Square Eyes

Spending too long in front of a screen of one kind or another can often be a cause for rebuke. I know from experience. And if the number of screens we look at is a cause of concern for you, then there hasn’t been a worst time in history for that than right now, because screens are everywhere – they’re in our pockets, in our living rooms, on our desks…

Screens allow us to perform tasks that would have been simply inconceivable before1: One can visit the British Library without ever going to London, see and chat to relatives in a foreign country without having to travel, play with friends when they can’t physically be with us, access news of events anywhere in the world synchronously as the events develop. Screens bring the information to us, which, as I think anyone would agree, is much better than the alternative.

Despite all this, screens tend to receive a very bad press. Baroness Greenfield recently expressed2 her concern that spending too long in front of a screen can result in addictive behaviour, “obsessional use” and neurological changes in the brain.

What Baroness Greenfield does not mention is that almost any human activity can result in addictive and obsessive behaviour – from eating chocolate to jogging – and that, whenever we master a new skill or acquire new knowledge, neurological changes take place in our brains: it’s called learning.

Of course addictive behaviour, misuse and abuse are not desirable. We should rightly be concerned with the behaviour. We should not be blaming the technology.

Cars are a curseThe transformative power of technology has a long history of misunderstanding and misapprehension, almost always resulting in knee-jerk rejection and staunch scepticism.
In the early 20th century, early motor cars were often boycotted in rural areas of the USA because they “posed a danger to stock, horse drawn traffic and even crops”3.

Protesters were absolutely right: cars were faster and therefore more dangerous than traditional means of transport, but the benefits that motorised transport brought society massively outweighed any perceived disadvantages.

John Birt, former director general of the BBC, remembers how when he first started considering using the internet as a broadcast medium, the move was met with formidable opposition by the different departments within the BBC4 who feared that the new medium would clash with traditional broadcasting.

Again, critics were right: the traditional one-size-fits-all model of broadcasting was abandoned as the BBC embraced the internet and, as a result, the BBC was able to reach new audiences and viewing and listening habits were changed forever, for the better, thanks to innovations like the iPlayer.

History shows again and again that, instead of being embraced for the right reasons, this kind of disruptive innovation with the potential for abrupt but positive and progressive change is almost always rejected for the wrong ones. In my opinion, the same thing is happening to computers and their metonymic surrogates: their screens.

That’s why it remains perplexing to me that we should chastise someone for spending a couple of hours browsing the web by pointing out they’re going to get square eyes, yet two hours reading a printed book is perfectly acceptable, despite the obvious geometrical similarity of the two media.

I, for one, find screens are having a tremendously positive effect in both my private and professional lives. Despite having to deal with screens of one kind or another on a daily basis, I think my brain is coping quite alright and – would you believe – my eyes are still eye-shaped.

So, please, fewer pseudo-intellectual debates about the superiority of paper as a medium for the delivery of information and more objective analysis of the many benefits modern technology has brought and will continue to bring us.

Many thanks Daniel de Oliveira Pereira and to the Museum of American Heritage for their photographs.

  1. PUENTEDURA, R R (2006) Transformation, Technology, and Education. Retrieved from http://hippasus.com/resources/tte/
  2. GREENFIELD, S. “Computer Game Grief ” in Report, March 2012: 30
  3. Horseless Carriage Days (2006) Retrieved March 10, 2012, from http://www.moah.org/exhibits/archives/horseless.html
  4. BIRT, J. (2012) interviewed in “The Media Show”. Broadcast on March 7, 2012 and available from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01cwrt8
  • Graham Davies

    The dangers of the screen are probably overstated, but it is most important to adopt a good sitting position in a well designed chair when working at a computer. I developed back problems in my 40s when I began to use a computer for many hours per day. My GP identified the problems as arising from my increased sedentary work. I therefore went out and bought myself a good office chair and I made a point of getting up at least once an hour and walking around the room. I still do this, and I walk at least a mile every day with our dog. I have had no major back problems now for over 20 years. Another danger – and this is associated with the way in which you sit – is developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Although DVT is usually associated with sitting in cramped conditions on long-haul flights it can arise from sitting in an awkward position almost anywhere, e.g. on a long coach journey or at a computer. I developed DVT six years ago, mainly as an after-effect of major surgery, but my vascular consultant thought it might have been exacerbated by my sitting at a computer for too many hours per day – and his advice was to get up and move around more often than I had been doing. DVT is extremely painful and very sneaky. The main symptoms are (i) excruciating pain in the left calf, (ii) breathlessness and coughing blood, (iii) sudden death.

    • http://www.josepicardo.com José Picardo

      We have a long history of assuming the worse. Electricity was denounced as
      too dangerous when it was first commercialised – they were right: it was
      dangerous, but, harnessed appropriately, it has transformed society. 

      When it
      comes to technology we seldom appear to be able to think straight or make the
      right decisions for the right reasons. Is it human nature?

      Thanks for your comment Graham.

      • Graham Davies

        One just has to be sensible and not sensational. Back problems are common if you work long hours at a computer – especially at a laptop, which forces you to adopt the “laptop hunch”. I work mainly at a desktop with a separate keyboard at a comfortable height. DVT resulting from sitting at a computer is rare, but there are documented cases. Th important issue is taking care of your physical fitness.

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