Follow Ian Scheller, a LOG OFF guest writer, as he recounts how an unexpected discussion with a punk rapper revealed the importance of unplugging.
Some time ago, I regularly rode the North East Corridor Amtrak train from New Brunswick, New Jersey to Manhattan. One day, the train was very crowded. I found a seat on the aisle. There was a young man sitting in the window seat wearing headphones.
As we got moving, the train started to hum me to sleep. This unfortunately became common for me - no matter how hard I tried to stay awake - taking photos, drawing, reading - I had unfortunately fell into a routine. My body expected certain things to happen, and my mind seemed happy for them to happen. When I felt a nap coming along, knowing I would be getting off at the train's final stop, I let it happen.
But not today. Today my routine was broken.
The Sony Walkman, which played cassette tapes.
The young man next to me dropped something on the floor. He shifted in his seat adjusting the volume on his Walkman. It just so happened the thing he dropped was his train ticket so I kindly tapped him on the shoulder to alert him.
"Excuse me - but you dropped your ticket."
"Thanks,” he said. “I always have too much stuff in my pockets." He put out his hand. “I'm King Famous.” I decided to shake it.
"I'm Ian. Its nice to meet you, King. What are you listening to?"
"Some stuff I just recorded. This track is called Human Computer."
He put the headphones on my head. And I had never heard anything like it before. The beat was serious – and the lyrics a bit satirical - King Famous was rapping about what it felt like to be working at a computer.
At this time in the world, the .com Boom was taking off all over the United States and in New York. Silicon Alley was a thing. There were lavish parties, huge budgets, smiles and a complete feeling of digital euphoria in the air.
It seemed every business which did or did not have the budget were throwing themselves into the internet industry – and business did not care what negative effects, if any, were associated with the instant adoption of technology on this level. The fact that some businesses had success on the web was all anyone needed to raise money and “go for it.”
Even the penetration of the talk of hard drives, ram, browser etiquette, posting, social media, didn't really exist just yet. It seemed all anyone cared about was the new shiny toy known as “the internet.” It had tons of money behind it so big players paid and raised big money to get into the game.
Because the mainstream workforce had not become fully digital it was common for people to look at you in amazement - almost as if they had seen a real life wizard - if you told them you worked in the internet industry.
"I am a, I am a, Human Computer. . ." The chorus was staccato, and the words came fast -
"Staring at the screen my retinas burn Got throbbing bumps on my left temple - But I'm protected by my health plan? Got half dental, palpitations, I feel veins cringing, I should be out binge-ING thinking about how to snorkel but all that's not practical. . ."
Isn't it now? Snorkeling, or doing anything in nature at this point is far more healthier than anything we can do on our devices, especially on social media.
I gave the headphones back to King.
"You certainly have a good style. . .I like it - but what has made you write and rap about this? And who does your beats?"
"I do the beats, I write the rhymes," he said.
"So you want to get signed?"
"Not really. I mean if you know someone that would be great - but I think I will be doing music for a long time one way or the other."
"I understand - but your lyrics – you are rapping about – computers?"
King Famous continued. "Yes I am. My whole life I was told not to sit too close to the TV. And now, that is OK? Because business depends on it? Has anyone tested these devices? Because it does not feel natural to sit in front of a computer all day." (turns out, it isn't healthy to sit in front of any device all day.)
I must admit he had a point. My mom told me too - don't sit too close to the TV. But now she
was happy I had a job on Silicon Alley and was making good money out of school. If we look at the original CRT monitors that were being used when I was a web designer (now what is referred to as a Visual Designer) we know that they emitted way too much blue light and were very harmful to the eyes. Only in the past few years has affordable monitor technology improved drastically. Case in point – since the very beginning of the internet industry we have been using hardware that was physically damaging to our bodies.
Once social media appeared it turned out the damage was being done to our minds.
I never joined Facebook. Maybe this was because when I first learned about the internet, it was in a class called Hypertext at Syracuse University. The class met in the creative writing building. In the beginning we all struggled to figure out what the new medium was. We were using it for creative writing, creative gif making (using a Mac software called GIF-Maker) and creative storytelling. E-commerce did not exist - and when we all looked at each other's work and tried to critique it we did not have the vocabulary to describe what it was we were talking about. The words simply did not exist at that time.
We used basic HTML mark-up with gifs and jpegs to create personal forms of expression, and experiences people could have by going to our website. It was an alternative form of storytelling and one that promoted creative thinking, new literature and personal expression.
So when Facebook came along I already knew not only about creating content for the web, but also coding it and hosting on my own. Why would I want to give my most personal pictures, thoughts and ideas to someone else for free so they could bolster their business?
I had come so close to hitting "publish" on the sign up form of Facebook. But I never got around to it.
Over the years, friends have sent me Facebook generated emails containing pictures of me with my head in brackets saying “Do you know who this is?” And I remember once when Facebook was past early adoption I apparently confounded some people because they were visibly upset when my reply upon them asking me why I never signed up was “why should I?”
Why should anyone want to give away their most private moments to a stranger?
King Famous went on to tell me he was working on a new track "Movement Against Computers," and it was going to be a revolutionary type song.
"If the streets become sterile, being used just as a place to get from one place to another, they will die and dry up. This is how we are making out way into the cyborg computer life, and then the robot computer life – people got to wake up. . ."
He couldn't contain himself. I just smiled and nodded - "Sounds like you may have something there. . ."
"You know I do!"
"Don't you use computers to make your music?" I said.
"Sure I do - but the computer as a tool is one thing. The computer as the end all be all for our lives on this planet is quite another."
I was not bargaining for such a conversation on my regular commute, but the punk rapper was making sense. In the grand year of 2000 perhaps King Famous had a point.
As the train pulled into New York Penn Station our trip was ending. Passengers began to stand up ready to rush into the routine they found themselves in. I gave a nod to King Famous as we were poured out of the train doors onto the platform. I was still humming Human Computer in my mind as I marched up to daylight. I never did see him again, but he is still making music to this day and as far as I can tell is as prolific as ever.
The Origins of my Stalker (Big Tech)
I remember when my dad brought home the Apple 2GS (G= Graphics S=Sound). It was a new apple computer after the 2E that promised a whole new world of immersive experience because of the more powerful graphics and sound technology. Sound familiar? Not much has changed in video game or computer advertisements over the years. Software too. They advertise craft, but are selling a tool. Adobe has been doing this for a while, as has Apple. This belief that if you buy their software and hardware your craft will instantly grow to bounds unseen my humankind.
Most of the time the opposite can be true. The thinking of creative ideas for me almost always happens away from the device - even if I am rapidly brainstorming ideas into a text document on the computer. The ideas start from inside, then get recorded and realized via the software and hardware. The hardware and software is and always will be a tool to me.
The experience one needs to develop skills so they are sharp and ready at any moment takes years. It takes time. There are real rewards for the slow gratification of working in a goal oriented curriculum so that one can understand and learn. This muscle – the learning one - is paid no attention when our attention is on Social Media – so again another reason why this addiction so many of us are facing is a detrimental one. It encourages the inverse of true study.
My father (and so many of us afterward) was promised ease of use, solutions for business, and solutions for creativity with the purchase of his Apple 2GS. But we know now the reality is far from the promise – at least the promise we are in the routine of being told. According to this story, I've been a party to this routine since I was a small boy.
We are all feeling the effects of the mass spread and powerful urge to use any new piece of social media or technology that comes along without any serious thought. The technology epidemic (instant hardware and software adoption) has deep roots and has been infiltrating our attention for such long time.
It is just now that collectively we are all seeing and feeling the rot it has caused.
The Apple 2GS computer could not play the games it came with. It needed more ram. I will
never forget how confused and somewhat sad my father was when he tucked me in bed that night.
"I'll get more ram and then the computer will work. I'm sorry it doesn't work right now - it will be better." I was really a bit too young to understand what ram was - but I do remember my dad explaining it to me. But it didn't really sink in and wasn't something I felt I should be sad about.
Looking back on it, I was seeing my dad experience something that scores and scores of us all have - being terribly let down by the expectation of hardware and software. And in being let down, spending more time to try to make it “right,” when in reality it can only be fixed for a short while, with money.
Someone, either another hardware or software company is going to update their platform and ask all of us to pay more for something better – even if what you have running works perfectly for the job you have it doing.
But hardware and software companies must continue to be profitable, and the “improvements” they make to their own products are seldom that. So instead of keeping the tool sharp – like a pencil – they rearrange and add things which simply are not needed to solve real creative problems. And while it would be easy to take a sharp turn into an essay about the pros and cons of capitalism, I will consciously avoid it for now.
The rock which has turned over (the negatives of social media usage) is something we cannot ignore, and when given serious thought by people of all walks of life, leads to many streets which can easily cross over into neighborhoods of politics, business, morals and mental well being.
We've seen this played out on a larger scale in relation to social media platform usage. Look at any of the stats in The Social Dilemma and it is easy to see. The instant adoption of any hardware or software by a species is simply a poor idea. We have plenty of data to show this - no matter how you frame it, social media as it is now is a blight.
It is crystal clear it is simply not good for us, on so many levels.
So what next?
There are countless spokes which come off the centralized reality of social media, and we all must chose where our energy should go to help the planet for positive change. I hope when the time comes for us to speak up even louder and show our support for ideas which promote a life of harmony, we will do so together - not under the banner of politics, but under the banner of humanity. It is so important to simply “look and listen” as Mr. Rogers used to say. We must have conversations which cross the generations and reach out to each other to take care of each other.
If we can't get everyone to log off, perhaps we can get them to log in - to their physical world once more. (I love the “Activities Bucket List” on the LOG OFF & RESCUE Digital Challenge)
Since starting in the internet industry, I have given more conversation time with loved ones to the many facets of computer hardware and software. As devices and machines have over multiplied, those casual conversations which to me are very cherished time are tainted because we have all been put into a place where we are struggling to keep up.