I should break this up into really short paragraphs.
The better to keep your fingers busy swiping at the screen or working the scrollbar, maintaining momentum as you scan the ideas — sprinting from one stimulus to the next.
Stillness runs contrary to the aesthetics of the screen.
Ever so subtly the words you read flicker and blink. The screen on which they appear is thousands of lights flickering and blinking, a surging nano-pulse rapidly flashing before your eyes.
As we stare, the screen sutures us into its own frenetic frequency. We adopt its pacing, carried away in its accelerated rhythms.
In these moments, the physiological divide between us and the screen blurs. The medium massages, molds, and refashions our perception. Our inquiry assumes the characteristics of the carrier: medium and experience meld.
While the ubiquity of screens is a relatively new evolution in our culture, this telecommunicative adaptation has been underway for some time now. In the late 1960s, communications and media theorist Marshall McLuhan observed how advances in our technological milieu affect our modes of perception:
[Disclaimer: McLuhan wrote in the longer paragraph style once familiar to print media.]
The medium is the massage [message]. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments. All media are extensions of some human faculty — psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot; the book is an extension of the eye; clothing, an extension of the skin; electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system. Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act — the way we perceive the world. When those ratios change, men change. (McLuhan 1967)
As screen technologies come to dominate our interface with the world more and more — whether it be in work, play, or community — we absorb their structure and organization into our modes of experience.
The restlessness of our swiping fingers and scanning eyes are not merely a response to the enticements of the “global mind,” latent with imminently accessible information and discoveries. It is the restlessness of the perceiving mechanism itself — the buzzing electrodes, the fizzing pixels.
Confronted with this frenetic interface, our body responds with readiness. Linda Stone, an attention and technology analyst who writes for Huffington Post, has labeled this physiological state “screen apnea”: shallow breathing or breath-holding while working in front of an electronic screen. It is a stressed state, particularly one of anticipation. The body readies itself for forthcoming stimuli with an inhalation. However, the relieving pause of a full exhalation is interminably delayed.
The stimuli keep coming. Each flickering moment charges us with anticipation for the next.
Stone has observed screen apnea in about 80% of people who have participated in her research. The other 20%? All people trained in breathing techniques to manage their energy in high-stress situations: athletes, test pilots, dancers, musicians, etc.
Those with specialized breathing techniques are better equipped to meet extreme cases of stimulation from a place of centered, conscious responsiveness. Their calm, measured breath acts as a counter to the profusion of stimuli, keeping the sympathetic nervous system receptive to its environment, yet balanced and intentional in its response.
But the large majority of people, less practiced in breath and energy management, are compelled into a state of shallow reactivity when confronted with overwhelming stimulation. We are “on pins and needles,” so to speak.
Conveniently, form and content make a perfect marriage in this telecommunicative experience. As the screen prods us into a constant state of readiness, the endless byways and caverns of hyperlinks, scrollbars, and videos provide us an object for our fidgeted focus.
And, thus, the feedback loop: the frequencies of the screen refashion our sensory experience, adapting us to its own structure and organization. We surf its structure with the disquiet its structure is designed to serve.
This feedback loop creates an energetic tether between us and the screen. How many of us have found ourselves toggling and scrolling, meandering purposelessly, working the muscle memory in our relationship to our device — kind of an electronic pacing back and forth? Our nervous energy doesn’t know what to do with itself. It has no better mate than the frequencies of the screen, no better outlet than the screen’s own hectic discourse.
This tether, coupled with the hyper-capabilities and near omniscience of our devices, has inaugurated a ubiquity of screen dependence that is difficult to overstate.
The screen has become a new appendage of the body, and, while this new appendage extends our virtual reach to incredible lengths, the jittery, reactive state it incites in us hinders the depth of that reach tremendously.
Examining this experiential mode requires looking at both what happens on the screen and what happens away from the screen: when we’re in the binds of its tether, and when we’ve loosened its hold: the image culture of the pixels and the cultural apnea that results from our collective hangover.
The screen functions properly as a tool of reporting, not one of contemplation. Our spastic receptivity is best suited for gleaning information rapidly, as opposed to savoring it and mulling it over, lingering on nuance and texture.
The screen has its own texture, and each object it presents bears that stamp.
Most perfectly suited for the pixelated screen is the moving image, in which motion subsumes the flickering light into its rhythm, making the object and the medium aesthetically congruent. Our shallow reactivity easily aligns with the pacing; our reactions effortlessly follow the cues of momentum.
And the cue says, “Grab what you need and move on.”
Even if the information itself isn’t moving, as with videos and gifs, the person gathering that information is compelled to be. So, accessibility is paramount. Meaning must be readily apparent. Information, quick and decisive.
Superficial intelligibility is the name of the game, and the key player in that game is the image. We see it; we know it. Therefore, the dominant aesthetics of the screen naturally refashion information towards imagism.
Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat: imagistic tourism through the lives of others.
The Internet Meme: stock images paired with formulaic phrasing, easily comprehensible in replication.
Tweets, Hashtags, Textspeak: the condensation of language for quick visual capture.
Emoji: verbal phrases rendered as collage, a kind of reversion to hieroglyphics.
The age of screen technologies is the age of the image. It is the dominant form of literacy. And information must conform to this new form. It must be impressionistic, concentrated, evident on the surface, impressing itself on the mind within a quick glance.
Literature must conform, as well. For writers, the word “essay” is out. Essayer, in French, means “to try.” In English, we associate it with serious inquiry, deep delving into a topic, excavating overlooked truth. No one writes essays for the Internet, or at least they don’t call them that out of fear of discouraging their audience.
We write “articles.” The article purports to report, to lay out the facts. The reader can glean it for the information she wants — the scrollbar like the swiping of a scythe.
Harvested with a glance, our information has lost its ground. Bereft of context, stranded as a sound byte or the dismembered fragment of a camera lens, we experience the world in a procession of snatches.
More and more of our time each day is spent fielding and juggling these snatches of virtual life. Necessarily, we adapt to our medium of inquiry. We habituate the capabilities of our devices and internalize their discourse. We must become like virtual snatches ourselves, flitting through the world un-rooted and outside of space.
Defying our physical limits, we turn from the body and towards the screen. We turn away from three-dimensional space in order to inhabit its collapsed state.
And we too collapse.
What may sound like trite, dystopic sci-fi holds true at the physiological level in the phenomenon of screen apnea (shallow breathing or breath-holding when working at a screen).
Our breath is our foundation. Literally, it is the foundation of life. Without it, we cannot maintain our bodies in this world.
When the breath is compromised we upset the balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide needed to properly regulate our sympathetic — “fight or flight” — nervous system and our parasympathetic — “rest and digest” — nervous system. One helps coordinate our reactions to the external world; the other maintains the unconscious functioning of our organs and biochemical make-up.
When the sympathetic nervous system is subjected to consistent stress, the parasympathetic is likely to respond with stress-related health problems: high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, headaches, depression, etc.
The body loses sync with the world and begins to malfunction. In a very physiological sense, as we lose breath, we lose presence.
It is no wonder that the popular influx of healing and movement arts from the East to the West also put significant emphasis on the connection between breath and presence: the pranayama of yoga practice; the focused inhalation and exhalation of mindfulness meditation.
These techniques, and others like them, are intended to keep us mindfully aware of the moment as it is happening — present in the Now. They soothe the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system and stabilize the functioning of the parasympathetic. They soften us to our environment, keeping us alert and receptive to what is happening, but also conscious and measured in our responses to that happening.
The breath integrates us into the world. The porousness of the relationship is palpable as we allow the external world to flow into our bodies, bathing and nourishing; then we effortlessly release it back out, with a part of our own selves necessarily intermingled in the transfer.
In the breath, we are a participant in the Now of the world, a conscious cipher for its movements and rhythms.
But, as we habituate to the screen, to that rhythm, we lose connection. In so many ways in modern life, in so many rhythms, we lose connection.
When we jeopardize our connection to the breath, we cast ourselves in opposition to the world around us. We loosen our tie with its happening and only muster through with narrow determination and struggle.
Another cup of coffee.
Another Monster energy drink or Red Bull to keep the pistons pumping.
We seek a supplement for the ground we’ve lost.
To help, a personal soundtrack streaming through a pair of earbuds: the manufactured breath of the drum and bass; the syncopated Now-ness of the downbeat; a moveable ground on which to keep moving; a mobile cocoon to alleviate our estrangement.
Maybe another 5-hour Energy.
Maybe a light sleep for the restless mind.
The luminous screen surging just beyond closed eyelids.
Still waiting to exhale.