We Are Living in a Screenworld -- Reality Isn't in the Real World Anymore
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Waiting for her, maybe an hour, I had a very different experience. Cars and vans would pull up; couples and families and friends would get out and take pictures of the landscape, and of each other, with video and still cameras. As I stood there, leaning on my car, at least a couple of dozen vehicles, maybe more, came and went. After a few minutes of disbelief, I began timing them. With three exceptions, they stayed no longer than five minutes. Many stayed barely two or three. They piled out of their vehicles, took their pictures, piled back in, and left, presumably headed for the next viewing point, presumably to do the same.ome came from as far as Europe and Asia. All had paid a bunch of money and expended great effort to get to the Petrified Forest, yet they could, in no way that I understood, be said to have been there. When they returned home, would they spend more time watching the Petrified Forest on their screens than they'd spent actually at the Petrified Forest? Was I crazy to think that their compulsion (not too strong a word if you'd seen them) to squeeze the Petrified Forest into their little screens was a means not to engage this wondrous and disturbing place? To me, they were locking these mysterious vistas into a controlled and unthreatening space. What was their connection to what I'd define as "reality"? They were treating the real, physical thing as if it were a TV show, and they were flipping channels.
All through that journey—at Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, the Grand Canyon—I saw the same behavior. Not everyone engaged the landscape that way, but most did—families, couples, busloads of tourists. This behavior was their version of "normal." Of course, cameras of all sorts have their place on a vacation, but only to take photos and videos.
Again, is it a psychological symptom? If so, of what, especially when considered as a mode of behavior on a fairly massive scale?
From Tactile to Virtual
All this began to happen just as Google was getting off the ground, four or five years before YouTube, and before cell phones could take pictures. Since then, what seemed to me aberrant behavior has become the world we live in.
I'm not a therapist: I'm a writer; but psychotherapy has always been key to how I make sense of the world, and I tend to look at behavior as symptomatic, in whatever sphere—intimate, political, commercial. Novelists and therapists share the fundamental assumption that behavior means more than itself, stems from deeper roots than what can be seen on the surface, and has wider implications than its supposed conscious purpose and assumptions. So it meant something when technologies that I view as disengaging became common in my own work. Something, but what?I used to begin work with a tactile, blank page, making keystrokes on a typewriter whose mechanics I understood. Now I begin with a blank screen on a machine whose technology I can barely comprehend. I don't believe that's changed me as a writer, but I miss the typewriter's clickety-clack, the ding of the margin-bell, the movement of the carriage back and forth, the shudder of my desk under pounded keys. (I blew my first computer keyboard in a matter of weeks, before I learned to type more gently.) The computer, which once seemed alien, is now embedded in the dailiness of my life; but after 12 years, I'm no closer to understanding it. I believe more than ever that a virtual Rome isn't Rome, and is, in fact, nothing like Rome, and I'd rather gaze at the Petrified Forest than photograph it—because, unless one is a photographer of the first rank, there's no way to trap that grandeur in a box. Still, it must mean something that when I look about me, I see screens, screens, screens—everywhere, screens, including right here, in front of me, right now.