Brisbane’s last walk-in video store is about to close. I can’t say I realised one was still open, but it’s not a bad time to pause and note the transience of an industry that started from nothing only 40 years ago, became a staple of suburban life, seemed irreplaceable as recently as the turn of the century and then skidded abruptly into the ditch of obsolescence.
It’ll be put down to streaming, but it’s more than that. It’s life. Yes, we stream, and we stream plenty (I’m sounding like someone with out-of-control rhinitis, but bear with me), but there’s more going on. We’re also spending time on YouTube and other infinite sources of online content, but there’s more to it than that too. It’s the arrival of a world of apps in our pockets, all on one convenient device. When the machines rise to take over, they will come in the shape of phones in our pockets, not red-eyed terminators with carnage on their minds (or cyber equivalent of minds).
I think my brain is different now because of my phone. And there’s some evidence to say I could be right.
Yes, I still watch drama on screen, the way I once did with videos and DVDs, though now it’s typically Netflix. Lots of us do. But how are we watching? Is it the way we did a decade ago? For may of us it’s not. Because our phones are always there. Apps ping to get our attention, and we respond. Something in the show we’re watching arouses our curiosity, and do we ponder it? Do we discuss it? No, we instagoogle, because we want to know now, and we can.
Are we thinking less? Have we stopped trying to remember things?
Our phones have become ‘memory partners’ and we devote less effort to remembering. We navigate around town by phone and, next time we go to the same place, we navigate there by phone again. We don’t work it out, and we don’t learn how to get there. We’ve never studied to be London cabbies, but we all have or own version of The Knowledge in our heads – tracks through our own cities, learned in pre-digital times. But phone navigation makes us less likely to learn more.
The average American checks their smartphone 80 times a day. If the average period of use each time was three minutes, that’d be four hours a day. See how quickly your day just got eaten? But we don’t realise it. People underestimate phone use by 50%.
But what if you’re growing up now, and this is the world you’ve arrived in? I’m a writer for several reasons, but a big one, surely, is that I was often allowed to be bored while I was young. I had time for my mind to wander, and hours to fill, and I developed the capacity to create stories. I was not merely a passive recipient of someone else’s stories on screen, or a game fiend, or a social media addict. I developed a partial case of each of those things after I picked up the fundamentals of storytelling. After I’d spent years in my own head. After I’d read a lot of books (on paper, with no beeping anywhere nearby).
A couple of years ago, I read a Nielsen survey that stuck with me. It looked at Australian reading habits, and its headline message was not to worry, we were reading more than ever. But dig only slightly deeper and it was clear that the pattern of reading had changed.
Of course we’re reading more. I’m totally into your Facebook posts, checking my curated newsfeed more than twenty times a day, googling every second thought that crosses my mind. (‘Burrito’? What’s the etymology of that? Could it really be ‘little burro’, ie, ‘little mule’?? Yes, yes it is!! Thank you Wikipedia. Another fabulous factoid absorbed. A burrito apparently looks like a mini version of a mule’s saddle bag.)
But back to Nielsen. When they looked at book reading, the figures were different. As I recall it, their survey five years earlier showed 55% of Australians reading at least one book per quarter, and the new survey showed this was down to under 51%. All things considered, they thought this wasn’t bad. Let’s put that another way. If we see their question as drawing a line between readers and non-readers (or lapsed readers), a million Australians shifted from the reading category to non-reading in just five years. And surely it’s only accelerating. An that was seen as not bad. Yay for books, holding on. Almost.
As an author, that’s a nightmare. I’m the video guy standing at my counter, wondering if I should shelve that Veep box-set my last customer brought in two days ago, or just save the effort and bin it. But, ultimately, it’s not about me.
Books mean something. Books do something to your brain. And this is not a point about the vessel the book comes in. There will be no segue to olde book smell here. Books can work across platforms, if you block out other inputs. It’s about the story that takes you deep, connects, makes you see and think. Watching even great TV drama (and there’s plenty of that at the moment), particularly watching it while farting around on your phone, doesn’t work your brain the same way. Reading is a more active process at a neurological level. And there’s evidence that deep reading of character-based fiction makes us better humans. Well, it makes us more empathic, because it puts us, however briefly, into the lives of others, and I’ll take that as betterment.
So, what now? I suggest a revolution in which we all drop large rocks on our phones and live like the olden days? No way. I love this century. I love my social media, my ready access to anything, my factoids. But a little balance maybe. Some screen time over a screen life.
So, here’s my plan:
– unplug often when I don’t need to be plugged in (read a book and put the phone in another room, watch awesome Netflix drama and put the phone in another room)
– wear a watch (checking the time on your phone is a slippery slope with an app orgy at the bottom of it, and we all know it)
– think before I google
– don’t live on my phone newsfeed unless I’m running a country* and really need to know all that stuff.
– add one more app to my phone to monitor my use and check my progress (Quality Time, since it’s Android – I think the Apple equivalent is Moment)
Yesterday afternoon I went on ABC Brisbane Afternoons to talk all this through with Katherine Feeney (who admitted to a multi-screening habit herself – like me she’s all over wikipedia during The Crown). I think I agreed to go back on some time to report on my progress. So, let’s see if I can get my brain back.
And how’s yours doing, by the way? Are you managing the balancing act better than I am?
*I will never be running a country, so therefore I should not live on my phone newsfeed.