How many hours of your awake time is spent either looking at a computer screen or at a television? Five hours? Six hours? 12 hours? More? In a recent article, Own Your Words, I said this in the comments:

I think those in the future who choose to study us after we are dead will be amazed at how much free time we had when the world was crumbling all around us and we did nothing to heal it in time. They will discover were only interested in peering into LCDs and CRTs to ignore the fire engulfing us on all sides. It will be a sad day of reckoning for memories when they realize on our behalf that we never really lived at all.

Why do we spend so much time peering into something that doesn’t — yet
— reciprocally look back at us? Are we merely observers in life or are we more on the level of passively peeping into places we cannot create in the real world around us?

When I was in graduate school at Columbia University one of our scenery design teachers — the brilliant Robin Wagner — taught us the key to good design is to “entertain the eye and the body will follow.”

I found Robin’s advice fascinating back then and frightening now as people build “Eye Reservoirs” on the web and entertainment Pupil Portals posing as news programs on television. Watching demands nothing more than a receptive eye.

We don’t even have to focus our eyes on what is set before us because the images still dance in our minds and flay away any semiotic remainders of good sense and socialized morality. What are we searching for with our eyes and not our bodies? What meaning do we yearn to render in pixels and dot pitch?

How can we hope to overcome the hypnotic state of Active Eye Entertainment while the spirit and mind — the vital essences of the body and the very bits of individual being — become blurred in the strobing light of a day that never ends under a sun that never rises?

36 Comments

  1. Hi David,
    If I’m not out and about, I’m usually in front of the computer almost all day working.
    The computer opens up the world to ideas, sights, and sounds of places that we wouldn’t normally be able to visit because of the time constraints of our busy schedules.
    Some users seek connections with communities via the online world. Others want information. While others want to make money. Some want to escape from the routine of their ordinary lives.
    Sometimes the four goals are combined.

  2. Between work and school, I am on the computer a huge portion of every day. I also spend time, via email, maintaining friendships with people who do not live in the area, including my family. I also love being able to look up just about anything. If I see a bird or a plant that I have never seen before, I can read all about it on the web. I read different accounts, different points of view, of various events around the world. Online research is valuable to me for my schoolwork and also my personal life. For example, I look up directions, compare products and prices, etc. I also participate in a few online communities that share a specific interest or further a common cause.
    However, the online interests further my “physical world” interests. It would be difficult to find the same resources and support in the off-line world. People I meet and work with don’t share many, or any, of my interests and it would be difficult for me to learn more without the online aspect.

  3. Hi Chris!
    Love your Gravatar! It looks spectacular!
    I agree we use our computers to escape and discover and connect — but is is all via a screen and not in the company of another person. Is the warmth of a body in close proximity to us important in remaining human?
    I, too, spend most of my day in front of a computer screen and then I watch TV at night. Most of my days and most of my waking hours are spent in front of some sort of light that has replaced the sun on my back.

  4. It doesn’t make me less human. It helps me to connect with and understand the perspectives of others.
    But, I do know people who are online almost all the time and have very few in-person friendships or offline activities. For example, I met a 19-year-old man at a party recently; he was the cousin of an invited guest. All his “friends” were online friends. His point was that he could chat with them any time of day or night. Every conversation he mentioned, though, seemed completely shallow to me. My question was, would any of those people care or help him if he really needed it? He didn’t have an answer for that, except that as an “adult” I couldn’t understand the “new reality.”

  5. I’ll be honest here and admit that most of my free time is spent online. I used to visit chatrooms quite a lot and could happily spend all day in there. That’s where I met my partner.
    Since moving to BC (which incidentally, we set off on our journey out to BC exactly a year ago today) The PC is my link with the outside world. We don’t have many friends here and so I use my MSN messenger to keep in touch with those friends I made online.
    I’ve met quite a few of those friends in the Real World also, and have yet to find someone that I don’t get on well with.
    There is a danger in just talking to people online though. You can never really know someone unless you meet them face to face. Hence why I’ve made the effort to go out and meet as many of my “online friends” as I can. Some of those friends are now close enough to me that they’re making an effort to get a flight out to BC for my Wedding.
    The computer is my link to the outside world. I keep in touch with friends and family who live in other countries, I do a lot of my gardening research online too, in particular I got a lot of information about growing tomatoes that I couldn’t find in books from the library. A lot of times I find the information on the internet to be more up to date too, which helps immensely. I found a lot of information about Spiritualism online which helped again, in a big way, especially with my meditation.
    I think people can get addicted to things such as chatrooms. I myself don’t use them anymore. If I talk to someone it’s either via email, MSN Messenger, the Phone, or face to face. I know of people who spend all day every day in chatrooms and I cannot imagine why. I look back at my time in chatrooms and don’t understand what I got from it. Maybe it sucks you in, and you lose all sense of the real world. Those “friends” in chatrooms become your “real” friends, and your “online” life becomes reality. That’s the danger. I’m glad I didn’t get sucked in like that.

  6. That’s an interesting perspective, since I imagine you make a lot of connections online that you would not be able to make in person. Not only that, but you have the potential to affect connecting to others. For example, I would not have known about the public library decision in Valparaiso if Chris had not written about it here. Once I know about it, I can choose to act on that knowledge with others who feel the same way. And maybe I will look into the policies of my own local library.
    For me, the computer helps to further interests and relationships that exist offline. Online is not the end, just one part of the means.

  7. Hi Dawn!
    Thanks for the honesty. You are rare in the way your force your online friends to meet you in person.
    I know people who divide their world into the Online and the In-Person and while an in-person person can go online for communication an Online relationship will never become an “in-person” relationship because, they feel, once that barrier of anonymity is crossed and broken you can never go back to having the same sort of relationship Online before the in-person meeting.
    It’s as if Online creates it own sense of discovery and wonderment and the in-person version can never live up to the reality of the actual human being and once the mask is broken there is no interest in putting it back together.
    I’ve never been able to get into Instant Messaging or Chat Rooms… probably because all the abbreviations of meaning make me crazy!
    😀

  8. Antoinette —
    You’re right I basically live online. I can make much more money and dig far deeper online with my fingers than I can manipulate with my hands in person.
    Online relationships are pretend, aren’t they? One can’t read any sort of body language or get any visual cues to behavior that normally influence meaning and provide the context of understanding.
    People online can hide behind anonymity while in-person nothing can be hidden — even if nothing is said — if one is in any way prescient and intuitive in reading other people.
    In the example of you… you have revealed many interesting shards of your life here but without the normal defining exchange of human qualities that are bartered in-person by osmosis.
    No one here knows your location or ethnic or cultural labels — and to do that risks revealing your true self to those who may lurk and never speak and who may intend to do you harm.
    So by the very nature of the computer screen many of us hide for protection or to hide puerile incarnations or something else…
    So while your suffering is real and important it risks — by the requirement of online communication — in staying in the abstract and as non-committal as the username you choose to use here.

  9. People online can hide behind anonymity while in-person nothing can be hidden — even if nothing is said — if one is in any way prescient and intuitive in reading other people.

    Some people are good at hiding in person.
    If they are social or smart enough, they can also hide their “true” personality or nature for quite a long time. A good example of this is Frank William Abagnale, Jr., of Catch Me If You Can fame.

  10. CHRIS!
    DO NOT VISIT THAT SITE! IT IS NOT SAFE FOR ANYONE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE!
    I think you should go say more than just hello to your neighbors, Chris! Jinkers!
    😀
    I don’t like the telephone. I prefer email.
    I don’t like to meet in person. I prefer email.
    I prefer email because it saves me time and I can get much more done in a day than if I’m chatting on someone else’s time or traveling an hour to see them in-person when we could get the same amount of work done in an email back-and-forth.
    I realize our future is to bend time and to compress space so we warp even faster in the world — but I guess I miss a little more of the warmer, friendlier, more neighborly time we had in the days before cell phones and digital cable and web versions of magazines and newspapers. Sure it all gives us more content to access but I’m not sure if it makes us better people or brings any more meaning into our everyday lives and if it doesn’t provide more — and in some cases it provides less — then what are we forsaking in the exchange?

  11. I find using the telephone is an exercise in wasted time, in comparison to email.
    You call someone, get their receptionist or automated attendant, leave a message with the receptionist or voice mail, then wait for a return call which always goes into your voice mail when you step away from your desk or are out of the office.
    Many people will pick up their email at convenient times and send back detailed information.
    Phone calls usually are simple messages to return a call, even if you request that detailed information be left.
    I’ll have to make a point of finding my neighbors to say “hi” to them. I always see my immediate neighbors, but the ones who are little further down the road are harder to make contact with. I see some of them only on Halloween when I take my oldest son trick-or-treating.
    Maybe we’d be more social if we created a virtual neighborhood for my neighborhood. 😉
    P.S. I won’t visit that site — the all caps warning scared me.

  12. Chris —
    I think there are people you cannot hide from and two types are professional writers and the police. They’re pretty good at sizing up people and character and while you might be able to hide details of your life you can’t hide the specificity of who you are.
    I agree the telephone is now a game of tag. When you call someone you are commanding their time. I usually get a much richer response to an email inquiry than I do over the phone.
    I love the idea of creating a “This is Chris’ Neighborhood Blog” so everyone on your street can get to know each other. Maybe you can give them all free phones as an incentive to post a comment?
    :mrgreen:
    YES, STAY AWAY FROM THAT SITE! IT’S CREEPY JUST LOOKING AT THE PORNOGRAPHIC FRONT PAGE!

  13. Hi David,
    That might be a good idea to set up the neighborhood blog.
    However, a lot of my neighbors are older, so I might have explain to them that blogs aren’t filled with dangerous people. At least, the neighborhood blog wouldn’t be. I take that back … some of the neighbors might be dangerous! 😉
    My mom, who isn’t really that old — she can join the AARP but can’t get Social Security yet — is afraid to stray too far away from her AOL opening page because of fear of strangers on the internet.
    After watching a couple of episodes of NBC’s Dateline she’s convinced the internet is a minefield filled with people who patronize the aforementioned creepy website.

  14. Hi Chris —
    Yes, the blog for the neighborhood might not be ready for a generation who grew up dialing a rotary phone.
    I like it your mother is wary of the internet. That’s a good attitude to have. Unless you’re savvy and know your way around a Spam scam or two — there are lots of bad people online hunting for newbies to abuse in a bad way.

  15. As an introvert I am very picky about with whom I spend time in person – I need quality time – not quantity and yes, I need human touch. I need connection. I need warmth.
    But I would prefer to stay alone (either online or with a book) if I don’t have someone worthwhile to spend time with.
    I don’t believe in virtual relationships. E mail is just an impersonal, official way of communication to me. I use it both for official and unofficial/personal purpose but most of the time I have a strange sense of detachment about it. I don’t have any on line friend, I don’t believe in one. I need someone walking; talking…I need a face with a name.
    I know it would sound real stupid but this is me. I don’t even like to leave voice messages while calling my friends (this is definitely not applicable in my professional life); I feel I am being stopped by a security guard before entering their house. So, I don’t even call my friends (I only have a handful though!) if I am not sure that they would pick up the phone. Most of my friends know it, so they accept my call regardless of time and place! 😀
    I think I look for substance always, in any form of communication. As long as that is there – I can extract warmth out of it.
    Wow…I talked a lot…

  16. Holy cow!!!
    You got me!!!!!!
    Hold on a second. “Urban Semiotic group” is an exception – doesn’t fall under this category (probably this ‘exception proves the rule’). You all know where you stand in my life – you are not really my ‘friends’, but ‘philosopher and guide’ too! 😀
    This sort of connection is very rare, you can call it a chance in a life time.
    Though, at times I feel if I could meet you all – in person!

  17. Amen on the phone messages.
    There’s nothing worse than seeing someone has left a voice message.
    At the office, they have a person who handles calls when we are out so that people don’t have to wait for us to return calls when we are on the road. It’s a more efficient system than having someone wait for hours to get a return call. (I always try to return calls within the day so I don’t have to worry about them).
    I’d rather have people I know who call my cell phone hang up if I don’t answer, rather than leave a message to call back. If I’m at court, I put the phone on silent mode so that it can register calls when I can’t answer it.
    It’s quicker to just hit the send button when you see their missed call, than to call into voice mail, check it, then hang up, then call them. A hang up call with caller ID can save about 2 minutes worth of time if you know the person who did the hang up call.

  18. Another perspective is that you can judge me for my
    words and thought processes without judging me for my
    looks or ethnicity, or whatever personal aspects catch
    your particular attention.
    I don’t think online relationships are pretend just by virtue of being online. I only reveal certain aspects of myself in person as well. I only share suffering with anyone who is a very close friend and in a private area. I stick to certain topics of conversation at work, and other topics with my neighbors. I only speak of things I would not want others to know about me in non-public areas. That doesn’t make those relationships pretend – they are contained within certain parameters. Or do you think so? No question it is easier to disguise oneself online. But it possible to conceal ones true motives and character in person also.
    The thing is, this isn’t a private club. This is a public forum, in that anyone can read it. I’m not going to say anything here that I wouldn’t say at a party or gathering.

  19. Chris —
    Right on! There’s nothing worse than getting a Voice Mail message that says, “Call me.” Ugh! If you’re going to leave a message, leave a message with meaning and specificity and information so I don’t waste my airtime calling in to learn what I already know from my Caller ID.

  20. I haven’t learnt to disown my words. I have come across millions of blogs or other ways of online communication – this is the only one I chose to join.
    You are an exception.
    Take it or leave it – that’s your choice.

  21. hmmm im still trying to find out what we are searching for….
    we all get onto google and click that search button, but we never seem to be satisfied because we always come back for more searching for somthing we are not even sure that we can find on the web but consoling ourselves that as long as we search we must be getting somwhere.
    am i missing out on somthing?
    whats your take on this?

  22. You as an important question isaac. I think engines like Google feed the need to know in some of us and that, in turn, can lead to an unquenchable thirst for knowledge that always leaves us dry not matter how hard we continue to search.