My name is Davis Schneiderman, and I am a screen addict.
I can't stop interacting with screens. I'm using one now, of course, to write this post -- a moment of necessary productivity -- yet I am tethered to an array of devices in an almost constant cycle of euphoric use, excited overuse and crushing regret.
My name is Davis Schneiderman, and I have a problem.
Here are some of the ways I use:
iPad: This is my crystal meth. I take it with me almost everywhere, and can't stop browsing through the New York Times, my three main email addresses, and Facebook (which I "don't really use" but still glance at four to six times per day). I mark-up pdfs in iAnnotate with such vibrancy that really, I don't ever want to stop; sometimes I convert word documents into pdfs... just because I can. I use the Kindle app with a carless abandon I never felt with paper books, and feel comforted when its backlight lulls me to sleep and the iPad falls onto my chest as I pass into unquiet slumber.
iPod touch: This sweet little number docks on my alarm clock, and when it rings at 6:04 am, and I feel unable or unwilling to rise, I grab it from the dock and begin cycling through the news. My eyes are so dry and bleary that it takes me minutes to focus as I pass quickly through the headlines about issues such as the government Sequester and Kim Kardashian. I carry it with me, my iPod, most of the day, although it's made redundant by the next device. Why? I may need to use it when something else runs out of juice. I may need to cradle it, my iPod, just to feel its comforting presence.
Droid phone: I never wanted a smart phone. At first. I don't need that, I said. It's not for me, I said. I held onto my battered flip model -- small, used merely for making calls and awkward thumb texting -- long past its expiration date. And then, one day, I succumbed, I weakened, I wanted to stick with my wife and so upgrade, together, and make an important digital commitment... to the T-Mobile G2X. Oh how perfectly these twin devices express our personalities: I keep mine in a case; she doesn't. My last one once fell in a toilet. Hers never has. We share a Google calendar and surprise each other by scheduling secret appointments for our socially engaged elementary school daughters. We email each other important messages while on different floors of the house.
This January, I took advantage of a hardware reset and deleted my accounts from the email app. Since the phone is always within reach, I was always checking my email. Twenty seconds after the last check. Five seconds later. While walking into the house from the car. While strolling through the beautiful Chicago Botanic Gardens. While sitting by the gnawing vastness of Lake Michigan after carefully uploading a photo of its icy surface to Facebook.
Now, I reasoned, I would be forced to check email through the web browser -- where the too-small screen would starve me from my addiction. And it worked. Now, I only check email this way 40-60 times per day instead of 200+ times the old way.
Kindle Touch: I almost never use this; it's clunky to turn pages, without a backlight, and somehow not as accommodating in its design as my other beloved products. Yet, where there's nothing left in the cupboard, I'm not above drinking turpentine.
And let's not even get into my various computers, or, for instance, the two 24-inch monitors running in my office from Lake Forest College enabling me to write this article, watch YouTube videos, and keep 17 browser tabs open simultaneously with minimal real estate overlap.
Yep. I have a problem.
And so, on a recent past Friday after a wasted hour reading every insignificant email to pop-up in the corner of my screen, I hit upon the need for drastic action.
I embarked -- without really thinking about it -- on a 48-hour cold turkey screen starve. A writer friend told me that sounded "difficult" and "intense," and let me tell you honey, yes you -- with your constant push-button access to the world's information -- don't know the half of it.
I've learned these things:
1. Chuck E Cheese is really a kiddie casino/(strip) club. Yep, I did indeed dump all the above devices, but had forgotten a promise to take my daughters and two nieces to this den of brightly humming iniquity. As the animatronic band belted out "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," the four giddy girls took off into the twisted city of token-eating, ticket-dispensing come-ons.
Before long, to my surprise, the big Cheese himself emerged -- Chuck E. Cheese -- collecting all the children on the floor behind him, Pied Piper style. Where is he taking them? At the front, near the salad bar, the mouse led about 20 children in some sort of dance-a-long, before an attendant, nodding her approval, "made it rain" with 200 or so tickets for the prize counter, which the children scrambled for with all the grace of wild boars.
Dazed, I put a token into a plastic gorilla "shocker" machine. I needed to hold onto two metal bars as they increased in vibration, sending a pseudo "high voltage" current through my system, until noxious smoke passed from the gorilla's mouth in a fulminous belch: three tickets popped out as I coughed.
Clearly, I had traded one set of screens for another; the dopamine rush of tickets replaced the ping of incoming emails or the number of likes on a FB post.
2. Don't go to the largest mall in Northern Illinois: No, don't promise to take your daughters to Gurnee Mills' "Build-a-Bear" store on the same day, as a reward for weeks of good behavior and careful savings. It's not the noise of the sculpted play area, or the kiosks of remote-controlled helicopters, or the cheap fragrances wafting in like bad garbage -- but it's the moment I sat, alone, in the coffee shop, with nothing to read and a few minutes to spare, instinctively pulling out the smart phone for just a small dose of sweet, sweet internet.
Something told me to stay my hand, and I'm thankful. Otherwise, I would have missed the woman in the headscarf leading a small boy by the hand and speaking loudly about heart stents, and I would have missed her turning around to reveal the cell phone tucked between her cheek and headscarf for convenience. A coffee-chugging customer asked her how she does it, and she responds that it's "maa-a-gic," and I am impressed. I also I realize this mall I've always hated, with its garish colors and scads of screen-addled shoppers, is the epitome of techno-symbiosis: the world of the internet exported into a cacophony of mercantile behaviors, making it largely irrelevant whether my phone is "on" or "off." It's always on.
Of course, I eventually did get to leave the mall -- capping the weekend and the screen starve at the lake, my oldest daughter scaling the ice peaks extending just over the water line. The icy water just beyond us swirled and beckoned, and the chunks of slush they carried glinted like the casts of ancient technological devices reclaimed by the water and suspended -- in a temporarily frozen screen or crashed app -- from their access to the internet.
When I logged onto email late that night, the icy chunks stayed with me. Still, as the new messages filtered in, I felt the familiar thrills: I wanted it bad.
I had lived much, but changed nothing.
And that, I'm afraid, is exactly how my devices like it.