Do We Need To Look Up?

There’s been a lot of discussion about this video over the past couple of weeks, and I have to admit that it’s been sitting rather uneasily with me. As a result, I’m here today to share some of my thoughts and I’m hoping that some of you may have reacted to this video in a similar light. Perhaps I’m also just looking for some connection points (be that in dialogue or otherwise) across this digital medium, as the creator of this video did when he published this spoken word film.  

Let’s get something out of the way immediately – I actually think, from an artistic point of view, that the video is quite well done. It asks the viewer to critically think about their surroundings and take pause to understand if the digital forces in their life are negative. Where I want you to take a second look, however, is at the video’s tendency to generalize behaviors and strongly paint some perceived patterns in a negative light. Just keep this in the back of your mind as you watch (or re-watch): 

When looking back at the 1950’s and 60’s, visual anthropologist often (half-satirically) refer to the Television as the device that replaced hearth culture in American society. Meaning, the TV became a glowing source of light that families gathered around every night, rather than the “fire” (stove, oven, etc.) they would have formerly gathered around to eat a meal together. It’s a cute anecdote, and there’s obviously a bit of surface truth to it, but anthropologists generally use this as a starting illustration to then go into further detail about the ways in which the television shaped American culture. The danger in taking this analogy too far, however, is that the idealized scenarios it creates are usually pretty far from the shades of reality that manifested in various households every night.

Many families likely gathered around the television every night for some period of time, but their reality was shaped by other behaviors such as eating dinner together beforehand, a parent going off to work third shift in a factory, a teenager leaving right when the family sat down, etc. If you asked a family about what they did each night, they may have told you that they had dinner together as a family and then watched Television, because that was expected behavior in society at the time. Anthropologists refer to this distinction as Ideal vs. Real Culture. Ideal Culture consists of what people say they’re doing or should be doing, whereas Real Culture comes from observation of their actual behaviors. Hopefully it surprises no one that the Ideal is usually pretty removed from the Real Culture in a person’s life. 

By the end of the 1960’s, some began painting television in a negative light. The phrase “Don’t let that TV rot your brain” became more commonplace as fear-mongering media, books and activists warned parents of America that the television would corrupt their children. Even today, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children should only watch “1 – 2 hours of quality programming per day.” Since so many of us readily opt to heavily use digital devices for most of our waking hours, how can we not question this claim? It directly conflicts with our regular behaviors and likely many of our personal values, so why don’t we instead try to understand how and why television shapes a child’s life among all the other factors. What aspects of the television they watch can be positive, negative or neutral? 

So, what am I getting at, anyways? 

I mean to say here that I think it’s time for us to take a step back and to be objective. There is value in trying to understand how our behaviors, interactions and culture are changing; certainly before we jump to conclusions or give over to fear-mongering. Change can be scary – and many of us are comfortable in situations in which we understand all the variables – but if we don’t take the time to objectively understand how we are changing given all the technology available to us, then we’ll never truly understand who we are and what all the positive, negative and neutral factors are that shape our daily lives. 

Know yourself.

I’m not saying that some of the claims in the video aren’t realistic – there are probably some people out there that interact far more in the digital world than they do in the physical one, and that may be affecting them negatively. But again, we don’t know anything about the rest of their lives. We don’t know the many choices they make or the circumstances that drive them to live more digitally. 

The video asks us: Do you still take trips with your friends? Do you edit all your posts to show only your best side? Do you feel lonely when you’re staring into your monitor at night? Do you feel like you are productive? When you’re at a coffee shop, do you stare at your phone instead of making conversation with the staff? I think it’s more important to ask: Do we enjoy the choices we make in our own lives? Do we wish we were making different choices throughout our day? 

The last statement made in this video, “idiots; smart phones and dumb people,” is the one that sparked me to write this editorial. The internet has facilitated transfer of more information than any other media available to us in the past. The sheer potential to share, exchange and learn is limitless, yet here is someone telling us, in matter-of-fact, that all this technology is making us “idiots.”

We should be very careful not to let ourselves replace observations and critical self-reflection with artistically worded warnings. 

If this video has sparked something inside you, I suggest the following. Keep a journal for 2 weeks – in one, monitor your daily behaviors alongside your regular use of digital devices (or, if you want to be a bit more objective, monitor a close friend’s or partner’s behavior). In the second, try a week “looking up” and see how your behaviors differ. What’s important for you to reflect upon is whether, for you, either scenario has taught you something about the way you live. If you feel happy and fulfilled with the way you utilize digital devices in your life, then why do you need to “look up” as this video suggests?

So, tell me. Do we need to Look Up?