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Screens: the New Plague

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“Screens, Screens, everywhere there’s Screens, breaking up the scenery and blocking out my mind”………with a post-prescient nod to The Five Man Electrical Band and their 1971 hit, “Signs”.

I’m guilty. Let’s get this out of the way and off the table right up front. I spend too much time “connected”; Facebook, Texts, Emails, Google, I’m down with most of them but am resisting the Tweet, Ping and many of the instant gratification apps I could be indulging in.

I’m working on it. I’m working my steps.

But the phenomenon is so pervasive, so distracting, so consuming, that I see a new generation of addiction clinic models already thinking about how to profit off the detoxing of Americans from their Screens. Can it be far away that horrific accidents, caused by texting, are proven to be crimes and effective defense lawyers begin promulgating “by reason of text addiction” as a viable defense strategy?

I just came from attending the US Conference on AIDS in San Diego. An amazing amalgam of providers, professionals, experienced Legends living with HIV, and earnest, engaged, people of all stripes and persuasions urgently fighting the good fight. I know we all came to edify, to connect, to learn from each other’s experiences and to open our minds to new theories, treatments, and strategies we can put into our own personal toolboxes when we return home.

USCA14 did an admirable job of organization, garnering sponsors, experts, and the newly minted volunteer enthusiasts into a 4-day fest of concentrated energy and engagement.

Except.

In the organizers forethoughtfulness, they invented an app……….a Facebook for the USAC14 attendees, complete with a point-fueled contest for the people who posted the most; the most updates, the most photos, the most likes, the most comments, etc. Incentivizing the app was really not necessary. We are all already rats in the maze so the adoption rate was instantaneous and complete.

The result.

Where I came expecting to meet and greet and garner; new friends, new information, new attitudes, what I found was table after breakout after plenary session packed, every seat taken, eager minds supposedly waiting to be infused with a new energy and fresh knowledge, but instead of personal engagement, they were ALL hunched over their screens. The chatting, the texting, the posting , the planning of their next move after this room they were currently in was endemic and infectious, a word I don’t use lightly at an AIDS conference.

The almost total lack of eye contact and personal interaction beyond perfunctory greetings was stunning in its completeness. Every table where I sat during the elaborate, sponsored, plenary sessions; these functions complete with truly engaging speakers telling their personal stories and even wild and professional dance performances was exactly the same. It was Vegas Light and quite entertaining and even informative yet almost to a person, everyone was on their Screens. Looking around, other tables, it was exactly the same. The dull, bluish glow actually gave the attendees an odd, filmy, alien quality. 1,300 people and I’d say 1,100 Screens. Their network must be truly muscular.

Every breakout was the same, people chatting with others not in the room or even with some IN the same room; planning dinner, the next session, the bathroom locations, anything to remain connected. The Screens dinged and flashed and buzzed in an almost constant cacophony, sounding for all the world like new age mosquitos……..and the urge to swat them was just as strong.

If I ruled the world.

I could not help but think of the time and thought and effort put forth by all of those who were leading these sessions, urgently wanting to get their point of view actually heard, to prompt discussions, solicit engagement and feedback, formulate new paths forward. Were I them, I would wonder if I was even noticed no less heard. Were I them, I would confiscate all phones at the start and return them at the finish.

If I ruled the world.

I know the arguments. They fall across generational lines. Funny enough, one of my major focuses here at the conference and back at home is fostering conversations between the disparate generations so that the decades of hard-fought experience we elders (called Legends at USCA14) are in possession of might be translated into actionable facts for the next generations below us to put into practical use and not simply to exist as documentary facts found on archived film and video clips or tall tales from the crypt-like carcasses of we aging activists.

The younger among us claim that this IS the way they learn; to connect, constantly;

“It actually helps my concentration to be on my phone”

“I use my pad as my toolbox to education”

“We all use our phones and pads constantly, it’s the way the world does it now”

I try to listen without prejudice, I really do. And yes, I am of another generation, several others as a matter of fact but I am not exactly a dinosaur….quite yet. As I said at the start, I, too, am guilty of too much connectivity. I jumped right onto the conference app. It was Facebook-familiar, easy, quick. I wanted to feel part of the gang, meet the other interesting people I knew were swarming about me all wanting for the same interactions as I.

But instead of “meeting” people face to face, shaking hands, looking them in the eye, feeling the sincerity of their soul reflected through the energy of our interactions I saw, quite quickly, that I was tumbling down the same Facebook funnel that I fight against in the “real word”.

“T shirts for the people who post 1,100 points worth of content”
“100 point a check in”
“500 points a photo”

Really? This is what millions of dollars of effort and thousands of miles worth of plane tickets and travel come down to? Points? T shirt contests?

And I cannot stress enough what I found missing.

Eye Contact.

I seriously felt that I was interrupting some vital communication when I sought to approach someone in a crowd of people that I wanted to meet; as if barging in to shake their hand and say I admired them or their work or to ask them a question would be taking them away from some other, amorphous and obviously more important conversation that was happening elsewhere in their head and on their screen. They were miles, or maybe just millimeters, away from where I stood before them.

I know from my years of planning and attending just such conferences that companies, associations, and organizations pay a lot of hard-fought money to send their representatives to these events to personally engage their compatriots. The purpose; to bring home new contacts, new business, new ideas.

I cannot calculate who I missed or how many I missed but I know I did miss out, I feel it, I felt it, even as it was occurring…or not occurring, as it were. I pulled back on the posting, the following, the picture taking. I left my phone turned off while I was at the convention proper. I made the effort to reach out, inject myself into conversations, introduce myself to my seat-mates at sessions, stroll to breakouts with new acquaintances, but I have to say it took work, a lot of work, a lot more work than it should have at a venue that was set up to promote just this sort of personal engagement.

Habits are hard to break.

They have to be recognized as harmful, first of all. We know texting while driving is harmful. I know I can’t even talk hands-free without a major loss of concentration because I’m thinking about the person and the conversation I’m having rather than who’s driving next to me and who’s stopping short way up the road in front of me. But we are all conditioned; by advertising, by our friends, by our cars, by our desire to connect and be part of the next, newest technology. Where would Apple be without its devotees?

I also know I’m fighting an uphill and a losing battle even as I put pen to paper (speaking of old school, gone technologies) but I refuse to go gently into the good night without at least a modicum of a fight.

It seems to me that we who invented the Alternative Generation back in the 60’s have fallen prey to its promoter, Timothy Leary’s raison d’etre and are much to our own chagrin and shame, victims of its battle cry:

“Turn on, Tune In…………..Drop Out”

Robby Sherwin is a writer/photographer who splits his time between Portland, OR and Key West.  His roaming mind bounces off topics from politics to family.  His past and future musings may be found on pdxwiz.wordpress.com

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Robby Sherwin is a writer/photographer who splits his time between Portland, OR and Key West.  His roaming mind bounces off topics from politics to family.  His past and future musings may be found on pdxwiz.wordpress.com

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