Home Tech Staring at our devices is making life very blurry

Staring at our devices is making life very blurry
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“Tired of looking at bad screen?” reads an internet meme, accompanied by a picture of an anaemic office worker scowling at a clunky desktop PC. “Can’t wait to get home and look at good screen,” it continues, this time illustrated by a male model type, cocooned in what I imagine are linen bed sheets, smiling enigmatically while fondling a shiny chrome laptop.

As I write this on my bad screen – which is to say, my work computer – a good screen in the room next door plays one of the Avengers movies. I hear my husband’s phone clicking and chirping while he watches. Is the smartphone a good screen or a bad screen? The pernicious thing is that it’s surely a little bit of both. Increasingly, a meme which speaks to the relentless grind of the digital age actually feels a little quaint. That’s because, for a while now here in the US, good screen and bad screen have resisted clear delineation. Through a screen this year I’ve kept in touch with faraway family on a daily basis; attended book readings and birthday parties and yoga classes and doctors’ appointments; started a job and entertained a child.

The kind of television designed as background fodder: ambient TV.Credit:Getty Images

Bad screens have turned out to be not all bad: parents have relaxed screen-time rules because we had to. And good screens are frequently disappointing: the advent of streaming services has somehow made it more difficult than ever to find something to watch, let alone concentrate on.

There’s even a new term for the kind of television that’s designed mostly as background fodder to the phone, the main event of any evening: ambient TV. This can either be a show that’s pretty to look at but utterly inconsequential in plot, dialogue or character (think Emily in Paris), or one in which every narrative twist and turn must be hammered over the heads of viewers lest they fail to look up from their text exchange at the right time, which explains the enduring appeal of reality TV.

Another reason for the collapse of good screen and bad screen is that work can happen anywhere, and, in 2021, does. I currently work in a home office. On the plus side, there is no wasted time from a commute. On the downside, we are all “BBC Dad” now: the professor who in 2017 attained worldwide notoriety when, during a live interview, his two children burst into the glorified closet in which he was working and interrupted his analysis of simmering tensions on the Korean peninsula.

One way I’m reclaiming the difference between the screens is by re-instituting happy hour.

One way I’m reclaiming the difference between the screens is by re-instituting happy hour. It’s not quite the elegant bar cart rolled through the office aisles on Mad Men, but partaking in a beverage-based ritual when the kids are in bed and the sun has set (ideally in that order) gives each day some much-needed structure. The drink doesn’t have to be alcoholic, but the idea is that everyone necessarily puts their phones down to consume it.

Currently, happy hour is a makeshift, entirely domestic affair. But I’m dreaming of the time when I can once again break up bad screen and good screen with a trip to my favourite bar, hidden on the parlour floor of a brownstone behind a red velvet curtain in New York’s theatre district. There’s no menu, no music, a gentle hum of conversation and laughter, and, in a generous touch, the bartender delivers the overflow from your cocktail in a tiny carafe on ice. After a martini or two, I’ll head home, to the couch, my tracksuit pants and some good screen.

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Amelia Lester is a regular columnist and writer with Good Weekend.

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