Benjamin Leszcz is a partner at Whitman Emorson, a design studio in Toronto. He worked previously as a magazine writer and editor.
In an early Halloween episode of The Simpsons, Homer sells his soul for a doughnut. As he finishes the last bite (“mmm … forbidden doughnut”), the devil – Ned Flanders – banishes him to hell, where he meets his ironic punishment: an endless supply of doughnuts, force-fed by a conveyor belt-like contraption. (As Homer grows increasingly obese, he simply asks for more, much to the attending demon’s exasperation.)
The punishment is an example of what Dante refers to as contrapasso, in which the individual suffers a fate informed directly by their primary vice. (In The Inferno, the French baron Bertran de Born is decapitated as punishment for contributing to the overthrow of Henry II of England, a rightful head of state.)
Today, because of COVID-19, we are living our own contrapasso. As in The Simpsons, it’s as though the devil laughed and said, “So, you like screens, eh? Well, have all the screen time in the world!” With the real world closed for business, screens are all we’ve got – and we are using the hell out of them.
Technology has become more vital than ever, allowing us to fulfill our isolation obligations. The frictionless, almost human-less transactions of Amazon, Instacart and Uber Eats, once conveniences, have become necessities. The easy connections of text messages, Slack and social media have transformed from distractions to the main event. Netflix has finally, fully supplanted movie theatres. And FaceTime has become a strange kind of gathering place – for me, at least – a virtual bar and a social lifeline, keeping us connected to our community and reconnecting us with old friends. (Nowadays, at least, everyone picks up when you call.)
Having returned early from a Mexican vacation last month, I spent two weeks in quarantine at home in Toronto with my family. I couldn’t have done it without screen time. I went grocery shopping, met with colleagues, attended a birthday party, even had a medical consultation – all via WiFi. I’ve removed my iPhone time limit on Instagram, diving headlong into the idiotic memes that might be the best thing to come out of COVID-19 thus far. My Guys’ Week Instagram chat group has spawned a regular virtual cocktail party; costumes are encouraged.
In these strange times, we are fully realizing technology’s promise to bring us together, wringing out every last drop of human connection that our devices can facilitate. As Kevin Roose aptly put it in The New York Times recently, “it’s the healthy, humane version of digital culture we usually see only in schmaltzy TV commercials, where everyone is constantly using a smartphone to visit far-flung grandparents and read bedtime stories to kids.”
Naturally, our interactions are being shaped by technology’s strengths and limitations; in screen world, social life is broad and shallow. We manage myriad concurrent conversations, flitting distractedly from tweet to text to comment. On a recent Friday evening, my wife and I embraced this breadth: We “attended” a half-dozen successive, virtual happy hours with friends in Muskoka, Los Angeles and across Toronto. Each conversation was intimate; each felt uplifting, offering a sense of solidarity, reminding us that we’re all in this together. Plus, they were fun – my wife and I got legitimately tipsy. It was about as Dionysian an experience as a MacBook Air can facilitate. Invariably, however, each conversation hit the same note at some point: When can we actually see each other?
Our screens can bridge real-world moments; they can remind us how much we love people or how much we are loved; they can even capture the magic of a group dynamic, as I recently experienced on a wonderful FaceTime with three high-school buddies. But we can’t feel the mood in the room through our screens. We can’t hug or offer a reassuring hand on a shoulder. We can’t even make eye contact, the foundation of emotional connection. (Last year, Apple shelved Attention Correction, an experimental technology that promised to simulate eye contact in FaceTime – but which beta users described as “creepy.”) Screen time is good for now, but it’s certainly not good enough. We are social beings, and the limitations of our devices are now coming into stark relief. The virtual birthday party I attended may have been novel, even fun, but I sure didn’t get any cake.
Yet, in the not-so-distant past, when human contact was freely available, we so often shunned it, staying home to binge on Netflix and Foodora; opting for Uber’s “Quiet Mode” (a.k.a. the “don’t talk to me” option); walking the dog with podcaster Michael Barbaro instead of our neighbours. With the vibrant sights and sounds of the whole wide world available to us until recently, we spent more than one of every five waking minutes staring at our phones. Even sitting across a table from friends (remember that?), we only mustered partial attention. In one survey from a few years back, almost nine in 10 people admitted they interrupted their most recent conversation to check their phones; eight in 10 agreed that the conversation suffered for it.
Long before social distancing was a buzzword, it was a way of life, as we fell into the habit of chasing quick, easy digital connections at the cost of the real-world ones that were often literally right in front of us. And long before social isolation was a virtue, it was a scourge, with Canadians reporting feelings of loneliness in record numbers and former U.S. surgeon-general Vivek Murthy calling loneliness a “public health crisis.”
The numbers are starkest among young people. Millennials and Gen Z have each been called “the loneliest generation,” and the data linking depression and anxiety to social media use are overwhelming. (According to an Ipsos poll from last week, almost seven in 10 people aged 18 to 34 reported feelings of loneliness and isolation.) Psychologist Jean Twenge, who has studied the relationships between technology and generational depression, argues that “screen time … is the worm at the core of the apple.”
In this moment, a response – not quite a backlash – is emergent. Bereft of alternatives, we have once again become flâneurs; aimless strolling hasn’t been this trendy since fin-de-siècle Paris. And with no hot reservations to snag or charcoal ice cream to pretend to enjoy, we are less focused on Instagram photo-ops and more focused on maintaining our sanity. We are enjoying the (highly limited) company of our fellow isolationists, acutely taking in the city around us. With the world gone quiet, we are listening more closely, grasping for a way to satisfy the hunger that no screen can satisfy.
I hope that if – when – real life returns, it returns with a vengeance, and after God-knows-how-many months of staring at our screens, the streets and stores and playgrounds and cafés are busier than ever. I hope that when we sit across the table with a friend, we lose ourselves in deep conversation, revelling in the here and now, with nary a ping nor a buzz to be heard.
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