are locking ourselves in our screens to keep in touch with the rest of the world, ironically in a “touchless” way.
We are trying to maintain control. But screens are not neutral. They are extensions of private, vested interests, specifically designed to monopolise our attention. The problem is that, now more than ever, we’re running out of attention; if we have any left that is. And it is exactly at this point where it starts to get tricky: by having less and less attention, not only are we starting to become passive consumers but we’re also slowly losing touch with reality, our friends and family. The coronavirus pandemic will eventually subside. Lockdowns will be soon lifted. It’s pointless to try and predict what will the scars of this collective experience will be. One thing that is becoming apparent, though, is that we cannot live with a decentralised mind or body. We have a limited attention or “engagement” span to offer. And we should cherish that. The answer to our first and overarching question, then, might sound anticlimactic but it’s the closest we have to a good answer: “Man is the answer, no matter the question” as André Breton used to say. And we have no reason to disagree.