He spends so much time in front of screens he has a near-compulsive need to let his eyeballs rest on paper.
—Erin Morgenstern, The Starless Sea
it feels like i’m watching my life happen through a fuzzy television
screen. i feel far away from this world. almost foreign in this body.
—Rupi Kaur, Home Body
Sometimes I make lists of things I could do that don’t involve the internet. A way to spend my days without looking at a screen. But the lists are created in the Notes app on my phone.
I don’t know any facts and figures about adverse health effects caused by prolonged screen usage—the only thing I know is that it makes me feel scooped out and husk-like. A field that has been shorn down over the years, mono-cropped, the soil stripped of all nutrients.
That is how I feel when I stare at my computer (technically an iPad Pro with a keyboard case lol) all day. Even if it’s only turned on for a couple of hours, my life is still dependent upon the contents stored behind the screen. I can’t be “productive” away from it.
It feels so intangible. The digitalization of my writing has at different times in my life made me hate my own craft because there’s nothing for me to physically hold or touch. Not without getting oily fingerprints on my expensive sensitive piece of fucking glass.
The world is obsessed with sterility, not remembering that bacteria is essential to survival. We need to swallow one fat probiotic pill, rebalance that collective gut health. The outside layer of our bodies (aka, the skin) is literally an organ and we have brain cells in our stomachs—what the hell are we doing to ourselves? The more technologic the world becomes, the more it pushes for sterility, to protect its electronics.
My mom told me I chewed on rocks when I was a little kid, and that’s the nature I want to reclaim. Dirt in my body and on my skin. A real hazard to all the robots. Like that kid Pig-Pen in the Peanuts comics—a walking dust devil.
When the world voluntarily shut itself down—man, what a great idea that was! It was totally fine for humanity! You could still virtually tour famous museums, join a book club over Zoom, put in extra hours at your WFfuckingH job, learn a Tik Tok dance to make a reel for your Instagram side business, and don’t forget the absolute staples of keeping up with your Newflix shows and favorite podcasts.
Zoom™ out and see yourself from an outside perspective—you’re just a pale figure hunched over a glowing screen. Or you’re reclining in bed and the glowing screen is hunched over you. The way it should be, because it’s your master.
I say you but I mean me. I’m mad at myself. My childhood started off great in the classic nineties, but I let myself become shaped by the environment of the digital age, and I’ll never forgive myself for this atrocity.
I got sucked into the allure of the “digital nomad” starting when I was 18. Minimize and digitize all your possessions, work from your laptop, travel all over the world, be happier than everyone else. It’s very enticing. I’m still enticed.
Possessions are scary to me, emotionally. People become hoarders for emotional reasons—I became a minimalist for emotional reasons. There was a certain period of time in my teen years where I was an absolute bitch to my mom and she was at her wit’s end with me. She started taking away my writing notebooks and favorite novels to punish me (I don’t blame her, honestly—that was the only way to get my attention… that, and grounding me from church LMAO). I remember frantically duct taping my notebooks closed as my mom stomped down the hall towards my room to take my stuff, terrified that she would read my stories and see my soul, how it differed from hers, how it deviated from the way my upbringing was supposed to shape it. That period of time was when I learned that attachment to physical things could hurt really bad. The less I owned, the less people could take away from me.
I thought the digital age was a prayer come true. I could be so suave slinging one single backpack over my shoulder, the picture of freedom. A way to live so I could always have everything I owned with me. To protect it. But it kind of just made me a hoarder in a different way. A fearful pack rat.
Now it all feels like a trap. A good portion of my life doesn’t feel real anymore. When I exit out of my digital devices, I have nothing. No music. Barely any books. A few random photos, but thousands stored intangibly. Most of my writing is trapped behind a screen (hi from the screen!). I don’t know how to do anything, so any new hobby would have to be googled first. I don’t know how to make any food besides scrambled eggs and tacos (and even then, my ground beef browning + seasoning skills are shaky at best). I know how to boil noodles “al dente” because my little brother taught me how maybe a month or two before he died and I’ll never let slip that sweet simple knowledge he shared. He loved to cook and bake. What I’m saying is that I can learn things, but I can’t riff on them comfortably. Not with the ease and comfort that I can research online, using the correct keywords to produce the most relevant results, opening thirty new tabs in less than a minute.
Sometimes when I read a physical book, I press my finger down on a quote I like so I can highlight it. But when that doesn’t work, I’m forced to take a picture of it with my phone. But that feels wrong and defeats the whole purpose of not reading an e-book. So I tentatively dog-ear the page, wondering if this is okay, if it’s allowed. “Okay, deep breath. I am now going to interact with the physical realm in an irreversible manner.”
Since I don’t know how to do anything without consulting the internet and also feel absolutely miserable about that fact, I’ve started burying organic materials in the dirt patch in my backyard. Not gardening or planting per se, just… burying stuff. There’s some overlap with the sprinklers so I know something could grow there. I see tuffs of grass come up, little agave shoots poking out of the stone wall, a tiny palm tree that popped up amongst a scattering of rocks and weeds. I wonder how these things can survive like this in the desert, barely any water or soil. It gives me hope and encouragement for myself.
But I’m afraid if I ask my dad if I could officially use that plot to start a garden, then it’ll become a Thing and I’ll have to do it Properly and because I don’t know how to do anything I’ll have to employ the services of the Internet. And that’ll ruin everything. The idea of getting a gardening book from the library won’t cross my mind and if it does, then I’ll think “Without my precious screen I won’t be able to use my refined internet research skills to determine the absolute BEST gardening book specific to my amateur skill set and arid geography. Not to mention, if I need any gardening tools, how the hell would I procure them? Where does one find gardening supplies in the Real World?”
(Ironically, I actually recall seeing a few gardening tools available for borrowing the last time I was physically at my library… rakes and hoes and other suggestive items.)
Since the thought won’t occur to me to use the library instead of the internet—I’ll instead just keep burying things, little scraps of fruits here and there, random seeds, things impossible to grow out here like a massive mango pit the other day. I comb through the dirt with my hands and feel happy that I’m doing something real that isn’t on a screen even though I’m not really doing anything at all, nothing skillful at least.
I love to ground in dirt and grass with my bare hands and feet to center me back to the earth. But it feels like I need more. I need a way to ground with my eyes.
I shall plant my eyes into some soil and let them rest for a few weeks, grow some roots, and develop a new perspective.
Maybe I can dirty my eyes enough so they can no longer see the evil screens of our AI overlords.