Deconstructionist philosopher Avital Ronell teaches that a few generations ago European travelers in the Swiss Alps found the sight of the mountain peaks so overwhelming that they equipped their carriages with special screens to block their view. They looked through tinted glasses to mediate the experience of raw nature. Today, standing in the Alps or outside our home, we no longer rely on colored glasses. Instead, we use digital cameras, cell phones and movie players to filter our experience. And we have become so accustomed to the view that we prefer pixels to sublime reality … we are addicted to the screens we use to dampen the rawness of life.
We are a society in the grips of a widespread screen addiction. Many of us spend upwards of eight hours a day staring at a screen. We carry video capable iPods, Internet savvy BlackBerrys and graphically stunning portable game machines. We steal glances at these little screens throughout the day and then tuck them back into our pockets and return our gaze to the big screens sitting on our desks. In order to relax, we plop ourselves in front of a widescreen TV. We spend more time making eye contact with our screens than with our neighbors.
The screen is, by design, the ultimate distraction. Even when we try to avoid looking at screens, our eyes are naturally drawn to their flickering lights. The dazzling special effects of our iPhones and our video games stimulate our brains more powerfully than reality. Given the option of looking at the slow pace of nature unfold or the frenetic speed of a big budget movie playing on a tiny screen, we often choose the screen. But training our brains to expect constant visual stimulation has troubling consequences.
Neuroscientists are beginning to address the long-term consequences of visual addiction. Books such as iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind argue that the increase in screen use has rewired our brains and led to a decrease in our empathy and our ability to read facial language. The authors of iBrain ultimately propose a policy of moderating screen time, I wonder if this goes far enough. As visual technologies advance and a greater proportion of our working lives are spent online, there isn’t one, individual-based, solution.
Society is addicted to screens. What we need, therefore, is not a policy of personal moderation but a cultural revolution. Our visual addiction is masking our fear of feeling existence to its fullest. Our task is to build a movement to unwire our social relationships, to unlink our workplace communications and to accept the slow pace of life in order to directly confront the existential dilemmas that we face.
Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He is writing a book on anti-screen activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org