Originally, I had planned my 24 hour media break to be on the weekend, so I could sleep through it as much as possible. But seeing that I had only one weekend between me and the due date, I decided against it.
As it happened, my chosen day without screens had only one class, from 9:30-10:45. The rest of the day was my severely limited oyster. After class, I would usually come home and play Xbox or watch Netflix for a couple of hours, but that option being moot, I filled that time by playing piano. It is amazing how less distracted you are without the constant buzz of a text message, or the lure of killing an alien with a well-placed frag grenade. Consequently, I learned to play half of the second movement in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto II – a goal I have had for quite some time now. My fingers sufficiently cramped – an alarming revelation, for I had scheduled a Halo match the next day, for which I needed to be at the peak of my physical abilities – I left Old Cabell expecting it to be dark. As it turned out, I had killed only 2 hours. They say that time flies when you are having fun, but I realized then the true version of that statement: Time flies when you are having fun online. I also realized that all physical needs diminish when locked on screen – an evolutionary adaptation for gamers, so their characters are never idly waiting to be killed, I believe. But when doing something that requires energy, such as playing the piano, you get quite hungry. Luckily, I had scheduled lunch with a friend the day before, and eager to gossip on the day’s events, made my way to O Hill.
I waited. I waited some more.
After 20 minutes, it hit me that we never set up a meeting place. Usually that is easily remedied with a quick call, but not this time. I grudgingly got my food to go, alone yet again. That experience was quite eye-opening, in fact, for it showed how forethought has ebbed since the dawn of the cell phone. Who needs to plan everything out when you can make a quick call to confirm a rendezvous? It seems that we have become accustomed to “on the fly” scheduling, since communication is virtually instantaneous (except for AT&T).
Next, my customary workout that day unveiled yet another revelation: electronic music is implicitly tied to your level of activity. Usually, I take comfort running to the gym’s XM Radio channel, spewing some unintelligible German techno song that would normally make me cringe, but in this case keeps my heart rate up. However, since that was now out of the question, I exercised in Memgym’s infamous “combat room:” a small, dank, furnace that smells of sour milk, and, more importantly, has no sound system. My warm-up was uneventful, but already I was beginning to notice sluggishness not common in the main weight room. This feeling was multiplied when my actual workout began. I felt slow, my arms were heavy, and my feet dragged as I moved from one station to the next. I realized halfway through that I was humming under my breath, replacing my beloved German techno songs with some beats of my own, just to keep me going! It was easy to see then why so many people jog with iPods – without our customary digital coxswain, our rhythm falls apart, and we lose heart. Needless to say, I didn’t feel very accomplished after that workout.
The rest of the day, I spent reading and studying everything I could get my hands on. As it was with piano, I noticed how much more productive you are without the constant distractions of electronic media. I completed all of my reading, taking extremely helpful notes in the process, and generally making a huge dent in my work load. I could focus more and grasp concepts quickly without having to repeatedly read lines. I could stay in session longer, knowing that there would be no “commercial break” for YouTube. So profound was this experience that I plan to employ it the morning of my finals.
In the end, my day without screens was nowhere near as traumatizing as I had predicted. Yes, it went much slower than usual (and thankfully I did not have to restart), but I was perhaps more productive that day than any other given week so far.
Thinking back, I made many observations about media’s influence worth noting. The first is the accuracy of the “commercial break” hypothesis – that TV has groomed our minds to need a break every ten minutes (9/9 MDST 2000 lecture). This applied in two ways. First, I did indeed notice that without media, my “commercial breaks” were less frequent while studying. Instead of every ten pages, for example, I would take a break every fifteen or twenty. Or when brainstorming (on paper, of course) for an essay, I would break every half-hour, not every ten minutes. However, later I noticed that my commercial breaks were shadowed by an even larger change in consciousness. My entire day was activity after activity after activity, always trying to find something new to fill the time. After piano, I immediately ate. After lunch, I immediately worked out, and so on. Never did I take a minute to relax, nap, or take a walk. This, I believe, must be the result of the internet. As McLuhan says, “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace…that it introduces into human affairs” (Understanding Media, 8). The internet, with the ability to move from one page to another at the speed of light, has changed the pace of my affairs by instilling a sense of rapidness characteristic of the web. Everyone hates load screens, for instance, and I believe that the internet has turned that into reality – we now expect to be “on the page,” so to say, not loading it. Idle time has now become a thing of the past.
My next point has to do with McLuhan’s low-def and high-def media. Low-def media are those that provide little detail and require active participation by the audience (such as TV, telephones), while high-def media provide great detail and require little participation (like reading) (Understanding Media, 22). After my media hiatus, it became obvious how accustomed my generation is to low-def media, two in particular. First, the internet. The web is low-def because it demands constant vigilance on the part of the viewer. The biases and falsehoods inherent to something that lives off the participation of the audience (the internet, after all, is operated by everyone), necessitate your presence of mind. In this sense, I am not talking about other forms of media available on the internet, be they high or low-def, but the act of browsing the web itself. You decide where you go, what you see, who you talk to. The other low-def medium is video games. Like the internet, video games exist through viewer participation. You decide which car to hijack. You upgrade your stealth instead of your strength. You take the M16 as opposed to the Scar. And online interaction serves to multiply this participation. With this exposure to low-def media, it is easy to see why my friends and I demand more freedom than any other generation we know. We were raised with the internet and video games, which groomed us to sub-consciously demand high-participation, or greater opportunities to exercise our agency. In addition, as Professor Williams stated, “older forms of media survive new media, but are forever altered” (9/6 MDST 2000 lecture).The low-def media of our generation – the internet, cell phone, and video game – have done just that, I believe. American Idol, for example, became the new interactive sensation because people could vote on their cell phones. And of course, other shows like Dancing with the Stars, America’s Got Talent, and The Voice have followed suit. This phenomenon embodies Philip Elliot’s statement that the “audience is both the source and receiver of the message” (Encoding/Decoding, 42).
My last argument has to do with Illich and Sander’s findings on the transition from oral to print culture. In their book, the authors showed that memory as we know it today is a result of the written word (ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, 15). With writing, “memory turned into a deposit store, where we could go back in time and recollect concepts” (9/1 MDST 2000 lecture). Today, with the transition between from print to electronic culture, I believe another such change in memory has occurred. We no longer recall concepts, but actual audio and visuals. For example, when I was studying for a test later in the day, I realized that I was not memorizing the relevant ideas or events. I was memorizing the signifiers (the physical pictures of the letters), which I later translated (signified) to meaning during the test itself. (Media Making, 147). I literally held the picture of the text in my mind, and translated it from there. To better understand this, you could contrast it with the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. According Postman, none of the candidates actual debated off the top of their heads – all of their arguments were written down in advance, and they had simply memorized them. Their consciousness was “pure print” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, 49). Now it seems that my consciousness is pure audio/visual (even the term comes from the responsible media), as if there is a component cable running from my mind to my mouth. Perhaps then this is why entertainment has become “the natural format for the representation of all experience” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, 87). Just as you could say Lincoln was reading off an essay, you could say we act out a script when we talk.
These observations came from my own experience, so it is hard to say whether or not they apply to my generation as a whole. Perhaps further research on these claims could be the basis of future projects for the class. In the end, however, my day without screens certainly shed light on some concepts that were hidden to me before (maybe because I was always watching YouTube). It wasn’t nearly as painful as other kids might believe – I might even say it was fun. Learning how to stay preoccupied without media is probably extremely healthy, and I would certainly do it again and see what I observe next.
Grossberg, Lawrence, Ellen Wartella, D. C. Whitney, and J. M. Wise. Media Making: Mass Media in a Popular Culture. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publication, 2006.
Illich, Ivan, and Barry Sanders. ABC The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.
Hall, Stuart. "Encoding/Decoding." Birmingham: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1973)
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.
MDST 2000 Lectures
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
Williams, Bruce A., and Andrea L. Press. The New Media Environment An Introduction. N.p.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.