It’s become commonplace by now to remark on the omnipresence of screens and our unhealthy dependence on, and addiction to, them in a number of different capacities. Whether for work, for play, or the well-trodden middle-ground between the two, which can involve unconsciously drifting from website to website, mindlessly tumbling down endless feeds on social media, or slogging through the never-ending deluge of email.
Catch-all criticisms of screen-dominated patterns of work and life, however, tend to paint a more one-dimensional picture than is the reality of things. The screen, in the course of our engagement with it, is not always the glowing rectangle that, objectively speaking, it nevertheless is. The screen can be a window, a portal, a commons, a sinkhole or black hole, a resourceful coworker, a domineering boss, a sun lamp, and a gratuitous shot of caffeine at the end of a long day.
And the screen can shift between these different registers almost imperceptibly—from positive to delightful to neutral, from tiresome to wretched, from positively stimulating to undesirably so.
It wouldn’t at all be a stretch to say that the problem has less to do with screens, than a mindfulness of our relationship to them. A stunning lack of this sort of mindfulness, far from being harmless, can end up contributing to a number of uniquely 21st century neurotic or depressive conditions.
Writers and theorists, in recent years, have enumerated a few of these. Byung-Chul Han has coined the term “burnout society,” which, even without knowing explicitly what it refers to, almost anyone today can viscerally identify with or comprehend. The writer Jonathan Crary, meanwhile, has written about a pervasive condition he simply calls “24/7.” This condition entails a new economy of attention, enabled in large part by the omnipresence of screens, one which “dissolves the separation between the personal and professional, between entertainment and information, all overridden by a compulsory functionality of communication that is inherently and inescapably 24/7.”
There are a handful of applications that owe their popularity to the widespread desire to regulate or abate the new reality in which we live. Flux, for example, adjusts a computer screen’s color temperature according to place and time of day, with an aim to reducing both eye-strain and the disruption of natural sleep patterns. Self-Control allows users to blacklist and block certain websites for a period of time (people typically use this application for restricting access to time sinks such as social media and other addictive endless feed-style websites).
These applications are certainly useful. But they fail to adequately instill in us an awareness of our relation to our screens. In some cases, even, they serve to facilitate lengthier sessions at our computers or a more immersive environment in which to browse, work, dawdle, and so on. These existing safeguards, in a word, at once treat us like addicts, forcefully protecting us from ourselves, while also tacitly enabling us, extending our capacity to work well past when it might be appropriate or healthy to.
An object or application that aims to improve our screen hygiene should exist in the world, in the physical environment. Such an object or application, moreover, ought to communicate with us more tacitly, taking advantage of our environmental awareness, rather than sending out assertive notifications or enforcing hard and fast restrictions or state changes.
For my final project in physical computing, I would like to make something that resembles this sort of object or application. Something that is at once productivity tool—insofar as it serves to train our attention when we begin to wander a little too long, when the screen becomes a sinkhole—and mindfulness machine—insofar as it can remind us to peel ourselves from the screen in the first place, and remind us of the physical world around us.