Screen Attention Disorder
Full disclosure: I am 67 years old and am now able to receive all the benefits of being a senior citizen, including the official Misanthropic Curmudgeon Certificate which is framed and hanging, in honor of the sacred place where Martin Luther had his epiphanies, above my toilet.
The following is not a dissertation. More so it is a rant in the tradition of I’m Mad As Hell And I’m Not Going To Take This Anymore, from the movie “Network”.
But since I am writing this, not making a video for YouTube, the anger will be a bit more diffused, and any Answers, any in-depth plans for corrective action, will be left wandering around the hallways.
“That’s right folks, Don’t touch that dial.”
— Frank Zappa (I Am The Slime)
While that movie was focused primarily on television, we now also have its interactive version on our computers — as well as those ubiquitous prisoner tracking monitors called smartphones.
The brain gardeners planted the Tube as a seed when I was very young. With the advent of digital fertilizer there was no stopping that Screen Weed from permeating every acre of our culture.
The doodlebugs called tourists come from every corner of the world to Times Square just to marvel and ingest the visual splendor. And you can rest assured that more screens are coming — to a restaurant, retail store window, or sidewalk near you.
So—let me ramble through that labyrinth of moving images and bounce myself off the walls in that Hall of Mirrors. I will jump from screen to screen, from past to future, and back to the present again— and Oh the endless distractions and tempting illusions you’ll see.
I feel the need to start with my view of us humans — a general observation to show the geometrical Degree of Skew ( ° / ) underlying my perspective.
I have always considered myself to be a optimistic pessimist—but perhaps it was the other way around.
Look around you — everything is wrapped up in multiple layers of theft protection. Locks and keys and codes and cameras and tags and alarms and big guys standing near the door. From the time you power up your computer and start surfing that majestic shopping mall called the Internet until you shut down all the appliances and go to sleep (counting passwords jumping over a firewall), Security is in place. It would appear that it is not just some occasional bad guy lurking in the shadows, but vast hordes of us greedy critters, ceaslessly munching and spewing, that have to be watched out for.
But we humans do love our social fictions of honesty and sincerity and innocence and basic goodness.
Casting the First Stone, which, with its sweet reward of righteous indignation, maintains its status as one of our most popular parlor games.
Action camera zooms accompanied by dramatic music bring us the daily news of Big Corruption. The excitement levels will be maintained by coverage of Big Sports, Big Celebrities, and Big Weather— after a word from our Big Sponsor. [Aside: Big Murder, aka war, has seriously adjusted their framing devices since Vietnam. Nightly troop death-counts led to protests and next thing you know it gets more complicated to meddle in other countries’ political affairs. While still resorting to the Support Our Troops bamboozle, when Critical Thinking shows up to question things, new marketing schemes are always being designed to sell rebooted versions of the ever popular Us-and-Them paradigms. Barnum was right.]
I can hear a few readers inflating their optimism-and-trust-driven speech balloons in response—but do be forewarned that I’ll be sticking with my barrage of Bah Humbugs, which I’ve earned honestly over the decades, usually by leaning against facades that didn’t hold up.
Y’see I was sorta young there for a while and was going to change the world. At twelve I played with toy soldiers but by fifteen I could already see through the war racket—as Combat, Gallant Men and Rat Patrol spewed from the family TV. Nostalgic reassurance about The Good War. I think those were mostly my step-father’s choice. My mom preferred Gunsmoke and Bonanza.
In 1963 The Beverly Hillbillies was being watched by 57 million people.
(Let me leave that there for moment to sink in.)
Although it threw my young life into turmoil, in retrospect my having to face the military draft was the best thing that could have happened to me — I had to be, as the young people today say—woke!
And then, out in the world I found numerous tribes that were demanding social change against inequality and racism, while also exposing and rejecting the lies of the military-industrial complex. The American Dream desire for material ownership seemed less a focus there. Television and its obvious commercial inanities were being debunked and criticized.
And in response, the Living Room Tube, by then a firmly planted tool of industry and government, distorted, criticized and ostracized any alternative views. (Spoiler: The Tube won.)
“Young people speaking their minds/
Getting so much resistance from behind.”
— Stephen Stills (For What It’s Worth)
Jump ahead to 2018 and the show Rosanne was being watched by 29 million. (That social media term— face-palming—serves well to express my response.)
With the acceptance of the phenomenon of binge-watching junkies, it would be impossible to get most folks to admit their problems enough to show up at SA (Screenheads Anonymous) meetings. Based on past history, if an attempt were to be made to outlaw these pervasive distract-a-ddictions, there would arise an underground network of sitcom producers and bootleggers to satisfy the desperate needs—and in the meantime a large number of people would just not survive. But then again—Darwin. Or perhaps, as some of our good Christian Americans are wont to say in response to mass murder: Let god sort ’em out.
You can bet that as sure as Christmas Consumerism cannot be abandoned, this is not going to happen.
BigKarma is hustling to make lots of Soma for our current Brave New World—with apps to help you maintain that special comfy anxiety as well as allow you to post pictures of your restaurant meal. Who would want any less? The Information Age is here and will provide satisfying answers. Who needs interviewers asking those pesky probing questions.
Sound bytes and memes. Tl:dr — too long; didn’t read — its the full-steam-ahead new cultural modus operandi.
“Whole problem ‘th you folks’ generation . . . nothing personal, is you believed in your Revolution, put your lives right out there for it — but you sure didn’t understand much about the Tube. Minute the Tube got hold of you folks that was it, the whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like th’ Indians, sold it all to your real enemies, and even in 1970 dollars — it was way too cheap.”
— Thomas Pynchon (Vineland)
As I surf the Internet I almost always see something moving on the edges of the page, batting its eyelashes—click me, consume me. I’m just like television but with me you can also shop on Amazon. And even get groceries delivered! That way you’ll have time for . . . more screens.
With television you can hear it in the tone — politics, sports, news, shows, advertisements — that same false revved-up excitement, cars on hair-pin turns, instant playbacks and canned laughter, and those deep authoritative voices confirming that yes, this is your link to the real world — always on a constant stream, providing you the latest on every topic, with urgency.
Everything is fever pitch entertainment, from news to weather.
We’ll have more on the impending Bombogenesis Thundersnow Derecho Nor’easter Polar Vortex after a word from our sponsor.
The fun never ends—look, there are people jumping up and down in ecstacy as they guess the price of a refrigerator—and intense crime investigators, sarcastic arrogant judges, average families who will play out wacky situations, celebrities chatting with other celebrities, witty gangsters, acerbic cartoon characters, ironic space travelers, flying heroes and winking anti-heroes. Oh yes and, for the intellectuals in the audience, Jeopardy. All of it to sell soap, and pills, and insurance, and cars, and especially . . . itself!
STAY TUNED! — that’s the real message.
Seems the hordes have adjusted to screens everywhere. Want a hamburger? Here — watch some padded and helmeted men run head on into each other over your dinner guest’s shoulder.
Under the guise of providing free wi-fi there are structures being placed all over New York City — with screens that sell advertising and provide “fun facts” (the phrase gives me existential tremors). In reality these are active digital billboards. And with the Internet as well as smartphones you can enjoy that plugged in buzz constantly, forever —well, until you’re run over by a car as you and the driver are each gazing into your screens.
“Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you ”
— Bob Dylan (It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Remembrance of Screens Past.
The black screen in my living room serves the basic purpose of watching films. (Well, except that my partner used to like to watch traffic cams on it — but that’s a whole ’nother story.) After my spree of watching the Soupy Sales Show as an early teen I pretty much relegated The Tube to serve up cinema.(Well yeah, there was the British Invasion and anything music/Beatles.)
In my later teens I went outside, got high, and hung out with my friends while my parents took yet another couch trip on the Enterprise with Spock. I didn’t get it; I still don’t. After I left home at 18 there were a few occasional misjudgments, getting caught up in this or that artificially-sweetened tubal candy, but probably equal only to times I woke up with a hangover — for lucky me: regrets too few to mention.
My optimistic hopes for the interactivity/participation of the Internet spiraled downward with every algorithmic adjustment by the men behind the curtain.
I have very few “likes” left to give social media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter et al—regarding them serving as anything much more than eye-candy stores.
When exposed to TV programming (doctor’s office, gym) I get an allergic reaction. It starts with spasms up and down that empty space where some people imagine their souls are located, and ends up with full blown existential stigmata.
To get to the lockers at the YMCA I have to pass through the TV Room. The large screen is always set to the “news”, and the volume to high. In the minute it takes for me to cross this space I see —always—non-stop talking-head analysis of this and that minutiae of various aspects of one of the ongoing political scandals. This is obviously the best programming to get revved up before, or chill down after, a workout.
As with other sports on the screen, this Game of Politics, to keep it simple, is split into two teams. To score goals, character assassination is a vigorous, often utilized, tactic. The supporting tribes cheer or groan as the ball goes back and forth. I’m no sports expert but it often looks as though the players are throwing the game, going through the motions while avoiding any actual action. And so any issues, policies, or legislation—well, those are relegated to post game kvetching
The major news media do have a stake in this particular clambake, as they report on the following day about the sophomoric caricatures of the current political cycles on Saturday Night Live* or some talk show.
(*What is the sound of 8 million people laughing, desperately.)
Latest political ball in play: Global Climate Change. Kicked back and forth—is it real or is it not—but ultimately not very much being said about what is really going to get done about it.
One thing you can be sure is that it will not involve the audience giving anything up—cars, lawnmowers, air conditioners, and all the other groovy gadgets made with planned obsolescence that the monopolies conveniently create and power.
Health Care For All? Kick that ball out of the game quickly before somebody notices that the insurance industry has a hold on the gonads of all the referees — the elected politicians who themselves never have to worry about health care.
Occasionally we see criticism of screen culture, the deeper issues with social media, or how literacy is being affected by these technological advancements. Decades ago there was discussion of the The Dumbing Down of America, especially through the machinations of the Idiot Box, so this is nothing new. As before, these philosophical, critical thinking speed bumps have little strength agains the momentum.
“What explains the pointlessness of most published TV criticism is that television has become immune to charges that it lacks any meaningful connection to the world outside it. It’s not that charges of nonconnection have become untrue. It’s that any such connection has become otiose. Television used to point beyond itself. Those of us born in like the sixties were trained to look where it pointed, usually at versions of “real life” made prettier, sweeter, better by succumbing to a product or temptation. Today’s Audience is way better trained, and TV has discarded what’s not needed. A dog, if you point at something, will look only at your finger.”
— David Foster Wallace (“E unibus pluram: television and U.S. fiction”)
Thus here I am, with my tainted view of the citizenry of the USofTV.
The future of democracy is being entrusted into their hands, whose fingers are busy playing Candy Crush on their smartphones.
Without questioning they go spinning through the Cycles of Consumption — gadgets, entertainments, holidays: Super Bowl, Academy Awards, Christmas, Halloween etc etc—with candies wrapped for each occasion. They want to dwell in Smart Homes and experience life through Virtual Reality. Dreaming of trips to Mars their big screens fill with super-heroes that solve the problems on Earth.
As George Carlin pointed out —”It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
With fantasy in place it is easy to sell them the greatest wish—to be a celebrity! They too can be a princess—or a gangsta.
How else could a reality-TV show host have been elected president? Why else the candidate who kept bringing up the issues and the needs of the people be undermined?
“Speed up the film, Montag, quick … Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! … Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”
— Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451)
With TV, since I don’t passively subject myself to it, I only get hit with passing drivel shrapnel. But on the Internet, which I use for learning and shared communication, I regularly have the explosion right in my face — blazing layers of seemingly endless gooey Stupidity, churned out by marketers in service to venture capitalists, created for an obviously vast audience, whose gullibility almost begs a thumbs down on the entire species.
So what do we do? The answers may be blowing in the wind—or as I said in the beginning: walking around in the hallway.
The last time I wandered out there I was met by two strangers. One was wearing a Pollyanna mask and suggested that things weren’t as bad as I saw them. And his associate spoke unto me — “the stupid you will always have with you.”
My mother said I always asked too many questions, I couldn’t just let things be. And, at 16, my first girlfriend told me I was too existential.
Are these the ingredients for the misanthropic curmudgeon senior citizen you see before you?
If for some reason you liked this rant, don’t sweat the “claps” — just go out and read something long and difficult!
© AleXander Hirka 2019. All Rights Reserved.
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Tempest Tossed in New York City — writing and art and life in New York City