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#6  The Screen

At LAX, waiting for a connecting flight to JFK. From where I sit I can see fifty-seven people – not counting the people walking to their gates. Sixteen of them are couples. Of those fifty-seven people, forty-nine are on their phones, pads or laptops. Of the remaining eight, four are sleeping. One man just woke up and checked his phone.

A man five rows down is talking loudly into his headset; he’s pissed off because Chuck should have sent the breakdown yesterday. Past the river of walking people (the vast majority on their phones), I can see a bank of fifty-seven inch TV screens. Each is showing a different program – a car crossing a desert landscape, a football game, a sweating drummer, four talking heads around a table, a soccer match . . . their sound is turned off, so you couldn’t actually listen to any of the shows even if you wanted to; they’re on, presumably, to comfort us, pacify us.

Say it: It’s an addiction.

The woman sitting next to the man who’s upset about Chuck just asked her headphone how realistic the ten percent estimate is.

The drummer’s a guitarist now. On that particular screen, the scene cuts average nine seconds. On the football game, they average five. A scroll bar at the bottom of four of the screens rolls on, endlessly, offering more ‘information’: breaking news, scores, whatever’s upcoming, etc. etc.

I’ve felt it in myself – like static in the soul. A compulsion to check, to tap, to scroll.

Remember that Dylan line? - “Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?” This is what I’ve seen.

I’ve seen four people sitting at a window table in a street side restaurant in Manhattan, all four of them texting.

I’ve seen men standing at urinals, checking their phones with their free hands.

In Miami, I saw one drop the phone into the urinal.

I’ve seen a fly-fisherman, mid-stream, looking down at his phone.

I’ve seen kayakers on crystalline September days talking on their phones as the kayak drifted sideways in the current.

I’ve seen five teen-agers in a car outside the China Star, all five heads bent as if in prayer, the little blue screens glowing in the dark. When I came out with my General Tso’s, ten minutes later, they were still there, still praying.

I’ve seen people walk into objects, off the curb, miss their stop, miss the light, miss the turn.

I’ve seen people drift across three lanes of traffic at seventy-five miles an hour, languidly, then drift back, then slow to forty. When I was able to pass, there was the little blue screen.

I’ve seen couples walking with their arms around each other, each talking separately into their phone.

But this isn’t news – it’s so ordinary it’s invisible. In fact, it’s redundant: We’re all on the phone, pretty much all the time. We have to check this, we have to answer that. We have to. We’ll be right back. And if there’s nothing to answer, we’ll call someone. Or text. Or watch that last Colbert video again. Or check the weather. Or our e-mail. Or our Facebook. Or...

The ten percent estimate woman likes John’s idea, which everyone gets to hear about in detail. Another woman’s been talking for ten minutes now, pacing back and forth between the rows of people waiting for their flight, gesticulating; apparently, she was ‘shocked,’ by the report, but the good news was that she heard that their team would be talking about the account on Friday with legal.

At times, it can have a kind of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ vibe to it: We’re being taken over, co-opted. We can’t stop. Waking in the morning, we check our phones before we touch the person next to us. We check our phones while we eat. We check while brushing our teeth.

We’re not riding the technology – the technology’s riding us.

Here’s a question: What could be more essential to the creation of a self, a soul, than the quiet, unmediated space inside our heads - that place where our own particular, idiosyncratic thoughts form and swirl? Where our imagination lives and forms us in its image?

What could be more precious than this space apart? What could be more worth defending than this wilderness of memories and associations that makes us who we are?

And yet we’re standing by as that wilderness is ‘developed’; more, we’re running the backhoes and bulldozers ourselves, helping lay down the pavement. We’re desecrating the inner life and calling it progress.

We’re being colonized. I’m not speaking metaphorically.

The encroachment is incremental, relentless, ultimately devastating. If your attention is fractured often enough, regularly enough, you don’t have an attention anymore. You lose the ability to focus, to be still, to go deep, to wonder, muse, imagine, dream. Because machines do it for you. Like they do everything else. You’re essentially a junkie – all knee-jerk nervousness, jarring and skittering from half-thought to half-thought, only able to cure the restlessness in your soul with more of the same drug.

The screen is ubiquitous now. Infants in their cribs turn to it automatically. It wants our attention – all of it, all the time.

And it's getting it. There’s a screen in the doctor’s office, in the dentist’s office, in the oil and lube waiting room, in the train station. In bus depots and airports, you walk through a corridor of screens. You can’t turn them off. Sitting in a restaurant, trying to talk to the person across the table from you, your eye is drawn to the screen above the bar. Your conversation halts, starts again, stops, starts again. Driving down the highway, walking down the street, images on screens jerk and cut and beckon: a group of attractive men and women are standing on an overlook in the desert, holding their smart phones, laughing.

Not long ago I stopped to tank up at a gas station near my home. When I got out of the car, a warm wind brought the smell of hot fields, reminding me of some one, some place . . . and it was gone before I had a chance to find it: The TV selling me something above the credit-card swipe slot has erased it.

It sounds like a small thing, I know. It’s not. Multiplied by a hundred million people – make that two or three billion world-wide – it amounts to something very large indeed.

What happens to a people when their inner life is taken over? From what I can tell, no one really knows except that it ain’t good; the scientists need time to conduct their double-blind tests, the social scientists need years to tell us what common sense has been telling us for years: That it’s a depleting thing, an invasive thing. Ultimately, a damaging thing. That it may be a necessary thing for work these days as well as a wonderful way of distracting ourselves (or hypnotizing our kids into giving us a break), but that it gives us little of what we need and asks a great deal in return – and then asks a little more. And then a little more.

Walking it back, being still, regrowing your attention, single-tasking – whatever you want to call it - ain’t easy. Most technologies, once you’ve adapted to them, function like those tire-busting spikes in parking lots: going back hurts.

But it can be done. We can re-claim our mental space, one minute at a time. It’s an extraordinarily simple thing, and for that reason, startlingly powerful: Even though everything appears to be moving in the direction of more, even though a great deal of money – very big money – is greasing the tracks, speeding us headlong into the future that the technoevangelists have determined is inevitable, the machine can be jarred so very easily.

All it takes is for one couple to leave their phones at home.

All it takes is one parent to not buy the new, digital Barbie for their four year-old.

All it takes if for one mother to say, “help me rake the leaves this morning – I’ve made some cider.”

All it takes if for one person to say, “This is ridiculous – why am I checking my goddamn phone to see if it’s cold outside when I can step out the door and see for myself?”

All it takes is for one person to sit in an airport and watch people walk by. And let his mind wander.

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